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Looks from Books: Fashion Inspired by Sense and Sensibility


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

Fashion inspired by Books: Sense and Sensibility
Product Information: Tee Shirt – J. Crew, Floral Maxi Skirt – Dorothy Perkins, Booties – Modcloth, Cameo Necklace – 1928, Infinity Scarf – Uniqlo, Cloche Hat – Target.

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

Sense and Sensibility outfit 2
Product Information: Lace shirt – Tillys, Lace Paneled Shoes – Asos, Peplum Blouse – Topshop, Peplum Jacket - AX Paris, Floral Mini Skirt – River Island, Structured Floral Bag – F&F.

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”

Sense and Sensibility outfit 3
Product Information: Dress – Modcloth, Jacket – Forever 21, Heels – Charlotte Russe, Clutch – Nelly, Shield Ring – Guess, Love Rings – River Island, Necklace – Dorothy Perkins, Polish –

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! 

Posted on on February 13, 2013 / Filed Under: Inspiration / Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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15 Responses to “Looks from Books: Fashion Inspired by Sense and Sensibility”

  1. 1
    February 13th, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I love this series! Love the themes.

    That being said, I would like to correct something in the first sentence. This is not a romance novel. There is romance, but that is not the point of the book. The book would more aptly be described as a character study, social drama, or a story of sisterhood. Poor Jane Austen is always misunderstood as a romance writer.

  2. 2
    February 13th, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    I absolutely LOVE the first look. I also love how well you know the novel and its background. Great post, overall!

  3. 3
    February 14th, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Yeah, I love the book and the outfits, but it isn’t a romance novel

  4. 4
    February 14th, 2013 at 1:36 am

    I love Austen and I think your idea of doing a post on fashion based on Austen adaptations are great. However, being an Austen admirer I would like to respectfully object on a few points.

    “While critics have not, historically, considered Austen a dependable describer of love, considering that she never married.”

    I admit I haven’t read a great deal of Austen critics, but I think this it is a bit simplistic to say that a person who never married and was only briefly engaged would not be a dependable describer of love. I think Austen did understand love and described not only romantic love, but also sisterly love, familial love as well as love between friends. Assuming that someone who never married would not be able to describe or understand love seems somewhat irrational to me.

    “Knights in Shining Armor”‘

    The great thing about Austen novels really, is that she let her heroines shine at a time when women were usually portrayed as characters who needed saving. I cannot agree that Darcy and Knightley were knights in shining armour because they didn’t “save” the heroines. They didn’t need any saving. What Lizzie needed was to recognise her own pride and prejudice. With Emma, she needed to learn to grow, to become a better person and to treat those around her with respect and kindness. By the end of the story, the heroines did become better people and the heroes of the stories did help them, not by saving them, but by giving them the necessary push and encouragement.

  5. 5
    February 14th, 2013 at 1:43 am

    Thank you so much for all of the positive feedback! However, I would like to clarify why I chose to label “Sense and Sensibility” as a “romance” genre novel, specifically:

    It is simply the most easily recognizable aspect of the book, and one that is commonly known as a determining factor in the story’s placement within libraries, book stores, etc. The book undeniably has remarkable worth in the fields of social commentary; that much I owned in the section titled “Inside Cover.” However, to remark that the novel was NOT one of Romance is false; it would be akin to declaring “Gone with the Wind” simply a depiction of the life of the Southern landed gentry during the Civil War, or “Anna Karenina” a remark upon class structure in a revolutionary Russia. While both of those examples are technically correct, within the structure of their respective novels, you would hardly expect someone to overlook the sweeping romance around which these societies are illustrated, simply for those specific facets of their construction.

    Hence, “romance” novel.
    Once again, thanks for commenting! :)

  6. 6
    February 14th, 2013 at 2:02 am

    And Emmy, I’d like to clarify your points as well:

    1. I didn’t say that was MY stance on the subject, just that of a large portion of her critics. Don’t worry, I agree with you. :) Anyone who has read her work would agree that the love displayed particularly between families – as she was very close to hers, especially her older sister, Cassandra – more than establishes her ability to discourse on such topics. That being said, I don’t believe their argument is “irrational.”

    2. I disagree with your argument. Some male leads within Austen’s works directly “save” their heroines; for instance, your particular example of Mr. Darcy within “Pride and Prejudice.” He is present as a particularly catalytic force at the point of the novel, where Elizabeth is at her most low: [SPOILER ALERT] Her youngest sister, Lydia, has just run away with the proven-rake Wickham, and their “elopement” leaves no guarantee of marriage, thus ruining Lydia’s reputation, and damaging those of her unmarried sisters as well, including Lizzie. As I demonstrated in the artile, social propriety was everything at this time period, and social ostracization would spell destruction for the family. The sisters would never be able to be properly married, should their good qualities be so tarnished in the eyes of society. Darcy has seen the destructive force of Wickham’s power before, with his sister, Georgiana, and is anxious to put a stop to Wickham’s schemes for good. Thus, he “saves” Lizzie and her family from social embarrassment and financial ruin themselves, by paying Wickham to fully marry Lydia. This makes him a “Knight in Shining Armor.”

    Thanks for commenting as well! :)

  7. 7
    February 14th, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Gorgeous! I love when you can draw inspiration for fashion from sources not expected. <3

  8. 8
    February 14th, 2013 at 4:37 am


    Thanks for your reply!

    I would agree that Mr. Darcy did save the day in P&P. I had always seen him as the airheaded Lydia’s “Knight in Shining Armour” rather than Lizzie’s because Lizzie hadn’t done anything to land herself in trouble, but I guess in Austen’s time, when the honour of the family was tied so closely to that of an individual, he did indeed “save” the Bennett family from social disgrace.

    I guess I struggle with the term “Knight in Shining Armour” because of it’s implication of the presence of a “Damsel in Distress” and I felt that Austen’s heroines, especially Lizzie and Emma were strong and intelligent characters.

    Back to the fashion part, I love how you’ve incorporated lace panelled pieces into the post. I’ve been admiring lace panelled pieces the past few months and I hope it’s a look that will stay in vogue for a few more seasons!

    Happy Valentine’s Day!:)

  9. 9
    February 14th, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Looooooove the first outfit :) Great post!

  10. 10
    February 15th, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    did you even read the book?

  11. 11
    February 15th, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    I can’t really tell if this is supposed to be a derogatory question, or if you’re genuinely interested, so I’ll answer it: Yes, I read “Sense and Sensibility.” I always take time to carefully read the books I analyze for the “Looks from Books” column, so that when I give my styling tips, I can confidently discuss the elements of the novel that integrate with fashion, within my posts.

  12. 12
    February 25th, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    In so many places on the internet, disagreements lead to sad behavior. I just want to say that while reading these comments, I was quite encouraged by their polite tone and the way in which both the commentators and the writer directly addressed and answered each other’s viewpoints. Some aspects of the Regency era are better left behind, but true courtesy and respect never go out of style, whether they are practiced in a barouche or a comment box!

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