My knowledge of nineteenth century fashion is limited, to say the least, so this blog post should be read mainly as an experiment. It is probably a statement of the obvious that the clothes people wear can tell us a lot about them. In ‘Jane Eyre’ Charlotte Bronte uses descriptions of her characters’ clothing to give the reader ways of interpreting their roles, and their relationships. One example of this is in the description of Jane’s clothing the first time she meets Mr Rochester in chapter 12.
They meet in a lane on the hill above Thornfield. He finds out she works at the Hall, but is confused as to her role:
“You are not a servant at the hall, of course. You are….” He stopped, ran his eye over my dress, which as usual, was quite simple: a black merino cloak, a black beaver bonnet, neither of them half fine enough for a lady’s main. He seemed puzzled to decide what I was”
Well might Mr Rochester be puzzled – merino is a quality wool, and my best guess is that beaver fur is not something that would typically be found on servant’s clothing. He is sufficiently distracted, by the unexpected nature of their meeting, and possibly a spark of attraction, that he forgets he has asked Mrs Fairfax to employ a tutor for Adele. Nevertheless, Jane is defined, in Mr Rochester’s eyes, not by her speech, accent, bearing, or appearance, but by her clothing.
This confusion is not surprising. As Bookertalk pointed out in their comment on my earlier post about ‘Jane Eyre’, governesses “were not part of the family, but neither did they fit entirely into the servant category – so they occupied an uncomfortable space somewhere between”. Governesses were neither upstairs nor downstairs. They would eat with the family but were paid little more than the domestic staff, and would often be expected to help out with domestic chores (as indeed Jane is when all hands are required to prepare for the arrival of Mr Rochester’s large party of visitors). Governesses would not normally wear a formal uniform and would only be recognised in context – out of the family setting they were….puzzling. My suspicion is that Jane’s clothing is better than that the average nineteenth century governess, which would have compounded the confusion.
Earlier in the novel, when Jane is at the appalling Lowood College, her clothing, and that of all the students, is strictly controlled:
“Ranged on benches down the sides of the room, the eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible; in brown dresses, made high and surrounded by a narrow tucker about the throat, with little pockets of holland (shaped something like a Highlander’s purse) tied in front of their frocks, and destined to serve the purpose of a work- bag: all, too, wearing woollen stockings and country-made shoes, fastened with brass buckles. Above twenty of those clad in this costume were full-grown girls, or rather young women; it suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest.” When the girls go into the garden they put on “a coarse straw bonnet, with strings of coloured calico, and a cloak of grey frieze.”
This uniform is characterised by its coarseness, but the overall impression is of a Puritan costume; no ornamentation is allowed, not hint of feminity. The brown dresses, with the holland pockets (holland being plain woven linen) made more modest by the tucker at the throat, and in particular the brass buckled shoes, call to mind the traditional dress of Quakers or New England settlers of earlier centuries. This conforms to the Puritan lifestyles imposed on the girls – near starvation, no pleasures of any kind, and no individuality. This uniform contrasts vividly with that of Mr Brocklehurst’s daughters:
“three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger of the trio (fine girls of sixteen and seventeen) had grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and from under the brim of this graceful head-dress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady was enveloped in a costly velvet shawl, trimmed with ermine, and she wore a false front of French curls.” Chapter 7.
Interestingly, here a beaver hat is the height of fashion – eight years later Jane wears one when she first meets Rochester. The contrast tells us Mr Brocklehurst is happy to allow extravagant dress in his family members, without there being any sense of impropriety.
Later in the novel, when Jane has settled at Thornfield, we are given a description of Adele, Rochester’s ward, all dressed up to meet the smart set of guests coming to the Hall. She has “her curls arranged in well-smoothed, drooping clusters, her pink satin frock put on, her long sash tied, and her lace mittens adjusted.” Adele is a model of a young woman – although she is Mr Rochester’s ward, and he refers to her with distaste as “it” on occasion, he doesn’t skimp on her clothing. Adele’s costume is simply a smaller version of the adult women’s dress – the idea of specialist clothing for children had it seems not yet been adopted by this time. At the same occasion, Jane, by comparison, wears “a silver-grey” dress and a pearl brooch, “my sole ornament”. This plainness, if not austerity, contrasts with the appearance of the party guests. Miss Blanche Ingram, who it quickly transpires is a competitor for Mr Rochester’s affections, is carefully reviewed by Jane;
“She was dressed in pure white; an amber coloured scarf was passed over her shoulder and across her breast, tied at the side and descending in long, fringed ends below her knee. She wore an amber-coloured flower too, in her hair” (chapter 16). Colour co-ordinated, but in bridal white, Blanche makes her intentions towards Mr Rochester very clear. The scarf which covers her from shoulder to knee (more than a scarf, surely – a shawl?) in a neutral colour, may have been a fashion of the time, but echoes Adele’s long sash, and re-emphasises the plainness of Jane’s dress. Mr Rochester may resort to some slightly ridiculous lengths to expose Blanche’s shallowness – the scene where he disguises himself as a fortune teller to tease his guests is one of the weakest, least plausible, in the novel – but her attire will have given him a clear clue as to her nature.