Earlier this month, Hulu announced that there would be no more seasons of Harlots (2017-2019). The three seasons have to stand on their own, right where we left the respective whorehouses started by Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley. Various storylines were tied up reasonably well — not to give any major spoilers away — so it’s not too terrible an ending.
But it’s still a shame to lose the show since it was a rare historical costume drama with female producers, directors, and writers as well as characters. Set in the late 18th-century London, the series was based in historical fact, specifically the nonfiction book Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies: Sex in the City in Georgian Britain by Hallie Rubenhold. The actual Harris’ List was something of a guidebook to London prostitutes, which Rubenhold researched and brought to light.
With women creating the TV series from the start, it should be no surprise that Harlots showed women as sex workers without being exploitative but while showing the precariousness and violence of their lives. Sex was a job, sex was currency, sex was a fact of life, and many reviews noted how the show made use of a positive “female gaze” instead of a reductive male gaze.
And talk about representation! Harlots included queer characters and Black characters who had complicated, non-cliched storylines that also reflected the breadth of historical experiences.
The series even showed women of different sizes as attractive, smart, and capable.
Harlots had all of that AND pretty dresses that were reasonably historically accurate. Yes, folks, it can be done. A lot of the costumes were recycled from other productions (typical of a show with a large cast and probably a small budget), but the ladies all had proper corsets and hair was usually worn up, with very few exceptions. Maybe the hair wasn’t perfect, maybe the costumes were a little mish-mashy 18th-century, but they’re not as tedious (ehem, Poldark, 2015-9), repetitive (sorry, The Great, 2020-), or all over the map (hello, Outlander, 2014-) as some recent series.
So pour one out for the bawds of Golden Square, and let’s hope it isn’t the last female-run, female-focused, multiracial historical costume drama we see in a while!
Have you watched Harlots on Hulu?