Beecham House (2019)

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Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Aubry, who has been creating costumes and historical clothing for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t obsessing over the 1790s, she works as a freelance editor and writer to keep her cats in comfort. You can see her work at afracturedfairytale.com and abennettediting.com.

 

The TV series Beecham House (2019) is set in 1795, in Delhi, the during the decline of the Mogul Empire in India. The British Raj is still over 60 years away, and the East India Company and France are vying with the Indian maharajas for power. In an interview with Bradford Zone, director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha commented:

“We decided to set it at the beginning of the British Empire because that period was very interesting to me. It was a time when India was literally up for grabs. … My idea was to set it in that world, but see it as my perspective as a British Asian. I have also made it from a female perspective and I think that’s where a lot of the nuance comes from.”

Whether or not the show is entirely successful at illustrating these nuances, and to what degree, is debatable, but I enjoyed watching a show explore a period of Indian and English history that isn’t often discussed. While most of the Indian main characters are in subservient roles by nature of the upstairs/downstairs plot structure, many others are shown in positions of power, even if they have to carefully guard that power from the encroaching British. In general, the show is all rather soapy and melodramatic, but I was entertained enough to watch all six episodes over the course of two days.

This won’t be an in-depth review of all the costumes, but rather an overview where I highlight things I particularly loved or found particularly jarring. I will try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything. Now, before we get to costumes, I must note that while I have had a fascination with the fashions and history of 1790s Europe for over a decade, I don’t know enough about 18th-century Indian clothing to comment on its historical accuracy in the show. So in this article, the bulk of my comments will necessarily be framed from the European perspective, and I will make an attempt with the rest as a regular viewer.

Overall, I think the show creates a beautiful, believable mid-1790s world. There are a few missteps and modernizations (don’t worry, we’ll get to those), and maybe I’m just excited to see my favorite period attempted on screen, but I was pleased at how close they got to the transitional silhouette in the women’s clothing especially. The costumes were designed by Joanna Eatwell, whose other credits include Wolf Hall (2015) and Taboo (2017-), so I shouldn’t be surprised that I enjoyed them so much. Actress Pallavi Sharda, who plays Chandrika, commented:

“Our costume team, headed by Joanna Eatwell, undertook research into what women of that era wore. They have created the costumes in keeping with the hues, textures and silhouettes of the time.”

The show opens with John Beecham, an Englishman with a mysterious past, arriving mysteriously at his new home. The show also opens with what is the most egregious crime against 1790s fashion in the whole show: John’s Crocodile Dundee hat. The shape is close but not quite right (too western with that center dip) and combined with the printed fabric band and overall adventurer look of his outfit, it reads too modern, making him look straight out of a 1980s movie. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the leather belt he wears. I know I haven’t seen anything like it in period imagery, but I guess it’s practical?

Beecham House (2019)

I’m not wrong, am I? This hat personally offends me and I cannot forgive it. Let’s move on before I get too worked-up.

This is what his hat should look like. Also, both Margaret and Violet wear similar hats to the one on the right throughout the series.

Costumes de Differents Pays, ‘Anglais et Anglaise’, 1797, LACMA

Costumes de Differents Pays, ‘Anglais et Anglaise’, 1797, LACMA

The rest of the men’s clothing, however, is pretty good. Offending hat aside, I really like the long duster John wears throughout the series. You see this type of buff overcoat in men’s fashion plates from the 1780s through the 1820s, the cut varying with the changing fashions, and it seems like a practical garment for his physical character. Also, just look at those collars and lapels! Rrrrrr! The mid to late-1790s is the heyday of exaggerated lapels and ridiculously large stand collars, and I was happy to see them well-represented on screen.

Beecham House (2019)

John wears this coat a lot. A LOT. Note the giant lapels, even bigger collar, and fashionable square cut of the jacket front.

Beecham House (2019)

General Castillion rocking the giant lapels. I have no clue how accurate this is in relation to actual French military uniforms of the period, but it looks plausible to me.

