On Christmas Day, Netflix dropped the new series Bridgerton (2020), based on the Regency romance novel series by Julia Quinn. Produced by Shonda Rhimes, this six-part show is set in 1813 London during the high social scene when all the most prominent families are trying to find the best marriages for their eligible daughters. Since the previews were released, there’s been much consternation from the historical costuming crowd, and when the series itself became available, we were inundated with requests to review it, for good or ill.
Well, dear readers, we like it (and by we, that means, Trystan and Kendra; Sarah hasn’t gotten around to it yet)! So sit back and deal because this review is NOT going to be blasting the show into oblivion, sorrynotsorry.
Reasons why we like Bridgerton:
- It’s fun! It’s a frothy historical confection to watch, and that is balm to the soul when you’ve been quarantined in your house for 10 months without travel, events, or even seeing friends and family.
- A romance-novel soap-opera plot is not all that different from any other 19th-century story about women (because every gal needed a husband in the period). At least now, thanks to Netflix and Shondaland, we get sex too!
- Did we mention sex? Aww yeah!
- We’re sick of the same-old little white dresses in Regency flicks, so YAY for color! Still mostly on the “bad” girls, but not exclusively.
- Diverse casting because, hello, people of color did exist in 1810s England. Not as queen or a duke, but Jesus wouldn’t be blond and blue-eyed either yet that’s been going around for too long, so turnabout is fair play.
- It’s a new adaption, not just the same old Austen, Dickens, Bronte, et. al. They’re classics, they’re great, but we’ve had plenty of them on screen. It’s far past time to show some different historical fiction on TV and film, and there’s plenty to choose from.
Reasons why people have been bitching about Bridgerton:
- The costumes aren’t strictly historically accurate.
- Racism and gate-keeping (see this excellent video for more on this, but also, it’s not perfectly inclusive because, duh, what is — see this excellent video for more on that).
- Folks only want serious boring drama?
Now, of course, Frock Flicks’ raison d’etre is to look at what is and is not historically accurate in movie and TV costumes. But because we watch a metric fuckton of historical costume dramas around here, perhaps we have a better sense of scale than some folks. Just within the Regency England timeframe and just the past year, we can compare Bridgerton with Sanditon (2019) and see a vast improvement with the former in attention to detail, budget, and, yes, a sense of historical designs. The latter merely dialed it in, recycling some garments from previous productions, with barely more thought than ‘let’s make sure they’re wearing clothes.’ Did not help that the acting and plotlines of Sanditon were tedious. That’s just one example, but there are plenty others.
Before getting into the Bridgerton costumes, let’s remind ourselves that BBC-style Jane Austen TV productions are not the whole of 1800-1820s fashion. For one thing, Austen’s novels mostly take place in country houses, not London during the high social season, and many of Austen’s main characters are genteel but with questionable economic statuses. The Bennets have too many daughters, and their small estate is entailed to the smarmy Mr. Collins. The Dashwood sisters have been downsized to a dinky cottage by their half-brother and his wife. Fanny Price and Catherine Morland come from basically poor families, Anne Elliot’s family loses their money, and only Emma Woodhouse is rich of her own account (even then, she’s small-town rich, not London high-society rich).
Also, while the little white muslin dress was a popular fashion for this time period, it was not the only thing that was worn or that was fashionable. People wore bright or dark colors too. For example:
Brighter colors become a bit more common in the late 1810s and definitely in the 1820s. That’s also when gauzy layers come in on skirts and sleeves. But there are pops of elaborate decoration all through these decades, especially on evening gowns.
The costume designer for Bridgerton is Ellen Mirojnick and she’s done a ton of press about the show. In an interview with The Cut, she said:
“Our show is a fictionalized version of 1813 and the Regency era. I can’t emphasize fictionalized enough because that allowed me to really step out of the box and look at inspiration from many different areas. The single artist that was the inspiration for Bridgerton was an Irish painter named Genieve Figgis. I looked at her paintings and they just knocked me out.”
She also told Slate, when asked if she’s seen any of the fashion historian reactions to the Bridgerton costumes:
“No, but I’m sure they’re going to kill me. They could. We could get ripped from pillar to post. But you know, that’s what it is. If you’re able to go into a romantic love story as if you were reading it, are you going to be a historian? Or are you going to use your imagination? So, that’s the point of view that we basically take, that we’re not historians. And we’re telling a luscious story, and we’re hoping that you use your imagination as we tell it, and you get sucked in, and you love the story that you’re watching. The historians — and I would say it’s not only the costume historians, I would say my peers who are costume designers — are going to look at me and go, ‘What did you do now?'”
“But you know what? I serve the director and the creative vision. And that’s what’s most important to me. Being 100 percent historically correct was not on our agenda at all. I’m ready to get ripped over the coals if somebody wants to do it. But that’s what it is. You birth it, then you let it out in the air and somebody will either not like it or they’ll like it.”
Which is basically what we’ve said before — we know that historical accuracy is not the Number One goal of making movies and TV shows. And Mirojnick does know her history and how she’s deviating from it for this production. Something we’ve complained about frequently is TV shows and films messing with historical fashion with no apparent rhyme nor reason or just to make it “relatable.” The costumes in Bridgerton work within and help create a very specific version of Regency England — one that is, yes, more colorful (and that includes clothing and people) and has a more heightened sense of everything.
