close
Fashion designer

The Brontë sisters’ actual wardrobes were surprisingly edgy

In the poster of EmilyFrances O’Connor’s ambitious new tale of the The Wuthering Heights author’s life, its star Emma Mackey is pictured wearing a striking blue dress. At first glance, it seems relatively dark: the pattern is not so much floral as lichen. Lean closer, however, and the shapes reveal themselves as something stormier. In her 1883 biography of middle sister Brontë, A Mary F Robinson wrote of a shopping spree Emily took to Bradford with her older sister Charlotte and a friend. There she “chosen a white cloth patterned with lilac thunder and lightning, to the barely concealed horror of her more sober companions. And she looked good in it; a tall, agile creature, with mi -queen, half-untamed in her sudden and supple movements”.

Is there a more perfect dress to wear Emily Brontë? We have our particular image of each sister of this famous family: the studious and ambitious Charlotte, the wild and cunning Emily, the sweet and gentle Anne. Each image is partly stereotyped, making the fatal mistake of confusing the books for the author. But in Emily’s case, there’s still something thrilling about this description of such a basic fabric. After all, in the few descriptions of her that remain from friends and family, she is remembered for her mischievousness and her mysterious and solitary nature, as well as her sensual love of the outside world. A costume designer might see such a design as the ultimate gift. If you were to imagine clothing to suggest a stormy undercurrent, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine anything better than thunder and lightning.

In O’Connor’s film, Emily is seen again with contemporary eyes, her brief life (she died of tuberculosis in 1848, aged just 30) freed from the shackles of a strict biography. This Emily takes drugs with her brother in the moors and sleeps with the parish priest. She is misunderstood, it is implied, at least in part because of as yet unknown mental health complexities. But while it all sounds rather modern, the story isn’t cynical or self-aware, and certainly not anachronistic. Instead, it revitalizes our understanding of Emily as she could existed in its time: trampling in its long blue skirts, agitated by heartbreak and a jarring sense of being both out of place and in tune with the windswept trees and moody skies.

A costume drama always presents a curious set of requirements for its designer, historical accuracy balanced against the visual and narrative needs of the script. In this film, Emily is often dressed in darker colors than her siblings, which sets her apart. Unlike them, her bonnet is not adorned with flowers. There’s something that seems subtly practical about her attire, perhaps even rebellious. How true to life is it? The robe of thunder and lightning has its origin story, but what about everything else? For Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O’Connor, who has previously worked on films like Ammonite, the Duchessand Jane Eyre, it was simple. “My idea was to be authentic and true to the times,” he says. vogue. “You want to work with the right shapes and types of materials… [as well as] correspondence describing [the Brontës’] Clothes.”

To achieve this precision, he called on Eleanor Houghton, an author, illustrator and historical clothing consultant specializing in 18th and 19th century costume, with a particular focus on Charlotte Brontë. Houghton provided extensive research on the remaining items from the Brontë sisters’ wardrobes (many of which are kept at the Parsonage in Haworth where they lived), and references made to their clothing in letters and other texts. There’s a simple reason why it’s easier to search for Charlotte than the other sisters. “Much of Charlotte’s closet survived…because she outlived the others,” Houghton explains. However, this presents several immediate challenges. Although there are still possessions from an earlier era, when Emily and Anne were still alive, many of Charlotte’s clothes were purchased after she achieved both fame and financial success: transforming not only this she could afford, but her understanding of what was desirable. Various garments have also been updated over the decades based on changing styles, making it more difficult to determine what they would have first looked like. “Things would be reshaped,” adds Houghton. “People were reworking dresses to reflect later fashions…you have to undo what came before so you can go back to the original style.”

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds