SNARK WEEK: ‘Sup bro, have you watched Dickinson (2019-2021)?

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Dickinson (2019-2021) is a series starring Hailee Steinfeld, who plays a young 20-something Emily Dickinson. The series ended recently after three seasons, and I haven’t had a chance to watch them all, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts on what I have seen up to this point. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not any of this sounds like a deal breaker for you. Cool?

Right off the bat, the first thing you’re going to notice is the modern, casual language infused with plenty of 21st-century slang. I understand that this can be jarring, perhaps even more so than it might otherwise be if the costumes weren’t so dang good. Yes, there’s a lot of Emily running around with her hair down in beachy waves, but the overall costuming of the show is pretty tight (in both the literal and figurative sense).

Yes, Kendra, get it out of your system now … Beachy waves aren’t period.

What is interesting is that it quickly became apparent to me that I was someone who was OK with modern language in a period flick so long as the costumes are good, rather than flawless period dialogue in a film with shit costuming, but I understand that people are going to be divided on that account. It did occasionally make me do an internal “wtf,” particularly since the grown-ups in the show all talk more formally, and as you’d expect in a period piece.

And there are a lot of “wtf” moments in this show.

The second thing that might challenge delicate sensibilities is that this show does not take the “Sappho and her friend” approach to Emily’s relationship with her “best friend” (and soon-to-be sister-in-law) Susan Gilbert (played by Ella Hunt) [Editor’s Note: Wild Nights With Emily, 2019, also trod this ground]. The young women are definitely in a sexual and romantic relationship, but you know, it’s the middle of the 19th century, and the Dickinsons are comfortably established so the impoverished Susan is keen to secure her future with Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe).

If this offends your sensibilities, you should probably just go clutch your pearls somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Emily, herself, is being marketed to any eligible bachelor that cruises through town, and her resistance to marriage is complicating her relationship with her mother (played by Jane Krakowski, who seems to be performing the role as if Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock finally landed a starring role in a high profile period miniseries).

If you don’t hear this in Jenna Maroney’s voice, I don’t know if we can be friends.

Challenging to her father is Emily’s desire to pursue a “career” as a published author, and while he is shown to be tolerant, and even indulgent with his daughter’s iconoclastic tendencies, publication is far too risky to his ambitions to run for the Massachusetts Senate. And then the Civil War happens…

That’s Anna Baryshnikov as Emily’s sister Lavinia, btw. Yes, her father is THAT Baryshnikov.

The show uses Emily’s famous white dress quite a bit to underscore just how much she stands out from the rest of her family and then wider world around her. A funeral scene in the first episode shows everyone in deep mourning, except Emily, with her hair down and in a white cotton frock — her only conceit to the occasion is a black lace shawl she’s draped over her shoulders. More anachronisms are to come (Wiz Khalifa plays a rather charmingly casual Death, for instance, whom Emily fantasizes about being in a relationship with when her real world tedium becomes too much), but the costuming is only conceptual in so far as it places Emily as an outsider, as different from those around her, and in that regard, it is effective.

Dickinson (2019)

Yes, that cigarette is part of the scene. Also, you know wardrobe was watching her like a hawk not to drop ash on that otherwise very nice and appropriate 1840s fan-pleated dress.

Eventually Emily gets a pretty faithful copy of THE white dress worn by the real Emily that’s housed at the Emily Dickinson Museum. Via Distractify. [Editor’s Note: More about the historical “white dress,” which only dates to the 1870s, in our review of A Quiet Passion, 2017.]

John Dunn, the costumer for Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), lead the first season’s designs, and was succeeded by Jennifer Moeller for seasons 2 and 3. Overall, I’d say I’m pretty cool with the costuming choices, while some may be a few years out of date either direction, they’re not egregiously so. And everyone looks to be wearing proper foundation garments and all the correct layers, so we can at least give 10 points to the showrunner for not falling into the time honored trope of “independent spirited young woman rejects society’s strictures by loudly proclaiming her refusal to wear a corset.”

Please, please, PLEASE retire the “corset rejection = feminist” trope.

