Deborah Yaffe

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Recapturing Austen's physicality

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 13 2015 01:00PM

Janeites never tire of speculating about Austen’s appearance (see here and here for examples), despite – or perhaps because of – the shortage of authenticated contemporary images of her face. But in a fascinating recent scholarly article, dress historian Hilary Davidson uses an item of clothing to derive useful information about Austen’s physical self.


As Davidson explains in the June 2015 issue of Costume, the journal of the UK’s Costume Society, Hampshire County Museum Services and Archives owns a brown silk pelisse dating from 1812-14 that certainly belonged to Austen’s family and may well have belonged to Austen herself. The pelisse is too fragile to display, let alone wear, so Davidson set out to recreate it as precisely as possible, meticulously measuring, photographing and researching in an effort to replicate everything from the stiffness of its oak-leaf-patterned sarsenet silk to the length of its hand stitches.


Judging from the photos accompanying the article, the result is a lovely garment in its own right. I leave it to those far handier with a needle than I am to sort through the technical material about pattern alignment and ruching and the like.


But for run-of-the-mill Janeites like me, the project’s greatest interest lies in the conclusions it permits about Jane Austen’s physicality. After trying the recreated garment on a range of modern women and girls, Davidson concluded that “the person for whom the pelisse was made had very narrow shoulders, slim hands, wrists and arms. . . . approximate measurements of a 31 to 33 inch bust, a 24 inch waist, and 33 to 34 inch hips, and was between 5 feet 6 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall, adding up to a present UK size four to six” (which roughly correlates to a US size two to four).


Family members described Austen as tall, and in Austen’s time, when women averaged five-two, a woman of five-six or five-eight would certainly qualify as such. Interestingly, Davidson also found that the pelisse was designed to fit a circular rib cage, rather than the elliptical one that most modern women possess. “We conjectured that the pelisse’s round shape had been created through the effects of wearing stays from childhood,” she writes.


Does it make a difference to know that Austen had a willowy hourglass figure shaped by years of corseting? I think it does: in a small way, these details bridge the yawning gap separating us from the person who wrote the books, returning the larger-than-life genius to the material context in which she lived. The iconic artist was also a woman who took up a particular amount of space in the world, a woman with narrow shoulders and slim hands that held her inspired pen.


Plans are afoot to make Davidson’s recreated pelisse pattern available commercially, so I won’t be surprised to see versions of it at some future JASNA meeting, probably adorning women of all shapes and sizes.


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