How Becky Sharp’s wardrobe in Vanity Fair reflects her social rise and fall
There’s no one quite like Becky Sharp. Coming of age in the heyday of the Austen heroine (typically good, kind, humble and determined to do the right thing), William Makepeace Thackeray’s arch, cynical and self-serving Becky provides quite the contrast.
Her wardrobe gives her away: the colours are a little too bold, the jewels too many. Becky isn’t the girl next door or an ingénue but a femme fatale. She’s smart, determined, driven. In this Regency setting – and with the prettily, softly dressed Amelia Sedley for contrast – Becky stands out. She demands too much; she is too much.
For many contemporary readers, she was an anti-heroine, but two centuries after her creation – and with a new ITV adaptation bringing her story vibrantly to life – it’s to Becky that we relate. And as we follow her rags-to-riches-and-back-again story, her clothing communicates every social rise and fall along the way.
The only way is up
From the first glimpse we get of Becky, leaving behind her position as a teaching assistant at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, she is firmly in control. Yet it’s a scene that also wordlessly communicates her place on the social scale. As an ‘articled pupil’ who has to work for her education, she sits far lower than the wealthy girls whom she teaches French.
Dressed in cold shades of grey – a colour of work, not play – her wardrobe tells of humble origins and works to keep her firmly in her place. Meanwhile her pupils, the daughters of the gentry, parade down the stairs two by two in saccharine pinks, yellows and blues – the colours of childhood and innocence – trimmed in feathers, ribbons, silk flowers and frills.
“In the early 19th century, there was a huge amount of etiquette around what you were allowed to wear,” says Lucinda Wright, the costume designer for the series. “It would tell people what class you were, what your personality was like; it really spoke volumes. You would be shunned in society if you tried to overstep the mark.”
The brightly hued fripperies of Becky’s pupils form a symbolic barrier into another world, reserved not just for those who could afford them, but for whom they were a birthright. Yet for bright, determined and utterly anachronistic Becky – ever challenging the norms and pushing boundaries – they are a red flag to a bull. “I think she was just hell-bent on getting up that social scale,” says Wright. “By hook or by crook she would have got there.”
In contrast to the lace and powder that had come before, fashions in the Regency era were decidedly relaxed, especially for young women. The empire silhouette dominated. Named after Napoleon’s First French Empire, and his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais who helped popularise the style, it featured a higher waistline, set just below the bust, often with shorter, puffed sleeves.
This offered women a sartorial reprieve of sorts, and though the style still called for short-stay corsets that lifted the bosom, these didn’t extend to the waist, offering women a new level of physical freedom. Some women ditched corsets altogether, opting instead for a boned or ribbon-tied chemise.
Gone, too, were heavy brocade fabrics and the complicated infrastructure of hoops and panniers. Gowns fashioned in lighter cloths would hang completely free or with a single petticoat. There were other changes too. Mornings were spent in ‘undress’ (from the French déshabillé): loose comfortable gowns worn until noon. The vogue for young society women to go out for walks together in parks, seaside resorts or country retreats – essentially to be seen in the fashions of the day – led to the creation of ‘promenade’ or ‘walking’ dresses, which were trainless and had shorter hemlines. The low necklines and nearly sheer fabrics worn in the evening seem almost risqué, even by modern standards.
The fabric of society
Yet while the styles of the time may have seemed comparatively liberating, perhaps even hinting at a French egalité, there was little real emancipation for women in the Regency era. While Mary Wollstonecraft had started to fan the flames of feminism, Fanny Burney had achieved overnight fame as a novelist (of all things) and trailblazers such as Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (who gave us champagne) were proving themselves in the world of business, the position of women in English society remained perilous.
The law precluded them from any kind of inheritance, so the pressure was on to marry well. Becky doesn’t just recognise this, she embraces it with ruthless practicality, pragmatism and honesty. And by faking it till she makes it, she can ensure the best match possible.
As she steps over the threshold of the Sedley household, Becky embarks on her ascent in society and, with each rung she climbs, adds some little piece of finery to her outfit. On that first day, Amelia wraps a cashmere scarf around her arms, a gift that’s quickly followed by a dress in pastel pink.
Becky’s status can be tracked by her wardrobe – a reflection of society at the time, when women truly wore their pasts on their sleeves. Or, in Becky’s case, her past as she would like to paint it.