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 story that takes its time and 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 going to start 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.
Molly is the daughter of a country doctor. She’s middle class, but she lives in a small village in rural England. She’s grown up without a mother, so she lacks a parent who would be hands-on in the wardrobe department — but she also has to play the part of the mistress of the house sometimes, at least early on. She’s a young woman (late teens I think?) who begins as sweet, kind, and dependable but also sheltered and daddy’s girl. She’s also intelligent and a bit shy. Over time, she hangs on to that kindness but becomes more outgoing (through her friendship with step-sister Cynthia) and learns she has a strong resolve. And, she falls in LURVE.
First, let’s look at fashion from the early 1820s through the early 1830s, because it’s important when considering Molly’s style:
Early on, Molly wears a lot of girlish dresses. They hit all the notes for late 1820s, so they are a little bit dated, but I also think that stylistic choice is there to make her look young. The fabrics are very practical, and her hair tends to be simply styled (although the fact that it’s very curly softens her a bit):
However, as Molly becomes influenced by Cynthia’s outgoing nature, plus has a new step-mother to fuss over her, AND takes on the role of emotional support for the Hamley family, her wardrobe starts to change. Her waistlines lower and sleeves get bigger — all more fashionable touches for the early 1830s. And, she starts wearing pelerines and other accessories, clearly something her step-mother Hyacinth (who is always dressed to the nines) pushes on her.
However, she remains practical whenever she can, as evidenced by her love of jumpers (i.e., a sleeveless dress over a blouse)… which is the one style I question. Has ANYONE seen anything like this in the period? I can’t say I haven’t but then I can’t say I have… Here’s a blog post showing the existence of such sleeveless overgowns in the Regency era (1800s-10s), but that’s a lot earlier.
This next dress typifies how Molly’s style has changed by the end of the series. She’s wearing a more complex fabric — stripes and florals! — in a stronger color. Plus, she’s keeping the fashionable wide sleeve, lower waistline, and and added a lacy collar.
Now let’s look at evening styles, which show a similar change over time:
Molly’s evening wear shows a similar transition. Her first evening dress is a particular plot point. Molly goes to stay with the local squire’s family (the Hamleys), so she buys a dinner dress from the local shop in town. She thinks it’s very fashionable, but the Hamleys clearly think the tartan is a bit much (although they’re polite about it) and inquire if she’s wearing it because her father is Scottish. It is a plot point that comes directly from the novel: the local dressmaker “Miss Rose persuaded her [Molly] to order a gay-coloured flimsy plaid silk, which she assured her was quite the latest fashion in London, and which Molly thought would please her father’s Scotch blood. But when he saw the scrap which she had brought home as a pattern, he cried out that the plaid belonged to no clan in existence, and that Molly ought to have known this by instinct. It was too late to change it, however…” Later on, Mrs. Hamley thinks of the dress as the “horrid plaid silk.”
While the dress works fine in the series — the colors are louder than anything else seen on screen, and I don’t believe there’s anyone else in plaid — loud plaid dresses were fashionable in the period, so I always have to suspend disbelief.
However, looking stylistically at the cut, it’s waaaay more early- to mid-1820s than early 1830s:
Mid-way through the series, Molly and family attend a charity ball. This is the first evening event step-mother Hyacinth gets to oversee. Molly wears a very pretty white cotton dress with embroidered pieces on the sleeves. Interestingly, the narrow sleeve and high-ish waistline make it simpler and less fashionable than the dresses worn by Hyacinth and step-sister Cynthia, although it’s much improved in terms of taste.
At the end of the series, Molly shows she’s a sophisticated, adult woman by wearing this cream taffeta gown to a party at The Towers, the home of the local aristocracy. It’s ULTRA fashionable with its natural (pointed!) waistline and very full sleeves — plus the taffeta fabric and wide lace at the neckline make it much fancier than anything Molly has worn previously. And, for the first time she wears an over-the-top 1830s apollo knot hairstyle like those worn by Hyacinth and Cynthia:
What’s your favorite look worn by Molly in Wives and Daughters?
I enjoyed seeing Molly mature into a grown and intelligent woman. I feel the designer, Ms Clancy, used Molly’s costumes to reveal this journey. My favourite is the one at the Towers ball gown & the day dress. But most of all ***spoiler alert**** was what she wore with Roger in…
The jumper question is very interesting. I can kind of see how such a design might carry on beyond the early 1800s/1810s particularly as it was such a practical style. Nancy Bradfield did draw a girl’s stockingette overdress which is almost a jumper, but more of a pinafore really, from the late 1820s. I remember she also showed a study from a painting of a girl wearing a similar garment but can’t remember which painting, it was from a family group portrait….
There’s this, from 1820 – short sleeved under-blouse, but not dissimilar in concept.
Interesting, but that seems more like a gown with sheer sleeves, which is a different animal in my mind!
Found the dress! NT website date it to 1820, Nancy Bradfield dated it to 1829-30. (page 146 of Costume in Detail) http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1349192
Interesting, again! Still seems like a gown that had sheer sleeves to me.
I ended up having to take a photo of Nancy Bradfield’s drawing as I couldn’t track down an image of the actual painting online. She was a very accurate draughtswoman who I’ve found to be VERY meticulous, but I would of course prefer to see the original painting…. and clearly it is a young girl/teenager, but you do see the long sleeved habit shirt under the “jumper”
Definitely a strong possibility (and yes, bradford’s drawings are very reliable). I think the main difference is that none of these show the “blouse” other than the sleeves. The W&D jumpers are lower cut in front to show the blouse. Everything we’ve both found seems like a sleeveless dress (with, presumably, sheer sleeves or under sleeves).
