The miniseries Doctor Thorne (2016) — produced by ITV and Amazon, having aired in the UK and available for streaming on Amazon — was written by Julian Fellows and has naturally drawn comparisons to Downton Abbey. But aside from historical costumes and grand country houses, I think any of the reviews trying to draw parallels are really a stretch. This adaption of the Anthony Trollope novel is really just an old-fashioned Masterpiece Theatre style costume drama, down to Fellows trying hard to be Alastair Cooke with his fireside intro and wrap-ups for each Amazon episode (btw, those bits are pretty patronizing; I think British viewers were spared that nonsense).
Unlike the best of the old Masterpiece, Doctor Thorne drags out a fairly simple story across a sprawling 160 minutes when it could have been a shorter, jaunty, much more entertaining frock flick. It’s a pretty lightweight romp of a story about young lovers thwarted by class differences, predictable as all hell, and this glossy, indulgent production is a fine little diversion that would have really benefited from editing.
Perhaps the best review of the story is from The Guardian’s three-part recap (part 1, part 2, part 3):
“..by golly did we have a lot of pointless and easily guessed plot to get through. Plinky-plonky waltz music topped and tailed this series finale as an orchestra went wild 99% of the time, diluting much of the dialogue. At every turn, the emotional response was dictated by the score, signalling what we should be feeling when. And all because there was no room for the actors to control that response themselves – which is wrong, all wrong. I hate to say anything against the actors who must do battle with Uncle Julian’s scripts. But, really. They all looked so bored here.”
Not sure I can say it better, and I agree whole-heartedly. So let’s just talk costumes, shall we? They’re awfully pretty at least!
Ailments in Doctor Thorne Costumes
Overall, costume designer Colleen Kelsall nailed the style of 1855 English fashion for the upper-crust families who are the main characters in Doctor Thorne. But there were a few things that irritated me, and because they kept showing up over and over again in every episode, I feel they’re worth mentioning.
1. Flower Crowns
In the very first scene, the sisters Lady Augusta Gresham and Lady Beatrice Gresham and their cousin Lady Alexandrina de Courcy are having tea out in the fabulous grounds of Greshamsbury Park. All the young ladies are wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads. Is it May Day? Are they enacting A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What’s up? It seemed a bit silly, but fine, it was a light-hearted picnic-y scene, so I let it go. Until those flower crowns turned up again at a ball. And again when the young women were outside. And even when they were just walking around inside their house during the day!
Sure, flowers were used as part of women’s head decorations, but more typically on a bonnet or hat. Or if flowers alone were used, this would be part of an elaborate ball coiffure, along with a fine netted snood or ribbons and braids. Just plopping a flower crown on an adult woman’s head — especially with indoor daywear — would be as weird then as it would be today. It’s a fine going-to-Coachella look, but it’s not for proper Victorian ladies. It’s a odd affectation for this series.
2. Mary Thorne’s Hair
Speaking of headgear, we need to talk about Mary Thorne’s hair. Our heroine usually looks just lovely … until she doesn’t. See, when she gets all casual, she lets her MODERN LAYERED HAIRCUT hang down to frame her face. While the back of her hair is pinned up. Folks, this is bad. This is not historically accurate in any way, shape, or form. I don’t know how she was allowed to leave the makeup chair like that (unless it’s another example of the Great Bobby Pin Shortage!). Btw, this is totally how some reenactors do their hair in an attempt to bridge modern aesthetics and period hairstyles — beachy waves + 1850s full hair covering the ears. But honestly, they shouldn’t be mixed if you want to get a historical look.
At some point, we’ll make a supercut for Snark Week of all the women in all the historical costume dramas who unattractively hike up their skirts. Because this irritates the whole Frock Flicks team, I can assure you. Both because it’s not pretty, but also because it’s almost always unnecessary. If you’ve practiced walking in long skirts, you’ll find that you have little need to constantly grab a handful of skirt and raise it out of the way of your feet in order to walk easily (it also helps if skirts are hemmed to the right length with the shoes you’re wearing). Women in period would have spent their whole lives wearing long skirts, walking over a variety of surfaces, going up and down stairs, doing all the ordinary things you do. Skirt-hiking is only really needed if you’re running or going up stairs, you’re walking on uneven ground, or you are a little bit infirm or insecure.
Yet in Doctor Thorne, many of the ladies are constantly grabbing at their skirts. Lady Arabella Gresham (played by Rebecca Front) is the worst offender, but the Countess de Courcy does it a lot also. I feel sorry for all that fine taffeta getting crunched up right in the middle of the skirt! Some of these actresses have been in multiple historical costume dramas, so you’d think they’d have learned how to walk in long skirts — or at least a director would have told them to stop clutching at their skirts like drowning men grab at life rafts.
