Welcome to the latest edition of Looks from Books, which aims to prove that you can look smart, while still being book-smart, too. Fashion inspiration can be found between the pages of your favorite stories, on well-designed book covers, and in your favorite characters… if you read closely enough.
This week, we’re feeling appropriately in love with all things lovely, featuring the classic romance novel, Sense and Sensibility, just in time for Valentine’s Day tomorrow!
Sense and Sensibility book cover via Amazon
Inside Cover: A Little Bit of Background
Sense and Sensibility is a romance novel, published in 1811 by Jane Austen, making it her first published work.
Originally written under the simple pseudonym of “A Lady,” the novel details the lives and loves of the Dashwood sisters, as they move into a smaller, less affluent neighborhood with their mother, after their brother’s new wife removes them from their own house following their father’s death. The main romantic drama within the novel is the product of the lives of Elinor and Marianne, the two eldest Dashwood sisters, whose suitors are many and varied, and whose various relationships result in confusion, tension, and heartbreak, and finally, at the end of the novel, romantic success.
While critics have not, historically, considered Austen a dependable describer of love, considering that she never married, and was only briefly engaged, her work continues to live on as a clear vision of social commentary – especially in the realms of propriety and class structure – in the early 1800s.
A Fashionable Literacy
A movie poster for the 1995 adaptation via Amazon
The film and TV adaptations of Austen’s works are many, and Sense and Sensibility is no exception. TV series based on the novel ran in 1981 and 2008, with the latter starring Charity Wakefield and Hattie Morahan as the two sisters, and Dominic Cooper and Dan Stevens as their respective romantic interests.
The most famous incarnation of the novel, however, was the 1995 film, starring Kate Winslet as Marianne and Emma Thompson as Elinor, joined by additional star talents as Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman as their suitors, and was directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee.
Aesthetically, Lee’s work tends to adhere to the specific fashions of the time period in which the work is set, and Sense and Sensibility is of the standard. The film’s costumes feature empire waists, full-length pleated gowns in muted colors and patterns, lace shawls, and braided up-dos covered by bonnets. While these styles might prove difficult to wear today, Spring 2013’s RTW shows did include some nods to the 1800s: Bottega Veneta sent demure, modest silhouettes and sweet florals down the runway, and Dries Van Noten even included several modern takes on the full-length, long-sleeved gown in their collection.
How to Add Marianne and Elinor to Your Wardrobe
By integrating some of the key characteristics and thematic elements of Austen’s novels into your wardrobe, you, too, can find a sweet and society-ready look, both Valentine’s- and Austen-worthy. (Finding the perfect Austen love interest for the holiday, however, is completely up to you!)
Propriety & Simplicity
One of the hallmarks of an Austen novel is the strict attachment to social expectations and societal propriety. The early 19th century was a time of great change – witnessing wars, industrialization, and political revolutions in Europe – but what never changed was the necessity of complying with the prevailing opinions of what was deemed moral and correct.
Sense and Sensibility witnesses the darker side of this social structure, as the Dashwood ladies are abruptly removed from their own home in accordance with the rules of entailment, or inheritance, after the death of their father. However, despite their newfound relative hardship, and more constrained way of living, they never lose their sense of what is socially appropriate.
Acknowledge these senses of propriety and modesty within your own outfit, with a riff on what would have been socially acceptable during that time period. A long-sleeved tee shirt and maxi skirt provide maximum coverage, while an infinity scarf keeps you warm, and low, buckled boots keep the look modern. A cameo necklace provides a sense of antiquity and history, and a cloche hat – much more attractive than the bonnets of Austen’s time – ties the outfit together.
Rationality Vs. Emotions
The greatest thematic contrast within Sense and Sensibility is the relationship between the two Dashwood sisters, Marianne and Elinor (referenced by the novel’s title): Elinor is the reserved, practical, and thoughtful sister – or, the picture of “Sense” – while younger Marianne is emotional, romantic, and spontaneous – or, the picture of “Sensibility.” Together, the two experience the trials and triumphs of being in love, and are always there to support one another.
Reference this close connection between the two sisters by integrating their differing temperaments within specific pieces in your outfits. Elements like lace paneling – demonstrating a contrast between the solid blocking and romantic fabric – or peplum tops – which mix a fitted tank with a flowing, feminine ruffle – or a colorful floral pattern – where bright flowers accent a structured silhouette – demonstrate this contrast quite nicely.
The “Knight in Shining Armor”
One of the most celebrated aspects of Austen’s novels -at least, among her mostly female fan base – are her romantic male leads, or her “Knights in Shining Armor.” From the legendary Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, to Mr. John Knightley, from Emma, Austen’s handsome heroes have always been there to save the day, and generations of women have been falling in love with them ever since. None of her 19th century fairy tale romances would be complete without their dashing men.
Reference the many men of Austen’s universe by integrating the idea of the “Knight in Shining Armor” into your own outfit, perfect for celebrating Valentine’s Day! A silver lace dress, “shield” ring, and sparkly platform heels stand in for armor, while a military-style jacket references the soldiers that play a large role in many of Austen’s novels. A white structured clutch references the affluence that the majority of these perfect heroes come from, as well as their steadfastness and solid morals. A pretty pink heart necklace and light pink nail polish tie the look together, while also tying the look to the themes of love throughout Austen’s canon – a “Love” ring set states that theme even more obviously.
What do you think?
Have you ever read Sense and Sensibility? Are you a fan of Austen’s other works? Have you ever had it assigned for a literature class? What did you think of the novel, and its social commentary? Have you seen the movie? What do you think of the outfits and styling tips? Are there any books you’d like to see me do next? Let me know, in the comments below!