“When I had brushed my hair very smooth, and put on my black frock – which, Quakerlike as it was, at least had the merit of fitting to a nicety – and adjusted my clean white tucker, I thought I should do respectably enough.”
So Jane Eyre prepares herself for her first day as governess at Thornfield.
Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel is full of detail about clothing and fashion, as are the author’s own letters, often discussing fabrics and gown-making, plus that most important of Victorian accessories, the bonnet. She once bought a bonnet she thought looked “grave and quiet” in the shop, but decided its bright pink lining was “infinitely too gay” once she got it home. We’ve all been there.
Charlotte might have created “a heroine as small and as plain as myself”, as she told her sisters, but she and Jane share a keen eye for stylish detail and a thorough understanding of the connotations of dressing. Sometimes, fashion tells you all you need to know about character and intention, and both Brontë and her heroine can be highly judgmental in this regard – the Victorian style police, perhaps.
Too keen an interest in pretty clothes, for example, suggests a trivial, shallow mind and wayward tendencies, probably inherited. Take poor little Adele, Mr Rochester’s ward and Jane’s pupil, plodding along in her studies but suddenly enraptured when she opens her cadeau of a “little pink silk frock”. “Coquetry runs in her blood, blends with her brains, and seasons the marrow of her bones,” comments Mr Rochester. (Grief, it’s only a dress.) Jane meanwhile admonishes: “You think too much of your ‘toilette’, Adele.”
Jane herself is modestly attired, grave and quiet indeed, although she appreciates a neat fit and has a bit of a thing for black silk. She has a fair few outfits throughout the novel, many described in detail, grey and black predominating. Advised by housekeeper Mrs Fairfax to change for her first formal meeting with Mr Rochester, she says: “I replaced my black stuff dress by one of black silk; the best and the only additional one I had… ‘You want a brooch,’ said Mrs Fairfax. I had a single little pearl ornament which Miss Temple gave me as a parting keepsake: I put it on, and then we went downstairs.”
Miss Temple, as Eyre devotees will know, was her beloved teacher at the loathed Lowood School, and Jane wears the brooch again for a reluctant appearance at the house party that Mr Rochester insists on throwing for assorted gentry.
Jane writes: “My best dress (the silver-grey one, purchased for Miss Temple’s wedding, and never worn since) was soon put on; my hair was soon smoothed; my sole ornament, the pearl brooch, soon assumed. We descended.”
That simple brooch may well be a lucky charm, as Jane, in Mr Rochester’s eye, outshines even Blanche Ingram, the local beauty who has him in her sights.
It is Blanche whom Charlotte Brontë styles most fashionably and elaborately. “She was dressed in pure white; an amber-coloured scarf was passed over her shoulder and across her breast,” describes a clearly impressed Mrs Fairfax. “She wore an amber-coloured flower, too, in her hair: it contrasted well with the jetty mass of her curls.”
Later, Blanche dresses up, like Mr Rochester, “in oriental fashion” as they play party games – a blatant attempt at alliance. Earlier Jane had tartly observed: “Genius is said to be self-conscious: I cannot tell whether Miss Ingram was a genius, but she was self-conscious.”
Blanche’s games are in vain and Mr Rochester chooses his Quakerlike Jane. The morning after his proposal, her clothing expresses her joy. “I took a plain but clean and light summer dress from my drawer and put it on: it seemed no attire had ever so well become me, because none had I ever worn in so blissful a mood.”
Once secured, Mr Rochester tries to doll up his bride-to-be in corrupting finery (pink again) but she is having none of it and opts for modest, simple elegance. Tellingly, on the morning of the never-to-be-solemnised marriage ceremony, she chooses not to wear a fancy veil he has selected for her.
Then, finally, we meet Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester, waiting in her attic lair, Jane describes, “like some strange wild animal: but it was covered in clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair”. Half a world away from the striking young woman Mr Rochester had met and married in Jamaica, where he was promised she was “the boast of Spanish town for her beauty: and this was no lie”, adding wshe was “a fine woman in the style of Blanche Ingram: tall, dark and majestic”.
As an excuse for being so readily seduced, he says: “They showed her to me in parties, splendidly dressed.” By the time he discovers that Bertha’s fine clothes and beauty disguise her madness, it is too late. He has been dazzled by fashion, a transient but powerful weapon that Charlotte Brontë understood very well indeed.
NEXT SPRING/SUMMER COLLECTIONS
The clothes and accessories are all from Next’s spring and summer ‘16 collections, and its wide and varied choice of contemporary classic workwear, daywear and evening wear made made styling the shoot surprisingly easy. Next is all about attention to detail, this summer, combining simple shapes and graceful lines with sophisticated tweaks, trims, embroidery and embellishments. Eveningwear features stunning lacework, ruffles, pleats and silky textures on fluid and elegant silhouettes. And the shoes, both flats and heels, are simple perfect.
All clothes and accessories from Next, www.next.co.uk.
Words and Styling: Stephanie Smith
Photography: James Hardisty
Models: Shea and Beth Easdown from Boss Model Management in Manchester
Hair/Make-up Artist: Terri Grisdale on www.terrigrisdale.com
YP Fashion Assistants: Katie Elsworth and Grace Heavey
Location: The Old School Room (www.hawortholdschoolroom.co.uk), The Bronte Parsonage Museum (www.bronte.org.uk) and the streets of Haworth