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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Quill and paper

In Sense and Sensibility, as Janeites will recall, Elinor Dashwood and her rival, Lucy Steele, spend a tense evening sparring genteelly over their mutual love interest while jointly completing a filigreed basket for a spoiled toddler.

Imagine how hostile the exchange could have become if the dueling damsels had been constructing an entire Regency wardrobe.

This fantasy crossed my mind as I examined the stunning photos of an art exhibition now on display at Firle Place, the Sussex country house that stood in for Hartfield in last year’s movie adaptation of Emma. Artist Stephanie Smart has created eleven life-size Regency outfits, complete with accessories like shoes, fans, and bonnets, using only different kinds of paper.

Among the techniques employed in constructing the clothing is quilling – aka filigree – in which designs are pieced together out of curled strips of paper. (Elinor, you will recall, offers to roll Lucy’s filigree papers in order to speed up their work.) Browse through Smart’s website and you’ll encounter (here, for example) breathtaking closeups of the complex and beautiful quilling involved in this project.

“The Regency Wardrobe,” which will remain on display at Firle Place until October 26, isn’t Smart’s first foray into paper versions of historical dress: Her fashion-house-cum-art-studio, The House of Embroidered Paper, has created everything from an eighteenth-century gown to twenty-first-century shoes, using only paper – rice paper, wax paper, tissue paper, you name it – stitched together with thread. (Smart talks about her work in this interview.)

In photos, the Regency clothing looks so startlingly realistic that I suspect only an in-person experience can fully capture the uncanny artistry of the project, with its evocation of both strength and fragility, permanence and ephemerality. If any of you manage to take in the show, please send along your reactions!


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