Early last fall, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., hosted an exhibition: Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity. The show, meant to examine the “literary afterlives” of the iconic authors, featured a series of objects that had been transformed, through the physics of fame, into bookish relics: There was a framed lock of Austen’s hair. And a tin of cheekily Jane-themed bandages. And a bundle of sticks—yes, sticks—that were, the curators noted, “presumed to be from a chair and other objects” that had been gathered from Shakespeare’s birthplace. There were many, many more. The most popular of all the items, however—judging, at least, by the Instagrams that arose from the exhibition—was a large tunic, ruffled of collar and wrinkled of texture, fleshed out via a mannequined torso and displayed within a brightly lit, glass-enclosed case. Above it hung a placard that explained both extremely little and also everything important about the garment in question. The case contained, the sign announced, in all caps, “THE SHIRT.”
If you are a Jane Austen fan of relatively recent vintage, there’s a good chance that you’ll need no more detail than that. The voluminous tunic was, after all, the one Colin Firth had worn during the scene—yep, that scene—in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the iconic miniseries that, along with English teachers and Amy Heckerling and the author’s own genius, helped to inspire the latest generation of Austen acolytes to have come in the nearly 200 years since her death. In the scene, Firth, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, returns to Pemberley, hot and sweaty from the long horseback ride home. He pauses at a lake on his estate’s sprawling property. He strips away his overcoat. He contemplates the water before him, passionate, preoccupied. And then, with music crescendoing, he dives in—clad in nothing, at this point, but his breeches and THE SHIRT.