Beecham House (2019)

They did a great job subtly expressing the disparity in wealth and social station through the character’s clothing. Notice how Samuel’s jacket has a much more old-fashioned cut, and his waistcoats in the series look like linen or cotton, compared to John’s silk waistcoats.

Beecham House (2019)

John also often sports the fashionable double waistcoat look, which I love!

Unfortunately, there is a shocking lack of cravats and many an open shirt, but I will forgive them. Mostly. It’s a hot climate and many of the situations are informal. The only times it truly bothered me were in scenes where the character was dressed for a particularly important meeting or social visit with a fully buttoned jacket, waistcoat, and shirt, but no cravat. The whole look felt off without it, and far outside of the polite impression the character was attempting to make.

Beecham House (2019)

See? Just no.

Beecham House (2019)

Also, no.

Beecham House (2019)

When they do it right, it looks so good!

Beecham House (2019)

Also, an Englishman with a beard is so not historically accurate, but I will forgive them on this because beards are hot. Fight me.

As is usual with most modern productions, all the men seem to be wearing pantaloons instead of breeches. For riding and other sporty activities, they’re practical, sure. However, breeches were still part of fashionable dress at this time, so you would think you would see them represented on screen for formal events, at least, but no.

Beecham House (2019)

Now for the women’s costumes: So many lush colors and textures! So many dresses that I instantly recognized! I was positively giddy spotting things inspired by extant dresses throughout the series. Yes, I would have liked to have seen a petticoat or two more on Margaret, but still, well done! Again, I appreciated how successfully they delineated the various class distinctions in both the English and India societies through their clothing, as well as used the clothing to echo the character’s choices and movements within the plot. I particularly enjoyed the plot point where Henrietta and Violet refuse to adapt their dress to the climate, in contrast with the Beecham brothers who have become more acclimatized to living in India.

Beecham House (2019)

Each of the main female characters seems to have one or two styles (or patterns) of dresses made up in different fabrics, and the English dresses are accessorized with a nice variety of shawls, fichus, hats, belts, jewelry, etc. I also appreciated how they restyled different dresses with different accessories throughout the series, like one would for a real wardrobe. I would like to have seen more caps or other hair things worn during the day, but that’s just a quibble. Everything else is so well done, I won’t complain.

As the wealthiest English woman, Violet has the most fashionable dresses and the greatest variety. Her wardrobe is made up of bright silks, while Margaret, as a governess for a wealthy Indian family, favors more practical printed cottons and muted colors. Margaret also has touches showing how she has become more assimilated within the culture, like the various scarves she wears to cover her hair when visiting the palace.

Beecham House (2019)

I loved this printed gown Margaret wears throughout the series. It’s practical but still fashionable.

Beecham House (2019)

The back of her dresses have beautiful stacked center pleats that you see often in this period.

Beecham House (2019)
Beecham House (2019)

I’ve not seen giant pockets like this on dresses (though, I have seen them on aprons in period images), but they do add a practical element to her dress.

Beecham House (2019)

Even her most practical dresses are still pretty.

Margaret does get a few fancier dresses, like this gorgeous orange silk dress.

Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019)
1790s Germanischen Nationalmuseum

It’s very clearly inspired by this extant dress from the Germanischen Nationalmuseum.

Violet, however, is all silk, all the time.

Beecham House (2019)
Beecham House (2019)

She also has a great full silhouette, perfect for the mid-1790s.

Beecham House (2019)

This pink outfit was my particular favorite. I love the cross-over front style.

Beecham House (2019)

And this overdress with a pleated back is another extant-inspired dress.

1797–1799 Evening overdress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2198a, b

1797–1799 – Evening overdress, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2198a, b

Henrietta favors dark colors and black accessories, but she still has a fashionable, contemporary silhouette. I loathe the trope of automatically putting the older woman in fashions 30 years out of date regardless of if it makes sense for the character, and I was grateful they didn’t dress her as another Miss Havisham. While her dresses are dark, all the fabric has an interesting pattern or texture, like the other characters’ costumes, giving them depth on screen.

Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019)
Beecham House (2019)

You can clearly see that she’s wearing a separate spencer in this scene.

Henrietta’s dresses were very obviously inspired by this gown at the Met.

1795 Round gown, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.20a–e, g

1795 – Round gown, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.20a–e, g

Beecham House (2019)

I don’t love this fichu, but I do love the pattern on that fabric.

I also must give them credit for doing a nice job with the hair. For the most part the hair was up, styled, and had a good amount of volume. No bobby pin shortage here! I would have liked a less sharp center part on Margaret, but I love her loose curls hanging down as this was often seen in portraits and fashion plates of the mid-1790s. Her hairstyles also reflected her emotions in a particular scene, and I appreciated that touch.

Henrietta wears more formal, restrained style, which is fitting for her character, though I question who is fixing her buckles every day. Violet’s hair is a little too structured for my taste (it read more 1780s than 1790s), but that’s just me. You do see portraits of women with more structured styles well into the 1790s.

Like I mentioned at the start, I can’t comment on the Indian clothing with authority, but it sure is gorgeous! Everything is bright and colorful, with none of the recent tendency to ye olde griminess to be seen. In both the men and women’s clothing, there is a clear distinction between the various cultural styles of dress, as well as attention to what type of clothing would have been worn by people in different castes.

Chandrika is the highest ranking female in the Beecham house and wears the most brightly colored and heavily embellished outfits, with her attendants wearing similar colors in less elaborate styles.

Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019)
Beecham House (2019)

She also has the best, most elaborate jewelry.

But the baby’s nursemaid, Chanchal, wears more muted, soft colors until a pivotal point in her storyline.

Beecham House (2019) Beecham House (2019)
Beecham House (2019)

Later, she wears this brilliant orange outfit.

Beecham House (2019)

I really loved the detail on the costumes of all the more minor characters, too. These are just some of my favorites. There were so many other beautiful examples in the show!

Beecham House (2019)

As the uppermost servant in the house, Baadal wears this simple white outfit most of the time, but the subtle embroidery and flashes of green give it visual interest and show off the wealth of the household.

Beecham House (2019)

Begum Samru (left) was a fascinating historical figure. I wished we could have gotten more of her story in the show. The Empress (right) wore this red outfit several times, but as it was gorgeous, I didn’t mind.

Beecham House (2019)

Plotting with her son, Prince Sohrab.

Beecham House (2019)

Emperor Shah Alam looking suitably regal.

Beecham House (2019)

The Maharaja of Kalyan looking equally regal. He wasn’t in the series too much, but he looked amazing every time he showed up.

I’ll stop there, but if you are in the mood for something pretty and distracting this cold, grey winter, I highly recommend giving Beecham House a watch!

 

 

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15 Responses

  1. NuitsdeYoung

    I wonder if the beards may have been about fitting in more in India, where they were more common in this period? A sign that the European characters are adapting to Indian styles a little?

    Reply
    • Amanda J Shirk

      Does anyone have any idea what’s going on with Dakota Blue Richard’s bust? It looks to me like her boobs have been smashed flat into her stays? Something just looks wrong about it.

      Reply
  2. Shashwat

    As far as the actual kingdom of Kalyan is concerned,it was heavily influenced by the Marathas not Rajputs(the show doesn’t specify the geography well enough).I do think that the designs were too heavily influenced by paintings(often allegorical)because the extants appear much more conservative.Most cholis(extant)from the period had a flap to cover the belly(angia),or a separate kurti(with kanchli).By this time it was also common practice to tuck the end of dupatta under the left armpit not just thrown on arms.I don’t think royalty would have exposed the stomach.
    The hair is also slightly inaccurate,as hair was often oiled and pulled back tightly,never floofed(the jewellery would not sit right that way).The pasa jewellery seems to be replaced by mangatika;pasa for Muslim royalty was a must.The begums would not be seen with hair loose and uncovered-except in paintings,and even then they had a crown or a dupatta covering the torso.

