Wives & Daughters Week pt. 4: Cynthia’s Costumes


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’re continuing 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.

Cynthia is Hyacinth’s daughter. She’s been at school in France for a number of years as Hyacinth has been having to support them by governess-ing. But once Hyacinth marries Dr. Gibson, she moves to England to live with her mother, new step-father, and new step-sister, Molly. Cynthia and Molly hit it off immediately, although there are some bumps to their relationship that need ironing out.

Cynthia is (comparatively, in this small English village) glamorous. She’s fun, flirty, and coquettish. She has a kind heart and she’s not dumb, but she’s not bookish like Molly… and she definitely wants the finer things in life. She’s dressed to suit: while her gowns aren’t always of the finest fabrics, the cut and styling is very fashionable for the early 1830s — and her hair is always dressed to the NINES.

Again, let’s review our fashion basics for the 1820s into the 1830s:

Costume Parisien, 1821 | Modes de Paris, c. 1827 | La Mode, c. 1831 or 1832

Notice how: sleeves get fuller above the elbow, the waist lowers, and the skirts get fuller.
Costume Parisien, 1821 | Modes de Paris, c. 1827 | La Mode, c. 1831 or 1832.

As you read in yesterday’s post about MollyWives & Daughters moves between late 1820s and early 1830s fashions — and, therefore, is set in the early 1830s as far as real fashion history is concerned. But hat tip to reader Susan, who pointed out on our series overview post that there are references near the end of the miniseries to the “young queen,” therefore Queen Victoria, who was crowned in 1837 — making the series timeline mid- to late-1830s! I checked the original Gaskell novel, and don’t see any such references, but I wanted to talk briefly about why the costumes are certainly not 1835-7ish.

Women's fashions, early to late 1830s

While you could argue that the styles worn in W&D could go as late as 1832 (far left), note how the sleeves start to droop at the head of the sleeve AND the fullness moves to incorporate the lower arm (center) by 1834. Even more tellingly, by 1836 the sleeve fullness collapses into some small fullness just above the elbow, with the upper and lower arm relatively fitted. We don’t see anything like these 1836+ sleeve styles in Wives & Daughters.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1832 | Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834 | Modes de Paris, 1836

When Cynthia first arrives, her dress fabric isn’t anything terribly exciting — but she has the fashionable natural waistline and full-above-the-elbow sleeves that Molly is missing. And, from the get-go, her hair is in an elaborate Apollo’s knot arrangement, with short curls at the upper sides of the face and a sticky-uppy arrangement at the crown of the head:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Not sparkly, sure, but up-to-date.
Via The Dashwood Sisters.

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1828

Probably the earliest you see this silhouette is 1828.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1828.

Nearly all of Cynthia’s day gowns continue to be à la mode, although she starts getting nicer fabrics — shiny silks instead of Molly’s more functional cottons:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Brown silk taffeta with huuuuge sleeves. Note the turn-back cuffs as well!
Via The Dashwood Sisters.

Austrian fashion plate, 1831.

Remove the pelerine (the matching capelet) and you’ve got Cynthia’s dress.
Austrian fashion plate, 1831.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

It’s hard to tell what this fabric is, but it has a sheen to it — and the draped bits on the front of the bodice add a nice bit of visual interest.

Doll, 1832 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Compare Cynthia’s gold dress to the one worn by this Doll, 1832 from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Cynthia does occasionally wear cotton prints, but even then, she keeps to fashionable style lines:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

White floral cotton print, but still with natural waist and big sleeves.

Dress, 1832-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cynthia’s gown is simpler in the bodice, but otherwise recalls this cotton print dress.
Dress, 1832-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cynthia doesn’t wear jumpers (sleeveless overgowns) as often as Molly, but she does have one (see the comments on Molly’s post for an interesting discussion about the historical accuracy of these jumpers):

Wives & Daughters (1999)

The wide lace collar and the big square buckle are super fashionable and elevate the look.
Via The Dashwood Sisters.

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1828

Big buckles on sashes were very fashionable from the late 1820s through the 1830s, like on this plate.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1828.

This next  dress is worn for both day and evening. The sleeves are more sedate in terms of size, although that’s made up for by the embroidery on the collar and bodice and the stripes on the skirt:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

The fact that the bodice and skirt fabric don’t match makes me think they found an embroidered piece big enough to make the bodice, and then worked from there.
Via The Dashwood Sisters.

Moda d'Italia, 1830

The lower-third skirt trim, emphasizing the diagonal/bias, is very typical of the 1830s.
Moda d’Italia, 1830.

Next, let’s look at evening wear:


Once again, you’ve got a lower waistline, fuller sleeves, and fuller skirts.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1822 | Petit Courrier des Dames, 1829 | Modes de Paris, 1831.

