Did any of you watch the recent dramatisation of the Brontes, To Walk Invisible? It was greatly reviewed and I adored glimpsing the Yorkshire moors and those cobbled streets on my small screen. I grew up reading the Brontes, worked at the parsonage as a student and even once wrote a (sadly unpublished) time slip novel inspired by the sisters. So, you could say, I’m interested.
My recent trip to Haworth inspired me to contact The Bronte Parsonage with a request for a blog interview about the Brontes and their clothes. I was delighted when Ann, Principal curator at the museum, agreed to answer some of my questions. If you’re as fascinated as I am by the twin topics of the Brontes and sewing, read on!
Q: The Brontes sisters’ clothes all look incredibly tiny. Were the sisters’ figures typical for their time ?
A: Charlotte Bronte was known for being unusually small and was even cruelly teased by Harriet Martineau for looking as though she’d fit in at a fairground. But by contrast, Emily Bronte was tall and slender. We have her coffin measurements, and can see that she stood at 5’5″-5’6″ – tall for the time. Her height was accentuated by her disregard for fashion. There are contemporary accounts of her walking around Belgium in dresses without petticoats, which made the skirts cling to her legs, accentuating her height.
Q: Do you know who made the Brontes’ clothes? Themselves, or paid seamstresses?
A: There are references to the sisters making their own clothes. In a diary entry from the 1840s, Anne mentions being anxious about not spoiling a dress she was sewing from grey silk. There are several sewing boxes in the museum, and all the sisters owned needlework paraphernalia.
Other outfits, such as best dresses or Charlotte’s wedding dress, would have been commissioned. When Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to work as tutors, they bought dresses in Halifax where Charlotte is also known to have commissioned dresses for her wedding trousseau. Charlotte and Emily also bought dresses in Brussels.
Out of the three sisters, Charlotte in particular seemed to care about what people thought to her outfits. She lacked confidence, and relied on her friend, Ellen Nussey, to develop her understanding of what would fit and flatter.
Q: What fabrics were most of the dresses made from?
A: There was quite a lot of taffeta silk, cotton and wool mixes. Most of the dresses that have survived are Charlotte’s best dresses. Day-to-day dresses would have been handed down to servants or nieces. It’s often joked that Haworth invented recycling!
Q: Most of the dresses in the museum seem to have belonged to Charlotte. Is there a reason for this?
A: Charlotte lived longer than any of her sisters and was the only member of the family to experience fame in her lifetime. During her last five years at the parsonage, people would come to Haworth in order to see her and paid the local sexton to point her out in church. This means that even whilst she was alive, people were beginning to protect her belongings – including her clothes, which have survived to this day.
Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet and veil
Readers, don’t you think it’s fascinating how much we can learn about the Brontes, just from the clothes they wore? Early examples of recycling, experiences of being in the public eye, the way Charlotte cared about people’s impressions – and how Emily most certainly did not! What a slice of literary and fashion history. Thank you so much to Ann and everyone at The Bronte Parsonage for this fascinating interview and accompanying images.