Even more, this production is an adaptation of a romance novel. Going frilly and frothy and colorful makes perfect sense when costuming a romance novel. As we’ve always said, go big or go home, and when you go off from historical, make sure that your tweaks make sense to the story. Making the costumes more sweet, more ridiculous, and more modern makes perfect sense for this subject matter.
In Vogue, Mirojnick said:
“I looked at the Regency period in London through drawings and paintings. We got a flavour of it and then it was about looking at the different silhouettes and shapes while knowing that this had to be aspirational, as opposed to historically accurate. We knew that we had to shift the colour palette and the fabrications, so from the 19th century, I immediately went to the 1950s and 1960s. The Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at [London’s] Victoria & Albert Museum provided a wealth of inspiration. We looked at Dior dresses, from the New Look  to present day.”
She also based her designs on a Regency foundation, according to an interview with Harper’s Bazaar :
“Although we have fictionalized the Regency period, 1813, there’s still there basic truth. Meaning the girls changed their clothes a lot. They wore a different dress to every ball, aside from the amount of dresses that would take place from morning ‘til dinner. So we knew just roughly that this was going to be a large, large endeavor. We have increased the amount of glitter, increased the amount of color, increased the over embellishing. We have done things that actually can relate a little bit more to today’s point of view.”
Let’s look at how this plays out. The series revolves around the wealthy and respectable Bridgerton family and the nouveau rich, social-climbing Featheringtons. Both have debutante daughters in search of husbands, and costumes highlight the differences between the families.
The Bridgertons are all dressed in subdued colors, with the ladies perennially in pastels — what one thinks of as “historically accurate” for 1810s. The men are in smart coats and waistcoats with cravats tied.
In contrast, the Featheringtons wear bright, bold colors, often in citrus tones, with lots of decorations. The mother, Portia, even remarks that these are the ‘family colors,’ and Mr. Featherington sometimes wears a feather-print brocade waistcoat.
Other key characters that influence the visual world of Bridgerton are Cressida Cowper and her mother Lady Cowper, who are also on the attention-grabbing side of things:
Lady Danbury’s style rides the line between the overwrought folks and the old-guard’s refined elegance — which suits her status as a now well-established gentlewoman but also a person of color newly raised up (which is discussed in one episode).
Then there’s Queen Charlotte, the only real historical figure in the series. There have been rumors of Queen Charlotte having biracial ancestry, which obviously influenced the casting. But her costumes in Bridgerton are more important here — she’s always dressed in gowns and wigs circa 1770s, as are her ladies in waiting. The costume designer claims that the queen stuck to this style of dress at court until her death in 1818. The English court was notoriously old-fashioned at the period, but there are also portraits, medals, and caricatures of Queen Charlotte from 1800-10s showing her in empire-waist gowns. So it’s a debatable historical point.
But for the TV show, it makes a grand statement of power and majesty, especially with a Black woman, to have the Queen in formal hooped gowns and towering wigs, dripping with jewels. She is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, and she will get her way!
The main derivations from historical fashions here are the use of so many colors at once, the modern fabrics choices, and the over-embellishment. The silhouettes and shapes are taken right from the 1810s (or 1770s for the Queen and her court) — except for Polly Walker as Mrs. Featherington, who’s gowns are weirdly fitted down to the waist.
There is a distinct lack of period headgear on principal characters — background figures have plenty of top hats, for example, but the main men hardly ever wear them. And the ladies might wear tiaras, ribbons, bows, and such in their hair but not bonnets. This was from the director, which Ellen Mirojnick explained in Vogue:
“There were no bonnets, but we do nod to them with our hair accessories. We took that half-moon shape and created these straw [pieces] accented with flowers or feathers that sit on top of the head. Another no-no was muslin dresses. There’s a limpness to them that we didn’t want.”
And everyone is super blinged out, especially in the tiara department. According to Mirojnick in The Cut,
“Swarovski lent us tiaras from their archives, which we put on principle cast members. The amount of Swarovski stones used throughout the show was pretty massive. There were some fabrics that came pre-beaded and a lot of them did have Swarovski crystals, but it was always easy to add something. If there was a beaded fabric, we did more. If it was a stone headpiece, we built more. Nothing was left untouched.”
Apparently there’s been discussion online about whether married ladies should wear tiaras. In a fantasy historical production, we don’t really care, but for those who do, check out Tiara Mania‘s post in which she dings the tiaras for attractiveness, but debunks the idea of tiaras being only married ladies’ or royals-only province.
Then there’s the Duke of Hastings and his cravat-less-ness. Sure, he’s still hot, but y’all know how much we love a man in a big Regency collar and cravat!
Here’s Colin Bridgerton showing how it’s done:
Apparently the Bridgerton boys have a thing about their collars:
Let’s wrap up with a few words on underwear. Ellen Mirojnick made a point of telling Harper’s Bazaar about the corsets made by Mr. Pearl for the series:
“[There are] no two bodies that are alike. And so if there is a bosom or a shape, even at the top part of the body that has to be adjusted for the costume, he knows how to create that structure to be able to give you that. The gowns would not fall over the body if there was no structure underneath that.”
HOWEVER, we were sad to see no smocks / chemises underneath any of these corsets:
And, of course, there was the ridiculous scene when Daphne is shown to have literal bloody chafed skin from wearing her corset, which never happened in real life, because women weren’t idiots and wore chemises under their corsets:
But at least they avoided the bane of metal grommets in a non-metal grommet era:
OK, fine, have at it with your bitching, haters!