Five Fashionable Things About Peaky Blinders


Does crime and grime pay? Well, judging by the historical costumes, maybe not. But Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby, is pretty easy on the eyes. As the kingpin of the eponymous gang Peaky Blinders, I don’t mind wading through some questionable costume choices to see Murphy be all broody and tortured. The series he stars in, Peaky Blinders, is a sprawling family soap opera tucked inside a gritty historical crime drama, sprinkled with modern sex and drugs, MTV-style cinematography, and moody pop music. It was made by the BBC and is broadcast in the U.S. exclusively on Netflix.

The period is 1919 to 1922, so far, in working-class Birmingham, England (with excursions to London), and my biggest complaint is that someone can’t make up their minds if they want to costume this show for the late 1910s (reflecting slightly out-of-date clothes that would seem reasonable for this level of society, at least for the first season of the show) or very posh mid-1920s (with all the cliches you’d imagine about ’20s fashion; hello, fringey flappers). This is mostly apparent on the women’s clothes, because, let’s face it, one tweed suit of the era looks a hell of a lot like the other to most folks.

The first two seasons of the show do make a strong attempt at a period aesthetic. The set design, architecture, even the lighting all aim for a historical feel. Things like vintage opium-smoking paraphernalia are given lingering closeups to reinforce the time and place. The men’s haircuts and facial hair are usually right out of period photos. But other key details are lacking.

So let’s look at some of the historical costumes in Peaky Blinders, highlighting these five fashion crimes and misdemeanors…


1. Ada’s Questionable 1920s Style

Peaky Blinders costumes

Who, me? Ahead of the game, why?

From the first time we see her, ostensibly in 1919, Ada Shelby has a bobbed haircut and is wearing drop-waist dresses circa 1925. This continues, in her wedding outfit with Frank (which is still in 1919) on through the bohemian ’20s outfits she wears as a solo mom. She’s totally ahead of the rest of the show, with no explanation why. Her Aunt Polly is in 1910s suits, other female characters like Grace wear simple teens-era blouses and skirts for the first series and slowly evolve towards ’20s styles in the second season, but Ada is completely fashion-forward from the minute we meet her in episode one. Makes no sense. She doesn’t have big money, and there’s no indication that this character is aping her betters. It’s just a bit sloppy.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Look, it’s a crime drama, not a history lesson.

Likewise, all the London jazz club scenes use mid-’20s fancy dresses for all the women. Fringed  dresses, strings of pearls, bobbed hair, beaded headbands, you know the drill. Sure, it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and nobody but the purists care. Strangely though, the dressy gowns Grace wears (red at the racetrack dance and green to reunite with Tommy), are more in the 1910-1920s transitional style than the cliche flapper dresses. So the show could get the historical costume right, but not at scale.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Dance dance, no revolution.


2. Grace’s Total Lack of Hairpins

Peaky Blinders costumes

Super-spy Grace plays both sides; guess that leaves no time for hair-dressing.

None of the lead female characters seem to know jack about period hairstyling — Aunt Polly is a mature woman, but her hair is floppin’ around loose most of the time, Esme Shelby has scraggly locks that haven’t seen a brush much the less pins in years, and then there’s Grace Burgess, oh sweet angel of Galloway! You need a handful of hairpins, stat.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Look at this lovely dance party. Look at every lady’s hair, even the go-go dancers on stage. Then look for the woman in red … with her hair DOWN.

So Grace, remember when Tommy tried to pimp you out at the racetrack, back in the third ep, and you two danced, and Every.Single.Woman on the dance floor had her hair styled up except you? Gracie! Good gawd girl, get your hair up.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Maybe he thinks you’re a whore because YOUR HAIR IS DOWN. (Ok, then all the women in this show whores, whatevs, patriarchy.)

I guess the whole concept of hairpins was just too much for her, because Grace bobbed her hair when she showed up in season two.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Can’t deal with gangster men and their expectations. Just cut my damn hair off.

Crime doesn’t pay enough to afford a packet of hairpins, apparently.


3. May’s Random Theda-Bara Eyeshadow

Peaky Blinders costumes

Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.

Mrs. Carleton, what a smokey eye you have there. She’s supposed to be a melancholy widowed aristocrat — so does that translate into super-heavy eyeshadow and black liner? May Carleton is made up for the movies or a nightclub crawl, not for training horses. You wouldn’t see that much eye makeup on, oh, Lady Mary Crawley or even Miss Bunting in Downton Abbey. It’s just weird and out of place for the period and her class level. Perhaps if she were going out for the night (see above with Grace in London). But with a skirt and cardi? I guess it fits with Peaky Blinders‘ music-video aesthetic, but that’s about it.

Peaky Blinders costumes

One of us is about to get rode hard and put away wet.


4. Aunt Polly’s Kick-Ass Suits

Peaky Blinders costumes

Do not mess with a woman who knows how to mix patterns.

This is the one consistently redeeming women’s historical costume feature of the show. Polly Gray, played by the always wonderful Helen McCrory, rotates through a couple of suits when she goes out and about for Serious Business. Very classy late-teens suits, including a very snazzy pinstripe number that she wears with a dotted scarf. Period pattern-mixing, FTW! Polly has a few other interesting outfits (like a fur-edged coat and her lace “going to church” veil), but the suits are her trademark. If she’s wearing a suit, whoa, watch out, shit is getting real and fast.

