From Anne Lister’s Closet: the LBD (Lesbian Black Dress)

Anne Lister (1791-1840) is known to us, in the 21st century, as being the first modern lesbian. She is known as a diarist, an entrepreneur, a woman who “married” another woman and wrote all about it in code. Considerable works have analysed the writings that she left behind after her death, and since 1988 and the publication of Helena Whitbread’s research into Lister’s journals, much of this has centred around her lesbianism and her navigation of it within 19th century English society. Lister is, time and time again, referred to as “masculine” – and while her masculinity has been mined for historical meaning, the specific ways in which this masculinity was constructed have slipped to the sidelines. By this, I mean the specific items of clothing and the attitudes to them that Lister describes in her own words. 

There is debate about whether Anne Lister should be referred to as a lesbian, due to different language and conceptions of female same-sex relations during her lifetime. Jack Halberstam (publishing at the time under Judith) presented Lister in Female Masculinity (1998) as an example of a “female husband,” and asserted that “the presumption that [historical masculine women] simply represent early forms of lesbianism denies them their historical specificity and covers over the multiple differences between earlier forms of same-sex desire.”1 I have taken Halberstam’s reading into account, but I believe that lesbianism did have historical relevance in early 19th century Britain. At least, in relation to dress, specific garments or self-presentations may have allowed a lesbian woman at the time to eschew societal constraints even a small amount, while simultaneously stuck in an entirely hetero-normative (and indeed, hetero-necessary) culture.

In this post, I’ll be analysing Lister’s clothing through the descriptions of it that she left behind after her untimely death – in her hidden diaries, and often in code. The volume I draw from the most spans the period of 1816-24: Helena Whitbread’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010 edition). While there are other books that translate the diaries and tell Lister’s story, such as Jill Liddington’s Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority, most descriptions of her clothing are from when she was a younger woman. This is the period before that which is told in the TV series Gentleman Jack. Anne Lister’s worries about her clothing were at their peak before she became an heiress, and before she knew Ann Walker.

Lister always wore black, a trait which has been much-speculated. This post will analyse what this meant to Lister, and how it can be seen as part of her lesbian identity. I will be posting about other aspects of her dress in the future. 

“Went in black silk, the 1st time to an evening visit. I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.” – Anne Lister, 2nd September 1817.2

Through the 19th century male clothing transformed into being almost entirely made up of black or dark shades. It was a trend which began after the French revolution and the consequent neoclassical style of dress, which subdued the colour and pattern fashionable in the 18th century.3 This settled fully by the 1830s, where “one can see colour die [in men’s dress], garment by garment, in a very few years.”4 Female clothing, however, soon grew out of the sobriety of these years and colour was expected for upper-class women. Anne Lister’s adoption of an entirely black wardrobe has been discussed by many, but most of the time it is equated to masculinity. Rebecca Jennings, in A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500, explains that “As she grew older, Lister increasingly adopted a masculine style, dressing entirely in black and assuming ‘gentlemanly’ manners.”5 While this may be true, it is oversimplified. There are multiple reasons for Lister’s decision to wear black and, while the colour may be masculine in comparison to other, more brightly coloured female garments, the items that Lister describes as being black are feminine in fabric and form. On the 9th April 1823, Lister describes an outfit she wore: “My dyed satin made into a slip. A striped black gauze over it, prettily trimmed around the bottom. Blond around the top. I looked very well.”6 While her outfit is indeed black, it is still “prettily trimmed.” Trimmings were not a staple in Lister’s wardrobe but they definitely were not absent. It is a nod to the femininity that she, as an upper-class socialising woman, was expected to exude.

Figure 1: Dress. 1827-1829. Brocaded silk tobine, trimmed with silk satin, lined with glazed cotton. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. V&A online collections. 

