Wives & Daughters Week pt. 5: Hyacinth & Harriet’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 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

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.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Very pretty and bridesmaid-y!

Wives & Daughters (1999)

But what’s up with that waistline?? The double-parted hair IS very 1830s, however.

Fashion plate, 1810

The bodice of Harriet’s dress just looks like something out of 1810!
Fashion plate, 1810.

Ackermann's Repository of Arts, 1822

And the high, Renaissance revival neck ruff chemisette is very 1820s.
Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1822.

Charles Howard Hodges, Portrait of Maria Antoinette Charlotte Sanderson (1782-1859), 1835, Rijksmuseum

An example of double-parted hair.
Charles Howard Hodges, Portrait of Maria Antoinette Charlotte Sanderson (1782-1859), 1835, Rijksmuseum.

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?

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Nonetheless, it’s a great look and certainly fashionable for the early 1830s with its full sleeves and rounded waistline. The skirt could be fuller, even given the fact that she really wears this for riding.

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1830

It’s hard to see Harriet’s skirt (above), but compare what you can with the fullness seen in this fashion plate.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1830.

This appears to be a variation on her riding habit, although clearly styled for fashionable wear rather than actual riding.

1999 Wives and Daughters

Notice how casual/menswear her clothes are, while her hair is super ornate. I do think her sleeves should be fuller!

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1832

Here’s another riding look for comparison.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1832.

Sometimes Harriet brings the shiny, like this print dress with sheer sleeves.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

I think it’s the scarf and huge hat that really set it off!

La Mode, 1831

You definitely see sheer sleeves for daywear.
La Mode, 1831.

Dress, 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s a semi-similar dress with sheer oversleeves.
Dress, 1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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!

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Even better with big feathers!

La Belle Assemblee, 1830

Again, sheer oversleeves were super fashionable.
La Belle Assemblee, 1830.

Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, 1832, Royal Collection

A portrait example of the sheer sleeve phenomenon; notice she has solid black puffed sleeves under the sheer oversleeve. Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, 1832, Royal Collection.

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!

Wives & Daughters (1999)

This haircut just totally borks the timeline.

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!

Costume Parisien, 1803

Cropped hair, here called the “Cheveux à la Titus,” is definitely period from the late 1790s through the 1810s, but it’s not 1830s!
Costume Parisien, 1803.


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.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

There’s a little bit of sleeve fullness, but the waistline is still pretty high and the skirt is pretty narrow.

Costume Parisien, 1824

I’d put Hyacinth’s dress about 1824, like this — high-ish waistline, slightly full sleeve cap.
Costume Parisien, 1824.

When she gets married to Dr. Gibson, however, she goes full 1830s with a natural waist, sheer oversleeves, lacey pelerine, bonnet and veil.

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Check out all that lace!

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834

This was, indeed, the era in which white wedding dresses were introduced. Because it was a daytime occasion, they were generally cut along the same lines as other day dresses.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834.

All of Hyacinth’s looks are so spot-on, like this printed cotton dress with every accessory known to 1830s woman:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Collar! Chemisette! Sash with buckle! Hats!

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1830.

There’s a similar collar on this evening gown.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1830.

Or this purple gown with sheer undersleeves and two different gorgeous lace pelerines:

Wives & Daughters (1999)


François-Gabriel Lépaulle, Portrait of Marie Elizabeth Amalie Franziska, Princess of Wagram (1784-1849), 1832.

They loved them some pelerines in this era.
François-Gabriel Lépaulle, Portrait of Marie Elizabeth Amalie Franziska, Princess of Wagram (1784-1849), 1832.

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834.

More hot pelerine action.
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834.

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)!

Wives & Daughters (1999)

“Simple” is not Hyacinth’s byword.

Petit Courrier des Dames, 1833.

But it wasn’t a simple era!
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1833.

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…

Wives & Daughters (1999)

SO pretty!

PLUS baby jesus’s gift to 1830s hairstyles:

Wives & Daughters (1999)


Petit Courrier des Dames, 1831

It was an era of crazy hair!
Petit Courrier des Dames, 1831.


What’s your favorite of Harriet and Hyacinth’s looks? Got any ideas about the weird timeline issues with Harriet’s costumes and hair?


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.

16 Responses

  1. Karen K.

    This post was hilarious — especially “Baby Jesus’ gift to 1830’s hairstyles.” I think the costume designers really nailed Hyacinth’s costumes. She is so OTT.

    And THANK YOU for address Harriet’s short do. I was always confused about that! Rosamund Pike is beautiful, as usual. I irrationally love her.

    • Karen K.

      Forgot to add, could the shot silk dress be a subtle Indian influence? I know that was big during the Regency era. I’m a Jane Austen society member and other members have made some absolutely stunning gowns using sari fabrics. I know anything Indian was very fashionable and the shot silk would have looked stunning by candlelight.

