Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’m equally enamored with two of its screen adaptations. Having seen the 1995 BBC version shortly after reading the book for the first time, that production will always hold a special place in my heart. (And Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy to me.) But I also greatly enjoyed the film version from a few years back starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. From a costume perspective, both versions are stunning (and traditional Austen), though different in their approach.
The BBC version is crisp and beautiful. The women mostly stick to pale, neutral shades in their empire-waisted gowns. The Bennett sisters have their varying degrees of style, with the elder two displaying a hint more maturity, and the younger girls appearing slightly more disheveled. Mary, shy and in the middle, tends toward more drab styles and colors than her more social sisters. I love, too, that the older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, have jeweled cross necklaces that they wear throughout most of the film. Each of them has a piece that means something to them, where the younger girls have a more disposable attitude toward their fashion. The real exception to the women’s color palette comes from those of the slightly higher classes, like Lady Catherine and the Bingley sisters. Caroline Bingley primarily wears jewel tones in richer fabrics that look like they might have been imported from somewhere like India. She also has much more elaborate hats and even gets to wear some turbans, making her look even taller.
The men in this version are also well dressed. The officers wear dashing bright red uniforms, and the gentry the traditional tailcoats and cravats. And, of course, one well-placed white shirt, combined with a lake, has made Colin Firth infamous for nearly two decades.
Director Joe Wright’s more recent adaptation differs slightly from the BBC. In this one, the costumes have a slightly more earthy, realistic feel to them. While Mr. Bennett is a gentleman, he and his family are not the richest of people, and their clothes reflect that a little more in this film. We can see more of the everyday wear and tear, and the designer used more coarse fabrics for their casual daytime dresses and coats. Their ball and party gowns, however, are still stunning, and provide evidence of where the characters seemed to have splurged a little. In this adaptation, Caroline Bingley stands out more by the style of her dresses than the colors, as they seem a little more daring, and even at times, almost more modern.
Both films are a feast for the eyes, and it’s fun to compare the costume styles of each. But even as different as they are, each one captures the spirit of Austen’s characters in its own way.
*The 1995 BBC production featured costumes designed by Dinah Collin, and the 2005 film’s costume designer was Jacqueline Durran.