From Anne Lister’s Closet: Top Hats or Bonnets?

When studying the history of lesbian fashion, someone who I come back to again and again is Anne Lister. This is because of the wealth of evidence that she left behind, not just of the clothes that she wore but how she felt about them, from the perspective of a woman who we know loved and desired women. Her diaries are treasure troves, the place where she explored her anxieties about clothing, her triumphs, the way her outfits were received. As such, this is the third post in the ‘From Anne Lister’s Closet’ series on Dressing Dykes – the first can be found here and the second here.  

The overwhelming image of Anne Lister’s style is that it was masculine. There are reasons for this, and the previous articles about Anne on this website cover her preference for wearing black (socially a masculine colour), as well as her incorporation of gentlemen’s accessories into her outfits. However, more traditionally feminine features do spring up in her wardrobe from time to time. This is less evident in the diaries themselves, with details like brighter colours or ribbons instead appearing in clothing inventories. We can consider a couple of reasons for this: for one, the more feminine aspects of Anne’s style may have been of little consequence to her. It’s possible that she included things like ribbons in her wardrobe because it was expected – expensive trims worked to signal her wealth and status, after all – but in this case it’s unlikely she would have felt strongly enough about them to describe them in her diaries. Another reason is that Anne’s relationship to fashion changed with age. The clothing inventories that I have access to (courtesy of Calderdale museums) date from 1840… the year of Anne’s death. By this point she was 49, she was a landowner and had a wife in Ann Walker. She was expressing herself just fine; a little bit of ribbon wouldn’t change who she was. 

Fig. 1: Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, copyright BBC/Lookout Point/HBO/Jay Brooks. Via the Evening Standard. 

Aside from brighter colours and a bit of ribbon, something that we might be loath to associate with Anne Lister (at least, if our prevailing image of her is Suranne Jones’ portrayal in Gentleman Jack) is a bonnet. Instead, the costuming in the TV show has led to the Anne Lister becoming almost synonymous with the silhouette of a smart top hat. The top hat appears as part of Anne’s ensembles consistently throughout Gentleman Jack, despite top hats never being written about specifically in her diaries or appearing in her clothing inventories. This is a choice that was made by the costumers to create a lesbian fashion shorthand in the show. Garments that may have been read as subversive by Anne’s contemporaries don’t necessarily have the same effect on the 21st century viewer – if Suranne Jones had been wearing a bonnet in, for example, the promotional image above, she wouldn’t have cut such a striking figure. This is confirmed in an interview with Gentleman Jack’s costume designer, Tom Pye, who explained:

My research into Anne Lister told me she wore a small black soft cap, probably created with velvet. I tried a few shapes along these lines, but it didn’t seem to be able to convey an understanding to a modern audience of the power or status that could be achieved with a top hat.1

Of course, just because she didn’t write about them doesn’t mean she didn’t wear them. I would argue that this is especially true in her youth, as her younger years were when the more masculine elements of her wardrobe seemed at their strongest. Perhaps this isn’t necessarily the case – Rebecca Jennings in A Lesbian History of Britain writes that “as she grew older, Lister increasingly adopted a masculine style”2 – but it remains true that the majority of references to garments like “gentlemen’s braces” appear in Anne’s earlier diaries, when she was in her 20s and early 30s. It’s likely, however, that she wore top hats for riding for most of her life, since they were a common feature of a woman’s riding habit throughout the 19th century. In this context, a top hat wouldn’t have been a strange occurrence and probably would have been expected. 

Fig. 2: Women’s Riding Ensemble. c. 1820. Habit: silk. Philadelphia Museum of Art, United States. Philadelphia Museum of Art Online Collection.