 

That’s a nice corset and appropriate for the 1840s! Hopefully she’s wearing a chemise under it, though, otherwise corset chaffing can be a bitch…

 

By far my favorite costume in the series, worn in a fantasy sequence where Death stops for Emily. I’m a huge sucker for a big red dress.

 

I quite liked this dress on Mrs. Dickinson. I will say they could have used more petticoats to kick the skirts out more, though. The Dickinsons are a prominent family, but cash poor, so it makes some sense that they may not be on the cutting edge of fashion for big crinolines, but the skirts would have had a bit more oomph, in my opinion.

 

This image shows the difference in style between the various Dickinson women. Emily is in a practical blouse and skirt with a smart belt, Susan is wearing a more fashionable crinoline hoop, and Mrs. Dickinson is taking a stab at something between elegant and “futile death grip on youth”.

 

There were some misses, though:

First of all, that bodice is way too short for this actress. Secondly, chenille ball fringe just remind me of one of those 1970s Chevy Van Chargers with a wizard airbrushed on the side and shag carpeting on every interior surface. Yes, I know, the Victorians loved their fringe…

But it looked more like this dress circa 1855-1858.

 

I’m just sayin’. Ball fringe conjures up a very specific impression.

 

And a bit of era blurring…

Dickinson (2019)

That sure looks like a bustle gown on the left, doesn’t it? Bustles wouldn’t be a thing for another 10 years at minimum. The other dresses look good for 1855-1860, though.

But overall, the costumes were above average. You just have to get over the modern slang,TikTok-style dance breaks, and a myriad of other verisimilitude jarring modern intrusions.

 

Can you hang with the modern slang in Dickinson?

 

 

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10 Responses

  1. Jillian

    I don’t think I’d mind the modern slang. I’m just happy they’ve got the costuming right, and CORSETS!!! I’ll definitely be checking Dickinson out.

    Reply
  2. Claire

    I always find modern slang in period dramas very irritating. Mind you, Julian Fellowes’ “period” dialogue is just as bad. I think it takes huge skill to write natural-sounding period dialogue and a lot of writers can’t really be arsed, or think the audience won’t understand it. The best I’ve ever heard was in The Terror and Deadwood.

    Reply
    • Julia

      That’s an interesting comment, because to me the dialogue in both shows sounded NOTHING like conversational English as depicted in nineteenth century novels and plays and more like a bad translation. It left me cringing every five minutes! I was reminded of the dialogue in modern shows such as the second series of “True Detective” or some of the later series of “American Horror Story”, which were written by people with a tin ear for realistic speech.

      Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I’ll give it a try for the costumes alone. And Emily’s red death Gown looks right and really pretty.

    Reply
  4. Monabel

    Nope. Modern slang is as annoying as all the other “relatable” anachronisms. Worse than many. You could conceivably be without a corset, or not have had time to fix your hair properly, but you won’t use language from the future unless this is Dr. Who.

    Reply
    • Jamie J LaMoreaux

      right on! what’s next? they start talking about their periods, feminist ideas from 1970, and strident speeches about the evils of the patriarchy?

      Reply
  5. Roxana

    It is very unwise to hold a lit cigarette that close to a cotton dress. Fire was a real hazard to women dressed in full skirts and lightweight fabrics. There are numerous stories of women being burned to death after their dresses caught fire.
    The hazard was so we’ll known that the Rev. Bronte insisted his daughters wear either wool or silk which he considered less flamable.

    Reply
  6. Eryn

    It’s the “TikTok dance breaks” that I just can’t manage. Modern language can work in period dramas- see also: The Little Hours, which II adore -but the idea that historical characters must be made to act jarringly modern (not just in speech) to be #relatable puts me off in a big way.

    For examinations of Emily’s and Sue’s romance, I vastly preferred Wild Nights With Emily, even if the costuming was a bit all over the place.

    Reply
  7. Tracey Walker

    The costumes are great and I don’t mind the modern dialogue. Its clear from the beginning that its a choice and not bad writing. I did drop out about halfway through the second season though. Its hard to peg down exactly why, but the story just seemed meandering. It just doesn’t feel cohesive.

    Reply

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