Guest Luccia Gray: Clothes in Jane Eyre’s Time.

Standard

Fellow writer and sister blogger, Noelle Granger, was kind enough to ask me to write a guest post for her blog. She suggested something related to fashion and history, so it’s a great pleasure to offer this overview of the clothes in Jane Eyre’s time, which includes a general reflection on Victorian and Regency fashion, and how fashion mirrors the moral code of the time.

The Regency Era
In the later part of his life, George III suffered from recurrent and eventually incapacitating dementia and blindness. From 1811 to his death in 1820, he lived in seclusion at Windsor Castle. As a result, his eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, became Prince Regent, until he succeeded his father as George IV.

Prince Regent

Prince Regent

Much to his father’s irritation, the Prince Regent was an extravagant squanderer, gambler, and womanizer. His escapades included heavy drinking, drug consumption, and numerous mistresses. He also had very expensive tastes in clothes and decorating his palace, and was a generous patron of the arts, so he was frequently in debt. On the other hand, he was reportedly a witty conversationalist, and enjoyed partying.

The Prince Regent’s indulgent lifestyle was reflected in the social life, fashions, and comparatively lax morals of the Regency period, which sometimes refers to a more extended time frame than the decade of the formal Regency, spanning from 1811 to Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. It was during the early years that Jane Austen, who died in 1817, wrote her novels. Charlotte Bronte was born, a year earlier, in 1816, and although Jane Eyre was published in the height of the Victorian era (1847), there is plenty of evidence to support that it is set before this period, during the Regency Era.

Regency Fashion
In the early 1800s, women’s clothes became more practical, for example, women began wearing shorter and lighter dresses without restricting long trains or hoops, which were more suited to carrying out daily routines. They also became much lighter. Women wore thin, gauzy outer dresses, which could be changed and washed more frequently. It was also during this time that fashion magazines such as ‘La Belle Assemblee’, one of the major ladies’ fashion magazines of Regency Era, began its publication.

Red Regency Dress

Red Regency Dress

Mother and Daughter in Regency Clothes

Mother and Daughter in Regency Clothes

The ladies of the time often only wore three garments; a chemise, a corset and a gown. This was a striking contrast to the clothing of both the preceding and succeeding periods with their multiple layers, crinoline, and heavy fabrics.

The Graces in a High Wind

The Graces in a High Wind

The first two paintings of Regency fashion reveal bare arms, chest, and necks, in both adults and children. The satirical engraving “The Graces in a High Wind”, by James Gillray (published 1810), shows us just how loose and flimsy ladies clothes were at the time, easily allowing the observer to identify the ladies’ contour beneath the dress!

Victorian Fashion

A satirical cartoon from Harper's Weekly (New York) 1857.

A satirical cartoon from Harper’s Weekly (New York) 1857.

ARABELLA MARIA: “Only to think, Julia dear, that our Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!”
BOTH: “Ha! ha! ha! ha!”

Some Victorians may have joked, but most Victorians would have felt uncomfortable to be reminded that their mothers or grandmothers had once danced and visited wearing what has come to be called Empire or Regency fashions, which would no doubt have been considered indecent according to Victorian convention.

An 1859 fashion plate from Godey's Magazine

An 1859 fashion plate from Godey’s Magazine

Women’s skirts literally swelled and became more cumbersome in the Victorian period. At first the skirts were supported by several petticoats, one of which was of a stiffened silk or of a silk and horsehair fabric, known as crinoline. Many of the bodices and blouses had high necks stiffened with bones or wire.

Crinoline cutaway diagram from Punch magazine, August 1856.

Crinoline cutaway diagram from Punch magazine, August 1856.

Breasts, chests, and arms were covered, the high-waisted Regency styles were replaced by lower, tight bodices focusing on the waist, and the stiff crinoline petticoats made it impossible to guess the ladies’ shapes below the layers of heavy clothing!

Clothes in Jane Eyre
The clothes in Jane Eyre are definitely Regency style, and not Victorian, which leads us to assume that the action takes place in the 1830s, at the latest, probably around the time Charlotte herself was 20 years old, in 1837.

There are few detailed descriptions of clothes in the novel, but Mrs. Fairfax describes Blanche Ingram as, ‘Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck.’ Indicating her bust and shoulders were clearly visible in a low-cut, Regency dress. Also there is no mention of crinoline.
Clothes marked class difference very clearly, the fabric and colours of lower class characters such as teachers and children at Lowood, and servants, were clearly different from the clothes worn by the upper class characters. They wore darker colours such as purples and browns, and were made of stuff, a type of coarse thickly woven cloth, or wool.

