Hats & Cloaks

Advert from the Leeds Mercury, June, 1840.

In 1840s England hats were considered to be informal headgear worn at the seaside, in the garden and in the country; on most other occasions bonnets were worn.1. The straw hats seen in the photo are similar to those seen in British photographs and fashion engravings c1860-65 but in the 1840s this style of hat was unique to Germany. Although the Bronte sisters never visited the country, one of Charlotte's closest friends spent two years there.


Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor was an early feminist, keen traveller and lifelong friend of Charlotte Bronte. She was teaching in Hagen, Germany (unusually for the time, at a boys' school). Charlotte was invited to join her there but she declined the offer. In 1844 Mary returned to England and stayed at Haworth Parsonage in December of that year. If the hats are German then it is probable that they were a gift from Mary; she had brought back an expensive gift for Charlotte in the past.

ABOVE LEFT: An illustration of a straw hat in Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung dated 1840. 2. 
ABOVE RIGHT: 'Emily' in the photograph wearing a hat of a similar style.

Mary emigrated to New Zealand in March 1845 but continued to correspond with her friends. In September 1845, Charlotte wrote to her other close friend, Ellen Nussey:

"I have just read Mary's letters; they are very interesting and show the vigorous and original cast of her mind. There is but one thing I could wish otherwise in them, that is a certain tendency to flightiness--it is not safe, it is not wise, and will be misconstrued. Perhaps flightiness is not the right word, but it is a devil-may-care tone; which I do not like when it proceeds from under a hat, and still less from under a bonnet."

Charlotte clearly distinguished between the informality associated with hats, and the more formal bonnets. In Charlotte's novel 'Shirley' (1849) the character 'Rose Yorke' is based on Mary Taylor.

Mary Taylor - Frau Mutter

Some twenty years after Charlotte's death, Mary Taylor, along with four younger ladies, published a travel memoir "Swiss Notes by Five Ladies." The introduction contains a brief description of "Frau Mutter" (Mary Taylor). A third of it is devoted to her hat:

"The description would be incomplete without mentioning her hat; a disc of course straw, about the size and shape of a cart-wheel; ornamented with limp white muslin, and tied with scarlet braid, which she guards with jealous care; and when not wearing, in the orthodox manner, carries on her arm, and cannot be induced to part with."

ABOVE: Mary Taylor (left) with straw hat and companions, climbing in Switzerland, 1874.


Light-coloured hats.

The sisters would have worn bonnets in the 1840s but there is mention of them wearing hats:

"Eh, dear, when I think about them I can see them as plain to my mind's eye as if they were here. They wore light-coloured dresses all print, and they were all dressed alike until they gate into young women. I don't know that I ever saw them in owt but print. I've heard it said they were pinched [short of money] but it was nice print: plain with long sleeves and high neck and tippets down to the waist. The tippets were marrow to their dresses and they'd light-coloured hats on. They looked grand.

If my memory serves me correctly, I believe the Miss Brontes' dresses have been criticised by others as being somewhat quaint and prim and old-fashioned and indeed anything but 'grand,' but then these critics had not lived in Haworth all their lives and brought up a family on twelve shillings a week hard-earned in a mill as had my old lady." 4.


The Cloaks

The three ladies in the photo are wearing hooded cloaks. 'Charlotte' and 'Emily' have thick fleece travelling cloaks with sleeves but 'Anne' is wearing a cloak made of a thinner fabric.

It has been suggested that this may be because Charlotte and Emily travelled to Belgium in February 1842 whilst Anne remained in Yorkshire, working for the Robinson family. Others consider that the difference in the cloaks could be because two ladies have travelled a long distance but the third has not. If the photo was taken in York then this could explain why. In the first few months of 1845 Charlotte & Emily were living in Haworth and a journey to York would take several hours; Anne was working at the Robinson's Thorp Green Hall, just twelve miles from York.

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1. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, vol.1.

There is also evidence that ‘country ladies’ in this period did wear straw hats in public but this was not accepted in the city. Jane Welsh Carlyle, who moved from Scotland to London, wrote to her sister in 1840: "I am not allowed to wear straw hats here; the Cockney “force of public opinion,” gazing at one with astonishment on the streets, renders it more advisable to submit patiently to the absurdest monster of a felt. I tried the straw four years ago (a hat of her plaiting, which I used to wear in Edinburgh); but found it would not do."The Carlyle Letters OnlineHERE

2. Copies of Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung from 1837-1867 can be viewed online on this German website. Unfortunately in many of the editions the fashion engravings have been removed but some remain, often towards the end of the bound volumes.

Example of an illustration published in Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung, a German fashion and cultural magazine, 1845. In the 1840s, each edition included one fashion plate and bound copies of the journal exist, but often these coloured plates are missing. Books containing all plates for the years 1843 & 1844 have not yet been found but the examples above and the one below give some idea of ladies' hat styles in Germany between 1840 & 1845.

In British fashion publications of the 1840s illustrations of ladies headwear almost exclusively depict bonnets. Straw hats did exist but they were perhaps considered too informal or bucolic to appear in a journal of fashion. In the equivalent German publications of the early 1840s bonnets predominate, but amongst them is a scattering of hats. Several are similar in style to the one in the photograph and one is exactly the same.

3. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: 1829-1847., p.425.

4. An 87-year-old lady, ex-resident of Haworth, reminiscing in an article by C. Holmes Cautley, ‘Old Haworth Folk Who knew the Brontës’. The Cornhill Magazine, New Series Vol. XXIX. July to December 1910. Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London. (to read or download the free PDF version CLICK HERE)

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