4. Best Costumes on the Minor Characters
Specifically, Miss Dunstable, the American heiress, and the Countess de Courcy, a total busybody, have faaaaabulous wardrobes that totally upstage Mary Thorne (who, being penniless, of course has weak outfits) and the whole Gresham clan (who get way more screentime, but other than the flower crowns and skirt-hiking, have modestly nice but not spectacular clothing). I suppose I shouldn’t complain, except I wanted to see more of these costumes! Miss Dunstable pops in and out of the story, while the Countess is even more in the background. I kept getting mere glimpses of their amazing, detailed, and unusual outfits.There’s also one or two fantastic ensembles on Lady Alexandrina that you can just barely see. More, dammit.
5. Metal Grommets
Thankfully, just the one that I can see, but it’s down the back of Mary’s most often worn dress and quite an attractive one. I could be generous and suggest those are yellow handmade eyelets down the back of the dress, glinting in the sun, but that’d just be dumb. Repeat after me: metal grommets are the visible panty lines of historical costume.
Yeah, those are some relatively minor quibbles. The costuming in Doctor Thorne looks fine overall. It’s the story that’s a bit dull and slow to get where you can see it’s very obviously going. There are worse ways to spend three hours, but there’s better ones too!
Have you watched Doctor Thorne?
I have a question regarding gown length: I cannot believe dresses destined for day/outside wear really were so long that they drag on the ground: seriously? I see this over and over again in movies and honestly scratch my head on why people who had very few changes of clothes would wear stuff that was constantly dragging in the dirt, mud etc?
Hi! Different skirt lengths were used for different occassions. For example: “market” skirt was the shortest (knee length) for a lady to do the morning shopping at the markets to save her dress from mud. Then walking length skirts reached the ground up to an inch, indoor ground touching hems up to 1-1,5 cm layed on the floor (so these didn’t drag on teh floor and mud either). After these line up the trained formal ensembles (demi-train, walking length train for promenade or visiting dresses, and the strict formal gowns with 1-2 meters of train). Note: The petticoat is always 5 cm shorter, than the skirt, only supports the train in full lenght. Hope this was helpfull! Have a nice day :)
Sorry, market skirt was ankle long, not knee, awkward error :D
So then why do we constantly see (in movies) woman walking around outside with dresses dragging in the dirt? What you responded with is what I would expect: that outdoor dresses would not have been deliberately left long enough to drag in the mud. I can understand indoor dresses, ballgowns etc — and obviously the more fabric in the dress reflected “wealth”. But outdoors, there is no practical reason why clothes should be made deliberately to get dirty/damaged.
To add to Melinda’s reply – skirts that DID make contact with the ground were usually fitted with a dust ruffle in the lining or hem, or petticoat, depending on construction, so as to prevent the skirt from getting soiled.
That said, there were many satirical cartoons in popular magazines from the 1840s into the 1870s that showed women in trained skirts in the city, saying cities did not have to perform street sweeping – the women wearing inappropriately trained skirts did the job for them.
I loved it. In fact, I was sorry there wasn’t an additional episode or least another 20 minutes to show us more of the subplot between one of the sisters and the young lawyer. But that may be the Nicholas Rowe fan in me talking. I still have a soft spot for that atrocious Young Sherlock Holmes movie from the 80’s.
I saw this last week, and Trystan, you were not the only person bothered by those flower crowns–ugh. I kept thinking that someone got let loose in Michaels or Stats, because the flowers were so obviously a bit modern and frankly, mostly ugly. But I liked the majority of the costumes, and now that you’ve pointed out the Countess’ red dress, I love it. Frankly I didn’t notice it before because to me every time the Countess appeared on screen she was pulling such a long, mean and pouty face that commanded my attention. And of course, Dr. Thorne himself is an actor we recognize from Wives and Daughters.
I felt like Julian Fellows’ narrative was stuck onto the beginning–and of course, made it ALL UNDERSTANDABLE for us poor Yanks who are totally unable to suss out what was going on–not. Really unnecessary. And how did you like that curt “Goodbye” he did in the last segment?
My be the series was sponsored by 1800-Flowers
“.I kept thinking that someone got let loose in Michaels or Stats”
Yeah, I kept wondering if they were fake or not. Because they didn’t look like real flowers to me. No drooping and too bright.
One of the first things I was taught as a living history interpreter was to push the skirt in and to the side when going up stairs. It moves all the fluff just enough so you can see the tips of your boots, without any possible indecency. I’ve done it successfully and routinely in both hoops and multi-pettis with flounces. You can be quite graceful and add a bit of swish with it, too.
When I was young I did voluntary work at a historical theme park. We were taught how to walk in dresses, with hoops and or petticoats without showing ankles.Skirt hitching is not how it’s done. Interestingly the waitresses could get upstairs without lifting their skirts but by kicking the skirt out as they did not have hands free so even on stairs hitching was not required. It must have been one of the few places where female staff could be fired for wearing makeup and were told how to part their hair.
i decided to give Dr Thorne a miss after reading the Guardian blog. I am not a fan of “Uncle Julian’s” and can imaging that his intro would be cringe worthy.