Lister’s black clothing still stands out against the colourful femininity of her contemporaries. Fig. 1, above, shows a dress from a few years later (1827-29) which, although in a slightly different shape from what would have been fashionable in the early 1820s, can be seen as an example of colour in women’s clothing. The material is a yellow, green and red striped silk that was repurposed from a late 18th century garment. It is not just colourful – it is a rainbow of colour, and was in fact part of the ‘rainbow style’ popular in women’s clothing in the 1820s.7 While it is striped, it is a mile away from the “striped black gauze” Anne Lister describes herself wearing. It is closer, although 10 years later than, a description of a dress she gives to her sister Marian in 1819: “gave to my father, to take to Marian, a green & yellow shot Italian gauze evening gown […].”8 This is particularly significant in that Lister gives her colourful items of clothing away; they symbolise a fashionable femininity that does not belong to her.

Lister explains this separation from fashionability to a companion, Miss Hall, in 1821, when she wrote: “Said what a bad figure I had & explained a little my difficulty in dressing myself to look at all well. Told her that, for this reason, I always wore black.”9 This is one of a few occasions where Lister asserts that she wears black because she feels uncomfortable in her figure. A possible reading of this is that she was uncomfortable in the shapes and styles – and with it, colours – of feminine fashions. It is not a lack of care for the clothes she wears, as we can see with the “black silk” she wears in 1817, or the pretty trimmings on the outfit from 1823. She wears black, at least in part, because it is one of the few ways to assert a removal from the heterosexual gendered roles in clothing that were so prevalent in the 19th century. Anne Lister’s behaviours do not line up with the roles of her gender as laid out in feminine gendered colours. She, as a lesbian, is not sitting comfortably in the heterosexual wife-and-mother box (or outfit) laid out for her. This shunning of the symbolism of colour in 19th century gender-specific dress suggests a possibility of further lesbian sartorial transgression at the time.

It is important to note the associations of black clothing with mourning. There are commentators who believe that Lister’s motive for wearing black was to mourn the loss of her most passionate relationship with Mariana Lawton (née Belcome) after Mariana married. Danielle Orr, in her analysis of Lister’s black clothes, concedes that “in a literal sense […] within a heteronormative culture, Anne’s black clothes cannot signify her mourning, as they bear no emotional or marital relation to a man.” However, Anne Lister’s life was not heteronormative, and “This was, however, the first year after Marianna’s marriage, when Anne was attempting to deal with her grief.”10 Lister makes no allusion to this in her diaries, but being as intertwined with mourning as black clothing was, it is easy to accept as a possibility. Below (Fig. 2) is an image of an evening dress from 1823 worn by Jane Johnstone, a wealthy young woman, during a period of mourning. It shows that black could be fashionable, but only when it was necessary to be. Most examples of black dresses from this period are explicitly for the purpose of mourning. To claim this colour to mourn a non-heterosexual loss (even while the loss was not a death) was an action where Lister prioritised her lesbianism, and within it her lesbian relationships.

Figure 2: Dress. 1823-1825. Silk velvet, decorated with silk satin piping and appliqué. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. V&A online collections.

It is important that the clothing choices of Anne Lister- like this use of black – are explained as lesbian dress. They are a key to understanding lesbianism within the early 19th century. While they could be used as evidence for her own self-representation, it is more culturally valuable to discover what her dress can teach us about broader society. She is not an icon of lesbian liberation, but her diaries are evidence of a lesbian life. They suggest how much further these lives could have been spread. She is the first case study on this blog for a wider culture of lesbian dress history.

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1: Judith Halberstam (see also: Jack), Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 46.

2: Helena Whitbread (ed), The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (London: Virago, [1988] 2010), 24.

3: Dominique Grisard, ‘”Real Men Wear Pink”? A Gender History of Color,’ Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce and Consumer Culture, ed. Regina Lee Blaszczyk and Uwe Spiekermann (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) 80.

4: John Harvey, Men in Black (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), 23.

5:  Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500 (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007), 45.

6: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 267.

7: Lucy Johnston, Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail (London: V&A Publications, [2005] 2009), 50.

8: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 89.

9: Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 184.

10: Dannielle Orr, ‘I Tell Myself To Myself: homosexual agency in the journals of Anne Lister (1791-1840),’ Women’s Writing 11.2 (2004): 212.

4 thoughts on “From Anne Lister’s Closet: the LBD (Lesbian Black Dress)

  1. Great post! I haven’t watched Gentleman Jack but I’ve read a bit about Anne Lister and she sounded like a fascinating person.


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