Clothing is now, and most certainly was in Anne Lister’s time, an important manifestation of identity. However, in Anne’s time there was much less tolerance for diversity and divergence from social norms, making her determination to dress in a way that pleased her, but marked her out as different, even more brave and impressive. Bravo Anne! There are lots of clothing terms in Anne’s diaries that I had to look up (pelisse, spencer and habit, being just a few). In this post, after some general thoughts about Anne Lister’s clothes, I want to provide some definitions.
If you want to skip straight to the definitions, rather than reading my musings then feel free to scroll on down to the images.
We know Anne Lister was made fun of for looking like a man. She was flat-chested and had a masculine figure. Even her lover Marianna Belcome tells her that she wishes she [Anne] had a more feminine figure and manner and is embarrassed to be seen with her. Speeches like this from Marianna in the latter part of 1823 seem to have broken Anne’s trust in Marianna and the relationship was irreparably tarnished. After reading this painful part of Anne’s diary I was delighted to read that Anne’s lover in Paris in late-1824 and early-1825, Maria Barlow, ‘[admired her] figure, its masculine beauty, saying [she, Anne] was very well made,’ (24 January 1825).
Despite putting on a brave face and striving to appear unaffected by criticism about her appearance, Anne was (in her early life at least) hurt by this. On 28 June 1818 she wrote:
The people generally remark, as I pass along, how much I am like a man. I think they did it more this evening. At the top of Cunnery Lane, as I went, three men said, as usual, ‘That’s a man’ & once axed ‘Does your cock stand?’ I know not how it is but I feel low this evening.
She is agonised and sheds tears about Marianna’s hurtful comments and on 16 September 1823 writes:
I seem to have no proper dress. The people [in Scarborough] stare at me. My figure is striking. I am tired of being here. Even if I looked like other people I should soon be weary of sauntering on the sands.
Nonetheless, in defiance of such hurtful comments, Anne chooses to dress in a style that pleases her, rather than conforming to what others expect of her. She writes on 1 June 1817 ‘I have almost made up my mind always to wear black,’ and then on 2 September of that year, ‘I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.’ It was very unusual for women in Anne Lister’s time to wear black (apart from when in mourning), it was more usual for them to wear white. Later, on 5 June 1823 Anne records that she wore a greatcoat to go riding, rather than a riding habit and from then on she regularly wears one. She wears ‘strong shoes’ and boots rather than slippers.
Anne very often writes about her clothing, particularly mending it, in crypthand. Helena Whitbread concludes that Anne’s secretiveness about this subject was due to the fact that she was often criticised for her dress – for the fact that it was somewhat timeworn and unfashionable as well as being unconventional. In addition, it seems to make sense that because Anne was not comfortable with her identity as a (feminine) woman (for example she complains of Maria Barlow ‘womanizing’ her too much [ie treating her too much like a woman] on 19 March 1815) she would be uncomfortable discussing the necessary mending of her feminine undergarments such as stays and stockings. Anna Clark’s article, ‘Anne Lister’s Construction of Lesbian Identity,’ (Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 7. No. 1 (Jul. 1996) pp. 23-50) has some very interesting things to say about Anne’s petticoats (symbolic of her femininity) preventing her from having those things that, at her time, were the preserve of men – money, power, the ability to marry and protect a woman, and so on. I very much recommend this article.
Women in Anne Lister’s time wore a lot of (inconvenient) underwear. First of all there was a shift or chemise made of plain white cotton and with short tight sleeves, that was supposed to shield the outside clothes from sweat and was consequently washed more frequently. On top of that were stays or corsets (there’s a reference in Anne’s journal somewhere about her padding or stuffing her stays to disguise her flat chest, but I currently can’t locate where it is). On top of the stays were a sleeveless petticoat or waist. The lower edge of the petticoat was intended to be seen peeking out of the bottom of the outer dress so it was usually decorated with lace, ruffles, etc.
Drawers (short-legged underpants tied around the waist) were not worn by all women at this time, but we know Anne wore them (and delighted at getting them off when she was in bed with someone – see Anne’s diary entry for 27 February 1834 which starts ‘No drawers on last night – first time and first attempt to get really near her [Ann Walker]…’).
Stockings or legs were made of silk or knitted cotton and were held up by below-the-knee garters. Anne’s diary entry for 19 July 1821 tells us she experimented with attaching her stockings and garters to her stays with loops (I assume as a practical measure to stop them falling down), but she did not like the feel of them. Suspenders were not introduced until the late 1800s
The ‘empire silhouette’ was popular in Anne Lister’s time, with gowns having a fitted bodice and high waist. It was fashionable to wear a fitted coat of some kind over the top (for example a spencer or pelisse) along with cloaks or mantles.