We are told that the girls at Lowood all wear, ‘brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion, and long Holland pinafores’, while Miss Temple, her teacher and mentor at Lowood, wore, a purple cloth dress with black velvet trimming.

On the other hand, her cousins, Eliza and Georgiana Reed, were obviously wearing light, Regency-style clothes. Jane watches them ‘descend to the drawing-room, dressed out in thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes’, and Mr Brocklehursts’s wife and daughter ‘were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs.’
When Jane arrived in Thornfield, she was wearing a black stuff travelling-dress, a cloak, a bonnet, gloves, and a muff. When she met Rochester, a few months later, while on her way to post a letter in Hay, Jane says, ‘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-maid.’

When she was first invited to tea with Mr. Rochester, Mrs Fairfax told her to change, and she wore her one and only silk dress:
‘I repaired to my room, and, with Mrs. Fairfax’s aid, replaced my black stuff dress by one of black silk; the best and the only additional one I had, except one of light grey, which, in my Lowood notions of the toilette, I thought too fine to be worn, except on first-rate occasions.’

Months later, when Mr. Rochester’s wealthy friends were invited to Thornfield, Jane’s drab, dull, and plain clothes, contrasted strikingly with his richly dressed guests, and their crimson velvet robes, shawl turbans of gold-wrought Indian fabric, white muslin dresses and coloured sashes, pink and white satin robes, silk stockings and white satin sandals.

After Jane accepted his marriage proposal, Rochester took Jane shopping and naturally wanted to buy her dresses to suit her new position, but Jane tells the reader how, with anxiety, she ‘watched his eye rove over the gay stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice. With infinite difficulty, for he was stubborn as a stone, I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black satin and pearl-grey silk. ‘It might pass for the present,’ he said; ‘but he would yet see me glittering like a parterre.’

Some years after marrying Rochester, at the end of the novel, we finally see Jane dressed in a colour other than black, brown, or grey. Rochester, recovering his eyesight says, ‘And have you a pale blue dress on?’ and she answers affirmatively. Jane Eyre has become Mrs. Rochester. She is married to the man she loves, has had a son, has improved her station, and is wearing brighter colours, at last.

Although Charlotte Bronte was writing about the Regency period, she was doing so from a more solemn and moralizing, Victorian perspective, which is why Jane dislikes the comparatively flimsy clothes, bright colours, frivolity, and extravagance of the Regency period, represented by Blanche Ingram, Miss. Brocklehurst, and her cousin Georgina Reed.

CIMG4315_2
Luccia Gray is the author of All Hallows at Eyre Hall, which I’ve reviewed and given multiple thumbs up. Her blog is Rereading Jane Eyre (http://lucciagray.com), and I encourage everyone to go there for a visit. You won’t be disappointed!

The link to her book is: http://www.amazon.com/All-Hallows-Eyre-Hall-Breathtaking-ebook/dp/B00K2G4SXW/ref=la_B00K34F28I_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412634414&sr=1-1

Thank you so much, Luccia! Book cover all hallows_2

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “Guest Luccia Gray: Clothes in Jane Eyre’s Time.

  1. I remember that scene when Jane runs up to her room to change into her “other” dress. How often did they launder their clothes. Were aprons and protective overgarments used more. I can’t imagine how the clothes didn’t get filthy and worn very quickly.
    I also think it’s interesting how color was much more individual in the past. Before industrial clothing production and the fashion industry selecting the palette for us, I would think the colors a woman wore would have been a reflection of her personality and carefully thought through.

  2. Thank you for your invitation to guest post on your blog, Noelle. The stark contrast in Regency and Victorian moral conventions, externalised by their distinctive fashions is a fascinating topic. Crinoline sounds like torture!

  3. I devoured this post! Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite novels, and as I read the snippets of her conversation with Mr. Rochester over his questionable fashion purchases for his plain little governess, as well as Jane’s thoughts about her own wardrobe, so much of the novel came back to me. I have your book – and look forward to reading it. Thanks for such an interesting essay about the clothing of the Regency period.

  4. Hello Luccia. Lovely post. Thank you for writing on Noelle’s blog — a most wonderful place to be. I love the red dress. So much beauty and detail showcased here as well as modesty (even if behind closed doors theirs were all but modest lives) and that makes reading about this time period all the more interesting.

  5. I love looking at Jane Eyre through her clothing! I don’t think I paid too much attention to the fashion mentions when I read it the first time but this makes me want to revisit it. Fascinating post!

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s