Charlotte Brontë’s Dress


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Charlotte Brontë’s Dress

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Charlotte Brontë wore this dress on her honeymoon to County Clare, Ireland. The dress consists of a bodice and a skirt, each made of lavender-coloured, striped, medium-weight silk. The bodice is adorned with tan-coloured silk velvet cuffs and collar, and edged with ten small triangles trimmed with silk fringe. The full-length skirt, attached to a waistband, is gathered across the centre back, while the skirt front is flat with small pleats at either side. A small bustle would have been worn underneath. Both the bodice and skirt are close fitting around the waist and fully lined with cream-coloured cotton. The bodice fastens down the centre front with fourteen metal hooks and eyes, and the skirt fastens with two large metal hooks and eyes on the right hand side.

The photos showing the interior of the dress reveal alterations and some of the damage to the interior caused by stress on the fabric.

Charlotte Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 and died only nine months later. In January 1855, Charlotte became violently ill while visiting the Kay-Shuttleworth family at their home at Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire, necessitating her return to her home in Haworth. Scholars still debate whether the source of her illness was tuberculosis, typhoid, or severe morning sickness. Hyman suggests that morning sickness is likely: alterations to the going-away dress indicate small changes in Charlotte’s body shape that are consistent with early pregnancy.

Hyman explains that the fastening hooks around the skirt waist were altered to increase the waist size by about 3/8 of an inch. The lower fabric of the bodice is sharply torn, suggesting to Hyman that the bodice’s front edges were pulled to fasten the hooks and eyes. The stitches holding the bottom hooks of the bodice are also ripped, likely due to strain.

Another alteration let out the front bodice seams in the cotton lining (the seams over the bust) by about half an inch. Hyman notes that the alteration was made by hand, whereas the original stitching was machine-made, and different thread was used. It is difficult to know with any certainty who altered the dress, but these alteration details suggest a personal touch that responded directly to changes in Charlotte's body.

As a freelance textile conservator, Hyman was originally tasked with conserving and supporting many of the splits within the outer silk fabric of the garment, splits caused by storage and wear. The evidence of alterations that she found, however small, offer rare material insight into Charlotte’s life shortly before her death. As Hyman remarks, “always, with costume, and especially with these dresses, I almost wish they could talk and tell us more.”

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Photographs of the interior of the dress by Jacqueline Hyman