Pelisse was originally a term for a short tight-fitting military coat originating in Hungary in the 17th century. In the early 19th century women’s and men’s fashion was inspired by military clothing. Pelisses were long fitted coats with an empire line waist (fitted under the breasts), worn over dresses and initially at least retaining military-style frog fastenings and braid trim. I like to imagine Anne Lister wearing a military-looking pelisse, and that’s often how she’s portrayed in the BBC TV drama Gentleman Jack (*swoon*).
A spencer is a short (at or above waist level, or empire line) fitted jacket, worn over a dress. This garment was named after the 2nd Earl Spencer who is said to have had his tail-coat altered after the tails got burned in a fire(!). Spencers became semi-formal dress coats for British army officers, and the women’s garment was based on these. Anne’s diaries don’t often mention her wearing a spencer, certainly not after her mid-20s; I wonder if she considered this garment too feminine.
Riding habits were first introduced in the 17th century as an outfit for women to wear when they were horse riding and were tailored in a masculine style, based on men’s equestrian wear. A riding habit in Anne Lister’s time was still a masculine-looking garment, often with military-style frog fastenings and braid trim. The habit consisted of a short fitted jacket (a bit like a spencer) worn over a habit shirt, with a long full skirt that ensured the legs were modestly covered whilst riding. The jacket and skirt were made of strong hardwearing fabrics. The habit shirt was based on the style of men’s shirts with high-standing collars and ruffled fronts. The collar was sometimes ruffled (as we see Anne Lister wearing in the two portraits that exist of her as an adult). Sometimes a cravat was tied around the collar. Anne writes on 29 September 1821 that Miss Hall encouraged her to ‘shew myself in one of Mrs Milne’s frills stuck on over my cravat for she told me I should look better with one.’
At age 15 Anne wore a habit skirt to the theatre and was ‘much stared at and well quizzed as an original,’ (23 November 1806). When she meets Sarah Ponsonby, one of the Ladies of Llangollen she notes that she [Miss Ponsonby] is wearing ‘a blue, shortish-waisted cloth habit, the jacket unbuttoned shewing a plain plaited frilled habit shirt…’ (23 July 1822). The Ladies of Llangollen (Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby) were upper-class Irish women who fled Ireland rather than being forced into unwanted marriages by their families and set up home together in North Wales. There was speculation that they were in a sexual relationship, but there is no evidence to confirm this. They were known in their later lives for wearing riding habits and top hats. Both Anne, and Marianna Belcome to a lesser extent, seem to have much admired the Ladies of Llangollen.
The depiction of Anne Lister in the BBC’s Gentleman Jack shows Anne (portrayed by the luscious, dreamy-eyed Suranne Jones) looking very dapper in a top hat. I’ve not (yet) seen any reference in her diaries to her wearing a top hat. We do know she disliked bonnets because they restricted her view. When she wears someone else’s bonnet when in London (en route to Paris, on 1 October 1822) she acknowledges that she ‘looked very decent in it, but so unlike myself Mrs Webb almost smiled.’
A greatcoat is a large, thick wool overcoat with a collar and cuffs that can be turned up to protect the face and hands from the weather, and a short cape to repel the rain. Greatcoats were very practical garments for keeping warm and dry in cold wet weather. In Anne Lister’s time they were generally a garment for men, but at the age of 22 ever-practical Anne decides to start wearing a greatcoat for riding instead of a riding habit, and from then on regularly wore one. ‘Drove off in good style at a quick trot… My new hat & greatcoat on. An India handkerchief around my throat. My usual costume…’ (Anne’s diary entry for 20 April 1824).
This one is just in here for titillation. Anne records that she borrows Isabella Norcliffes’s beaver on 2 February 1822. It’s a hat! Made of felted beaver fur.
Women at this time usually wore thin flat slippers made from leather, silk or velvet. Metal pattens (over-shoes) were strapped on these to protect them when walking outside. However, Anne’s diary refers to her wearing boots and strong shoes. I assume she found these more practical for all her walking and outdoor work. On 24 August 1818 she describes how she tacks cotton socks to her black silk legs (stockings) to wear under her boots, I assume again for practicality and comfort.
Quotations from Anne Lister’s diaries in this article are taken from Helena Whitbread’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love and Jill Liddington’s Female Fortune: Land Gender and Authority. Many thanks to Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington for making Anne’s diaries so accessible.