  2. Susan Pola

    I’m a HUGE Francesca Annis fan. I loved her nuanced performance. Her Hyacinth is not clueless or stupid, but more. Her comment to Molly at the end shows that she paid attention to everything, but if it had no bearing on her goals, she faked cluelessness. Granted Hyacinth is self-centered and not really pleased that her daughter is a younger beauty.

    Miss Annis’s beauty is timeless and she really rocked the dresses. My favourite is the London purple gown.

    I loved how Lady Harriet chooses her wardrobe style. Artistic and fashionable.
    I developed a theory on her short hair: illness that forced its being cut.

  3. M

    This is going to sound a bit odd, but have you ever considered reviewing the costumes of the “historical” Barbie movies for a future snark week?
    The princess and the pauper is set in a barbiefied 18th century, the three musketeers in 18th century as well, and Christmas Carol in 19th century

  4. Astral Marc

    I think, considering Harriet is portrayed as artistic/slightly bohemian, that the inspiration was probably Lady Caroline Lamb. I don’t know if she continued to wear her hair short into the 1820s though. It seems to be short in all her portraits.

    I remember in Georgette Heyer books set in the 1820s she does refer to the short hair fad still, so maybe it was a longer lasting fashion, especially with the artistic set? Late 1820s seems possible to me. It seems doubtful to me that it would last into the early 1830s, but who knows.

    For the life of me I can’t remember what Almack’s (the novel) said about it, but because I feel like Heyer used a lot of those silver fork novels as sources she’s often right. I’ll pay more attention next time I read one.

    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      Just to note, all the Heyer Regencies are set in the 1810s – There was one, Cousin Kate, that was thought to be set in the 1820s for a bit due to attempts to interpret the clues in the novel, but it was eventually placed in the 1810s too. There are quite a few 18th century set ones, including at least two set in the 1790s (Faro’s Daughter and Talisman Ring), that people tend to lump in with the Regencies, but all the true Heyer Regencies are 1810s.

      • Astral Marc

        You are absolutely right. I thought a few of the late 1810 ones were set in the early 1820s, but turns out that’s wrong. Well, that takes care of that then.

        BTW I searched through Almack’s for mentions of short hair and found none. It will be fun to see if any other books mention it.

  5. themodernmantuamaker

    My theory re Lady Harriet’s hair: Rosamund Pike had started work on another project for which she needed short hair and the Masterpiece Theatre people tried desperately to find a justification for it within W&D. An “A” for valiant effort if this was something beyond their control, but it does come off sounding as though they don’t realize the Neo-Classical/Regency period was a different animal from the Romantic period.

    On a different note – I just love love love Hyacinth and Francesca Annis’ portrayal is brilliant! It’s mostly her wardrobe in this that gives me urges to start playing with 1830s fashion, she makes it look awesome and so much fun!

    • themodernmantuamaker

      Although, I can never look at that pile of grapes in that one hairstyle of Hyacinth’s with a straight face and is therefore one of my favourite details on her.

  6. LydiaR

    I loved how there’s one scene where you can see Hyacinth arranging one of her fancy hair pieces while she and Mr. Gibson are chatting in their bedroom.

  7. Susan Pola

    I adore that scene as well, but I’m smiling ? in the scene where she does an about face on Roger Hamley after she overheard Osborne Hamley’s health result.
    The other scene is when both Cynthia and Molly flounce out of the room after Molly’s ‘Father’

  8. Edwina Green

    Loved reading this! Really enjoyed the references to period dress and including pictures. Highly amusing! I love Wives and Daughters!

  9. Maria Bennett

    The book explained why Hyacinth wears purple:

    Her wardrobe did not require much arrangement; if it had done, the poor lady would not have had much money to appropriate to the purpose. She was very pretty and graceful; and that goes a great way towards carrying off shabby clothes; and it was her taste more than any depth of feeling, that had made her persevere in wearing all the delicate tints—the violets and grays—which, with a certain admixture of black, constitute half-mourning. This style of becoming dress she was supposed to wear in memory of Mr. Kirkpatrick; in reality because it was both lady-like and economical.

    (Chapter 9. The Widower and the Widow)

  10. Maria Bennett

    I really liked Rosamund Pike as Lady Harriet. She has refined and aristocratic appearance.

    I even liked Harriet’s hairstyle in the finale, because a rich young lady of noble birth could afford to be a little eccentric, without a fear of condemnation of local society.

  11. Heather Christine Ripley

    I’m very late to this party but I just viewed ep 1 & 2 and can’t wait for the rest. I absolutely love the clothes, hair and the story. Speaking of hair, is it just me or does that top knot and fan (and baubles, feathers, etc) in the hair remind me of what a Geisha might wear? https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=http%3A%2F%2Fjapanese-kimono.net%2Fkanzashi-history%2F&psig=AOvVaw24Bh1vLadxivGByvcBCNLD&ust=1588211207853000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCMDbzODDjOkCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD
    Could that have been an influence in these outlandish, exotic styles?

    As for Harriett, her charity ball gown is my most favorite of them all (so far).