Dark Angel: A Woman Murdering in Drab Bonnets

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It’s not the frock-iest of frock flicks, but Dark Angel (2017) certainly delivers in the “untold stories of women’s history” category, so we’d be remiss if we ignored it just because there’s no silks, bustles, or fancy hairstyles. Starring Joanne Froggatt, formerly known as the woe-begotten maid Anna of Downton Abbey, this two-part TV movie tells the true story of 1870s serial killer Mary Ann Cotton.  The show aired in the U.K. last fall, but it’s just now showing on PBS, and it’ll probably turn up on streaming soon after.

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel (2017).

Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann Cotton.

Cotton was convicted of murdering her stepson Charles Edward Cotton for insurance money, and she was executed by hanging on March 24, 1873. It’s suspected that she killed three of her four husbands, also for insurance money, all by poisoning. The mysteriously sudden deaths of 11 of her 13 children, her mother, and a lover are often blamed on Mary Ann Cotton’s poisoning as well. In some ways, you can hardly blame her for what she may or may not have done. She had a crap life, and anything she did was just adapting to the circumstances. Born to the poor working class and a woman, her few choices were marry some jerk, walk the streets, or slave away in the workhouse. So she did marry, and that the dude had life insurance would be awfully tempting if he wasn’t the best of men.  And if poison worked once, heck, it could work again if the next guy was no better. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Mary Ann Cotton

The real Mary Ann Cotton.

 

Costumes in Dark Angel

Surprisingly, Dark Angel isn’t all that dark and drab in the costumes, even though the characters are lower class and the setting is not posh. Mary Ann Cotton wears dresses in rich blues and greens, and subtle plaids and stripes add texture. Even the loads of derpy bonnets are well trimmed with modestly patterned ribbons and lined with bits of lace. Costume designer Caroline McCall worked on Downton Abbey and other British historical dramas, so she knows what she’s doing.

Dark Angel (2017)

This is a great color on her!

Dark Angel (2017)

Plaid jacket, print dress, and coordinating (but not too matchy) trims on the bonnet — very nice.

Dark Angel (2017)

I usually hate 1860s, but this is such a smart outfit in lovely muted colors (& I forgive the skirt-hiking because it’s a behind-the-scenes photo).

Dark Angel (2017)

+1 for the plaids, but derpy bonnets are still derpy.

My only complaint is the somewhat too frequent scenes of Mary Ann with her hair hanging down — it’s the promo image, fer chrissakes! Everybody say it with me: Somebody needs some hairpins. Yep, if you’re a grown-ass working woman, all busy poisoning ‘n stuff, you put up your hair. This show is inconsistent with the hairstyling.

Dark Angel (2017)

I don’t know why this was necessary.

Dark Angel (2017)

Slacker.

Dark Angel (2017)

Mary Ann can’t get her hair together, but her friend can? Ugh.

 

Have you watched Dark Angel yet? What did you think?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. Christy Jenkins

    I just finished watching it on the PBS site. I enjoyed it, except for the hairpin shortage. The scene where she’s scrubbing the floor and her hair is all hanging down & in the way? Nope. I’d tie that mess back with a strip of cloth or just chop it off if I didn’t have any hairpins. Shudder.
    I dunno, maybe stringy, sweaty hair is supposed to symbolize despair or something.

    Reply
    • Alys Mackyntoich

      I think you might be on to something about loose, sweaty, stringy hair symbolizing despair. I’ve noticed that people who don’t read a lot of history tend to thing of having your hair up and neat as something that people do only when they have their act together. (Somehow these people ignore the “too busy to deal” pony tail).

      Reply
      • Trystan L. Bass

        It does seem to be modern film/TV shorthand for emotional distress or worse. Sometimes it’s the slutty women, sometimes it’s rebellious women, blah blah blah. But to me, that’s such a modernism that loose hair has to mean something. It would mean you’re lazy & messy!

        And in this production, it was super obvious in scenes like the floor scrubbing, when she was filling the buckets & other women around her at the well all had their hair up (I was rushing to get this posted during the show or I’d have tried to get a screencap!).

        Reply
      • Karen K.

        This is so true, I’d like to give it hearts or stars or upvotes A THOUSAND TIMES. My hair’s not nearly as long as Joanna’s and it takes me all of two seconds to put it in a ponytail (if it were longer, I’d put it in a bun in five.) Granted, I have pony elastics and they didn’t in the 1870s, but they had kerchiefs and ribbons and PINS, for god’s sake!

