The brontes undressed

I give a couple of talks about Bronte clothing and artifacts and try to always well research any gowns I make for either those or other Bronte work  so  I thought it would be useful for those who may be interested or who need to replicate a gown for any reason  if I show my background research and any relevant images as they would help shed light on how the Bronte’s and indeed other Victorian poorer middle class girls and ladies dressed.

I hope it proves fairly easy to read I have worked on it for several weeks and it became a little disjointed I have tried to sharpen up the post but it does wander in parts. Only items marked as Bronte clothing are from the Parsonage archives and collections the other images are from museum sites or taken by my Husband or myself.

First for anyone who wants to recreate a Bronte gown for theatre or work ,this is by far the easiest.Its an Emily gown

Based on this portrait. It was made for a young friend to wear for some filming and as I only had a couple of days I used the cheats version and recovered an bought bodice .Its an early 1830s style gown based on the portrait above which is from the lost gun group portrait.

brotne-gun-groupIn the Engraving Emily is shown  wearing a little chemisett or possibly a high necked chemise however in the actual remaing frgament she isnt wearing anything above the gowns neckline,It would appear the engraver has decided to make Emily look more demure and respectable.Contrast Emilys portrait with others from the same few years


The gown in the portrait did remind me slightly of this portrait of Augusta Leigh Byrons half sister .



The dress is suprisingly low necked and doesnt appear to show a chemise though the gun group image itself does so perhaps Branwell changed the neckline to make it look more like a classical portrait or perhaps Emily left off her chemise to pose or  the dress had a pelerine that Emily removed while Branwell painted her all are rather radical for a respectable young lady.

Most 1830s gowns are wide necked but the necklines are much higher

In addition they would usualy be worn with a collar or pelerien over them at least outside or when recieving company,The image bewlo shows he same gown with a pelerine


I made my own version of the gown replicating the details on the sleeves etc and using a fabric with the same palette.The image below is by kind permission of Mark Davis Photography and the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

carissa emilys room

Perhaps most useful for schools or theatres is the everyone knows what the Bronte wore dress,thouhg its unlikey they ever actualy wore gowns  and collars identical to the ones in the Pillar portrait the image is the most well known and therefore a gown based on it will immediatly be equated with the sisters without the viewer knowing about Victorian clothing.

I decided to make my everyone knows what the Bronte’s wore dress in roughly the style and with a similare collar to  the dresses in the portrait

I made a Brown  shot taffeta version and burgandy  mat silk version

The ket element was the collar .

The gowns in the portrait are fine for the era but the collars on Emily and Anne are quite odd ,possibly because they were actualy wearing little fichus like Charlottes but Branwell prefered missing out the hard to paint translucent flounces

The dress below is from the V&A is my colour source for the red gown

The  Bronte’s early dresses would have looked similar  to the one above and theBrown  printed gown though the sleeves and skirts are wider in the above gown  than theirs may have been.

I needed to figure out  the under layers for the  1830s dresses to make them look right.Some dresses  had special petticoats  and sleeve panels like the onebelow  though I can’t believe they were often worn.

This bodice is corded and the petticoat  is  corded to make  stick out from the body and to cut down on petticoats ,the sleeves seem to be wired though it may be cordede and starched .While I doubt they wore the all in one version I think it quite possible the Bronte’s owned corded petticoats to give their skirts fullness as these were both common and effective.They were easy and cheap to make and washable theres an extant  example shown below

Before the hooped cage crinolines the only options for making skirts fuller  where corded petticoats or the original crinoline ,,a horse hair linen mix undergarment that grew in popularity after the late 1830s and up until the advent of the cage Crinoline in the 1850s.There is an example below from costume archives.

These were also quite common but few have survived and there are none in the Parsonage collection so I cant be certain the sisters owned any .The only remaining option for women who wanted to have the fashionable full skirted look was lots of petticoats upto six which are heavy and very cumbersome.They are also real pain in the neck to wash and iron and starch even with modern appliances

We only have a few items of Bronte under garments.

This corset said to be Charlotte’s and which looks purgatorial and is boned with whalebone ,its quite an early one as it also has a busk or wide from boning panel down the center front.This was designed to shape the figure slightly and to take the weight of all the other layers and stop the petticoasts digging into your waist.It was always worn over a chemise.

The under layers for the Bronte’s in the 1830s would be very much like this from a fashion museum,this corset is corded not boned and very simialre to the one at the parsonage

You would always wear a chemise as it stopped your corset chaffing your skin, this chemise is at the parsonage and said to be Charlotte’s

It’s unlikely the Bronte’s wore bloomers or anything other than chemises under their other layers, it wasn’t fashionable to wear them until wide skirts became fashionable in late 40s early 50s and even then they were almost always divided leg bloomers,, the legs where sewn separately sometimes with a drawstring onto a waist band leaving a gap in the middle (,, this is reason Victorian ladies managed to go to the bathroom).

bloomers full length

Also at the parsonage are a couple of items described under bodices which I have never seen up  close but from photos I assume they are corset covers, little blouse like undergarments that went over corsets to protect your dress from the corset.Alternativly they went under gossamer thin gowns in much the same way as regency gowns often had gauzy overlayers and a simple plain undergown

With regard to the under gown and over gown theory ,its interesting to cotnrast two portraits of Ann

This dress seemed a very similar colour and waistline  to those in the Pillar portrait and I discovred a dress in a similare stlye and colour in the Met Museum .

