A Discovery of Witches (2018-) is a TV adaptation of a book trilogy by Deborah Harkness. In the first book/season, a modern historian discovers a magical book at an Oxford University library, which leads to her embracing the fact that she is a witch, as well as meeting other “creatures,” including demons and vampires — and falling in love with one of the latter. In the second book/season, Diana and her vampire boyfriend Matthew go back to Elizabethan England — 1590 to be specific. I’ve been seeing lots of images from season 2 and been generally impressed, but it’s taken me until now to watch the series.
I actually tried to read the first book of the series a few years back, and here’s the review I posted on GoodReads.com:
This book pissed me off. It started great, with an American historian of ALCHEMY of all interesting things, doing research in the Bodleian Library. She’s smart, and things get more interesting when we find she’s a witch who has long denied her powers. She meets a dark and brooding vampire, and it all falls apart. He literally takes over her life under the guise of protecting her. She ends up having to ask his permission to do ANYTHING. Like, they visit his family home in France. She wants to ride a horse and eyes a particularly spirited one. He tells her not even to think of it, and if she does, there will be no horse riding, period. Okay thanks DAD. I couldn’t finish the book after REPEATED episodes like this. What a disappointment.
I was hoping that Trystan or Sarah, being so much more into the 16th century than myself, would take this one on, especially after the trauma of having read the book, but no dice. So I decided to take one for the team and fire it up. And would you believe it, but the TV series has managed to mitigate enough of the sexism (and bad writing) to turn this into a quite entertaining story. I was so surprised that I went back to GoodReads to read other reviews of the book, and found that I wasn’t alone in finding the first book SUPER obnoxious in having a female lead that was allegedly powerful but actually exists to be protected, saved, and controlled by a man — and, apparently, the book devolves into endless descriptions of tea, clothes, wine, and other boringness, and any real plot doesn’t really kick in until the end. Maybe book 2 is a whole new world, but while I can now recommend the TV series, I strongly suggest avoiding the book (unless you’re jonesing for another hit of Twilight, lame heroines included).
Rant alert: Not only is having your female protagonist “protected” (read: saved and/or controlled) by a man a stupid trope that we are all over, IT IS NO LONGER INTERESTING to read about a woman who is supposedly So Powerful but hasn’t yet developed these powers until a man teaches her. In the TV series, Matthew isn’t nearly as bad as he is in the book, but this story should have waited to introduce him and their relationship until AFTER Diana had developed her witchcraft — or hell, switched the genders and let HIM discover his powers under her tutelage. Because no matter how much latent power she has, if a powerful man has to guide her through life, you’ve just written yet another bad romance novel featuring a spunky woman whose spunk causes her to make stupid decisions and constantly needs saving by a man. And we’ve all read that WAY too many times.
Again, they moderated the worst of this in the TV adaptation, so let’s talk about season 2! Probably the most impressive thing was that unlike nearly ALL historical TV series these days, the filmmakers actually went for a REALISTIC LOOK in terms of costumes as well as sets/design. With a few exceptions, someone did their actual research here. I realize that I (and you) are among the minority in that we have an educated sense of what London would have looked like and how people would have dressed. So color me impressed that unlike what we usually get, which is some The Tudors-esque fantasy with crazy-colored fabrics and zero hairpins, I really felt like I was looking at a serious attempt to portray the period and its clothing.
But we need to focus on those costumes! With some nitpicks, these costumes passed serious muster with me, although while I have a decent knowledge of the Elizabethan era, it’s not my area of expertise. The season takes place mostly in London, but there are also episodes in France and Bohemia.
I’m unclear about who exactly designed the costumes — Molly Emma Rowe (The Last Kingdom) is credited for the first episode of season 2 on IMDB, but this interview with first season designer Sarah Arthur (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dracula) credits her as designer. In that interview, Arthur talks about that goal of authenticity:
“[Book author] Deborah Harkness was absolutely adamant that we get it right because a lot of these characters in that season were based on existing real-life well-known people. It was very important to get the authenticity correct… When you’re doing a period drama, especially something that far back, it’s important that all your fabrics look natural and not synthetic.”
Diana generally wears nice, layered, high neck gowns with ACTUAL PARTLETS (not shrugs!), often with standing collars, as well as cloaks and other outerwear. HER HAIR IS UP. She almost always wears something on her head — sometimes it’s a little too tiara-y, but often it’s a cap or netted caul (aka “snood”). This is revolutionary, people, compare to the crap that normally gets thrown at us.
According to the interview with Arthur, this period “was very black and white in 1590. Queen Elizabeth wore a lot of black and white and they had to follow suit.” And indeed, black is one of the most prevalent colors shown in period imagery.
