Miss Havisham - the Perpetual Bride From Charles Dickens's Great Expectations

About: I live in a forest garden by the sea in an old Celtic longhouse in the Baie de Mont Saint Michel, France. Before I escaped and became a happy peasant, I had three jobs and one half day a week in which to be ...

I'm not a huge fan of Charles Dickens but I do find some of his characters, Miss Havisham, being one, incredibly well-crafted and interestingly in her case, more like the vibrant, three dimensional woman portrayed in the Gothic novels of the period.

I have a close interest in Miss Havisham because, as legend has it, she is said to have been based upon a real-life jilted bride, who lived a few miles from where I was born and grew up in Shropshire, a beautiful county in the middle of rural England.

In the 1830s a certain Elizabeth Parker, was rumoured to be about to marry a baronet, when he left her standing at the alter and married her older sister instead. Many stories surround Miss Parker's life, including that, like Miss Havisham, she maintained a curtained, untouched room in her house, complete with stopped clocks, a dining table set with a Wedding feast and an uneaten Bride Cake.

Despite her sad trials in early life, Elizabeth lived in comfort to the ripe old age of 82, surviving her whole family, including her brother-in-law and her sister, so as the saying goes 'revenge is a dish best served cold'.

Whatever the truth behind Miss Havisham, it's a great character study in loss and betrayal, revenge and reparation and a wonderful inspiration for a frock!

I'm also of an age to play Miss Havisham and what I'd like to achieve, is not only to make the costume but also to recreate the scene from the book where Pip meets Miss Havisham for the first time.

Supplies:

...and where to find them

I never throw fabrics away, when I make something I always keep all the remnants to use for other craft projects or dolls' dresses. I even have a blog based on using up all the stuff I have squirreled away over the years.

All my life, I've always loved and collected old fabrics and clothes and the way I have afforded to buy them at auctions house sales and markets is by choosing those that were damaged, so these are just perfect for this costume. However, even if you are not a fabric hoarder like me, I am certain you can find enough supplies to make this dress from remnants - ask friends and neighbours. Bridal dresses and fabric come up for sale pretty regularly and cheaply and some of the stuff I have is from Bridal shop sales, particularly lining materials, which are very cheap. I've also collected amazing pieces such as sari silks and embroideries, including those sold in the 'rag' markets when I lived in the UK, so if you have such wonderful shops near you then dive in an have a look at their treasures.

Also this time of year, check out thrift shops for festive ribbons and trims, I just picked up 16 yards of very pretty cream and ivory floral ribbon for 60 centimes!

So you will need:

One cream/ white or better still off-white dress or

A large old bed sheet, table cloth or curtain - or a combination of all three. This will give you a ready-aged, vintage look to the fabric.

A Wedding or evening dress pattern or suitable dress you can copy.

As many yards of cream/nude/beige/dusty pink etc shades of bridal fabric: tulle, lace, vintage trim and ribbon as you want to buy or beg

An old lace/net curtains

Dried flowers - the older and dustier the better

Remnants of white or cream fabric, lace, beads, sequins and trimming

Odd bits of broken jewellery

Slippers

White or cream evening gloves

Candles or LED Tea lights

A mirror

DUST

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Step 1: Inspiration

There are nothing like the words of a good author when describing one of his characters to make you see that personage rise up from the paper before you in flesh and blood:

"In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see.
She was dressed in rich materials - satins, and lace, and silks - all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on - the other was on the table near her hand - her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass. It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could........
So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then, of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust."

Not only do these words give you the character and costume but the also inform on the decor, lighting and setting too! What more could you ask? You can check out my blog if you want to see some images of how others have interpreted these words to create some really fabulous costumes for Miss Havisham:

I'm also inspired by my favourite pair of shoes, which are modern and pink but could have stepped straight out from the pages of Great Expectations. I bought them over 20 years ago in the last days of their Summer Sale from a chic department store 'Rackhams' in Birmingham, UK and have worn and loved them ever since.

