How first peek at Charlotte Brontë's wardrobe shows a fashionable side to the creator of 'plain' Jane Eyre
But while her brilliance in creation with ‘plain’ Jane Eyre might set a perception, she may have been less like her lead than believed.
Historical research, proving the provenance of a rather fashion-forward dress she wore, suggests Charlotte Brontë may have been more of her time.
This never-before-shown gown is now to take centre stage under an exhibition in Defying Expectations, alongside some of her more brightly coloured and even exotic attire.
Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, said it shares a rare insight into the person she was.
Ms Dinsdale said: “Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of the best loved books in English literature.
“I think people have come to believe the author and protagonist are one and the same. And that, like Jane, Charlotte wore gowns in sepia shades, with plain lines.
“This exhibition sets out to change that and show that actually, Charlotte was interested in fashion and colour.”
The exhibition is co-curated with Dr Eleanor Houghton, an historical costume consultant, writer and illustrator, whose research has proven the provenance of this new dress.
And while she may not have been fully fashionable, the author’s surviving clothes do show that she followed some styles and trends.
Far from always being dressed in ‘drab, dark gowns’ like her heroine Jane Eyre, it highlights some of the more colourful and exotic accessories in Charlotte’s wardrobe.
One foldable parasol hat, described as an ‘ugly bonnet’, proves she was up to the minute with some trends, as seen in William Powell Frith’s 1851 painting of women lounging on Ramsgate Sands.
While the majority of the Brontë clothes were from mills close to home, the research shows, they were of the finest fabrics and dyes.
Brightly coloured shawls from India, meanwhile, and a wedding bonnet from France, show Charlotte was connected with the world.
Ms Dinsdale said: “There’s an idea that the Brontës were shut away from the world, in Haworth. But we know they did travel, we know they knew what was happening around them.
“Clearly that also concerned fashion.
“People do think that Charlotte always wore these plain, drab clothes. But she wasn’t years behind the times, she was very much a product of when she lived.
“The new dress was clearly one meant for her London visits, after the publication of Jane Eyre. She would have attended all kinds of glittery events like the opera.
“She needed a wardrobe for that new life she was leading.”
The exhibition, Defying Expectations, runs until the end of the year.
Ms Dinsdale said: “It’s really exciting, we can’t wait to share it. It’s such a lovely, visual and colourful exhibition. I think Charlotte Brontë is going to surprise people.”
Finishing touches were yesterday being put to Defying Expectations which opens on Wednesday at Haworth’s Brontë Parsonage Museum and runs until the end of the year.
One of the first published accounts by the modernist author Virginia Woolf was of a visit to Haworth in around 1904, and of a trip to the Brontë Museum as it was then on Main Street.
Ms Dinsdale said: “She was brought up short by the sight of Charlotte’s dress - because it made her realise that apart from being a great literary mind, she was a real woman.
“This is the first time such an exhibition has ever been held. These dresses do lose people. They remind visitors that as well as being writers, the Brontës were real women.”
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