However Anns gown seems to have been part of an ensemble of under and over gown rather than a simple day gown



These overgowns were quite expensive ,perhaps the fabric was culled from Aunt Branwells wardrobe or Mrs Brontes or perhaps Patrick Bronte treated his daughter to an expensive pretty but not particulary pratical gown as a birthday treat.Certainly the portrait contradicts the idea that Patrick was auster and forced his children to wear only functional  and practial clothing one thing a net or gauze overgown definatly isnt is practical especialy in a stone  flagged Parsonage at the top of a mucky road on the edge of the Yorkshire moors.

For the smaller items of Bronte clothing I used the gun group portrait again

there are several chemisettes , modesty panels  and under sleeves /cuffs at the Parsonage

Chemisettes are little sleeveless half blouses that either button up the front or tie under your arms and create the little frilled tops in the gun portrait, these are a set of under sleeves and chemisette from the 1850s, but the 1830s and 40s chemisettes  are the same style,.The longer under sleeves only became fashionable in the 1840s /50s

I needed next to find a suitable colour for an actual historicaly accurate gown. I checked parsonage records and found Brown is a recurring colour for dress fragments and bonnets. Silk is very common in fabric scraps from Bronte dresses and in letters .Charlotte wore shot silks occasionally so I bought Brown shot faux silk taffeta for one gown

The Brown fabrics and accessories are mostly Charlotte’s but some non specified, while shawls are often cream and brown and there is a parasol that’s fawn and an umbrella (see below) that’s brown. In addition threes fawn ribbons and brown fringes and trims.

The other dresses where more of a problem ,I bought fabric for a replica  summer dress  modelled  as closely  as possible on a dress in the collection.

.For the dress a choose a fabric as similar as possible to the complex paisley floral fabric and based on parsonage records.

Heres my dress full length

and the front

To return to my other planned dresses, choosing another colour was hard as so many featured in the fabrics in the catalogue and in letters. Green featured both in accessories and dresses fragments of Charlotte’s trousseau gown where deep green spots on what looked light pale lilac grey.

, While there is a fragment of a blue floral dress.

. A mauve, cream, pink and green dress exists in the catalogue but it’s not specified if it’s a Bronte gown with proven providence .Its looks a later gown 1840s or possibly 50s but it’s quite hard to tell. The image is not very good quality .As an interesting side note this appears very like the dresses worn in the disputed portrait, though the patterning is at odds with it being any of the dresses in the image. Patterning on Bronte gowns is common there are few if any plain unpatented or textured gown fragments.

These and other Bronte items are all from the Bronte online archives.Alongside brown pink features fairly often ,at least as patterning and Charlotte mentions buying a pink bonnet ,there’s also a pink  dress seen in photos on a model though these are perhaps replicas, The left hand”  dress “maybe the pink wrap / dressing gown? Described in Parsonage records as having a matching shawl.The pink dress is apparently a very bright shocking pink not pale baby pink

I did think of trying to find an embroidered cream fabric, Charlotte talks of a “sort of fawn coloured silk; in a letter about her wedding dress and a replica is show here. She was described s looking like a snowdrop and I have seen the fabric described as embrioded.Its hard to see details in this image.

However Embroidered  cream silk provided out of my budget  so I rechecked the archives, another  complete dress at the parsonage  is blue-green floral cotton but again I couldn’t find any similar fabric and in any case I try to avoid high collared gowns as they are too hot to work in. The dress in question is very trim and pretty in a deep liberty style print with tight sleeves, full skirt and high neck.

To widen my options I checked letters and paper and Grey reappears time after time both in fabric and accessories

Ann mentions buying grey silk in a diary paper and many lilac or other dresses and fragments at the parsonage have grey tones in them so I decided on a grey dress and bought grey silk roughly the shade as that above.

Some  people commented on Charlotte  being in mourning when she visited London so I also decided to make a black dress as I needed an 1850s  mourning gown for my Victorian talks and decided I may as well make one compatible with the years  1847 to 1850

To return to my dresses that is from the Bronte’s girl hood and their 20s

I had been considering a version of a brown Bronte dress at the parsonage dated 1835 to 40

Unfortunately. I have not seen it on display recently and as I had made a very detailed 1830s Bronte gown last year for some promotional work in Haworth.

, I wanted to make a cooler and simpler dress for this summer’s work without spending the weeks on it that my other dress had taken.My old late 1830s dress above  was reminiscent of the Parsonage dress it’s in dark colours though in my case green faux silk .The style is a mid to late 1830s and replica standard. There are pin tucks on the hem and cuffs plus on the pelerine and almost ubiquitous smocking on the sleeves

Sources for my green dress where among others, the image below wich is From Manchester’s costume museum site.