    Reply
    • Addie

      Ooh it’s good to hear more about the Indian side of things. I’m not an expert at all, but your comments make lots of sense. Even as a casual viewer, the hair looks the most contemporary to me. Based on photos I’ve seen from 1860’s through 1900’s and illustrations of the Mughal empire in general (which was a long empire so fashions could change, and it was a large one so there could’ve been internal differences) it seems as though the pulled-back, oiled hair style would be the standard, as you said, where the more fluffy hair might be more popular with young ladies nowadays. As for begums wearing their hair down, I think they’re doing the odd “rich means hair down, poor means hair up” thing, which they’re not doing for the English women (did the English women steal the begums’ hairpins in their first act of colonial greed?) which is a big strange. Still very pretty, but not historical (though again, I’m no expert). I’m always just desperately grateful when any historical character has their hair up at all.
      I noticed that Chanchal’s orange dress does seem to have the belly-flap (angia) addition to the choli you mentioned, but it would be odd to only put it in for some characters. The older lady in red in the background of the first picture with Chanchal (the one holding the baby) also has a longer choli.
      I will say that the servant Baadal’s clothing looked very correct to me, silhouette wise (those pleats are my favorite part of Mughal men’s clothing). As servant clothes, they’re also more subdued than the lords and ladies’ clothing, but they are also elegant to show the status of the house he serves, and his high position in their service. What do you think?
      I think you could write a guest post about the fashion if you wanted to! It’d be cool to see what they got right, what they got wrong and where they may have been trying to make a point about a character (and whether that point makes sense).

      Reply
      • Shashwat

        British stealing hairpins would be hilarious!More entertaining than a bunch of people playing pass-the-baby.
        I think that the servant clothing was based on paintings by British agents,hence are more realistic while the royal attire was based on paintings commissioned by Indian kings and often had allegorical elements(very often they were role playing as Radha-Krishna).
        The red dress worn by the older lady in the background was my favourite as well.

        Reply
        • Addie

          That’s an interesting insight- lots of royal portraits have allegorical elements I think it’s easier to spot allegorical elements when you’re familiar with the source material, so if there’s a lady with her hair down in pseudo-fairy tale or Greek myth clothes (or with elements from those things), Western costume historians probably know not to take that literally, but costumers not familiar with Indian allegory might take stuff as literal that’s simply referring to an older story.
          Mughal kings taking on Krishna-and-Radha allegory is simultaneously surprising since they were Muslim and also not surprising at all because Krishna is just that ever-present of a character.
          Older lady in red is secretly investigating the great hairpin thieving spree of 1795.

          Reply
  3. Gail

    However, John Beecham going around in that huge coat all the time in the heat of the Indian sub-continent struck me as odd.
    Nice piece though … better than the show!

    Reply
    • Roxana

      When I first saw John Beecham in the opening I wondered what Walker, Texas Ranger was doing in early 19th c. India.

      Reply
  4. Lmaris

    I ceased to worry about how authentic the costumes were when, during the opening scene, the lead character dismounts from a late 20th century American western saddle. Nothing in the region or the period is remotely similar.

    Reply
  5. Susan Pola Staples

    Still need to see this bc I was unsure of the plot, but the costumes won me over at least to try it.

    Reply
  6. mmcquown

    The military mind is extremely unimaginative when it comes to uniforms. No officer would appear outside of the barracks without his shirt buttoned and covered with the regulation cravat, fichu, or whatever was decreed.

    Reply
  7. Elise

    I wanted to love it, but couldn’t get over the casual racism. The plot, characterization, various racist tropes…Even the Daily Mail called out the racism. When the Daily Mail can recognise racism, you know it’s a big problem.

    But man is it pretty….

    Reply

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