Embrace the Weirdness

15

Yes, I am aware of the multitude of YouTube stars doing takedowns on the costumes in Netflix’s newest historical series, Bridgerton (2020), but I’m not here to talk about how bright eye searing prints aren’t historically accurate, or how Lady Featherington’s gown silhouettes are more 1913 than 1813, or even to wax tedious that yet again Hollywood is perpetuating the eternal corsets-worn-without-chemises myth … I’m here to address something that I haven’t seen really talked about and that Bridgerton does a good job illustrating.

Bridgerton (2020)

That is some straight up Edwardian lewk, my dudes.

I think most of us reading this website are cognizant on some level of the double standard in historical costume movies, where every designer or director wants to put their stamp on a historical period to make it “theirs,” which leads to all kinds of ridiculous interpretations of period costumes that never actually happened, whilst simultaneously eschewing the actual weird shit that people used to wear back in the day. You could say that we have created this entire website around that discrepancy, without putting into so many words.

In fact, it wasn’t until I sat down and watched Bridgerton that I put my finger on what has always bugged me about historical films and TV shows, and that it all can be distilled down to this idea of creative license that Hollywood is allowed to take in order to push the visual impact of the costumes to one extreme or another, but there’s usually a perfectly good, and totally what-the-frock historical example that would have sufficed for any given period.

So yes, folks, I’m going to address Queen Charlotte’s massively outdated wardrobe in Bridgerton. Yes, I have read the interviews with the designer and the director and producer who all indicated that they wanted the Queen to be so, well, weird, compared to the column-shaped beauties that roamed her court, and therefore the decision was made to put her and her ladies in 1770s court gowns. Often cited in these articles is the fact that the historical Charlotte was considered by her contemporaries to wear outdated fashions well into the end of her reign. So, of course, it makes sense to modern people that she’s wearing clothes that are, by the time 1813 rolls around, close to 40 years out of date.

Bridgerton (2020)

This image from the show does a good job of illustrating that disconnect between the old regime look of the 18th century on the Queen with the fashionable young women wearing the columnar styles of the early 19th century.

But since this website is all about not giving a pass to these kinds of design choices … Consider this portrait of Queen Charlotte by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1789:

Her gown could be considered a little out of date compared to the fashionable gowns of her contemporaries, but her hair and accessories are fairly au courant. Now consider this portrait by William Beechey from seven years later:

This is 100% on point for late 1790s English fashion. But there was some truth to the fact that Charlotte was regarded as being particularly ossified when it came to court fashion. In fact, the mark she left fashion-wise is far weirder than wearing clothing that is nearly half a century out of date and if the aim was to make her character look drastically different than the court around her, well, then you need to look no further than this:

La Belle Assemblée, March 1806 “The Marchioness of Townshend in her full Court Dress as worn by her Ladyship on the Queen’s Birth Day 1806”.

This, my friends, is the unholy marriage between the full pannier (side hoops) popular in the 18th century, and the high-waisted silhouette of the Regency. Yes, this monstrosity was, in fact, the required uniform at St. James’ for the first decade of the 19th century. That means that every woman who came to court to be presented, or dance at a ball, or whatever else was required they do in attendance to the Queen, had to wear the full pannier at the ever-so-flattering under boob level.

This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to the fact that modern audiences’ credulity would be stretched to the point of breaking if, say, Daphne had her first scene wearing something like this. I understand why the decision was made to have the young women who make up the central story wearing perfectly elegant Regency inspired frocks. But … it’s just … YOU GUYS HAD THIS FABULOUS OPPORTUNITY TO PUT THE QUEEN IN SOMETHING HISTORICALLY ACCURATE AND RIDICULOUS AND YOU DIDN’T TAKE IT!!! Charlotte’s gowns were a missed opportunity, in my not so humble opinion.

Contrast this with the frocks designed by Tom Pye for Gentleman Jack (2019), where no opportunity to push the costuming into some VERY weird places was missed, and Pye puts it perfectly:

I came across a cartoon of 1830s fashion, a satirical cartoon of how absurd the fashion was, and I thought ‘that’s what I want to do,’ that’s how I want to make the straight people look daft, make them look as ridiculous and extreme as possible to show what was normal then. That gives context to show how Anne, in quite simple clothes, was extraordinary. It was so daring to wear what she wore because what most women were wearing was absurd. They were dressed up like Christmas trees. It’s about context really.

Gentleman Jack (2019)

The 1830s were a deeply weird time in fashion.

If you are interested in reading a nice, succinct article about court fashions during the time of Bridgerton, I highly recommend checking out Candice Hern’s article Court Dresses: Overview. The romance novelist (who has done a great deal of historical clothing research) gives some very good details about the court gowns featuring high-wasted panniers, as well as offers several images from her own collection of various early-19th century court gowns.

 

Do you think an opportunity for maximum weirdness was missed in Bridgerton? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Sarah has an undergraduate degree in Clothing & Textile Design and a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture, with an emphasis on fashion history. When she’s not caught in paralyzing existential dread, she's drinking craft cocktails and writing about historical costume in film and television. She's been pissing people off on the internet since 1995.

15 Responses

  1. D.M.A.C.C.

    I agree . For some reason I don’t mind the inaccuracy here compared to other period dramas( just like I don’t mind the inaccuracy of things like the The Favorite and Crimson Peak).

