Hats & Cloaks
Did the Bronte sisters ever wear hats?
Do the hats in the photo date to the 1840s?
Why are the cloaks different?
Straw hats in Britain
in the 1840s
In 1840s England hats were considered to
be informal headgear worn at the seaside, in the garden and in the country; on
most other occasions bonnets were worn.1.
Advert from the Leeds Mercury, June, 1840.
Very little dateable visual evidence has been found for
ladies hats in Britain in the 1840s; they rarely
feature in fashion engravings or dateable portrait paintings and photographs. Of the
images found, the majority depict a low-crown, wide-brimmed variety of straw
hat. A high-crown, wide-brimmed hat can though be seen in photographs
taken by Hill & Adamson between 1843 and 1848. In Winterhalter's portrait of Queen Victoria and
her daughters in 1849, they have straw cloche hats.
Mary McCandlish by David Octavius
Hill, and Robert Adamson; calotype, 1843-1848.
Queen Victoria and her daughters by
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1849.
The hats in the
The straw hats seen in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' are familiar to
many historians because they are similar to those seen in British photographs and
fashion engravings c1855-65, but when closely compared they are not quite the same. Some
of the earliest pictures of the British hats can be seen in Roger Fenton's photographs (above
& below) of the Royal princesses, taken in 1856, in the garden at Osborne House.
These hats are larger, the brim is wider, the curve at the front is
quite shallow and the side sweeps upwards at a less acute angle.
Above: The hats in
photographs from 1856.
Below: The hat in
the 'Bronte Sisters Photo.'
Charlotte and Emily spent most of 1842 at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels,
Belgium and it is possible that both bonnets or hats were worn there.
In Charlotte's novel Villette, based on her experiences in Brussels, straw hats are
"...“la robe grise, le chapeau de paille,” here surely was a clue — a
very confusing one. The straw hat was an ordinary garden headscreen, common to a score besides
Straw hats can also be seen in some 1840s Belgian portraits of
girls and young women.
Louise Heger (1839-1933), daughter
of Constantin Heger of the Pensionnat in Brussels, Belgium. Detail from a
family portrait, 1846. View the full portrait here (external website).
Princess Charlotte of Belgium.
Detail from a portrait, 1848. View the full portrait here (external website).
Mention of headgear
in Bronte sources
Charlotte clearly distinguished between the informality
associated with hats, and the more formal bonnets. Writing in 1848 to her friend, Ellen Nussey, she
complained about Mary Taylor's "devil-may-care tone" which she did "not like when
it proceeds from under a hat, and still less from under a
In 1894, J Horsfall Turner, Honorary Secretary of the newly formed Bronte
Society, travelled to Ireland to visit Charlotte's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
Whilst there he asked Nicholls for his views on a recently
published alleged portrait of Emily Bronte wearing a straw gypsy bonnet. His response was that:
"it might be genuine, but that it did not accord ... to the head-dress ... with my recollection
of her." 5.
Arthur Bell Nicholls' recollection would only date from his
appointment as curate in May 1845 until Emily's death in December 1848. It isn't clear whether he
meant that Emily didn't wear this style of bonnet, or that she didn't wear straw bonnets at all in
The Cornhill Magazine was published by the Bronte's publisher Smith, Elder
& Co., and in 1910 an article entitled 'Old Haworth Folk Who knew the
"Eh, dear, when I think about them I can see them as plain to my mind's
eye as if they were here. They wore light-coloured dresses all print, and they were all dressed
alike until they gate into young women. I don't know that I ever saw them in owt but print.
I've heard it said they were pinched [short of money] but it was nice print:
plain with long sleeves and high neck and tippets down to the waist. The tippets were marrow to
their dresses and they'd light-coloured hats on. They looked grand.
If my memory serves me correctly, I believe the Miss Brontes' dresses
have been criticised by others as being somewhat quaint and prim and old-fashioned and indeed
anything but 'grand,' but then these critics had not lived in Haworth all their lives and
brought up a family on twelve shillings a week hard-earned in a mill as had my old
Buying bonnets in York.
After Emily's death, Anne fell ill and in 1849 travelled
with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey to Scarborough, staying one night at York. Whilst in the city
bonnets were purchased at a cost of £2 14s 6d.
Example of an illustration published in
Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung, a German fashion and cultural magazine, 1845. In the 1840s, each
edition included one fashion plate and bound copies of the journal exist, but often these coloured
plates are missing. Books containing all plates for the years 1843 & 1844 have not yet been
found but the examples above and the one below give some idea of ladies' hat styles in Germany
between 1840 & 1845.
In British fashion publications of the 1840s illustrations
of ladies headwear almost exclusively depict bonnets. Straw hats did exist but they were perhaps
considered too informal or bucolic to appear in a journal of fashion.
In the equivalent German publications of the early 1840s
bonnets predominate, but amongst them is a scattering of hats. Several are very similar in style to
the one in the photograph and one is exactly the same.
illustration of a straw hat in Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung2. dated 1840.
