Pride And Prejudice 2005 - Costume Analysis
I like this film. I think it's overall visually gorgeous, it has an amazing score (which I listen to on a regular basis), the acting is really good, and the story is well adapted. Due to being a single movie the story is trimmed down of course, but the core elements are there and I think the compromises are well made. The scene of the Netherfield ball, where Elizabeth and Darcy dance and the crowd around them fades away and there's only them and the music *chef's kiss*. The reason I don't love this film is the details and how they change the tone and themes of the story in some major ways. Pride and Prejudice the 1813 novel is a subtle satire of Regency class politics and marriage institution and a romance, while the 2005 movie is a romance with limb class commentary. It's not inherently bad to change the tone or themes of the story in the adaptation, but in this case I think the original themes were more compelling, and the themes of the adaptation are quite lacking. I'm bringing this up, because I think costuming is a major part of that.
I’ll focus on women’s clothing because that’s what I know most about (also this is so long and I would have made this into a novelette).
Spoilers ahead for a 200 year old novel.
Okay firstly a very quick rundown of the plot, though I would imagine everyone knows it, but just in case. (CW: mention of grooming and predatory behavior, skip to the next paragraph to avoid.) The Bennets have a small estate and five daughters, Jane, Elizabeth (Lizzie), Mary, Kitty and Lydia. Their estate is bound by law to be inherited by the first born son and since they don't have any, the next closest heir is a distant cousin of Mr Bennet, a priest named Mr Collins. Mrs Bennet is very set on getting rich husbands to her daughters so they would ensure the security of the family after Mr Bennet's death. And what do you know, an eligible, and more importantly rich, bachelor, Mr Bingley, moves into the neighborhood. He is a himbo, his friend, Mr Darcy, is a snobbish ass, and Lizzie dislikes him greatly. Jane, who matches Bingley's sweet himbo energy, falls in love with him and he with her. Militia regiment arrives in the city and a Mr Wickham mixes up the bag and convinces everyone that Darcy is even more of an ass and he is a poor poor victim. Darcy falls in love with Lizzie and thinks they have flirtatious banter when Lizzie is ruthlessly hating on him. Mr Collins turns out to be a pompous idiot and proposes to Lizzie who slam dunk refuses. The Bennets are tacky publicly and Darcy convinces Bingley not to marry Jane, though very hypocritically then asks Lizzie to marry him. She gives the most epic slam dunk refusal history has ever seen. Darcy reveals Wickham is a predator and an ass, but retreats to lick his wounds and also make himself less of an ass. Wickham, the predator he is, elopes with Lydia (she is 15, he is like 30...). There's a whole mess, the family is ruined, Darcy had just become nice and Lizzie is now regretting her decisions. Darcy fixes everything, though poor Lydia is married to her groomer (pretty dark stuff), he marries Lizzie, and Bingley marries Jane. The end.
Now to the costuming. It was designed by Jacqueline Durran, who has won multiple awards for her work. I'm extremely ashamed to say that I have not watched any of the other films she has worked on (yes I haven't watched Atonement, Anna Karenina or the newest Little Women, don't at me). What I've seen from pictures of some of her films, I think most look gorgeous, but some I don't like (the Little Women has some atrocious looks, though I'm not going to comment on the costuming as a whole since I haven't seen that film). Overall she seems like a very accomplished costumer and I don't doubt her skills, even if I'm going to disagree with some of her choices for this movie.
The overall vision for the costuming according to an interview with Durran (sorry, it's behind paywall, but you can sign for the free trial), was a provincial feel and differentiating the film from previous film/TV adaptations by setting it in the 1790s, when the novel was initially written. I think it makes sense. The exact year the book is set in isn't explicitly stated, but the regiment, which is settled in Maryton in the book, would suggest that the book is set between 1793 and 1795. After France declared war against England in 1793, there weren't enough barracks so militia regiments set out camps in the countryside. Brighton camp, where the novel's regiment moves to, was opened in 1795. The previous adaptations have taken the year it was published as their point in history and the fashion changed quite a lot during the almost 20 years between writing and publishing the book, so it would be very distinctive. There was also a conscious decision to modernize the costuming for modern appeal.
As I already said, I really love the visuals of the film. The aesthetic cohesion is really good, including when it comes to the costuming. I like that they emphasize the rural aesthetics. The whole film becomes earthy and rustic and the beautiful shots of the English countryside nature only enhance it. In costuming the aesthetics are visible in the earthly tones of brown, green and warm reds, and the practical wool and linen fabrics suitable for walks in the woods. It gives me the feeling that the characters are part of the landscape and I love that.
Is It Historically Accurate?
I don’t think historical accuracy is that important in historical costuming. When the story is set in history, there needs to be enough historical accuracy to get the viewer immersed and believe they’re watching a story set in history. Costuming can get you immersed in a fantastical version of history and then I’m at least much more lenient when it comes to historical details. I think in this movie the ahistorical costuming annoys me because the aesthetics are grounded and realistic and the story is very much too. I don’t think their deviation from historical fashion brings anything to the table, in fact, I’m going to explain why I think it undermines the story.
