I don’t know about anyone else but when I’m reading one of the classics I find that I ‘transport’ myself to the specific time and place where the novel is set, immersing myself as completely as I can – given the knowledge I have – in the story’s world. In my mind’s eye, I walk through the fields or the grounds of some grand stately home, taking in the country air and watching dashing gents trot by on horseback. The one thing I would love to really experience (other than to chance upon my own Mr Darcy) is the fashion of the Austen era; to adorn myself in the outstandingly beautiful dresses and finery and step into the delicate silk shoes of Emma Woodhouse or Elinor Dashwood.
Others who share the same flight of fancy will be interested to know about an exhibition now on at Sudley House entitled Costume Drama: Fashion from 1790 to 1850, which showcases a range of clothing and accessories of the style that would have been worn by the characters in Jane Austen’s novels and Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, and which I took a trip to see for myself last weekend. Unfortunately visitors don’t get the chance to try anything on for size but having the chance to see such stunning clothes, only ever seen by most of us replicated in film and TV adaptations, up close is truly wonderful.
In the beautiful original Victorian surroundings of the museum, the exhibition displays to brilliant effect rare and early items from the costume collection of National Museums Liverpool. Most of the fine frocks on display would have been seen on the emerging upper and middle classes, at a time when fashion played a key role in indicating an ascent up the social ladder.
It’s hard to pick out anything as a highlight, especially for a literature and fashion enthusiast – all the pieces were just gorgeous – but I was particularly impressed by a breathtaking blue and gold silk brocade day dress (which didn’t seem at all practical for daytime wear – but then, practicality wasn’t at the top of the list when it came to style in that time period). It turned out that such a dress would have been worn by a newlywed-bride on her ‘going away’ from home; so perhaps Elizabeth Bennet would have had something very similar for her eventual journey to Pemberley. Also very Austen-esque was a gold and white figured silk evening dress, which would surely have been a favourite of any of the Bennet sisters.
The exhibition is a must-see for any Austen aficionado – you really do feel as if you’ve stepped into the wonderful world of Jane for an afternoon.
Costume Drama runs until 7th May 2012 at Sudley House, Mossley Hill Road, Aigburth, Liverpool L18 8BX and entry is free. There are free family workshops accompanying the exhibitions, including ones where you can design your own Austen-style costume (August 17th/February 16th at 1-4pm) and a hat-making workshop (August 25th/April 4th at 1-4pm).
Also, to celebrate 200 years since Sense and Sensibility was published, Sudley House will be screening the 1995 film adaptation (August 5th/September 25th/November 13th/January 13th/March 2nd/April 20th). Tickets can be collected free from the welcome desk on screening days.