Or, Is Regency Easier Than Most Other Eras?
I’m enjoying Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015), the BBC’s adaption of the Susanna Clarke novel of the same title. Essentially, the mini-series (which recently aired in the US) is set in an alternate Regency England in which magic once existed and is now being resurrected by two magicians (the aforementioned Strange and Norrell). I’ve watched four of the seven episodes, and (don’t worry, no spoilers) so far the focus has been on the rediscovery of magic and Strange and Norrell’s differing opinions on how it should be used. Luckily, there are also two lead female characters — Strange’s wife Arabella and Lady Pole, who is resurrected from the dead and isn’t too happy about it.
I should say that I’m liking but not loving it, although I’m probably the wrong person to review it, because while I enjoy historical and fantasy fiction, I’m pretty strongly partial to stories with female protagonists. I also feel like the story is building slowly, but at the same time Things Are Happening so maybe that’s not fair. I don’t know! I know a LOT of people who LOVED the book, so I feel like I should love it too, and I feel guilty! Especially because it’s much more imaginative than most of the historical fiction that we see on screen these days.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Costumes
So, let’s move on and talk costumes, shall we? I’ve been so steeped in reviewing 18th-century-set productions that I can’t tell anymore whether the costuming in this is Really Good or whether Regency is just easy (either because the women’s garments are less complicated, or because it’s been done so often that there’s more to draw on). I’m also NOT a Regency expert. I know about the era in general, but to me it’s more of post-18th-century with some unnecessary nightgowns thrown in. So I’m not the one to catch if the necklines aren’t quite right, or there’s too much of this and not enough of that.
All that aside, what I’m seeing I quite like! The costumes were designed by Barbara Kidd, who has been working in costume productions since the 1970s. Her credits include lots of Doctor Who, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2001), and Little Dorrit (2008).
The costumes seem very clearly of the era they are set — during the Napoleonic Wars, so post the full skirts of the 1790s and before the super-structured-and-very-trimmed 1820s.
The gents are looking VERY spiffy in their nicely fitted coats with DREAMY HIGH COLLARS, cravats, and tight breeches. Costume designer Barbara Kidd said:
We meet the dissolute Jonathan Strange as a young blade living in Shropshire. His clothes are suited to his disapproved occupation of riding horses and drinking, made of sturdy fabrics, full seated breeches and top boots.
Being found by a profession—magician—and marrying, he is dressed for London life. He wears stockings, breeches, and clean linen with patterned silk or velvet waistcoats and fashionable coats from facecloth or moleskin with close-fitting shoulders, curved sleeves, and as yet cut without a waist seam. ‘Strange & Norrell’: How to Dress Like a 19th-Century Gentleman
Mr. Norrell is less dapper, but let’s give a massive shout-out to Joyce Dean (key hair and wig designer), Tori Robinson (hair and wig supervisor), and Alex Rouse (wigmaker) for some seriously KICK ASS WIGS on the men. Norrell’s wig is the standout — it looks like a 1780s style (which makes sense, given that it’s no longer fashionable to wear them — but older and more conservative men certainly continued to wear them), it’s a great color and texture, and I love how clearly it’s a Wig and not supposed to be his real hair:
I particularly love the character of Christopher Drawlight (“Mr. NoRELL!” insert flourish) — who doesn’t love a good fop? His wig clearly marks him as such, and it’s also nicely designed and made. He’s also frequently in colorful/patterned waistcoats, which sets him apart from the other gents:
Then you’ve got The Gentleman, who is shown wearing Proper Regency Gentleman’s clothes but with crazy cool hair and eyebrows:
And when he gets fairy-ed up, he wears this amazing green coat that incorporates oak leaves (one of England’s symbols) and is very John Barleycorn:
I am VERY happy with the designs used for Stephen Black. His servant’s livery is very 18th century, which is totally right, and I love that he wears an 18th-century-style wig — and even when he doesn’t, his hair has a queue (a long hanging tail). 18th-century-style hairstyles hung around a lot longer than we sometimes see in media!
