Every time we have posted something related to Wives & Daughters on this here blog or over on Facebook/Twitter, many of you get excited… and it’s no wonder, because while knowledge of this BBC miniseries has faded, it’s a classic and it needs to be resurfaced. The 1999 adaptation of the Elizabeth Gaskell (who also wrote North & South) novel is nearly perfect: interesting characters, a windy story that doesn’t always go where you think it will, and faaaaaabulous 1830s costumes. Now we’ve got a whole WEEK of celebration of Wives & Daughters, so join us for the ride as we look at all the hot boys, why this series rocks, and then the wardrobes of our main characters!
Today we finish our in-depth analysis of the costumes in Wives and Daughters. The book (originally a serial) by Elizabeth Gaskell was published from 1864-66, but it’s set in the early 1830s. I’m not going to detail every costume worn in the series — if you’re interested, The Dashwood Sisters blog has screencapped every outfit worn by all the main characters in the show — but I do want to talk about how the leads are costumed and how their wardrobes change.
For our final post, we’re going to look at two characters. If you’d like to review 1830s fashion basics, please see our post on Cynthia for a good overview.
Lady Harriet is the youngest daughter of the local earl, Lord Cumnor. She’s just a bit older than Molly and Cynthia, and very sophisticated and mature. Hyacinth was her governess. Harriet is not a major character, but she pops in and out of the story at various points to provide wry, insightful observations — and near the end, she takes charge of a messed-up situation and sets things to rights.
Lady Harriet’s wardrobe is a weird one. Sometimes she’s dressed very fashionably, other times slightly artsy, and then other times wearing something pretty dated. I’m not sure if the production spent all their money and time on Molly, Cynthia, and Hyacinth, and so Harriet is sometimes wearing backup, rental costumes — or if they’re trying to show Harriet as being part of the old-school aristocracy, eschewing the most current fashions in an effort to adhere to traditional values (while at the same time showing her strong character through some bohemian touches).
In our first real glimpse of Harriet, she is playing “amateur bridesmaid” to Hyacinth at her wedding to Dr. Gibson. She’s wearing a pretty cream-colored dress with asymmetrical pleating and a turban-ish headdress, both touches that show her as being just a bit artistic. But, while she has full sleeves that could be considered early 1830s, her waistline is RIGHT up under the bust in a very “Regency,” late 1810s/early 1820s placement.
Harriet’s riding habit is a strong look with the red and black — LOVE the hat and veil! But notice how the jacket doesn’t quite close at the waistline — is that intentional, or does the jacket not fit?
This appears to be a variation on her riding habit, although clearly styled for fashionable wear rather than actual riding.
Sometimes Harriet brings the shiny, like this print dress with sheer sleeves.
Harriet’s main evening gown is worn at the charity ball. It’s very à la mode, much more so if you compare it to what Cynthia and Molly wear to the same event. The sheer oversleeves, with the matching-the-dress puffs underneath, were very fashionable. Then you’ve got the embroidered collar, matching embroidered skirt trim, and that faaaaabulous hair and headdress!
And now we come to other weirdness with Lady Harriet: near the end of the series, she suddenly, without explanation, wears her hair in a crop (short, layered style). It’s something that I think confuses most viewers of the series!
Here’s how Masterpiece Theatre tried to explain it:
We received many comments and questions about Lady Harriet’s hair. In fact, a short, spiky hairstyle such as that Lady Harriet wore at the end of the series was considered ultra-fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in emulation of classical Greek style. In Paris, where the trend began, this hairstyle was known as ‘chevelure a la Titus.’ In her wonderful book The Art of Dress, Jane Ashelford notes “The new antique style did require boldness, for wearing a simple muslin dress based on the drapery depicted on Greek vases and statuary meant dispensing with corsets and reducing underclothing to a simple shift. The wearer had to bare her arms, draw attention to her bosom by raising the waistline and lowering the neckline of her dress, and have her hair cut ‘in the manner adopted by the most eminent Greek sculptors.'” (Wives and Daughters Forum)
The problem with that explanation is that, yes, short, cropped hair was worn by the ultra fashionable, and ultra liberal, as a reference to classical Greek styles … but this was during the period of the French Revolution, in the very late 1790s and very early 1800s. It’s a whole lot harder to prove the absence of something, but I will tell you I’ve never seen a fashion plate or portrait from the 1830s showing cropped hair, and all the references I’ve read to ladies wearing it have been from the very late 1790s through the 1810s — for example, this letter written from Paris in 1818: “There are three different coiffures, or head dresses, in fashion among the Parisian belles; they are termed à la Titus, à la Grecque, and à la Diadème. The coiffure à la Titus is the most simple, and at the same time the most beautiful of all: the hair is cut short behind, and is there curled in graceful ringlets down the neck” (Letters from Paris and Other Cities of France, Holland, &c. Written During a Tour and Residence in These Countries, in the Years 1816, 17, 18, 19 and 20). If someone wants to prove me wrong with a source later than that, please do!
Oh, Hyacinth. SO annoying, and yet so understandable and true-to-life. She was widowed young with a daughter (Cynthia), and she’s spent most of the next 15ish years as a governess to the Cumnor family (and Lady Harriet). She’s middle aged, sure, but she still has her charms, and combine that with Dr. Gibson wanting a mother for his Molly … and you’ve got a wedding! Hyacinth is SO THRILLED to be out of service and in charge of her own home that she takes it overboard. She’s super conscious of her new status and wants everything done to a T — but it’s her T! She has no idea how to parent Cynthia and Molly effectively, so she does her best to meddle in their lives, make bad decisions for them, and be generally overbearing.
Hyacinth’s wardrobe matches her character beautifully. As soon as she can afford it, she is dressed to the (middle class) nines, in fussy gowns with every single accessory possible. Really, she looks straight out of fashion plates! Her signature color is purple — and I’m pretty sure she’s one of the only characters to have such a consistent color palette.
We first meet Hyacinth in the 1810s set-up scene, but cut to the current-day of the series (early 1830s) and she’s still in an early 1820-style dress. It’s pretty, but it’s VERY dated.
When she gets married to Dr. Gibson, however, she goes full 1830s with a natural waist, sheer oversleeves, lacey pelerine, bonnet and veil.
All of Hyacinth’s looks are so spot-on, like this printed cotton dress with every accessory known to 1830s woman:
Or this purple gown with sheer undersleeves and two different gorgeous lace pelerines:
Next, evening wear:
For the charity ball, Hyacinth completely outdoes her daughter and step-daughter (hey, maybe that’s another reason the two of them are wearing slightly dated 1820s styles?). She’s got white silk, sheer oversleeves, a wide lace collar, a gauzy wrap, and an amazing amount of crap in her hair (of which I approve)!
Later on, when Cynthia goes to London, Hyacinth busts out this sheer silk organza gown that looks to be shot purple and gold, plus embroidery…
PLUS baby jesus’s gift to 1830s hairstyles:
What’s your favorite of Harriet and Hyacinth’s looks? Got any ideas about the weird timeline issues with Harriet’s costumes and hair?