Step 2: Designing the Basic Dress & Ideas on Embellishments

Any long dress pattern with a defined waistline will do or even a short one that you can lengthen. The great thing about this costume is that it must not be well-fitted, so if you want to scoop out the neckline or puff out the sleeves then it doesn't matter if your alterations make the fabric 'gape' because that is precisely the look you want. Remember Pip's description:

I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.

In the spirit of Miss Parker I've decided to go for the 1830's look and because the dates are pretty fluid and open to interpretation and you can choose to suit the look you want. For example; Great Expectations was first serialised in 1860 and published in book-form in 1861, however, when Pip meets Miss Havisham for the first time the date is very clearly defined in the novel as 1814. Nevertheless, the illustrations which were included in the various editions of the novel favour the champagne bottle necks, bateau necklines and butterfly-shaped bodices, so admired at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign. As a reference for this period I'm using my well-thumbed Fashion The Ultimate Book of Costume and Style, which is my go-to book for all authentic costume details and inspiration.

Although in the book everything Miss Havisham wears is white or rather 'faded and yellow'. I'm adding a few hints of pink and purple in the flowers because I believe that will create an important contrast with the rest of the materials, and make Miss Havisham all the more ethereal and ghostly!

The photos above include both modern, vintage and antique fabrics and accessories and it is your skill in choosing them and if necessary adding a little grime/dust, which can mean the whole design can be made of modern materials and for the trimmings, as per the words of the text; paper.

To age modern fabrics: I use tea, it works really well, just make yourself a brew, allow some to go cold and then dip the fabric into it, add water for larger pieces of fabric or to create different shades and use different blends to create a wider colour palette.

Lace and braid are really easy to cut from paper; cut long strips and then fold them over and over length-ways, in the manner of paper dolls and cut out a design. In fact this is the traditional way of making paper lace to decorate the shelves of kitchen dressers.

Ruched trimmings from crepe paper,or tissue paper: cut into lengths or buy ready cut crepe streamers, and then ruche by running a needle and thread through the length and gathering it up concertina like. I've actually done this on the sewing machine but you just need to be careful and make sure your machine needle is sharp!

Real flowers: Hydrangea and Lavender dried on the stalk make wonderful bridal flowers both for hair and for a bouquet. I've just been out and picked these but if you have a longer time then dry some roses and they'll make a brilliant Havisham Bride's Bouquet.

Step 3: Creating the Basic Dress

Start by making the basic dress. It can be really simple because the art of this costume is in the embellishments.

I also wanted the dress large enough so it could be pulled on over the head, so there was no need for zip fasteners or buttons.

The Bodice

I used my sheet to create the basic bodice by copying a dress top I liked and then modified the neckline, cutting out the bateau style. I simply turned over all the edges on the armholes and neckline and machine sewed it to create a smooth line to the top of the bodice. As I had didn't have enough curtain material to make the decorative bodice front, I used a silk handkerchief of the same shade of cream, which I believe is from a parachute (it is stamped with the name of a captain) and folded it in half diagonally to create my fashionable 1830's 'butterfly bodice.

The Skirt

I cut a rectangle from the curtain lining measuring as follows

in width: two times the total circumference of the bodice waist

and in length: the measurement from my waistline to the floor (plus a seam allowance of 2" in total)

I then pinned the skirt fabric into pleats and then pinned and machine-sewed it to the bodice.

The Over Skirt

I used the same measurement in curtain fabric to create an over skirt to the dress to give it more volume for that fuller 1830's look.

The Sleeves

I then cut two small rectangles measuring from the width of the curtain to create simple puffed sleeves. I machined stitched the bottom long side with a long running stitch so that I could gather it together to make the puffed look and for the top I made a hem wide enough to fit a piece of elastic to make the top puffed and to hold up on my arm. I didn't add them to the bodice at this stage, as I wanted to start to machine-sew some of the embellishments beforehand.

The Sash

I used a piece of lace for the sash. This was to pull in the waist and also emphasise that Miss Haversham had 'shrunk' over the years

Now for the fun part...

Step 4: Embellishing the Dress

Sort all your pieces of fabric, lace, remnants, embroidery and beads into piles and from them create pieces, which are the 'ghosts' of what you imagine the dress originally looked like.

