Cathy Earnshaws and Elizabeth Bennets generally don’t have that much in common. One, the headstrong heroine of Wuthering Heights, is reckless and passionate, in touch with her inner wildness, beautiful but cruel. If, during your girlish literary daydreams, you imagine yourself running across a misty moor, your unkempt hair flying behind you, you might be a Cathy.
The other, the “prejudice” in Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, is independent and a bit mischievous, but always held together. If your dearest fantasy involves dancing decorously in a beautiful ballroom while you swap witty remarks with a wealthy, handsome stranger, you’re almost certainly an Elizabeth Bennet.
The two fictitious ladies really couldn’t be more different, but through April, you’ll find them both at the Charleston Museum — in spirit, at least.
Cathy, Elizabeth, and other literary heroines are the inspiration behind the museum’s latest fashion exhibit, Fashion in Fiction. It’s a classic-chick-lit-lover’s dream — a chance to see in person the clothing that one’s favorite characters, from Daisy in The Great Gatsby to Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes stories, might have worn. And like so many things (Bridget Jones’ Diary and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy just to name a couple), it seems we have Jane Austen to thank for it.
The museum’s textiles curator, Jan Hiester, has hosted several tours for the members of the local chapter of the Jane Austen Society, showing them gowns, accessories, and shoes that someone living in the early 1800s, the time period of Austen’s books, would have worn. “It was really pretty fun to see their reactions, and I thought well, there are other books that evoke images — that we visualize the people in, too,” Hiester says. “We thought it would be fun to do our fashion timeline based on the books we all enjoyed as kids and adults and in school. So we picked some from each decade, starting with Jane Austen of course and ending with The Great Gatsby and the 1920s.”
Hiester had no shortage of clothing to choose from. The museum began collecting textiles of all kinds in 1919 and was one of the first museums in the Southeast to do so. They took clothing from anyone who wanted to donate it until 1984, when the museum refocused on accepting artifacts from Charleston families only. Nevertheless, Hiester says, the majority of the museum’s vast collections are of local origin.
And judging from the gowns displayed in Fashion in Fiction, Charleston has always been a fashionable city.
Beginning with the Jane Austen period, the exhibit displays several dresses, accessories, and household items that Emma Woodhouse or the Dashwood sisters might have used. There’s one that’s especially dainty — a beautiful Empire-waisted sprigged muslin dress that is the stuff of Austenites’ dreams. That’s not to mention that readers familiar with the books will appreciate seeing what sprigged muslin, and later in the exhibit, cotton lawn, silk faille, crepe, and other fabrics that make appearances in literature actually look like.
From there the exhibit moves through the 1830s and ’40s, with clothing inspired by the works of the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens. Then there’s the 1850s and ’60s, which feature the hoop skirts that the girls of Little Women and Scarlett in Gone with the Wind would have worn. Anne of Green Gables and The Age of Innocence also make appearances.
The only time period that Hiester had some trouble finding a book for was the early 1900s, but that was a short-lived problem. “We came up with Mary Poppins, and we found a wonderful outfit for Mary,” she says. Hiester put together a long black skirt, white blouse, and high-button boots, all quite appropriate for the magical, no-nonsense nanny. “The label on the inside of the blouse — I must get the exact brand name, Royal something or other — but it said ‘Perfect in every detail.’ So we thought that one had to be in there,” Hiester says.
Hiester, who oversees all the museum’s textile exhibits, came to the job somewhat by accident but it stuck — she’s been at the museum since 1978. She started working as a volunteer after trying out archaeology, which she says really wasn’t for her. When the textile curator position opened up, she applied and got the job. The Charleston Museum was moving locations at that time, so all the items in the museum were being packed up for storage. Part of Hiester’s work included unearthing and cataloging everything from that move, and it’s still an ongoing process 35 years later. “We’re still exploring the collections,” she says. “We’ve got everything unpacked and all that, but to really get down and do some research into the garments — plus we’re still collecting. Things still come in. That’s really wonderful.”
One of Hiester’s more recent donations came from the Medway Plantation, a historic home near Goose Creek that was sold to a Greek shipping tycoon in 2012. It was previously owned by the Legendre family, who donated a huge collection of designer clothing from the 1870s through the 1920s to the Charleston Museum several years ago. When the plantation was sold, Hiester says, “The caretaker was cleaning out and he found one more box of things and brought it to me. He opened it up and there was this folded piece of fabric, and I opened it up and it was a Fortuny evening coat with the label still in it! I about fell over. It was just fabulous.” For those of us without Hiester’s fashion knowledge, Fortuny was a Spanish designer from the early 1900s through the 1940s who was famous for his finely pleated evening gowns.
Even though Fashion in Fiction doesn’t close until April, Hiester’s already at work on the exhibit that will follow it, another fashion timeline with a flashback theme. “We’re starting with the 1970s, so I’ve gotten together all our 1970s fashions, which are pretty wild. Then we’re just going to go back through the decades. So there’ll be some Bill Blass and a little bit more contemporary designers.”
Working on the exhibit has helped spark her interest in more recent designers, Hiester says, as she’s generally more partial to historic fashions. “The more I read about them [more recent designers and fashions] and learn what they were saying about the various times — when we do fashion timelines, it’s really enlightening to see that they really related to people’s lives. In the 1970s, for instance, that was a really crazy time, it was hard and soft, and confusing, and I think the fashions are kind of confusing. Everything spoke to the events of the day.”
Despite its mundanity, clothing is yet another lens through which to look at history — and literature, too.