        You put your hair up to get it out of your face, end of story.

        Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Loose, messy hair probably does symbolize her depression, but cooking around those stoves with dangling hair? No! The costumes were great, although I’m not sure about this theory: ” In some ways, you can hardly blame her for what she may or may not have done. She had a crap life, and anything she did was just adapting to the circumstances.” 35 pounds was approximately a year’s income for someone of Mary Ann’s status, and she seemed to have a rather nice, supportive mother and stepfather and at least one child she liked. Naw–the woman was a head case.

      Reply
  2. Susan Pola

    Enjoyed it, but I wanted to give her a basket of hair pins. Although Mary Anne was poor, the costumes were spot on. She chose colours that went well with her. It also showed that the lower middle class and poor people clothes could look attractive.
    Did anyone else noticed her wardrobe became better as she married more successful men?

    Reply
  3. Adina

    Even if the costumes were perfect I couldn’t watch it, Froggatt just ruins every show she’s in for me.

    Reply
  4. Jana Hill

    I did really like how the poors were not 100% doomed to wearing brown and grey. Historically inaccurate for them AND a snoozefest for us.

    Reply
  5. ladyaquanine73551

    Funny how the title “Dark Angel” was also used for a popular Fox Channel tv show with Jessica Alba in the 90s. That was the first thing I thought of when I saw the title.

    Now in context of what this program showed, I might suggest you try watching “Deadly Women.” It’s not something I’d watch every day, but it was fascinating the few times I did. It was also disturbing and sad, hence why I recommend it in small doses. Like the woman mentioned above, they are true stories (many taken from police reports or historical records) about women who murdered others for some reason or another. For some reason they had it on the ID channel. Guess it was too gruesome for History Channel. Much of it is partially shown in documentary style, with actors reenacting scenes from the events. Most of the Deadly Women stories are from the later 20th century, but some were from earlier, like from the 1930s, 1800s, and they even included Elizabeth Bathory in one episode. They keep showing this psychiatrist who studies these evil women’s minds and tries to explain what would motivate them to do these horrible things.

    You know what’s really scary about stories like that? These are just the women who got caught. Imagine how many more got away with murder and were either never discovered, their crime was blamed on someone else (a frame-up/misunderstanding), or the authorities never caught them. That’s the scariest part of this whole murderess business.

    Reply
  6. Karen K.

    I haven’t watched it yet but these costumes are pretty impressive — it’s nice to see that working class people are allowed to wear colors! (I’d swear most every other Victorian drama makes people believe that colors hadn’t been invented or were illegal for poor people.)

    I really love that blue plaid dress in the third shot from the bottom though I just want to jump in the photo and fix her hair!

    Reply
  7. Anne Foster

    With very long hair, you don’t even need hairpins. I can make a bun with a slip knot and tuck in in about 10 seconds and it will stay up for quite some time. I can also do a quick braid and it takes it a good hour to totally unbraid without fastenings. So, this always drives me nuts, because if there is one time you most want you hair out of the way, it’s when you’re doing manual labor!

    Reply
  8. Cheryl

    Yay! Thanks for the heads up (again!) frockflicks- I really enjoyed this! Agree that hair was awful, and I’d love some more pretty gowns, but there was one I loved – the plaid with white blouse? Anyway, I thought this was a refreshing frockflick in that it was so different than the lovey dovey stuff you tend to get. I’m still suffering my way through Victoria… sure it’s pretty, but it’s so damn boring (WE KNOW YOU ARE GOING TO MARRY ALBERT!!!). Anyway, rant aside, I enjoyed this one, so thanks for posting this review while I could still catch it on demand. Sure makes me glad I’m not living in the 19th century popping out 13 kids – jeepers!

    Reply
    • Cheryl

      Oh! On a side note- I found it really interesting how well she could hide her pregnancies with these clothes.. it was tough to see the baby bump unless she held her stomach. I would be curious what you thought about this – as, afterall, these baby bumps werent real… but I was surprised that the tight bodice would be above the bump so to say, so the bump got lost in the skirts. Is that accurate? (Sorry if obvious/confusing- but I was wondering!).

      Reply

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