Glorification of rampant capitalism, soap opera storylines, and fabulous Edwardian hats? I don’t know why it took me so long to start watching this, and now I’ve caught up and am chomping at the bit for season three, which comes to PBS Masterpiece on Sunday, March 29, 2015 (it already aired in the U.K. and has been renewed for a fourth season). The series was inspired by the 2007 biography Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, by Lindy Woodhead, which gave the inside scoop on Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who went to London in the 1900s and started Selfridges department store.
The show is a great bit of fun, but let’s start right now by noting it’s not perfectly historically accurate. Funny, in the U.K., Downton Abbey has gotten a ton of flack in the press for its historically inaccuracies, everything from a using the wrong guns for the period at a shooting party episode to ignoring the brutality of class divisions. But I haven’t been able to dig up much critique of Mr. Selfridge, except for two small complaints: one article cites a 1950s memoir stating that Harry Selfridge was a more subdued character and didn’t have any affairs until after his wife died; and Selfridge’s great-great-granddaughter who says that, not only was Harry faithful, but he never wore a beard (as Jeremy Piven does for the title character). The show’s screenwriter Andrew Davies says:
The broad outlines are from the book [Woodhead’s biography] — all the stuff about how he got the store going and how he got it financed and how he persuaded people to come into partnership with him, how he hired the staff. All that is very much as it happened historically. A lot of the stuff about his family is very accurate. The way that he ran the store is based on the real way that he did it, although not enough was known about actual people who worked there, so we felt free to invent all those characters. Ellen Love, for example, isn’t a real person. She’s based on several girls that he had as mistresses over the years.
And while the family details may be based in history, the script takes many liberties. For example, at the end of season 2 during Thanksgiving dinner 1914, Rose Selfridge admits to her husband Harry that she’s dying. The real Rose died rather suddenly in May 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic. Season 3 opens with Harry’s eldest daughter’s wedding, which looks like it’ll be a very flashy affair. But it happened in August of the same year as her mother’s death, and accordingly, in the wedding announcement posted in the New York Times (reproduced here), “the wedding was celebrated quietly in the chapel of the Russian Embassy, only relatives and a few friends of the contracting parties being present.”
Mr. Selfridge Costumes
OK, OK, enough nitpicking the story’s accuracy, how historically accurate are the costumes? Pretty darn good, I think. The first season of Mr. Selfridge takes place during 1908 through 1910, while the second series is set in 1914, right before and during the start of World War I. The third season will begin in 1918. The show covers a range of classes, with the majority being middle class and a few upper class. Details of hair, hats, and makeup are very nicely done — they really evoke the period, and I’ve yet to be jarred out of a scene by something overly modern.
Of course, one of the charms of this story and setting is that Harry Selfridge brought many “modern” ideas about shopping and business to the U.K. Plus, the 1900s is an age of transition. So with the major social shifts the story portrays and some of the familiar language and positions, the 100-year-old fashions are the only “old” thing about Mr. Selfridge.
Furthermore, each character is fully realized and has his or her (mostly her) own sense of style and a look that says something specific about the person. Most characters develop over time, and this is usually visible in their clothes too. But we shouldn’t expect anything less. Costume designer James Keast has a long resume of mostly British historical TV dramas — that, like Mr. Selfridge, you may have seen on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S. — including Aristocrats (1999) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008).
While all of the Mr. Selfridge costumes are well done, the women’s outfits are, naturally, the standouts. From Ellen Love to Delphine Day to Harry’s daughters, there are plenty of great historical costumes. But of those, I think these five women — and women’s costumes in Mr. Selfridge — are most worth watching.
Long-suffering Mrs. Selfridge, poor woman. We won’t be seeing her again, but in the past two seasons, she’s worn some terribly lovely gowns. Maybe it’s payback for having to deal with Harry’s philandering. Costume designer James Keast used several authentic vintage gowns and fabrics for her, and these details gave a wonderful richness to her wardrobe. Actress Frances O’Connor must be familiar this this level of historical costume, since she’s been in plenty of period movies including Iron-Jawed Angels (2004), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), Madame Bovary (2000), and Mansfield Park (1999).
Lady Mae Loxely
It’s like the higher status of the woman in the show Mr. Selfridge, the more she must suffer in her personal life. WTF? Sure, the shop girls have soap-opera-y lives, but most of them don’t get raging adultery and battery (well, Agnes and her dad, but hey, she gets a better storyline too and spiffy hats — see where this is going?). So again, fancy clothes to make up for it. Wholly fictional Lady Loxely is titled and posh, and thus she has access to a full range of gorgeous clothes, from suits to evening gowns, with great hats and jewelry. There are a couple duds in her wardrobe (both in terms of historical accuracy and style), but the vast majority of her clothes are really excellent. Sadly, we won’t see Mae in series three because the actress, Katherine Kelly, was pregnant during filming, but she’ll reportedly be back for the fourth season.
Princess Marie de Bolotoff
Here she comes! Series 3’s big guest star is Zoe Wannamaker as Princess Marie. PBS featured her extensively in promos all during Downton Abbey this year, painting her as a wacky Russian version of the Dowager Countess. Princess Marie might as well be a fictional character, for while it’s true that Rosalie Selfridge married the Russian Prince Wiasemsky, Serge de Bolotoff, there’s not much info available about his mother. Ah well. You might remember Wannamaker as the Quidditch instructor in the Harry Potter films or from any number of historical costume movies and TV series such as The Old Curiosity Shop (2007), David Copperfield (1999), and Wilde (1997).
The Shop Girls
Why can’t people dress like this at department stores again? It’d tempt me away from online shopping. If the recreated Selfridges store itself wasn’t glorious enough, all the shop girls in their lovely black and white dresses are just so appealing. They look elegant and serious, but not too prim or prissy. You actually want these ladies to help you with your purchases. OK, some of them. My favorite has to be Kitty, she’s a snarky little bitch, and I want a copy of everything she wears.
The Women’s Hair and the Hats
Not just on one woman, but all the women’s hair and their hats! They look so good. Mad props to everyone involved in the hair design, hair styling, and wig making for Mr. Selfridge. Konnie Daniel, Sian Wilson, Laura Blount, Jutta Russell, Lynn Doron, Alex Rouse, Sally Watterston, Katie Lee, Adam James Phillips, Naomi Spurr, Georgina Conway, Marzenna Fus-Mickiewicz, and Lammond Samantha are all credited, from design to wigs to crowd hair-styling to hair and makeup trainees, just showing how massive an undertaking it is to get decent historical hair on a cast of this size, plus extras. But they did a great job!
I’m in love with the giant Gibson Girl bouffants on the ladies in season one; they look beautiful either alone or with the hats. The style gets a bit less high and poufy in season two, with more curl and width — still amazing. Rose does have bangs that seem a smidge too heavy for the period, but otherwise, everyone’s hair is gorgeous and again, it’s the perfect accompaniment for their chapeaux.
Of course, the two upper-class women have the biggest, most-elaborate hats. But even the middle-class women get good hats. That giant pheasant feather on her toque reinforces Agnes status as destined to be something more than just a shop girl.
So let’s go shopping! Who’s with me — will you be watching for all the Mr. Selfridge costumes in season 3?