On the topic of Trollope, the BBC’s 1974 adaptation of the Palliser novels has to be the ultimate costume drama. I keep hoping that one day it will covered here but at something like 26 episodes I understand that requires a huge time commitment. (Though very rewarding. The costumes are fabulous and there are no superfluous
flowers that I recall.)
To be fair, hair was layered from the 1920’s on. All the shorter curled and waved post-WWI styles for shorter hair need layers to look right, and early 30’s hair was often thinned out to stay close to head, probably many 20’s styles too. But it was done quite differently than the modern layers on display here, and it’s obviously wrong for pre-WWI styles. It’s perfectly possible to just hide the layers in an updo.
Flower crowns were rather popular during the Victorian Age. In fact, Queen Victoria made them popular when she wore one as part of her wedding ensemble. As you had pointed out, they were worn either during a wedding ceremony or at an evening dinner party or ball. But I doubt very much they were worn during any other time of the day or any casual occasion.
The 1850s is probably my favorite period, and the one I specialize in (not so much in MAKING costumes for the period, but studying originals, images, etc from the period. It’s the parasols that I do.) And I feel like a lot of fabric choices I’m seeing are really heavy and upholstery-like for this decade. Even the most expensive silk of moire glace from the period did not look like it could double as a slip-cover. Some of these dresses in this series do.
The skirt-hitching is incredibly annoying. I hate it so much. So many lovely costume films are destroyed by actresses hiking up skirts to walk or pumping their arms about as they walk. I think the 1963 film “The Leopard” gives us perfect examples of how actresses are supposed to move in this period – they glide. They neither hike their skirts or pump their arms or lurch about in dresses made of upholstery fabric.
The flower crowns are stupid. Somebody seems to have gotten on some pre-Raphaelite kick or something.
Mary Thornes bonnet is stupid. The one with the striped stuff inside. It feels like a buckram circle covered in fabric and pinned to the back of her head.
In fact there’s a LOT of bonnet weirdness going on in this series, by the looks of it.
*steps onto parasol soap box* Also – let’s end this thing with actresses slinging their parasols over their shoulder. In the 1850s, especially, with diminutive frames (I give them credit for using a folding carriage piece, even though it looks like an 1860s black marquis recovered improperly) – they were held aloft – the hand grasping the lower third quarter of the handle, showing the terminal and/or finger crook just below the hand. They were not rested shoulder except for when one was sitting- and even then I have not documented it except in one or two paintings and photographs. It was only until the 1870s that you see a lot of slung-over-the-shoulder parasols, because they got larger and more cumbersome. *steps off of parasol soap box.*
I have a fairly good sized collection of original fashion plates from Regency to about the 1850’s & every point you make is spot on!
The only other thing is the hoops themselves. What is with those hoops swinging all over the place? If the underpinnings were to the period that wouldn’t happen. At least I don’t think it would. I think they have a modern hoop & likely a thong underneath. Nothing against a thong mind you, but period correct hoops don’t rock back & forth.
I’ve watched three further episodes since this morning & I’m sure all that annoying skirt grabbing is due to the hoops being modern. Maybe they lacked the budget for period correct underpinnings? Wasting money on those dumb flowers? Per Wikipedia, “Hoop skirts typically consist of a fabric petticoat sewn with channels designed to act as casings for stiffening materials, variously rope, osiers, whalebone, steel, or, from the mid-20th century, nylon”. All that is not going to bounce up & down and all around. The dresses have a fixed waist & I doubt they were made for this production. I’m thinking the bulk of all they had to wear would make the skirts stick out further. No need to pull to walk.
I seem to recall one actress saying something about costumes feeling and making you move different when the underwear is also period correct. Forced to walk like a lady kind of thing.
I just finished watching this miniseries, and came here specifically hoping for an article (I missed it when it was posted, apparently). I came hoping that I was correct in the flower crowns being so awful. Even if they were appropriate – which I have learned that most of the time they were not – I swear they went to the dollar store and bought the ugliest flowers they could find! I found them so distracting that there were a few times I had to rewind a bit to catch what somebody said because I was staring at them. I could have forgiven the historical inaccuracy if they were at least pretty, but they looked cheap and fake. Hideous!!
I, too, came here looking specifically for this article hoping someone could explain the flowers. I was very distracted by the flower crowns and luminous big eyes on the younger women. I described it to my friend as looking like a historical Snapchat filter.
I just found this show on amazon and immediately had to come here and see if it had been reviewed because the skirt-hiking is killing me and I have no one else to bitch to!
Other than that, I’m enjoying it.
Man, I got about halfway through and quit. I couldn’t get over how it was scored (I’m guessing) – it felt like it was supposed to be a comedy! I’ve liked other Trollope adaptations but this was just doing nothing for me.
Halfway through the first episode, I meant! Couldn’t even finish one!
I had some problems with “Doctor Thorne”, but overall, I rather enjoyed it.