BBC Documentaries on Fashion and Social History


In addition to Jane Austen movies, BBC historical documentaries are my comfort object (maybe even more so). Especially when I’m hand sewing, I love nothing more than to binge-watch historical documentaries, and the ones made by the BBC are particularly good. If you like fashion history and/or social history (and if not, why are you here?), you’ll join me in particularly loving the documentaries hosted by these three historians: Helen Castor, Lucy Worsley, and Amanda Vickery. They’re smart women who know their stuff and are really good at telling stories.

Obviously if you’re in the UK, you can (and probably have) watched many of these on the BBC. For those in other countries, many of them are available on Amazon (streaming and/or DVD) and YouTube — but, things on YouTube get pulled down all the time. I’m embedding videos below, but if they don’t play when you read this, try searching for the title of the documentary, and see if you can find another version. And if you can’t find it on YouTube, then check for DVDs!

Helen Castor Documentaries

Helen Castor

Castor was Director of History at Sidney Sussex College (one of the many individual colleges that make up Cambridge University). Her focus is on the medieval era, and her books include Blood and Roses (2004), a biography of the 15th-century Paston family, whose letters are the earliest surviving collection of private correspondence in the English language; and She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth (2010). She now focuses solely on media and writing.

Castor has hosted two different documentary series that are FASCINATING:

She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens (2012)

In three episodes, “historian Dr Helen Castor explores the lives of seven English queens who challenged male power, the fierce reactions they provoked, and whether the term “she-wolves” was deserved.” It’s on Amazon and on YouTube.

Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, and Death (2013)

Another three episode series: “in which historian and author Helen Castor explores how the people of the Middle Ages handled the most fundamental moments of transition in life — birth, marriage, and death.”

You should be able to find the episodes on YouTube.

If you like these two, you should also check out her recent release, Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior (2015).


Lucy Worsley Documentaries

Lucy Worsley

(C) BBC – Photographer: Rolf Marriott

Worsley is the Joint Chief Curator at the UK’s Historic Royal Palaces (the independent charity looking after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace), and previously worked with historic homes and English Heritage. She’s written a number of books, most notably If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home (2011).

Worsley has hosted a ton of fascinating documentaries. Here’s some of my favorites:

Tales From the Royal Wardrobes (2014)

This one has the most obvious tie in with Frock Flicks: “Today, few people’s clothes attract as much attention as the royal family, but this is not a modern-day Hello magazine-inspired obsession. As Dr. Lucy Worsley reveals, it has always been this way. Exploring the royal wardrobes of our kings and queens over the last 400 years, Lucy shows this isn’t just a public preoccupation, but our monarchs’ as well. From Elizabeth I to our present queen, Lucy believes that the royal wardrobe’s significance goes way beyond the cut and colour of the clothing and that royal fashion is, and has always been, regarded as their personal statement to their people. So most monarchs have carefully choreographed every aspect of their wardrobe and, for those who have not, there have sometimes been calamitous consequences.”

This is on YouTube, but the picture is weirdly dark … BUT! This is going to be shown June 21, 2015, on PBS, so watch/record it! Hopefully it’ll be available to watch on the PBS website after that date, too. You can also buy it on iTunes.

Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines: A 17th-Century History for Girls (2012)

Ignore the “for Girls,” this series was great and NOT aimed at children (I think they were just trying to be cute?). Worsley writes on her blog, “My new BBC4 series ‘Harlots, Housewives, and Heroines’ is about the women of the Restoration period.  It covers not only the royal mistresses thronging the court, but also ordinary housewives at home, and even female pioneers like the first professional actresses, writers, scientists, and explorers.”

You should be able to find it on YouTube.

If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home (2011)

“Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the historic royal palaces, takes us through 800 years of domestic history by exploring the British home through four rooms, meeting experts and historians on the way.” Here’s a review with more info.

I can’t currently find it available in the US, but try searching on YouTube and see if it pops up.


Amanda Vickery Documentaries

Amanda Vickery

I have a serious girlcrush on Amanda Vickery. The woman is SMART and totally into the 18th century and social history. Be still my beating heart! She’s a professor of early modern history at the University of London and has published two fascinating books: The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England (1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (2009).

Vickery has done both TV and radio documentaries. Here are my favorites:

At Home With the Georgians (2010)

“In this three part series, historian Amanda Vickery explores how the great British obsession with our homes began 300 years ago.” Here’s a longer review.

You should be able to find it on YouTube; you can also buy it on DVD.


A History of Private Life (2009)

This is a radio series that made me PLOP with happiness. “Historian Amanda Vickery presents a series which reveals the hidden history of home over 400 years, drawing on first-hand accounts from letters and diaries.” Read this longer review, and you’ll hopefully understand my happiness!

The only way to get your hands on this is to buy the CD or buy it on iTunes. It’s BEYOND worth it.


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

6 Responses

  1. LydiaR

    I enjoy Lucy Worsley’s documentaries very much. One of my favorites is “Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance,” co-hosted with Len Goodman from “Dancing With the Stars.” It’s not very much about clothing, though they do dress up in period styles to try dancing key dances from each era.

    Historic dances done in historic clothing – two of my favorite things!

    • MoHub

      I really liked the way they showed how the clothing styles influenced the movements of the dances—especially the waltz—making it more than just dressing up.

  2. Kim

    These shows are all fantastic and I love the ladies as well! There are some other documentaries which are also great (if you haven’t seen them already); ‘Suffragettes Forever!’ with Amanda Vickery is a series about the amazing women in the suffragette movement. ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ by Lucy Worsley is a really fun series about the changing styles of dance from the 18th century onwards and Lucy and dancing professional Len Goodman get to try on some beautiful costumes and try the dances. They also talk about how the changing waistlines also affected the positions of the dances over time too! Also you can’t miss the documentaries by Dr Suzannah Lipscomb – especially her Hidden Killers of the Tudor home/Victorian home series, which is fascinating.
    P.S. – Love the blog! Thanks ladies! :)

  3. Kim

    Oh good taste LydiaR! ;) Your comment must have been getting processed when I posted mine! Yes ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ was a really enjoyable series. I wanted to see more!

  4. Peter Molnár

    Would you be willing to do a retrospective look on some of the Beeb’s social history documentary series with Goodman, Ginn, Langlands and Pinfold ? They’ve been running, on and off, since 2005. No need to rush a review, I’m just curious whether you might have a look at them in the future.

    I’m quite interested whether the clothes worn by the presenters and their guest experts in the various series fit the period. There’s some 7 interconnected shows to cover, with a timespan from the 13th century to 1945. The focus is mostly rural, so don’t expect overly extravagant clothes.

    Thank you.

  5. Peter Molnár

    On a more on-topic side note, I personally prefer the Helen Castor documentaries the most. Partly because they cover stuff I’ve seen more often presented and discussed in contemporary non-fiction, but fairly little in television documentaries. I’ve even had a chuckle once that Mrs. Castor must be the long-lost British cousin of my own country’s Daniela Dvořáková. Both of them have focused on the social history of the 13th-15th Middle Ages in great detail and are excellent at explaining it to an audience without dumbing it down, so I was really pleased by this odd parallel between the two once I discovered it. :-)