There are many good things about The Buccaneers (1995), the BBC miniseries based on an unfinished novel by Edith Wharton. It’s delightful eye candy all around — set in the late 1870s to early 1880s, the costumes are fluffy, frothy, and super-pretty. The story is about four American young women marrying into English aristocracy and their individual trials and tribulations. The fellows they’re all attached to are easy on the eye (including our dreamy boyfriend Greg Wise). The series even includes a bit about the older generation of their governess and her friend who guide the young ladies and have their own romantic entanglements. This is all very loosely based on a number of American ‘new money’ daughters who married European landed gentry in the late 19th century (see also: Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey for another fictional version).
The ending of The Buccaneers on TV is more cliche ‘happily ever after’ than Wharton might have written compared to any of her other novels. But it works in this production, especially with these characterizations. And with the costumes! Which is what I’m going to talk about here. It’s all about the bustles.
This may not be the definitive list — it’s certainly my list, so feel free to share your own. Going chronologically through the film (and by what I could get good screencaps of!), here are some of the best bustle gowns in The Buccaneers…
Lizzy’s White Gown With Yellow Ribbons
In the first scene, all the girls are wearing white and pastels, and they’re a picture of youthful innocence as they frolic on the lawn. Lizzy (Rya Kihlstedt) wears a ruffled frock accented with brilliant yellow bows and streamers.
Conchita’s White Gown With Red Tassels
For her entrance into society as the fiancée of Lord Richard Marabel (Ronan Vibert), Conchita (Mira Sorvino) wears this striking white ruched gown with red accents.
Conchita’s Pink Plaid Bustle Gown
When Conchita meets her English in-laws, of course she wears a hot pink ensemble that her snooty new sister-in-law says ‘looks like a French actress’ (code for ‘prostitute’).
Lizzy’s Black & White Striped Bustle Gown
Yep, there it is, everyone’s favorite! Clearly inspired by Tissot paintings, this gorgeous gown is shown during the opening credits for the second part of the series and has been recreated by many historical costumers. You know you want one too.
Idina’s White Gown
One of the few older women wearing an interesting dress! When Lord Seadown’s mistress (Jenny Agutter) rents her house to the American girls (one of whom will end up marrying her lover, oops), Idina gets a fabulously spangled and ruched white gown.
Nan’s White Floral Gown
As the younger sister, Nan (Carla Gugino) is dressed in sweet, simple gowns for the first two episodes. She wears this charming gown in several scenes, the most important of which is a chance meeting with her future husband Julius, Duke of Trevennick.
Virginia’s Wedding Gown
Older sister Virginia (Alison Elliott) marries Lord Seadown (Mark Tandy), unaware of his romantic or financial failings. At least she has a wonderful Victorian bustle gown absolutely dripping with lace and dotted with ‘something blue’ flowers.
Nan’s Green, Red, & Gold Bustle Gown
After marrying Julius, Nan arrives at her grand new home to assume the role of duchess. Her new clothes are suitably tailored yet luxurious.
Nan in Emerald Green, Conchita in Burgundy
It’s Christmas time, and Conchita needs money for an abortion so her husband (who has syphilis) won’t find out about her lover. Nan, who’s recently miscarried a child conceived through marital rape, totally understands and agrees to help. Both are wearing rich jewel-tone gowns that look perfect together, as if to reflect each other’s woes.
Nan’s Red Evening Gown
A classic red natural-form bustle gown is lovely for a holiday party and to rekindle a fire with Mr. Thwaite (Greg Wise).
Virginia’s Black & White Striped Bustle Gown
AKA the other great stripey bustle! Well, it might be a really dark blue stripe; Virginia basically wears blue, yellow, and white throughout the whole series. But it’s exquisite in this reconciliation scene between her and Lord Seadown.
Nan’s Formal Portrait Gown
How can you not love this blingy, over-the-top court presentation gown that the Duchess of Trevennick is expected to be painted wearing? Oh right, Nan hates it, or at least everything it stands for.
Laura’s Purple Bustle Gown
Only at the end does Nan’s governess and BFF get a really good gown! This natural-form gown has an elaborately smocked skirt, smocked trim at the cuffs, and a smocked panel at the center-back of the bodice, and is worn with a smart hat.
There are more bustle gowns worth ogling in The Buccaneers, to be sure! These are just the ones that stood out for me and what I could get semi-decent screencaps of.
What were the most memorable costumes in this miniseries for you?