    As well as other than the lack of chemises.

    I also think they missed the opportunity of putting something SUPER WACKY AND FITS THE AESTHETHIC FOR THE SHOW TO A T.

    As well as being super historically accurate , by putting them in ENGLISH Regency era court dress

    Reply
  2. Shashwat

    The show is so much of a teen romance drama,I think it is fair to give the costume designers some leeway.Aesthetically some looks were unappealing(the tacky embroidery and the wonky bustlines)but historical accuracy was not the goal.
    I had the same thoughts about them missing the chance to try Regency court gowns.But I have heard people describe the look as ‘disturbing’,and there are no extants to judge the look in person(not that they would use period patterns strictly).Robe de cours are so rare in modern films,or simply reduced to an over embellished francaise for convenient reasons.

    Reply
  3. Jill

    This is Regency fantasy, and as such I’m willing to extend some grace for the goofy costuming.

    Reply
  4. Kathleen

    I was up for the crazy creativity – really enjoyed looking for the colors and patterns as they related to the characters – didn’t really need to relate to history for me. But then again I am a jewelry designer. – being a jewelry designer for a costume collector – I did occasionally rage on the crazy jewelry collection. Somewhere between my Grandmothers 40’s necklaces and stamped our metal medallions with glued on gems. I still loved it and was amused that my husband actually enjoyed it.

    Reply
  5. Ms. Natalie

    Nothing really bother’s me in this show because the whole thing is really made up. But it would have been fun to see historical outlandish dress.

    Reply
  6. Kelly

    That La Belle Assemblée engraving reminded me of my childhood, dancing out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt in the Nutcracker!

    Reply
  7. Susan Pola Staples

    I loved it. Simon was swoon worthy. Costumes were Regency inspired fantasy. Can’t wait for book 2 er season 2.

    Reply
  8. Isara

    I had no idea that underboob side panniers existed. On the one hand, that sounds like a terrifying and hilarious thing to recreate. On the other, how uncomfortable would THAT be? Panniers under your armpits means that you can’t reach the hidden bottles of champagne in there!

    Reply
  9. paperbackoriginals

    History is the image of it we carry around in our minds. Only to serious students and anoraks is it any different. I remember when I first saw ‘Gladiator’. I was and had always been a Roman military nerd, and when I was three minutes into the film and had run out of fingers (and toes) to count the inaccuracies on, it occurred to me that I should just ignore them and enjoy the film. It was tosh, enjoyable tosh, and Commodus didn’t die in the arena and power wasn’t handed back to the Senate, so to hell with history.

    ‘Bridgerton’ was tosh, enjoyable tosh. In the adaptation for TV such a lot was messed around with (for fun?). Atia of the Julii was parachuted in to play… well… and early 19c version of Atia of the Julii. She was married to someone whom you could have parachuted into ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to play Mr Bennet (until he was revealed as a gambling addict and got himself murdered). Familiar tropes abounded – duels, unsuitable suitors, blokes walking round apparently with broomhandles up the back of their jackets. There was no way of telling the Bridgerton brothers apart…

    Costume? Yeah, you nailed it. But then we all had to put up with the whole miniseries of ‘Sharpe’ where Sean Bean never changed out of a rifleman’s uniform, no matter how far he rose in the ranks, no matter whether he was on the battlefield or in the ballroom.

    Simon was gorgeous, of course…

    And there we bump into the elephant in the ballroom – the show’s ludic approach to race. History is, as I said, is the image of it we carry around in our minds. ‘Bridgerton’ leaves us with the impression of early 19c English aristocratic society rich in racial diversity. Inaccurate? Yes. Forget it and enjoy the show? Maybe. But the serious matter of the recovery of Black British history only really started in my lifetime, and there is still a hell of a lot of work to do. I’m thinking that the racial playfulness of ‘Bridgerton’ is probably a step too soon. Filmmakers are narrators not reporters, image-makers not purveyors of vérité. Not all of us can remind ourselves of the dichotomy – we have long lived in an age where people take soaps for real-life, abuse screen villians in the street, we now live in a world where people will believe any sh*t they’re told, as recent events have shown us. Is it safe any more to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show?

    [By the way, without Googling, can anyone tell me when Britain actually WAS ruled by someone born on the continent of Africa, and who that was?]

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I’m as white as can be, so I defer on the race question to people of color. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of BIPOC people say they enjoyed being represented and in a way that used fantasy to create a positive image. On the other hand, I think seeing real history (and real struggle) represented is important too. As an ally, I’m happy to see both — but it’s not my opinion that matters.

      Reply
      • paperbackoriginals

        I think it’s wrong to say one’s opinion doesn’t matter. It does. It is perfectly acceptable – nay, necessary – to give other opinions precedence, given a particular context.

        Reply
  10. Sarah Walsh

    I completely agree. There are plenty of examples of bonkers fashion choices in the Regency that the designer could have worked from.

    I got very annoyed very quickly at the costume designer making so many unfounded claims about the fashions of Regency as if they were gospel truth, when it was pretty clear she searched a few Pinterest boards and called it good. I don’t mind someone who really knows what they’re doing turning fashion of a certain era on its head in a creative way. But to just base one’s decisions on broad generalizations and incorrect assumptions…grrr!

    Reply
  11. Roxana

    High waist and panniers has got to be one of the worst silhouettes in fashion history.

    Reply

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