Belgravia: Julian Fellowes Goes 1840s

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Belgravia (2020) is a new, six-episode series on the Epix channel from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, based on a novel Fellowes wrote himself. Set primarily in the 1840s, it’s about two families intermingling — one, longtime aristocracy, the other, new money, made in trade. But it’s about much more than that — there’s a key backstory that I don’t want to give away (okay, it’s obvious if you watch the trailers, but if you don’t, it’ll be more enjoyable) that’s pretty dark, and that connects these characters. Overall, I’ve been surprised to enjoy it as much as I have (only 3 episodes are out so far in the U.S.) — I think because I hadn’t watched any trailers and I was expecting more Downton Abbey-type soap opera, but the story is dark and real and well written/acted … and costumed!

The series stars a number of great actors, including Tamsin Greig (who will forever be Fran from modern-set Black Books to me, but who also played Miss Bates in the 2009 version of Emma) and Harriet Walter (Sense and SensibilityThe Governess, ChériThe Young Victoria, Suite FrançaiseThe Spanish Princess), both of whom are giving great performances. Other key actors include Alice Eve (Stage BeautyOrdeal by Innocence), whose dark eyebrows don’t match her blonde hair (a pet peeve of mine — I’m not saying it never happens naturally, but it screams “MODERN BLEACH JOB” when I see it on screen); Tom Wilkinson (Sense and SensibilityOscar and LucindaThe GovernessShakespeare in LoveThe Importance of Being EarnestGirl With a Pearl EarringBelle, The Happy Prince); Ella Purnell (Ordeal by Innocence), who reads as super modern casual to me; and Tara Fitzgerald (Sirens, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Frenchman’s Creek, Jane Eyre, The Virgin Queen, I Capture the CastleExodus: Gods and Kings, The King).

The costumes were designed by James Keast (The House of Eliott, AristocratsThe Ruby in the SmokeThe Shadow in the NorthDesperate RomanticsTitanicMr. SelfridgeThe Scandalous Lady WVictoria). He’s VERY good at understanding character, working with small budgets, and — importantly for us! — keeping things historically accurate. He told The Telegraph that he made most of the principals’ costumes for the principal characters, but the secondary and extras’ costumes were made by a “London costumier”; some of the extras’ costumes were retrimmed and reused up to 10 times.

Now, the only REAL problem I have with the costumes is a true-ism we have at Frock Flicks: the 1840s are the death of fashion. Okay, so that’s hyperbole, and there are other eras that are equally dumpy, and of course there are lovely aspects of 1840s fashion, but unfortunately for me, the 1840s is all derpy bonnets and crocheted gloves and sipping tea and looking very maternal and Handmaid’s Tale-y. You know I’m saying something when I find the flashback Regency scenes to be more exciting, costume-wise.

2020 Belgravia

Keast tries, using a lot of lower V-necks (which ARE historically accurate to the 1840s-early 1850s, but less common than the high necks that look so extra dumpy), but there’s nothing like ladies wearing dumpy bonnets INSIDE (which, yes, they had the option to do) to make me want to get out my butter churn.

Pioneer woman butter churning

How I see 1840s fashion.

2020 Belgravia

Potentially balanced out by the fact that Mrs. Trenchard has a PUPPY (character name Agnes, real name Emma). WHO’S A GOOD PUPPER! When her husband tells her to get the dog out of the bed, and Anne just rolls over and cuddles her, I was thinking “Solidarity, Anne!”

I will say that I did enjoy the novelty of watching women wear multiple petticoats as they did in the period, instead of the more usually seen 1850s-60s cage crinoline (although I am worried, given that The Telegraph quotes Keast as saying:

“I made a couple of petticoats from duvet covers, to try to create bulk without the weight. But they kind of collapsed in on themselves with the amount of fabric in the skirt. I ended up having to use more and more petticoats, which was a problem for the actresses because the weight of the petticoats was, to some of them, unbearable. It makes you walk a certain way, it makes you walk up steps, get into a carriage, a certain way, due to the weight. But the wealthier you were, the more petticoats you had. The actresses are eager to get to the late 1840s, when the crinoline has been invented.” (Uh, try 1850s, per the Victoria & Albert Museum! If there’s going to be a season 2, they’d better get that right!)

With my personal-taste caveat given, Keast’s focus was on demonstrating class differences, which are the core of this story. He told The Telegraph (whose article I’ll be quoting throughout this post), “You have all these people with lots of money who can all afford to dress very well, but the trick is to convey their class and background through what they’re wearing. I wanted a different attitude toward what they wore to suggest their characters.”

