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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

What lies beneath

In popular culture, Jane Austen is the avatar of buttoned-up romance – love stories featuring heroines concealed under long skirts and close-fitting bonnets brushing gloved hands with suitors covered head to toe in breeches, waistcoats, and top hats. It’s curious, then, that we can’t seem to stop talking about Regency underwear – the corsets, the chemises, the petticoats, the (lack of) knickers.

The latest example of our obsession is “Jane Austen Undressed,” a new exhibit of Regency undergarments that opened late last month at Jane Austen’s House museum in Hampshire, England.

It’s a modest exhibit, apparently comprising perhaps half a dozen pieces, that has garnered outsize press attention (for example, here, here, and here) based solely on the inclusion of one item: the famous garment known as the Wet Shirt. This is, of course, the simple white linen affair that clung so fetchingly to Colin Firth’s chest in an oh-so-iconic scene in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

“I think people will be excited to see it in the flesh, and hopefully no one will go up and hug it,” curator Sophie Reynolds told reporters.

The Wet Shirt is by now so firmly ensconced in Janeite mythology that this isn’t the first time it’s been featured in an exhibition: It was a centerpiece of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2016 show “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity.” Heck, it’s not even the first time this year that the shirt has made a cameo appearance: Back in January, it was included on a list of “100 key objects that tell the inside story of the BBC.”

Purists who may wonder why a historical exhibit is displaying a garment made in the late twentieth century to adorn the body of an actor playing a fictional character can rest assured that “Jane Austen Undressed” also includes genuine examples of nineteenth-century clothing, including a pair of stockings and a lightweight, lace-up underbodice. And non-purists who happily consume on-screen Austen will get the chance to ogle additional film costumes – Elizabeth Bennet’s petticoat, from the BBC P&P, and Emma Woodhouse’s chemise and stays, from the 2020 adaptation of Emma that starred Anya Taylor-Joy.

“Jane Austen Undressed” is on display at Jane Austen’s House until October 2, but for those of us who can’t make it to England this year, the show can also be viewed online. Which should cut down on the hugging.

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