I loved Molly in the simple but elegant white dress she wore at the charity ball. Her natural honesty and practicality are best shown in her simpler gowns.
Yes, they DEFINITELY connect Molly’s costumes to her character!
I always took the Hamleys reaction to Molly’s plaid dress as a particularly well done demonstration of the nuances in the relationship(s) between fashion(ability) and class in England. That relationship was not a straightforward, linear one from one end of the social spectrum to the other. There was a long tradition of the gentry deliberately eschewing the fashionability of the “ton” – part of the philosophy being that fashion does not always equal taste. High fashion was often viewed with suspicion by the gentry. They gently mocked the upper aristocracy for it, treating them like a spectator sport – just as the aristos mocked country gentry as being bumpkins. High-fashion was additionally often viewed as being too French for the English gentry. English aristos were closely intertwined with French ones, being related and visiting each other – much less the case with the English gentry, particularly those of “Saxon stock” such as the Hamleys. The gentry viewed themselves as the arbiters of decent, respectable, genuine taste and generally as a class left the fripperies of high fashion to the whims of their social “betters” and the follies of their social inferiors (namely those in the wealthier trades who were also often more fashion forward, being at the initial point of contact for novelties). I always admired this little detail of characterization of the Hamleys. They inhabit a complex place and position within English society – and I’ve always loved that they used such an atmospheric Jacobean pile for their house in the series!
All very good points!!
Good points and interesting background however the dress was supposedly awful, a reflection of Molly’s youth and inexperience in worldly matters. Rodger sees her as badly dressed and socially inept. Also the dress is not “fashionable”. Miss Rose’s is the classic provincial dress shop, at least a year behind in the fashions hence Cynthia’s sneer when Molly points the shop out to her. Molly’s poor choice of dress is a reflection also of her lack of female guidance. She had grown up in a male world dominated by her father and his medical students.
I totally agree.
These walking dresses from 1828 seem to be jumpers, but the collars hide he neck and shoulder area, so no way of knowing what’s going on there: http://shewhoworshipscarlin.tumblr.com/post/138440257954/walking-and-fancy-dress-fashion-plate-1828
There is this fashion plate from the late 1820’s, but it might just be a pelerine-ish thingy over a blouse and skirt: http://collections.lacma.org/node/247745
This lady from 1831 wars what looks like a jumper dress – but the lower sleeves that seem to match does cast some doubt on it: http://poeraven82.tumblr.com/post/93894439041/oldrags-portrait-of-zinaida-volkonskaya-by
Then there are quite a few portraits and fashion plates with dresses that give the look of low cut jumpers worn over blouses, but with white sleeves and possibly fronts that are probably attached to the dress, like these:
Maybe that’s where the costume designer got it from, misinterpreting these images?
Either way, pictures of real jumpers (if they are jumpers) are few and far between, so they don’t seem to have been common.
Thanks for these! Some of them are maaaaaaybe’s, but yeah, I keep feeling like we’re looking at regular gowns with sheer sleeves/oversleeves rather than a sleeveless, low-cut-bodice-front overdress designed to show a “blouse” (chemisette). The fact that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel tells me that these jumpers are a reach!
I agree. But i feel that these quasi-jumpers that Molly wears achieves their goal: Showing how young and unsophisticated Molly is. The same way the sailor outfits in Sound of Music made the twenty something Charmaine Carr as Liesel look like a 16 going on 17.
Yes, they definitely work theatrically!
Molly’s tartan gown! You do love me! The reactions to it, and her father’s snarking about the tartan, are (naturally) one of my favourite parts of the series/book. Though you’re absolutely right — the one in the series is not nearly as garish or hideous as some of the surviving examples.
This is Melanie from The Dashwood Sisters blog– thank you for the shout out! This post series is wonderful– I love all the work you’ve put into analyzing the costumes, both in the historical context and in the context of the character’s personalities and growth.
Yay! Thank YOU for all your work screencapping all the outfits — it made it so much easier to write all of this!
In the book Molly’s wardrobe starts to change thanks to her new stepmother:
Molly was better dressed than formerly; her stepmother saw after that. She disliked anything old or shabby, or out of taste about her; it hurt her eye; and she had already fidgeted Molly into a new amount of care about the manner in which she put on her clothes, arranged her hair, and was gloved and shod. Mrs. Gibson had tried to put her through a course of rosemary washes and creams in order to improve her tanned complexion; but about that Molly was either forgetful or rebellious, and Mrs. Gibson could not well come up to the girl’s bedroom every night and see that she daubed her face and neck over with the cosmetics so carefully provided for her. Still her appearance was extremely improved, even to Osborne’s critical eye.
(Chapter 16. The Bride at Home)
Later Cynthia cares for Molly’s dresses:
She was restless too, till she had attacked Molly’s dress, after she had remodelled her mother’s.
“Now for you, sweet one,” said she as she began upon one of Molly’s gowns. “I’ve been working as connoisseur until now; now I begin as amateur.”
(Chapter 19. Cynthia’s Arrival)
It’s look like a Molly’s jumper dress:
This comment is a bit late–but re: jumpers, I wonder what you make of this 1835 portrait of Léopoldine Hugo, 11 years old. Almost looks like an apron-y thing over a white dress. Some of the descriptions of the portrait say it was painted on the day of her first communion.
My favourite look of Molly’s is the grey wool pelisse coat with velvet collar – underrated but incredibly smart.