Peaky Blinders costumes

You have a problem with the random applique crap on my hat? Because I’ll cut a bitch.

Peaky Blinders costumes

Those jerks are going to get my dry-cleaning bill, that’s for sure.


5. All About the Newsboy Cap

Peaky Blinders costumes

Or news-MAN cap, thankyouverymuch.

Here’s one for the boys. Every fellow in the gang wears one. And I’m pretty sure it is the classic “newsboy” style, because it appears to be made in eight pieces with a button on the top, giving it a fullness that the flatter “bonnet” style (sometimes called a driving cap or golf cap these days) doesn’t have. The newsboy cap was more associated with lower classes and criminals, while the bonnet was more widely worn by all classes, the gentlemen using it for leisure wear. So Peaky Blinders gets this right.

Peaky Blinders costumes

And let’s just linger on how blue Cillian / Tommy’s eyes are.


Have you watched this historical crime drama on either the BBC or Netflix? What do you think of Peaky Blinders costumes?



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. pandaemonaeum

    There is actually reasoning behind why Esme and Polly wear their hair like that. They’re Romany-descended, and Romany fashion is outside of the fashion even now. (See ‘My Big Fat Gypsy’ anything, if you can stand it). I think with Ada, it’s to show she’s a very modern woman, to mark her as a ‘Flapper’ from the first moment she appears. The Shelbys do have money, but it’s illegal money and they spend it in ways that are quite odd!

    Grace does need some hairpins, though. Her blue transition dress was embroidered by Michele Carragher who did the embroidery for Game of Thrones, and it’s so beautiful :D

    I absolutely love this show, though :D

    • Trystan

      But it’s such a cliche for Romany to be shown with “long scraggly unkempt hair” on screen. Much like the nightclub scenes with cliche ’20s flappers. The show relies on obvious visuals, while it also tries to be hip & fresh with the music & cinematography.

      Then again, I mostly watched it on Netflix for Cillian Murphy. He’s mighty fine, even if Tommy is a jerk ;-)

      Great to know about the embroidery — that was a really cool dress, probably the best on the show!

  2. Tracey Walker

    I love this show. You may like this bit of trivia. My Dad is from Yorkshire, Leeds to be exact. He still calls the newsboy cap a “ratting cap” I don’t even want to know why (I do actually, I ask him next time I see him)

  3. Kendra

    Haven’t watched the show, but that first pic of Grace, with her hair down and that hat, is T.R.A.G.I.C.

    And Cillian Murphy, yum!

    And I’d love to know more about the term “ratting” cap!

    • Trystan

      The lack of hats & the lame hats when they do exist — basically, the woeful state of millinery in this show, for a period that has amazing hats — would have been #6 on my list, totes.

      But I prob. got distracted by Cillian’s beautiful blue eyes & stopped writing.

  4. Creatifiny

    I have just found Peaky Blinders and I agree that Ada is supposed to be very fashion forward and what’s up with Grace’s hair. Also Tommy’s bone structure does really steal the show. My main question is why does May wear a 20 year old dress when she comes up to the posh area after the race? Is she just nostalgic or is it that special? It looks very out of place to me.

  5. Kim Collins

    Yes to everything here! Just started the show and was so bothered by the ‘I used my straight iron to create beach waves’ on Grace that I came straight to Frock Flicks for some sanity! Glad Aunt Polly’s suits got their own reference as I do love everything about her! And I will probably keep watching for the aforementioned blue eyes and cheekbones though ;-)

    • Megan

      YES! It looks like straight iron curls! Why!?

      I hate Grace’s hair – re-watching with my husband, and now he makes fun of me because I was complaining about her “now hair” – it totally kills my suspension of disbelief.

      It’s like whoever did the hair & makeup on this show was obsessed with men’s fashion, and so the boy’s clothes are all on spot on, but they just kinda didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the girls.

  6. Lynne

    OK. Late to the party, but, why do the guys all ditch the newsboy caps somewhere at the end of Season 3(?), and start wearing fedoras? Was it time period related or signifying a class shift, or what?

  7. SarahV

    VERY LATE to the party, but even if its not terribly historically accurate, it was deliriously exciting to watch the wardrobe of the women chacarecters evolve with the times as they accrue wealth and acquire social position. Especially the woman who was Tommy’s secretary. By season 4, she’s weapons-grade chic. That emerald green shirt-dress and her sharp bob… Day-um.

    What is it about these 20’s ladies clothing that instantly reads glamour and chicness while also being unmistakably feminine? Those spectacular coats with the huge lapels, that amayyyyzine blouse (jacket?) that May Carleton is wearing when she firsts meets Tommy (with the layered, folding bi-colored lapels…). It’s just all so dazzling.

  8. Lisa Maddox

    It would be great for a re-visit since the wealth and class status has changed such a great deal for the characters.

  9. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m very late to the party. I started watching it after seeing Sophie in Gentleman Jack and was curious about her other roles. (I’d seen Suranne in other stuff).
    However, I’m hooked on the show and I’ve requested season 3 from my library’s ILL program. But might add Netflix as I cancelled Hulu. Harlots, thought a good show, was the only reason I had it.

    Did I mention how mesmerizing Cillian’s blue eyes are?
    Also, Aunt Polly is awesome and Ada is awesome in training. Helen McCrory is worth watching it on her own. She’s so compelling as Polly. Did I mention that Cillian’s eyes are really blue?