- Feb 2022
consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.
The pelisse, a popular garment most recently revived through the iconic yellow model worn by Ana Taylor-Joy in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020), might be included as a footnote in the twin history of fashion and ecological degradation.
By donning a pelisse, Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe, whatever their rivalries, were both at the cusp of early nineteenth-century fashion. Austen herself owned at least two pelisses, as historian Hilary Davidson has demonstrated. The pelisse, an overdress, was developed partly in response to the new Empire-period silhouette and partly due the “muslin disease” or influenza that ailed young women wearing fashionable lightweight fabrics in freezing weather.
In the colder months, pelisses could be lined with fur, so Mrs. Allen’s observation that Mrs. Thorpe’s lace is not as handsome would indicate that this scene takes place in the warmer months. The pelisse’s popularity led it to replace the fur cloaks of the earlier eighteenth century. Soon, though, pelisses themselves would be replaced with fur coats, which gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century, reaching a high point in the 1850s. Their popularity was in large part due to new methods of processing fur, which made it more supple (Fashioned 86). The consumption of fur and sealskin jackets, as well as feathers and cotton, throughout the period would lead to the devastation (e.g., India’s cotton industry) of ecosystems (71).
As we read these lines, then, we are reminded, of Austen’s critical eye for the consumer habits of her time. Although her critique here pertains to petty fashion rivalry, when reading about fashion items in her novels, we might find ourselves considering not only how little our fashion rivalries have changed but also how fashion and environmental degradation are historically linked.
For more on the pelisse, the spencer, and muslin, head over to Austenprose to read Hilary Davidson's post on Regency fashion in Emma (2020).