The kind of hats that Anne wore become most evident when she writes about how other people reacted to her attire. Maybe she wouldn’t have made a habit of wearing top hats, but that doesn’t mean that she stuck to the rules. For some reason (hint: lesbianism), Anne devoted the most time to describing others’ reactions to her clothing when beautiful women were involved. A fleeting romantic interest who appears in her early diaries, Miss Brown (later Mrs Kelly), is admiringly described in 1818: “Miss Brown, in a white gown & green velvet spencer, looked Kallista.”3 “Kallista” refers to Callisto, a lesbian nymph from Greek mythology. With this in mind, it’s interesting to consider how Anne describes the reception of her outfit (headwear included) when visiting the now-Mrs Kelly and her husband in 1824: 

My new hat & greatcoat on. An India handkerchief around my throat. My usual costume. I wonder what he thought of me. If it was good, she will tell me. He must have been struck one way or another.4 

Anne, describing her “new hat,” determines that Mr Kelly “must have been struck one way or another.” Without context, this quote appears to be looking for Mr Kelly’s approval of a fashionable outfit… but this is Anne Lister. While we may not know what this “new hat” was, and while it’s unlikely that it was a top hat, it remains possible that it was equally striking – not the newest feminine fashion of 1824, then. It’s my understanding that it was Mrs Kelly who Anne was trying to impress, and the goal with Mr Kelly was instead to assert her position, both socially and as a former companion of his wife. 

The idea that Anne was trying to impress Mrs Kelly becomes apparent in another diary entry from a few weeks later, on the 10th May 1824. After a walk with Mrs Kelly, Anne wrote in her diary that “We were talking of my dress. She said people thought I should look better in a bonnet. She contended I should not, & said my whole style of dress suited myself & my manners & was consistent & becoming to me.”5 Anne’s choice of headwear is central to her “whole style of dress”. It is not a bonnet, and it is not what is socially expected of her. It infers masculinity, and seems to cater to the sexual tension that there had been between Anne and Mrs Kelly when Mrs Kelly had been Miss Brown. The times when Anne pushes the boundaries of how masculine her dress can be are when she is at her most outwardly lesbian.

If Mrs Kelly said that “people thought [Anne] should look better in a bonnet” then it implies that Anne did not wear bonnets. Maybe this was the case in 1824 – as I mentioned earlier, these were the more masculine years of Anne’s wardrobe – but it was certainly not in 1840. In an inventory written by Anne in January 1840, she lists 6 different kinds of bonnet, as well as 4 different caps.6 No other hats are listed. Among the bonnets and caps, most are black or grey, but one is straw, and at least a couple are decorated with ribbons. I’ve included an example of a black silk bonnet from 1830 below, which may have been similar to those in Anne’s possession. 

Fig. 3: Bonnet, c. 1830. Black silk trimmed with satin ribbons. Given by Mrs George Atkinson and Mrs M. F. Davey. V&A online collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

To us, a bonnet like this is probably excessively feminine, far from our image of Anne Lister or Gentleman Jack. However, fashions change over time. Standards change over time. Anne did, undoubtedly, dress in a more masuline manner than usual for an upper class woman of the nineteenth century, and she was constantly conscious of this. She was aware of her differences, whether her sexuality or her expression of self through clothing. In her diaries, she writes about multiple instances where she is allegedly mistaken for a man – “The people generally remark, as I pass along,” she wrote in 1818, “how much I am like a man.”7 I have to assume that these “mistakes” are more likely to be reproaches at her less-than-ideal amount of femininity rather than true misunderstandings. After all, what man would wear a bonnet? But then, what lady would wear all black while not in mourning, or decorate her outfit with gentlemanly accessories? 

Anne’s fashion slipped through the cracks of masculine and feminine, crossing boundaries while still following certain dress codes. It is thanks to the writing that she left behind that we can examine these gender cracks and the lesbian bridges across them, and for her words I am immensely grateful. Sure, Anne Lister was far from the only lesbian out there breaking sartorial rules, but she was the one whose rule breaking we have extensive records of. Rather than praising her as a novelty or an icon, we should see her as a representation of a much larger movement, bubbling underneath the surface of respectable society. Who knows what thoughts went on in Victorian women’s heads underneath their bonnets?

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1: Tom Pye, ‘Q&A: Costuming Gentleman Jack,’ Willow and Thatch, 30th May 2019.

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

3: Anne Lister (27th June 1818), quoted in Helena Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, (London: Virago, [1988] 2010) 60.

4: Anne Lister (20th April 1824), quoted in Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 368.

5: Anne Lister(10th May 1824), quoted in Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 369.

6: Anne Lister, ‘General Inventory,’ January 1840. Copyright Calderdale Museums. 

7: Anne Lister (28th June 1818), quoted in Whitbread, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, 60.

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