Anne Trenchard “was probably wealthier than a lot of people because of her husband’s business [as a property developer], so she wears very expensive clothes,” but The Telegraph says that Keast always gave her costumes a practical element. “If you were going to buy yourself a nice frock and it was going to cost £1,000 to £2,000, you’d think twice, and be aware that it would cost a fortune to clean. I gave her that mentality.”

Mrs. Trenchard wears a lot of dull stripes, like this outfit, recycled from North and South (thank you Recycled Movie Costumes!). This is the same fabric Keast used in his falling-collar redingote from The Scandalous Lady W, and that a million other designers have used, by the way, and I’m getting sick of seeing it.

A different outfit, but a similar vein — I’m not loving the fit, but that kind of stress wrinkles are hard to avoid in this era.

Her ballgown is definitely fancy, but tasteful — note the higher neckline than you COULD see, and the beautiful lace. I’m not 100% about the scrapbooking flowers down the center front, however.

I really liked Mrs. Trenchard’s wardrobe in the Regency flashback scenes!

2020 Belgravia

This dress was my favorite.

2020 Belgravia

It’s a really GOOD application of sari fabric!

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This was pretty too (along with daughter Sophia’s dress).

On the other end of the class spectrum is countess Lady Brockenhurst, played by Harriet Walter. She’s upper crust AND wealthy: “Lady Brockenhurst’s dresses are much paler and much grander. She was brought up with this assumption that someone would always be there to clean everything for her.”

2020 Belgravia

This lavender dress was probably my favorite. LOVE the fabric, the subtle use of fringe, and the turban-inspired cap.

2020 Belgravia

Lady Brockenhurst always wears beautiful lace, which would have been super expensive.

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More great lace.

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She even manages to make an indoor cap not too TOO dowdy, which is impressive.

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My main question is why she would have suddenly busted out 10-years-out-of-fashion 1830s hair for her fancy party, which would be an event she’d want to be MORE fashionable for than in her daily life. I know, costume/hair designers love these silly 1830s styles for how OTT ridiculous they are (thereby demonstrating the OTT-ness of the upper classes).

Somewhere in-between these are Susan Trenchard, Miss Maria Grey, and Lady Templemore.

Susan Trenchard is Mrs. Trenchard’s daughter-in-law, and is wealthy and class climbing:

2020 Belgravia

I do admit to loving menswear-styled Victorian womenswear, so that’s something.

2020 Belgravia

I have some questions about this — the fabric choice, the bodice seaming — but I’m letting it slide, because I like the sheer bonnet and the tassel-y parasol.

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Susan is wearing possibly the most up-to-date gown among these three.

Ingenue Maria Grey and her mother, Lady Templemore, are aristocratic but cash poor:

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Okay, somebody explain to me 1. The shitty fit on this bodice, and 2. The unflattering, un-period aesthetic stripe layout.

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Because I don’t get it!!

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Maria’s family is cash poor, is that why her bodices don’t fit??

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At least this fan-front style is supposed to fit like this.

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Hallelujah, something that fits right! Of course, it’s my Dickens Fair nightmare, but oh well.

2020 Belgravia

Maria’s mom’s bodice fit isn’t great either, maybe it’s genetic?

 

What are you thinking about Belgravia?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

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.

21 Responses

  1. Orian Hutton

    Will be interesting to see if there is a sequel as the story was based on Julian Fellowes novel of the same name and there is no sequel to it. Having read the book first, I wanted to see how he adapted it to the screen; how would he convey all those inner thoughts. Found it interesting that he made one fairly major adjustment to the story and it was a good one; made the plot point much more believable.

    Loved the acting, particularly from the women. There is a wonderful scene coming up for you involving Mrs Trenchard, Lady Brockenhurst, Lady Templemore and Maria Grey. Absolutely delicious interplay.

    Personally I love the 1840s styles. A favourite period for me for fifty plus years, so I guess I am hopeless.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Looks interesting. But I’m going to have to play catch up when things open due to being unemployed. Of the cast listed, I am fan girling over Saruman’s niece, Harriet Walter. She can do everything.

    Reply
  3. Elyse

    I tried reading the book and just couldn’t get in to the story. Unfortunately that means I’ll probably skip this.

    Reply
    • Constance

      I first tried book when he released it installments, could not get into it. Tried again a few months ago and liked it a lot…wondering what plot he changed for series as it worked pretty well…

      Reply
  4. Nzie

    I am not super into scandal stuff but it does look like a good costuming job. Is it salacious for the sake of? I guess what I can’t get a sense of is whether the story is the sort of one I’d be into. The twist which I’m guessing at is fine, but it does depend on how it’s done. (E.g. Bleak House has a similar twist, if I’m guessing right.)