I particularly liked this as Emily is mentioned as having chosen a rather flashy fabric for her dress on one trip” white stuff patterned with thunder   and with lighting, in purple splashes (p213 project Guttenberg online edition, Mrs Robinson, based on Ellen Nusseys remembrances.)

To go with the dress I made a couple of bonnets, the basic shaped bases were bought and I recovered them. I have quite a few bonnets as buying bonnets seems to have been the Bronte’s equivalent of modern women buying  shoes, whenever they go anywhere you usually hear about bonnet shopping in letters.

Theres a large collection of bonnets in the Parsonage from many eras

The parsonage usually  at least one is  on display, Several seem to be fawn or light brown with brown ribbons which seems to support the idea of Brown as a fall back colour for Bronte clothing.

I wanted my new dress to have Gigot sleeves or Leg of Mutton sleeves as they are also called but as the fabric was not stiff enough for the standard gigot cut sleeves and I couldn’t fashion them entirely out of one piece of fabric as they often are in originals, I compromised and used another style that made the leg of mutton sleeves in two parts.

I wanted full sleeves because Emily is known to have worn them well after they went out of fashion ,,”Emily’s pet whim in and out of Fashion” Mrs Robinson calls them.Leylands biography mentions that she wore them even in Brussels .

The fabric I used was the same as my other Charlotte dress .The white fabric seemed acceptable as  its similar to a fragment of one of Charlotte’s dresses from the Parsonage which  is  described as “white cotton muslin with colour flowers and leaves  in red pink yellow green, brown  and blue”  .(d148 catalogue no image

I also bought an early Victorian cloak, though I think it’s had the buttons replaced

More Bronte details to floow in the next few months


Francis Leyland’s biography

Mrs Robinson’s biography

Charlotte’s letters

Ann’s Diary paper.

Items referred to and found in the parsonage collection online catalogue

Other items Modesty vest

Bust 900m going away dress waist 650 mm

Bust 750 mm on an earlier dress.

Brown flat dress bust 880 mm,

2nd dress bust 690 m

Shawls, one, Brown cream and black

One green white and gold silk

One   belonging to charlotte red shawl silk wool mix with flower sprays in red pink green-blue and yellow

One paisley shawl dark red

One paisley shawl with reds green orange and brown etc on a cream background

One of Charlotte’s shawls fawn mauve and cream woven in a chequered pattern.

One of charlotte shawls e cream wool with pink, purple and white bands

Another in similar colours

Another in white yellow and plum with a pale background

Another red and gold paisley shawl

Another paisley shawl in white blue tan pink and black on a pale background

Another cream with a brown and black border

Plain cream lawn shawl, pelerine?

Black oblong shawl look like lace? Mourning shawl/

Fan of cream silk silver pink and green with sequins.


2 Black silk with fringe

Brown silk

Paisley silk parasol, gold cream pink red

Charlotte white with black stripes

Black cloth ankle boots of fabric with leather soles and trim and wooden heels,

Pretty little pork pie hat of silk lace and velvet pale coloured 1854?

Lace night-cap.

Lace fichu

Black satin slippers with ties charlotte.

Leather mules

Random Dress measurements, I used these to judge comparative fullness for the skirts of dress I made,

Charlotte’s going away dress

Bust 900 mm

Neck to waist 410 mm

Waist 650

The muslin dress I copied

Bust 750 mm

Underarm seam 530

The unspecified brown and cream dress

Bust 880

Neck to waist 350

Underarm 390

Brown Emily? Dress

Bust 690

Neck to waist 260

The uncertain date pink dress

Bust 830

Underarm 390

D11 in catalogue

Purple dull brown dress with leg of mutton style sleeves and white pointed collar, silk

Bust 780

Underarm seam 380

Nape to waist 360


Charlotte dress in a wool cotton mix

Dark rust with floral sprays in pink cream green and blue

Leg of mutton sleeves with cuffs and high waist

Skirt length 980

Skirt belonging to charlotte

Blue and white flower pattern (perhaps the same fabric as the fabric scrap)


Blue and fawn cotton taffeta mix raised diamond effect pattern

Bust 800

Waist 24ins

I am not sure of the design of this it has a under and upper skirt and a stand up collar but not many other details

Possible charlotte dress

Light wool and velvet in   a floral white, blue and brown,

Narrow close-fitting sleeves and mandarin collar buttons down the front

Bust 730

Nape to waist 330.

Cotton wrap

Pink red and white, flared sleeves and gathered waist d51, and with matching pink shoulder cape d52

Several chemisettes

Lawn cuffs and collars

Modesty vests



About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
This entry was posted in brontes, Hathaways of Haworth, Uncategorized, work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The brontes undressed

  1. Pingback: 1840’s Maternity Dress

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s