RIGHT: 'Emily' in the photograph wearing a hat of a similar
In 1840s Europe,
this style of hat was unique to Germany and although the Bronte sisters never
visited the country one of their friends did.
Taylor was an early feminist, keen
traveller and lifelong friend of Charlotte Bronte. She was teaching in Hagen,
Germany (unusually for the time, at a
boys' school) until December
1844 before returning to England and staying with the sisters for a week
or more at Haworth Parsonage. It is possible that the hats were a gift from
Mary to the Bronte sisters. Mary emigrated to New
Zealand in March 1845 but continued to correspond with her
friends. In September 1845, Charlotte wrote to her other close friend, Ellen
"I have just read Mary's letters; they are
very interesting and show the vigorous and original cast of her mind. There is but one thing I
could wish otherwise in them, that is a certain tendency to flightiness--it is not safe, it is
not wise, and will be misconstrued. Perhaps flightiness is not the right word, but it is a
devil-may-care tone; which I do not like when it proceeds from under a hat,
and still less from under a bonnet."
In Charlotte's novel 'Shirley' (1849) the
character 'Rose Yorke' is based on Mary Taylor.
Taylor (left) with companions, climbing in
Switzerland, 1875; all have straw hats.
All three ladies in the photo are wearing hooded cloaks. 'Charlotte' and
'Emily' have thick fleece travelling cloaks with sleeves. 'Anne' is wearing a cloak made of a
If this is a photo of the Bronte sisters then it was probably taken by
a photographer in York in 1844-5. Charlotte and Emily were living in
Haworth, over fifty miles away, but Anne was at Thorp Green Hall, not far from York,
until June 1845. The travelling cloaks could be related to Charlotte and Emily's voyage
to Belgium in February 1842; Anne remained in Yorkshire, working for the Robinson family.
Did the Bronte Sisters
ever wear hats?
Is it possible that the hats
in the photo could date to the 1840s?
Why are the cloaks
Did the Bronte Sisters ever wear hats?
There are many scenes in Charlotte's novels, based on her experiences, where
ladies bonnets and straw hats are mentioned. Arthur Nicholls stated that in the late 1840s Emily
wore some form of headgear; he seems to imply that it wasn't a straw bonnet, but we can't be
certain. If the remarks in the Cornhill article are correct then the sisters had
light-coloured hats. Charlotte's account book notes the purchase of bonnets whilst visiting York
with Anne and Ellen Nussey in 1849. It is probable that the sisters owned both bonnets and hats in
Is it possible that the hats in the photo could date to the
The hats look odd for the 1840s because they look "too modern" but
it could be because they are "too German." The British hats from about 1860 are
similar but a slightly different style; there may though be variations which we have not yet
In the 1840s this style of hat was unique to Germany. Charlotte's close friend
Mary Taylor returned from Germany in December 1844 and stayed
with the sisters at Haworth Parsonage.
Without taking into account the hats, the estimated date for the photo (if these
are the Bronte sisters) is between September 1844 and June
Why are the cloaks different?
The difference in the cloaks is probably because two ladies have travelled
a long distance but the third has not.
If the photo was taken in York then this could explain why. In the first
few months of 1845 Charlotte & Emily were living in Haworth and a journey to York
would take several hours; Anne was working at Thorp Green Hall, just twelve miles
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1. The Cambridge History of Western
There is also
evidence that ‘country ladies’ in this period did wear straw hats in public but this was not
accepted in the city. Jane Welsh Carlyle, who moved from Scotland to London, wrote to her sister in
"I am not allowed to wear straw hats here; the Cockney “force of public opinion,”
gazing at one with astonishment on the streets, renders it more advisable to submit patiently to
the absurdest monster of a felt. I tried the straw four years ago (a hat of her plaiting, which I
used to wear in Edinburgh); but found it would not do."The Carlyle Letters Online HERE
2. Copies of Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung from
1837-1867 can be viewed online on this German website. Unfortunately in many of the editions the fashion
engravings have been removed but some remain, often towards the end of the bound
4. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: 1829-1847.,
5. Yorkshire Post and
Leeds Intelligencer - Wednesday 12 September 1894 - The full quote from the newspaper
is: "Of the portrait of Emily Bronte in the July number of the Woman at Home he observed that
it might be genuine, but that it did not accord, either as to the head-dress or as to the features,
with his recollection of her."
87-year-old lady, ex-resident of Haworth, reminiscing in an article by C. Holmes Cautley, ‘Old
Haworth Folk Who knew the Brontës’. The Cornhill Magazine, New Series Vol. XXIX. July to
December 1910. Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London. (to read or download the
free PDF version CLICK HERE)
7. Barker, The Brontes, p.761
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A dissertation: "The Significance of Headwear in the novels of Charlotte Bronte and
Elizabeth Gaskell" (University of Chester website) http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/19482787.pdf
Is it a hat? or maybe it’s a bonnet . . . ? (an