There are many good things about The Buccaneers (1995), the BBC miniseries based on an unfinished novel by Edith Wharton. It’s delightful eye candy all around — set in the late 1870s to early 1880s, the costumes are fluffy, frothy, and super-pretty. The story is about four American young women marrying into English aristocracy and their individual trials and tribulations. The fellows they’re all attached to are easy on the eye (including our dreamy boyfriend Greg Wise). The series even includes a bit about the older generation of their governess and her friend who guide the young ladies and have their own romantic entanglements. This is all very loosely based on a number of American ‘new money’ daughters who married European landed gentry in the late 19th century (see also: Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey for another fictional version).
The ending of The Buccaneers on TV is more cliche ‘happily ever after’ than Wharton might have written compared to any of her other novels. But it works in this production, especially with these characterizations. And with the costumes! Which is what I’m going to talk about here. It’s all about the bustles.
This may not be the definitive list — it’s certainly my list, so feel free to share your own. Going chronologically through the film (and by what I could get good screencaps of!), here are some of the best bustle gowns in The Buccaneers…
Lizzy’s White Gown With Yellow Ribbons
In the first scene, all the girls are wearing white and pastels, and they’re a picture of youthful innocence as they frolic on the lawn. Lizzy (Rya Kihlstedt) wears a ruffled frock accented with brilliant yellow bows and streamers.
Conchita’s White Gown With Red Tassels
For her entrance into society as the fiancée of Lord Richard Marabel (Ronan Vibert), Conchita (Mira Sorvino) wears this striking white ruched gown with red accents.
Conchita’s Pink Plaid Bustle Gown
When Conchita meets her English in-laws, of course she wears a hot pink ensemble that her snooty new sister-in-law says ‘looks like a French actress’ (code for ‘prostitute’).
Lizzy’s Black & White Striped Bustle Gown
Yep, there it is, everyone’s favorite! Clearly inspired by Tissot paintings, this gorgeous gown is shown during the opening credits for the second part of the series and has been recreated by many historical costumers. You know you want one too.
Idina’s White Gown
One of the few older women wearing an interesting dress! When Lord Seadown’s mistress (Jenny Agutter) rents her house to the American girls (one of whom will end up marrying her lover, oops), Idina gets a fabulously spangled and ruched white gown.
Nan’s White Floral Gown
As the younger sister, Nan (Carla Gugino) is dressed in sweet, simple gowns for the first two episodes. She wears this charming gown in several scenes, the most important of which is a chance meeting with her future husband Julius, Duke of Trevennick.
Virginia’s Wedding Gown
Older sister Virginia (Alison Elliott) marries Lord Seadown (Mark Tandy), unaware of his romantic or financial failings. At least she has a wonderful Victorian bustle gown absolutely dripping with lace and dotted with ‘something blue’ flowers.
Nan’s Green, Red, & Gold Bustle Gown
After marrying Julius, Nan arrives at her grand new home to assume the role of duchess. Her new clothes are suitably tailored yet luxurious.
Nan in Emerald Green, Conchita in Burgundy
It’s Christmas time, and Conchita needs money for an abortion so her husband (who has syphilis) won’t find out about her lover. Nan, who’s recently miscarried a child conceived through marital rape, totally understands and agrees to help. Both are wearing rich jewel-tone gowns that look perfect together, as if to reflect each other’s woes.
Nan’s Red Evening Gown
A classic red natural-form bustle gown is lovely for a holiday party and to rekindle a fire with Mr. Thwaite (Greg Wise).
Virginia’s Black & White Striped Bustle Gown
AKA the other great stripey bustle! Well, it might be a really dark blue stripe; Virginia basically wears blue, yellow, and white throughout the whole series. But it’s exquisite in this reconciliation scene between her and Lord Seadown.
Nan’s Formal Portrait Gown
How can you not love this blingy, over-the-top court presentation gown that the Duchess of Trevennick is expected to be painted wearing? Oh right, Nan hates it, or at least everything it stands for.
Laura’s Purple Bustle Gown
Only at the end does Nan’s governess and BFF get a really good gown! This natural-form gown has an elaborately smocked skirt, smocked trim at the cuffs, and a smocked panel at the center-back of the bodice, and is worn with a smart hat.
There are more bustle gowns worth ogling in The Buccaneers, to be sure! These are just the ones that stood out for me and what I could get semi-decent screencaps of.
What were the most memorable costumes in this miniseries for you?
Your post made me want to see it again. But who is the costume designer?
Rosalind Ebbutt — she’s worked on a few things of note before & after The Buccaneers! https://www.frockflicks.com/tag/rosalind-ebbutt/
Thanks for naming the designer. I will re-watch it after catching up on rewatching Season I of Outlander. BTW are you podcasting live on Saturday night?
Not live, but we will be podcasting Outlander!
I remember when this first came out, it was ABSOLUTELY critically panned, and the costumes were described as “very shabby.” Looking at these pictures now, I actually don’t think it looks that bad at all. One thing I did note is that there’s not much in the way of whitework accessories – several of these dresses appear to lie directly against bare skin without so much as a chemisette or enageantes to separate the silk from the flesh , particularly obvious in the emerald green dress and Laura’s purple dress (which also seems to not fit quite properly – I wonder if it could actually have been an original dress? I know they used some original pieces, I remember seeing something about the costuming where Jenny Agutter was wearing a shawl draped to hide wear and tear on her original bustle skirt….