Again, I want to point out how Wives & Daughters is not depicting mid- to late-1830s fashions:

Women's fashions, early to late 1830s

Mid-1830s evening gown sleeves continue to be full, but that fullness gets very horizontal/oval shaped (far left and center) instead of the rounded puff seen earlier. And, just like in daywear, by about 1836-7, the sleeve fullness almost completely collapses, with fitted upper arms and just a bit of fullness above the elbow. Again, nothing like these later styles shows up in W&D on screen.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1832 | Petit Courrier des Dames, 1833 | La Mode, 1838.

Cynthia gets two main evening looks. Interestingly, while her first evening dress (for the charity ball) is beautiful and intricate, its sleeve style and skirt silhouette are more late 1820s (although the waistline placement is more 1830s). The gown is definitely more shiny and complicated than Molly’s, of course — it looks like a peach or pink silk taffeta, with sheer organza puffings for trim. Clearly they wanted Cynthia to be more sparkly in this scene and to contrast her with Molly’s white purity. My theory on the slightly-out-of-date-ness of the style lines is that it’s to contrast with Cynthia’s later evening gown worn in London (below), showing that she’s continuing to mature.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Very delicate, frothy, detailed, and pretty! But also, very late 1820s.

Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1827.

Everything about Cynthia’s dress — from the silhouette, sleeve style, waist placement, and trim — are very 1820s.
Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1827.

Here’s Cynthia’s London ballgown, worn near the end of the series. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Changeable blue/green silk taffeta with huuuuuuge oversleeve layers with gold-trimmed dags! Plus, THAT HAIR. OMGPONIES!!! This is the height of fashion — for the early 1830s — particularly compared to the other clothes worn by Molly and Cynthia, and the darker color reads much more sophisticated than anything else worn by either of them. Note, again, how Cynthia’s sleeves continue to be very full and rounded, not the fitted upper arm/small puff above the elbow seen from 1836 onwards.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Cynthia’s London evening dress is probably the strongest look on screen, color-wise.

Dress, 1831-4, Metropolitan Museum of Art

You can see similar long, sleeve-focused collars on many early 1830s gowns.
Dress, 1831-4, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Which is your favorite of Cynthia’s costumes in Wives & Daughters?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

8 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I’m a ‘clothes wh*re’ so I love them all. But my favourite is the teal (my favourite colour) ball gown she wore in London.

    Cynthia’s clothes show her to be ‘dernier cri’ well at least as much as her/Hyacinth/ Dr Gibson’s pocketbook will allow.

  2. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    I have to say that I think I would love the London ballgown more if the sleeves/shoulders stood out a bit more, and the skirt were a couple of inches shorter, as to me, it looks a bit deflated, but at the same time, I can see it as reflective of the context, if the skirt is fashionably longer but she still liked puffy sleeves even if they were becoming slightly dated….

    I do have an original 1840s dress made in very definitely mid-1840s fabric in the long-waisted pleated bodice style, but with leg o’mutton sleeves (!!) so there were definite transitional oddities, (please excuse the bad, old photo, its the only one I have to hand…)


    I think things like this make me a little more inclined to accept it if a costumier gives a dress details that are a few years or even just over a decade out of date, if it fits the character/context. Which it doesn’t really for Cynthia, because we see she’s a real follower of fashion, but I really do like her costuming – although I think I would prefer her skirts to be a little shorter, and I do feel a lot of the necklines on her solid colour dresses needed collars or pelerines. Not really sure about the three-quarter length sleeves on the gold dress either.

  3. Karen K.

    Hate the Apollo’s Knot hairstyle, it just looks silly to me. It’s a good thing I didn’t live in the 1830s! (Not questioning the accuracy of the filmmakers, just the fashion trend in general). And her hair foofaraws in that ballroom scene are crazy town. But that teal silk is to die for!

  4. Frances Dorrestein

    I believe the dress with the contrast striped skirt was made with a printed scarf for the collar. Three points of the scarf were on the collar and the fourth point was made into the stomacher-type bodice panel. It loods great, i think, but the print is a bit late in my opinion. Wiliam Morrissey! But maybe i am wrong, and it is more Indian print, which would be ok for the era. Have a look. What do you think?

  5. ladylavinia1932

    But hat tip to reader Susan, who pointed out on our series overview post that there are references near the end of the miniseries to the “young queen,” therefore Queen Victoria, who was crowned in 1837 — making the series timeline mid- to late-1830s! I checked the original Gaskell novel, and don’t see any such references, but I wanted to talk briefly about why the costumes are certainly not 1835-7ish.

    It’s possible that this was a mistake on the part of screenwriter Andrew Davies.