Harlots: Who Wore It Better?


I’ve been digging Harlots (though the major plot twist that happened in episode 7 made me want to flip a table, but I won’t get into that until I know how the eff the writers are going to resolve the mess they got their characters into). I knew pretty much from the first time I saw the trailer that this Hulu series would be right up my (heh) alley, and I gotta say that it’s one of the best feminist historical shows made in years. In fact, I can’t really think of one that is on par with it without going back to Elizabeth R, which is such a different beast that it almost seems absurd to put them in the same category of feminist historical films.

Forget the whole The White Princess is feminist!” bullshit that’s making the PR circuit … Harlots has legit feminist characters acting within the social confines of their historical period and fucking owning that shit. 

Also with better scriptwriters.

Of course, the one thing that Harlots sort of fails at (especially so if we’re sticking to the Elizabeth R comparison) is the costuming. I’m not saying it’s bad! I’m just saying that it’s a lot of recycled costumes from all over the 18th century. For a show that purports to be in 1763, you see everything from a mantua c. 1700 to gowns that were made for Marie Antoinette‘s 1780s setting. But the writing is so smart, and the acting is so good, and the plot just sucks you in to the point where you’re like, “Well, OK, I maybe I can forgive the c. 1700 mantua on the Emily Lacey because she’s supposed to be wearing ostentatious, yet wildly out of fashion clothing because it’s what she can afford…”

So, with that in mind, I decided to put together a collection of the gowns thus far identified from other shows and movies and you all can decide who wore it better.

(And as always, major thanks to Recycled Movie Costumes for making this post much easier on me.)


Harlots vs. Doctor Who (et. al.)

This particular dress is basically the frock equivalent of the town bicycle. According to Recycled Movie Costumes, it was made for The Madness of King George, in 1994. Since then, it’s graced the screen in The AristocratsThe Brotherhood of the Wolf, Marie AntoinetteSupersizers Go: French RevolutionHorrible Histories, and Bellebefore making it onto the back of Jessica Brown Findlay in Harlots. But here we have Brown Findlay modeling it against Sophia Myles in Doctor Who: The Girl in the Fireplace (because I am nothing if not a HUGE Doctor Who fan).


Harlots vs. The Scandalous Lady W

So far, this is the only other wearing of this seafoam green gown that was made for Natalie Dormer’s character in The Scandalous Lady W (2015).


Harlots vs. Les Miserables

This one was hard to track down. The three of us agreed that we had seen it somewhere before, but none of us could pinpoint where, until someone remembered that it was made for Helena Bonham Carter‘s character, Madame Thénardier, in the 2012 Les Miserables. 


Harlots vs. Marie Antoinette

This dress is so, so pretty. It’s based on a sketch of Marie Antoinette just prior to her being carted off to France to marry the Dauphin, and accordingly, the first film it appears in is Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). Since then, it’s appeared on at least two other occasions. On Harlots, it’s seen a few times on screen being worn by Lesley Manville.


Harlots vs. The Duchess

I had to lighten the hell out of this screen cap from episode 5 in order to get a better look at the dress, but it does in fact appear to be the same gown as in The Duchess (2008), just with the skirt bustled up and sans bow.


Harlots vs. A Royal Affair

J’adore Marie-Louise D’Aubigne, the ice queen French harlot who cuts and runs to Mrs. Wells’ house at the first opportunity. The dress she runs off in, however … Not so much. It’s a kitchy pastiche of 18th-century concepts that just looks really costumey when it’s all said and done. That said, this dress has appeared in a few other productions, including A Royal Affair (2012).


Harlots vs. Belle

This gray silk brunswick makes a number of appearance on Lesley Manville in Harlots, being Lydia Quigley’s main “traveling” costume that she wears as she goes about trying to wreak havoc on Margaret Wells’ custom. It was made for The Duchess and has been used several times in other films, but the first one I remember taking notice of it in was in Belle (2013). I actually singled it out as my favorite costume in the film on our podcast.


I know there’s more than just these recycled costumes in Harlots, so if you’ve spotted others, share them in the comments!


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.

13 Responses

  1. Cheryl from Maryland

    l like the idea of second hand clothes for Harlots. That choice in itself is period. I remember being awestruck in Lit class to find out Samuel Johnson had only one suit at a time because the cost of a suit was his annual income.

  2. Cici

    I think both second-hand clothes and garments being both a bit askew and out of style works for the story. It reminds me of Emma Donoghue’s novel Slammerkin – it comes up in passing, but the heroine of the story, a former prostitute, now on her way to becoming a skilled seamstress, is a little mortified at the realization that her old finery, which she was once so proud of, was not at all well-made.

    • Andrea

      Holy heckmonkeys, I could snog you! I’ve been trying to remember the name of that book for five years!!!!

  3. kayelem

    One of the few JFB in Harlot votes for the seafoam green dress. Why? Chemise under the corset under the dress.

  4. recycledmoviecostumes

    This is excellent! Very nice catch especially with the gown from “The Duchess.” The costumes from that film were so wonderfully done.

  5. Cheryl

    This is like a “who’s who” of amazing 18th century frockflicks. A great reference for movies of this period to check out!!

  6. rowsella315

    Enjoying Harlots too. I love all the dress references. With the cast on this show, of course they need to borrow!

  7. Maggie

    Great catches! I just finished the series and that pink dress from MA and the Doctor Who one I recognized instantly. The others I didn’t catch though. On the whole I really loved the costumes in the series – everyone was wearing stays and shifts! It wasn’t 100% accurate, but so much better than so many other series, I had to applaud so many of their choices. I really loved the teal saque Charlotte spent so much time in, and it just made me happy to have a whole series of my fav period silhouettes. Charlottes 1840s-front gown was totally weird, but I loved so much of how they dressed her. She really looks great in 18th century. (Also, I loved that Brunswick too.)

  8. jill beauchamp