It’s a little hard to find comparative images, because what Diana is wearing isn’t court wear, and she’s not a noblewoman — I’d say she’s upper middle class here. But what she wears makes sense to me, given sources like:
There are a couple dressing scenes, and I was delighted to see that they 1. put Diana in a corset (“pair of bodies” in this era), and 2. made a reproduction of an actual corset from this era!
There were a few ensembles that had a different look and feel, but still generally worked as well:
The main peeve I had, which annoyed me through the entire season, was the sticky-uppy-into-space stomacher necklines. Now, I’m impressed they didn’t go tits out the way most productions do. And they’re not the first people to run into this problem. But you can’t just hike the stomacher up, you need to end it at the bust point AND engineer the bust support correctly. Because if you look at period imagery, no, they don’t have the kind of cleavage most modern costumers (both cinema and reenactor) show. But they also don’t have a pocket of air behind the top of their stomacher. The Tudor Tailor researchers actually published an article about this issue, and their solutions, in the journal Costume. I recommend it for anyone dealing with this issue! The other thing you can do is close the partlet over the bust, if you’re just trying to not have wazombies everywhere.
So while I liked Diana’s fancier dress she wears to court, mostly for the standing ruff and the fact she’s added a hoop:
I spent the entire time staring at that neckline.
One other outfit to mention is Diana’s wedding gown. It was a little more fancy dress/costume-y than the rest of her wardrobe, but I get that they were trying to make it seems special and again, referencing the fact that these characters are magical.
I’m not going to get AS detailed on Matthew’s (played by my boyfriend, Matthew Goode: Downton Abbey, Roots, Death Comes to Pemberley, Dancing on the Edge) costumes, because boys are never as interesting. Just a few thoughts:
The main problem? PANTS. They’ve got Matthew in modern long pants, not the knee-length breeches worn in the period:
According to the interview with Arthur,
“The reason Matthew wears leather trousers, for instance, is because they are timeless. ‘That was an interesting design feature because I wanted it to feel correct for Elizabethan times. But I wanted it to not look out of place in current time.'”
They certainly achieved the goal of making his pants work for the modern era, and granted those who don’t know 16th-century costume probably won’t notice. But I did!
I did like that they put Matthew in a NICE doublet and ruff for more formal occasions, like visiting the queen:
Of course, none of the men wear enough hats. Matthew does wear one, ONCE, and it’s great:
Queen Elizabeth I’s Costumes
Queen Elizabeth shows up twice, so we have to discuss! She’s got two different dresses, both of which were, according to the Arthur,
“All hand embroidered, hand bejeweled, and that’s exactly the process we went through. About 8-10 people were working on this one dress for about two weeks. It was a lot of work. Of course, when you’re recreating somebody as significant as Elizabeth it has to resemble what people recognize from these portraits and I hope it did.”
Given the fact that most filmmakers don’t give a crap whether historical figures look like their portraits, THANK YOU!!
For the first dress, the interviewer notes that, “There are some references to the Ditchley portrait in the dress (namely the jeweled white motifs). The designer revealed that she didn’t want to be literal with the interpretations. She instead looked at several paintings, hence why the dress holds some resemblance to the Armada portrait too.”
The second dress we get to see more clearly and in full:
The main thing they omitted was the wheel farthingale, with the skirt pinned up into a ruffle at the hip, which is SO typical of 1590s fashion:
The Coven’s Costumes
The last thing to mention are the costumes worn by the witches’ coven, all of whom are middle-class women. I really liked what they did — in particular, Goody Alsop (Sheila Hancock: The Buccaneers), with her tall crown hat:
And finally, a few minor snarks:
- When they time travel to 1590, Diana wears an Elizabethan-style shift. Okay, so maybe that was the only period-ish clothing they could get their hands on, but walking down the street (at night) in just your shift would be like me doing the same in my bra and undies.
- The full leather outfits on the guys, which looked hot and sweaty.
- Mary Sidney’s head doily, although that’s more of a personal taste issue, because they were obviously referencing the portrait of her:
- Louisa’s costumes were more costume-y than realistic, although I get they were trying to show us her character:
- Christopher Marlowe’s (Tom Hughes: Victoria, Red Joan, Dancing on the Edge) boy band hair!
- I was all set to snark the miniature portraits, not for being shitty, but for Matthew being painted in his shirt — but then the A Discovery of Witches Fashion Tumblr posted the inspiration. I stand corrected:
- And plot-wise: we’ve finished two entire seasons, and I still have zero idea what powers/abilities demons have.
What are your thoughts on A Discovery of Witches?
For whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get into this series. I feel like I should give it a year or two and then try it again.
The books are pretty flawed (Mary Sue protag, vampire yoga? Ha ha ha ha), but compulsively readable. I tried a few episodes of the first season, but it did nothing for me. There’s zero chemistry between the two romantic leads, and as soon as I stopped watching I forgot every single thing I’d seen. A total snooze of a show.