Some FABULOUS dresses here, though! Loving Virginia’s reconciliation bustle and that first white dress with the yellow ribbons is rather yum.
I dunno, open necklines could be worn during the day, esp. at home which Nan’s green gown is. Laura’s purple dress has a pretty high neckline already so I don’t see anything wrong there, & it’s hard to see the fit very well — admittedly, that’s not a great screencap, but she’s moving around in that scene so much! Do re-watch (it’s currently on Netflix in the US :). For the sheer number of costumes used, I’m impressed by how true to the period they all look.
My favorite is Virginia’s blue ballgown she wears to the party where Conchita is wearing the red tassled gown.
Unfortunately you barely see it, and you never see her in the ball itself, only coming down the stairs.
That BLUE IS SO BLUE.
I never understood why this production was critically panned. I thought it was very good. Was it because the British disliked the idea of a story about four American women who married into their aristocracy, with the latter looking bad? Surely it cannot be the ending, which struck me as best, slightly bittersweet.
I thought the costumes were gorgeous. And I liked how they reflected the changing styles of the 1870s.
I think a lot of the negativity was due to the ending — it was deemed “Hollywood-ized” by the British press because Nan & Guy literally run off together. That’s very unlike the endings of Wharton’s other novels, which tend to be far less happy (think Age of Innocence, House of Mirth; neither innocent nor mirthful!). The original Buccaneers novel was unfinished & left off with Nan (married) meeting Guy again at a house party of one of the other girls.
I ADORE this movie, and I agree, the costumes are just stunners!
I think you all should know that I blame you for my new found absolute love of ruching.
This movie was a treat! I love Virginia’s black and white gown and, of course, Lizzy’s striped one. Age of Innocence and Anna Karenina are at the top of my To Watch list!
I agree, I believe the ending was meant to be bittersweet. The problem with this adaptation (which I absolutely love) and the finished book it was based on, is that the ending focuses a little too much on Nan and Guy’s happiness, and not the complete mess Laura ends up in. In her notes, Wharton mapped out this ending exactly (at least with each character ending up in the same situations), so there’s really no point in anyone arguing that she didn’t intend for the lovers to run away together, but it’s my belief that if she had finished the novel and had more time to develop it in future drafts that Laura would have become the main character in a more obvious way. The ending wouldn’t have been so much about Nan and Guy getting their happy ending as it would have been about Laura’s tragic but noble decision to help them obtain it.
But back to the costumes: I love Nan’s coral dress she wears in London when she goes shopping and meet Julius in the church to discuss “the rules”. The color is so much brighter than what she wears throughout the rest of the film (probably because she’s so much happier, up until she talks to Lizzie and then Julius), and the hat is darling.
The ballgown Lizzie wears to the Parmore ball is also gorgeous. I would call it “peach” colored, and appears to perhaps be done in a sort of sheer two tone fabric? Kind of like shot silk?
Side note: I had been foolishly watching the Netflix version, and until this week had no idea that it’s heavily edited with many scenes cut altogether and many character development conversations truncated. For instance, there’s an entire scene between Laura and Sir Richard that was really satisfying because a little past history is hinted in the book and it helps explain their later interactions a bit better. Laura actually really gets the brunt of most of the cuts, and I loved seeing the extra scenes with her character, Here’s the link to the long version (which I’m guessing is how it comes on DVD also): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atoa3pnYecU&list=PL6oforB7ir5IgILnOO5AxlbNB-WZ6VV2U
Just finished watching this after getting excited about bustle gowns in the review… holy smokes you weren’t kidding. This was awesome! So so so many gorgeous dresses and a really juicy story haha. Lots of fun twists without it feeling too cheesy. I swear every time my husband walked by I’d so “!!! and then this happened !!!”. Thanks for the suggestions frockflicks team – so glad I watched this!
PS. Do you have an article of top things to watch or something… I’d love to see a movie list that you updated as you went. Sometimes I’m looking for a good costume flick (w/ a good plot!) and I try searching back through your archives to remember which ones got the high marks haha. I’d love to find a single article with all of this in it! :) :)
The problem with this adaptation (which I absolutely love) and the finished book it was based on, is that the ending focuses a little too much on Nan and Guy’s happiness, and not the complete mess Laura ends up in.
Oh yes it did focus a good deal on Laura Testvalley’s unhappy ending. In fact, this was shown with one scene of her leaving the Brightlesea estate (she was probably fired); her rather bitter confrontation with Sir Hemlsley, in which they parted ways for good; and her last conversation with Jackie March.
Has anyone noticed the inaccurate description of this on Netlfix? It says four sisters go to England, but only 2 are sisters. I watch this when I am sick and it isn’t bad. Not the best movie ever, but I really like Carla Gugino and Greg Wise is more alluring in this than S&S.
I came to your website specifically to see what you guys thought of the dresses in this series! I don’t usually watch movies from the 1870s, so I’d love to get a podcast where you talk about the accuracy.
One outfit I thought was really interesting is the one Virginia wears to leave for their honeymoon (she also wears it while going to the pawnshop). It’s yellow and blue.