You can really go to town with this design but if you have actual great pieces of old lace, flowers and ribbons, them just tack them in place as you will probably want to remove them after you have worn the costume. This is actually a very authentic way of wearing them as most people at that period pinned on valuable lace and ribbon embellishments, so as these could be reused on other dresses. They were also meant to be cleaned separately too to avoid colour run.

The Bodice

I have a long wide old piece of lace to attach to the top of my dress, which runs from the top of the bateau neckline. I firstly though rolled the top edge of the silk handkerchief I had just temporarily pinned to the bodice of the dress. I then added silk flowers from a trimming I had recuperated from a table decoration and tacked them along the top of the neckline I also added pearl beads, with some on longer pieces of cotton, as if they had come adrift over the years, as the cotton rotted!

I added more beads to the bodice too but only in certain places and again some of them I sewed in on a long piece of cotton to look as if they too had come adrift.

The Sleeves

I used pieces of cheap trim I had found in the thrift shop, firstly running a machine stitch through it and then ruching it and also a couple more of the silk flowers.

The Skirt

To the dress skirt I added some long lace flounces in such a way that it looked as if they were half hanging off the dress I also added some artificial flowers and pearls, again at random as if half of them had fallen off.

Step 5: The Headdress

I have been very lucky to have in my hoard a bridal tiara and as it was bought in a damaged state it is quite suitable. However in the past I have made tiaras for costumes out of old beads and wire (pictured above), so I've put the link for this at the end of the instructable, if you would like to make one.

I used some of my ivory tulle knotted into a circle to hold part of my hair up and also to support the tiara.

For the main veiling I used a piece of actual old lace veiling.

I'd also set aside some small artificial flowers recuperated from a hat and stuck them randomly and madly in my hiar.

Step 6: Make Up and Hair

My make up is all organic I'm using a white foundation, which is just organic arrowroot flour dabbed on with a cotton wool ball.

I just brushed up my hair to give a great it more volume.

Step 7: Creating the Scene From the Book

I gathered together as much suitable and evocative of a bridal day bric-a-brac, lace, gloves, bits of jewellery, boxes and tissue paper as possible and piled them up on my dressing table, along with an old mirror, some old books and two very dusty candle sticks.

I also added a touch of pathos in a pair of old 19th century cut steel shoe buckles, which I thought made a suitable bride's gift to the groom

I brought in an old broken arm chair and I tacked up a very old and worn but quite beautiful ribbon embroidered door way hanging.

I put on all my dusty finery, including the bridal stockings and the one shoe off and one shoe on as described in the text then set up the lighting for the photos.

This whole project was a lot of fun. I'm not sure I'm shrunken enough yet to play a really good Miss Havisham but I've probably achieved the correct level of eccentricity - in particular in the hair department!

Link to make a tiara

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    4 Discussions

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    Alex in NZ

    13 days ago

    I feel that Miss Haversham is one of the scariest characters in Dickens, and you've done an amazing job of capturing her. Thank you for sharing all your work :-)

    3 replies
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    PavlovafowlAlex in NZ

    Reply 13 days ago

    Hi there Alex and thank you so much for your lovely comments, they are appreciated! You are so right, she's up there with Wilkie Collins' Count Fosco, both brilliantly scary creations and the inspiration for a whole host of characters in books, on the stage and screen. All the very best from Normandie, Sue

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    Alex in NZPavlovafowl

    Reply 13 days ago

    I think that Uriah Heep from David Copperfield is about the scariest character in literature. There was a BBC adaptation with Nicholas Lyndhurst in the role which gave me nightmares. (Amazingly, I can't find any clips of it on YouTube.

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    PavlovafowlAlex in NZ

    Reply 11 days ago

    On Youtube there is just one 40 second clip and he actually doesn't have any lines in it but you do see him! The IMDb trailer does have him in it but it is the German version! Here it is any way - hope it doesn't bring back any nightmares: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167872/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1 It is the mark of good writing and good acting when a character can engender fear without any special effects or gore or the usual bag-of-tricks horror genre. All the very best, Sue