Hats & Cloaks

Did the Bronte sisters ever wear hats?

Do the hats in the photo date to the 1840s?

Why are the cloaks different?

 Straw hats in Britain in the 1840s

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.

Advert from the Leeds Mercury, June, 1840.

Very little dateable visual evidence has been found for ladies hats in Britain in the 1840s; they rarely feature in fashion engravings or dateable portrait paintings and photographs. Of the images found, the majority depict a low-crown, wide-brimmed variety of straw hat. A high-crown, wide-brimmed hat can though be seen in photographs taken by Hill & Adamson between 1843 and 1848. In Winterhalter's portrait of Queen Victoria and her daughters in 1849, they have straw cloche hats.

Mary McCandlish by David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson; calotype, 1843-1848.

Queen Victoria and her daughters by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1849.

 The hats in the photo


The straw hats seen in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo' are familiar to many historians because they are similar to those seen in British photographs and fashion engravings c1855-65, but when closely compared they are not quite the same. Some of the earliest pictures of the British hats can be seen in Roger Fenton's photographs (above & below) of the Royal princesses, taken in 1856, in the garden at Osborne House.

These hats are larger, the brim is wider, the curve at the front is quite shallow and the side sweeps upwards at a less acute angle.

Above: The hats in photographs from 1856.

Below: The hat in the 'Bronte Sisters Photo.'


Belgium, 1842.

Charlotte and Emily spent most of 1842 at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Belgium and it is possible that both bonnets or hats were worn there. In Charlotte's novel Villette, based on her experiences in Brussels, straw hats are mentioned:

"...“la robe grise, le chapeau de paille,” here surely was a clue — a very confusing one. The straw hat was an ordinary garden headscreen, common to a score besides myself...."

Straw hats can also be seen in some 1840s Belgian portraits of girls and young women.

Louise Heger (1839-1933), daughter of Constantin Heger of the Pensionnat in Brussels, Belgium. Detail from a family portrait, 1846. View the full portrait here (external website).

Princess Charlotte of Belgium. Detail from a portrait, 1848. View the full portrait here (external website).

Mention of headgear in Bronte sources

 Formal & Informal

Charlotte clearly distinguished between the informality associated with hats, and the more formal bonnets. Writing in 1848 to her friend, Ellen Nussey, she complained about Mary Taylor's "devil-may-care tone" which she did "not like when it proceeds from under a hat, and still less from under a bonnet." 4.

Emily's head-dress 

In 1894, J Horsfall Turner, Honorary Secretary of the newly formed Bronte Society, travelled to Ireland to visit Charlotte's widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Whilst there he asked Nicholls for his views on a recently published alleged portrait of Emily Bronte wearing a straw gypsy bonnet. His response was that: "it might be genuine, but that it did not accord ... to the head-dress ... with my recollection of her." 5.

Arthur Bell Nicholls' recollection would only date from his appointment as curate in May 1845 until Emily's death in December 1848. It isn't clear whether he meant that Emily didn't wear this style of bonnet, or that she didn't wear straw bonnets at all in the 1840s.

Light-coloured hats.

The Cornhill Magazine was published by the Bronte's publisher Smith, Elder & Co., and in 1910 an article entitled 'Old Haworth Folk Who knew the Brontës' appeared:

"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." 6.

Buying bonnets in York.

After Emily's death, Anne fell ill and in 1849 travelled with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey to Scarborough, staying one night at York. Whilst in the city bonnets were purchased at a cost of £2 14s 6d.

German Straw Hats


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 very similar in style to the one in the photograph and one is exactly the same.

LEFT: An illustration of a straw hat in Allgemeine Moden-Zeitung2. dated 1840. 
IGHT: 'Emily' in the photograph wearing a hat of a similar style.

In 1840s Europe, this style of hat was unique to Germany and although the Bronte sisters never visited the country one of their friends did.

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) until December 1844 before returning to England and staying with the sisters for a week or more at Haworth Parsonage. It is possible that the hats were a gift from Mary to the Bronte sisters. 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."

In Charlotte's novel 'Shirley' (1849) the character 'Rose Yorke' is based on Mary Taylor.

Below: Mary Taylor (left) with companions, climbing in Switzerland, 1875; all have straw hats.


The Cloaks

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

If this is a photo of the Bronte sisters then it was probably taken by a photographer in York in 1844-5. Charlotte and Emily were living in Haworth, over fifty miles away, but Anne was at Thorp Green Hall, not far from York, until June 1845. The travelling cloaks could be related to Charlotte and Emily's voyage to Belgium in February 1842; Anne remained in Yorkshire, working for the Robinson family.

Did the Bronte Sisters ever wear hats?

Is it possible that the hats in the photo could date to the 1840s?

Why are the cloaks different? 

Did the Bronte Sisters ever wear hats?

There are many scenes in Charlotte's novels, based on her experiences, where ladies bonnets and straw hats are mentioned. Arthur Nicholls stated that in the late 1840s Emily wore some form of headgear; he seems to imply that it wasn't a straw bonnet, but we can't be certain. If the remarks in the Cornhill article are correct then the sisters had light-coloured hats. Charlotte's account book notes the purchase of bonnets whilst visiting York with Anne and Ellen Nussey in 1849. It is probable that the sisters owned both bonnets and hats in the 1840s.

Is it possible that the hats in the photo could date to the 1840s?

The hats look odd for the 1840s because they look "too modern" but it could be because they are "too German." The British hats from about 1860 are similar but a slightly different style; there may though be variations which we have not yet found.

In the 1840s this style of hat was unique to Germany. Charlotte's close friend Mary Taylor returned from Germany in December 1844 and stayed with the sisters at Haworth Parsonage.

Without taking into account the hats, the estimated date for the photo (if these are the Bronte sisters) is between September 1844 and June 1845.

Why are the cloaks different?

The difference in the cloaks is probably 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 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 Online HERE 

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

3. http://spartacus-educational.com/WpankhurstE.htm

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

5. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Wednesday 12 September 1894 - The full quote from the newspaper is: "Of the portrait of Emily Bronte in the July number of the Woman at Home he observed that it might be genuine, but that it did not accord, either as to the head-dress or as to the features, with his recollection of her."

6. 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)

7. Barker, The Brontes, p.761

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 Hat-related links

A dissertation: "The Significance of Headwear in the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell" (University of Chester website) http://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/19482787.pdf 

Is it a hat? or maybe it’s a bonnet . . . ? (an American website)