One of the reasons why they set the story when it was first written is that the director Joe Wright didn’t like the high waisted empire silhouette of the 1810s, which is a little weird because the waistline is very much high already in the mid 1790s. But it does explain why the silhouette is so off mark. Here’s a couple of fashion plates to show you the evolution of the silhouette during the 1790s. The first one is from 1793, second 1795 and third 1797.
You can see in the middle of the decade the waistline is already very high, and we could imagine the movie was set in 1793, which could be entirely possible. The silhouette still wouldn’t be right and for some reason (which we get into) there are still some high empire waistlines in the movie. Below you can see how many different silhouettes the costuming has. The problem with all of them is the lack of volume in the skirt, which is really defining in the decade, and the lack of roundness in the chest especially with the lower waistlines. The round pigeon chest was extremely fashionable especially in the 1780s and still in the early 1790s. As the waistline got higher the chest was still round and mono-chest, unlike the later Regency fashions when a very separated chest became fashionable, like seen on Miss Bingley in the middle below. Most of the costumes get it really close to right, but so many of them suffer from a very undefined straight and limb silhouette.
Worldbuilding Through Costuming
I have a much bigger problem with the inconsistency of the silhouettes and what those inconsistencies imply of the worldbuilding. If the costuming deviates from history, I think it’s important to build a coherent costuming, both in aesthetics and silhouette. In aesthetics, as I said, I think they succeed, but it falls apart when it comes to the silhouettes. There seems to be no logic behind when different types of clothes are used, and barely any logic with who uses what clothing. It’s very apparent when you look at the ballroom scenes. Here you see some men with long hair (basically no men had long hair after the French Revolution), some with short, some wearing tailcoats, some not. There’s Mrs Bennet wearing something that looks like a mix of 1770s and ‘80s. There’s women with short sleeves, long sleeves. It’s a mess.
Let’s take a little detour to talk about class in Regency society. In the movie the Bennets are portrayed as almost like peasants and basically poor or at least lower middle class. They are shown to do housework and have farm animals like chickens in their house. Their clothes look significantly less expensive than for example clothes of the Bingleys. Their house is not small (though it looks rundown) and they do have some servants, so they don’t seem working class. This is very weird because Mr Bennet is a landowner, aka landed gendry or country gentlemen.
Below there’s a table of seven classes of English society during the Regency era. This is from 1814, so the numbers probably don’t reflect 1790s numbers, but the structure is still the same. Inside the second class in the third highest position there’s country gentleman, where the Bennets belong. And if you look at the class structure it’s pretty obvious they are not poor or even middle class. They are upper class. Mr Darcy is also a country gentleman, he is not a knight, but he’s a landowner. So they are in the same class and even the same subclass. The only difference is the Bennets are on the lower spectrum of income inside their class, and Darcy is higher, and their different family connections (Darcy has extended family in knight class, the Bennets in fourth class). The only thing that really separates them is a relatively small gap in income. In the book (I don’t remember, if she says that in the movie) Elizabeth even says to Lady De Bourgh that “[Darcy] is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
Interestingly the Bingleys are in the lower subclass. They don’t own land, their father was a merchant (probably in third and not fourth class), and with a large income they have elevated themselves to the lowest position in the second class. That’s why Mr Bingley is considering buying an estate on the countryside to elevate their family into the landed gentry. I feel like Miss Bingley’s snobbish attitude comes from an inferiority complex she overcompensates.
Let’s get back to costuming. What I think the movie is trying to do with widely different silhouettes is to try and distinguish different classes and age groups very clearly. The Bennet’s (not including Jane) have flat bodices and low waistlines, while Miss Bingley has a very high waistline and round bodice. I think the implication is that rich people, like the Bingleys, follow fashions, and poor-ish people, like the Bennets, have outdated fashions, except their oldest (and prettiest) daughter, who they give newer clothes. Also the fashion upper classes seem to follow is from the future, seemingly from the 1810s? Setting aside that the Bennets are higher class than Bingleys, though not as rich, it still doesn’t make sense.
Firstly below is shown stays on the Bennet sisters and they are not right. In the 1790s the stays were all over the place since they were going through a big transition, and short stays like the Bennet sister wear were one of the options. However, they would make the chest flat. I don’t think short conical stays like these were ever worn? I haven’t at least seen any evidence. If they didn’t have cups like Jane’s stays and my example stays, they would have otherwise more room in the front or have very low, almost underbust, neckline, or anything to get the round fashionable shape. And that had already been fashionable when the waistline was still low.