    I actually like the 1840s! Maybe some of that is that I can’t take the crazy 1830s sleeves and hair, and I wouldn’t want to be in hoops all day, so it nabs me partly for practical reasons. Plus some of the fan-style bodice stuff I find really pretty. But then I’m not a flashy person so probably it suits my temperament even if it is a bit on the boring side. :-)

    Reply
    • Jenno

      I would not say it’s salacious at all. In fact, the twist is spelled out in the first episode, instead of the usual convention of having a secret be revealed a bit at a time through flashbacks. Knowing the twist, and knowing exactly how much each character knows about it, is a somewhat novel viewing experience. That said, the servants are bit too transparently mustache-twirly for my taste, but nothing’s perfect.

      Reply
  5. Saraquill

    Koshka’s shown you can do pretty 1840s wear. I guess this wasn’t in the cards for the show’s costume department.

    Reply
  6. Diana

    I love the 1840s, and these seem decent but not stunning to me. The peachy striped evening gown looks very similar to this one in the New Brunswick Museum, and I may remember something very similar from the V&A: https://pin.it/3ZlhJ3c
    I also rented a very similar stage costume from a costumier in NYC for a show last year, so I get the impression designers really like those peachy-coral stripes…

    Reply
  7. MJ

    I knew I recognized that dress from North and South! And didn’t Gillian Anderson wear it in Bleak House?

    I’m loving the series, probably in part out of my lasting pique over the awfulness of Sanditon. Anything would be better, basically.

    Reply
  8. Mizdema

    I didn’t read the book and enjoyed the show minus: the plot is predictable. And the music is Downtown alike, actually sounds weird.
    I appreciate Alice Eve’s character, more complicated I could imagine. Every other character could be resumed in one line but actors and actresses did a good job.
    Lucky me: I’ve got the same dog but long hair.
    Then: English lessons with frocks and flicks: dowdy ( démodé, ringard)- upper crust ( same in french: faire partie du gratin) dumpy(stupide, ridicule)- wealthy (I knew rich, aisé for wealthy) OTT !!

    Reply
  9. DRush76

    I don’t hate “Downton Abbey”, but I don’t love it. And I regard it as vastly overrated. I can honestly say the same about “Belgravia”. Julian Fellowes hasn’t written an impressive period drama since “Gosford Park”.

    Reply
  10. Amanda J Shirk

    I have mixed feelings about the 1840’s. On the one hand I love the slender bodices and the emergence of bell-shaped skirts, but brown was WAY too popular. I like simple style (I have no problem with pinstripes – although I dare anyone to find something set in the 1840-50’s where a middle class character doesnt wear that N&S number) but the colours and fabrics were Awfully drab.
    I will die defending the silhouette though.

    Reply
  11. Karin

    Liked the costuming and everything – such a relief after the total car crash that Sanditon was! Regarding the story, I found the first four episodes pretty predictable… somehow I was waiting for something to happen that wasn’t what I was seeing coming. And then it felt like EVERYTHING happened in episodes 5 and 6. So it’s worth waiting for those!

    Reply
  12. Liz Myrick

    I really liked the first episode a lot, with its focus on grief. The ‘breeding pair’ were incredibly dull. I like romance, but those two were like paper dolls. It was very Dickens, with the other characters having arcs and being more nuanced, but the young couple being perfect and sweet. The funniest moment for me is a 1840s girl being disenchanted because her fiance has no interest in traveling to India, and will only go as far as Madrid.
    I definitely wondered about the silly 1830s hairstyles- I think they’re often called ‘Biedermeier’ styles. They were on many of the ball guests as well. I know you like the lace panels and they’re accurate, but I think it makes the dresses look so dowdy.
    Brave choice to give the ‘heroine’ not just period accurate hair, but a style that made her look a little bit silly. I wonder why they didn’t choose something more relaxed. Interesting that this hairstyle made her look childish to the modern eye, whereas hair worn down would look childish to the Victorian eye. The other actress’s blonde hair didn’t bother me (I’m a little prejudiced as I have almost black eyebrows and light hair), but her obvious grown out highlights did. She was the most interesting character at first, but they did a poor job with her.
    I was very curious about the orange sorbet ‘fan-front’ style and I’m glad you addressed it. It looked very out of place, lacking structure or fit at the waist, so I wondered if it was period accurate. The top part looks like something I might own.

    Reply

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