Finally, the design of the street magician is just great with all its aging and distressing:
Women’s Costumes in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
The ladies’ costumes are nicely made with some good distinctions between the two main leads. Arabella’s costumes are simpler and in darker colors, showing her practical side:
Lady Pole, on the other hand, is clearly not meant for this practical world. She’s dressed in diaphanous, cream/beige-colored gowns with delicate trims. Even before she dies and is resurrected, she’s in this pale, neutral color:
Sure, she’s of much higher station than Arabella, but her costumes make her look fairy-like even when she’s eating breakfast.
She’s also frequently wearing her hair down, which actually WORKS FOR ONCE, because it’s makes her look insane/ill. THANK YOU, DESIGNERS, FOR USING HAIR-WORN-DOWN EFFECTIVELY!
And even when she’s sent off to the madhouse, she’s still in a diaphanous gown in that same color palette — this time, it looks like a sheer hammered silk:
Of course, design-wise what’s most exciting is the fairy land of Lost Hope. It’s fantasy, so the designer can get away with pretty much anything. She went for a range of different eras, all in cream and silver. It’s ghostly, it’s sparkly, it’s ethereal, it’s GREAT.
I’ve kind of been twitching, watching everything else, because I WANT MOAR.
It looks like I’m going to get a lot more Lost Hope in future episodes (again, I’ve only watched 1-4), so I’m excited to get more time to ooo and ahh!
Have you been watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? What do you think of the Regency and fantasy costumes? If you’ve read the book, how does the TV adaptation work for you?
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I’ve been waiting for this! Love the series and worship the costumes and sets.
BTW, BBC America cut quite a bit to make room for commercials, so if you’re able to get streams of the original video, do so!
One of the things I really loved is that Strange and Norrell’s costumes no only reflect their level of sophistication, but they also reflect their philosophies about magic. Norrell is still a mid-18th century Neoclassicist who lives by rules and structure, while Strange is a late-century Romantic who is ruled by free, uncontrolled emotion.
It’s all been shown here, and you have a lot to look forward to. As far as I can tell, the military uniforms and gear seem right. I will say only that I didn’t like the way it ended. But I thought it was well done all around.
Agree that the ending could be better, but the author is finally working on a sequel novel, and if we live long enough, we may see better things in an upcoming series.
I’m so glad to hear this!
It took her 10 years to write the first novel.
Dork moment: I love Arabella’s Lost Hope sleeves, because one of the dresses I patterned for my book has sleeves exactly like that!
I can’t tell anymore whether the costuming in this is Really Good or whether Regency is just easy (either because the women’s garments are less complicated, or because it’s been done so often that there’s more to draw on)
It’s tough to say. What it seems like to me is that there have been so many Regency movies that focus on female characters that a reasonably accurate “language” has been established for the period that makes it easier for costumers to design without going off the rails. At the same time, it’s a period that tends toward a less-strict approach to accuracy and specifics (in costuming outside of movies, I mean, as compared to the American Revolution or American Civil War), so there are quite a few things in that accepted language that aren’t really right.
I am a big fan of the show, and I really appreciate this post about the costumes! I particularly enjoy Mr. Norrell’s red cap with the gold tassel. I am desperate to find a similar cap (to give as a gift). Do you know the proper name for that type of cap or how I might go about finding one?
It may be referred to as a nightcap.
Isn’t it usually referred to as a smoking cap?
I’m familiar with the term ‘smoking jacket,’ but never seen the other usage. Might be more Victorian. Dunno for sure. I have a picture of a man in a “nightcap” which I will post on the FB page.
I hated the book, it took me over a year to read (I’ll usually devour a book like that in about two weeks) and was about 1000 pages of abject boredom and 200 pages right at the end of really good story telling. I absolutely loved the series though. Story wise, knew exactly what to leave out and what to put in. The costumes left me spellbound. I am not a regency fan (and personally find regency to be very difficult) so I am prone to dislike regency shows just because, however these were beautiful and perfect and just worked so gorgeously with the characters. This was the first series since Carnivale that has truly grabbed me. I binged watched the entire series over two days and didn’t fall asleep during a single episode!