But the much more glaring issue is the idea that even a family like the Bennets, who are portrayed in the movie least as lower middle class, wouldn’t be able to keep up with fashionable silhouettes. It betrays a misunderstanding of what fashion was back then. It was social etiquette. Having the wrong foundational layers would be like today going to a job interview in sweatpants. I’m sure some people would do that, but they would be going against social norms. People frequently, especially lower classes, but others too, modified their old clothes to achieve fashionable silhouettes. This is not to say everyone wore the same clothing. The silhouette for the most part was the same, but the class differences could be seen in fabrics, details, jewelry, embroidery etc.
This class divide in clothing also raises a question about the balls where everyone had widely different silhouettes. Are we supposed to believe these balls were for mixed classes? What is their purpose in the movie’s world? In real world balls were for upper classes only and different upper classes didn’t mingle in the same balls, because they were an acceptable place for young unmarried people to get to know each other and marriage between different classes wasn’t acceptable.
Then there’s the other divide between different age groups. This one I don’t understand at all. I can see you wanting to distinguish different classes clearly visually, but age groups? We can already see whether people are middle aged or teenagers? Everyone who is middle aged in the movie is wearing decade old clothes. Here’s Mrs and Mr Bennet as examples. The historical garments are from the early 1780s. But even Lady Catherine De Bourgh is wearing at least decade old clothes. Even her hair is from the 1780s. The very elderly, who didn’t attend social gatherings anymore, weren’t expected to follow fashions, but the Bennets are even seen attending many gatherings including balls, and none of them are elderly. I feel like this decision has some ageist undertones.
Themes of Class and Classism
My biggest issue is how these decisions affect the themes and the tone. Classism is of course a major theme in the story, but I feel like the visuals in the story water down the message. The difference between Darcy’s and the Bennet’s class positions has been propped up so much, when it resolves without a lot of issues, it kinda implies there’s no real consequences for marrying outside your class, and the only issue is some snobbish people. The lack of class divide in social settings like the balls I mentioned also makes it seem like there’s not actually that much of class divide at all. In reality Regency England was super fucking classist and had a very strict class hierarchy still, even if it was slowly starting to shift from class based on born position to one based on money. In the book it was subtly shown in the many strict social etiquettes (like the scene where Mr Collins goes to talk to Mr Darcy (his superior) without first being presented to him by someone they both know), and in visual medium this could have been reinforced so well with the dress etiquette.
The decision to prop up the class difference between the main couple has an added effect of losing the satiric tone of the novel. The satire in the novel is subtle and found between the lines and Austen’s witty writing style. It comes from the absurdity of Mrs Bennet complaining about how poor they are while they are literally landowners and quite clearly not poor. How they are all basically the same class, and still there is so much classism even inside that specific subclass. How everyone is so obsessed with good marriage and status, but it’s looked down upon only, if you’re not rich enough, otherwise it becomes sensible. The decisions to make the Bennets seem poorer takes away the satire and the nuance. This way it’s not showing how ridiculous everything is, but playing it straight.
That is definitely my biggest issue, but I still have issues with modernization. I’m not inherently against it. For example I love the costuming Moulin Rogue! and it’s hella anachronistic. But I do think there should be a purpose or at least do something interesting or pretty with it. I don’t think this film does that. When the dresses lose their volume and silhouette, they look kinda modernish summer dresses, and it’s not terrible, but I think they just look boring.
But my god the hair, it’s just bad most of the time. Most hair we see is boring and ugly low effort modern buns. I hate all the hair Miss Bingley has too, they are some weird smooth take on Rococo hair I think? (Especially the one somewhere up in a green dress.) Though, there’s some better examples too. For example Miss Bingley (as shown below) almost gets once the half open styles they liked to do in the mid 1790s right, but it’s way too wavy and put together. It looks so dumb. The peak fashion was wild voluminous curls. Lizzie too almost has that style right once, and it’s better than on Miss Bingley, but still no voluminous curls at all. In the Netherfield ball scene her hair is probably closest to the right. That Ancient Greek inspired hairstyle with a lot of curls was fashionable at the time. It only lacks the scarf/ribbon thing, like everyone does in the whole film.
I’m a little torn about Kitty’s and Lydia’s hair. They have very accurate children’s hairstyles, but they were already presented to the society (not considered kids anymore), so they wouldn’t wear those styles. But I appreciate the movie showing how young and childish they actually were, making us not forget how predatory Mr Wickham is towards Lydia.
The biggest reason why the modernization annoys me, especially with the hair, is that the actual historical fashion would have fitted so perfectly with the movie’s rural cottagecore aesthetics. Like look at how perfectly cottagecore the fashion was? Imagine if they had used the hats instead of bonnets and full flowy skirts with big bows. The hair is also a perfect fit. This is the only decade when they could have finally used the open hair everyone in Hollywood likes to push on historical films and yet they choose modern buns most of the time?? I’m livid. The wild curls also just would have fitted the aesthetics so well.
So in the end I don’t hate it, I’m just disappointed, because the film is really good and it could have been even better.
I might do a part two where I go through individual costumes I liked the most and hated the most, but it just couldn’t fit here because of the picture limit and also this is over 3k words.