TBT: John Adams, Episode 1

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We’re recapping the 2008 miniseries John Adams each week because the 18th-century costumes and American history are just that good! Catch all the episodes here.

 

We’ve touched on John Adams (2008) here and there over the years, but have never devoted a full, in-depth look at the costumes in this critically acclaimed miniseries. One of the biggest reasons is that as far as the first episode is concerned, the costumes are pretty boring. Getting past that, if all you’re looking for is a quick fix to scratch that frock flick itch, means having to sit through an hour of actual plot and acting and very little interesting costume content. Which is to say, I had tried watching John Adams a couple of times for what is probably the wrong reason: I wanted to see fabulous 18th-century costumes.

About a month into quarantine, however, Himself and I were looking for a good miniseries to watch, and John Adams came up on our Amazon Prime feed and I admitted I had never seen it. Himself expressed surprise, since he said it was one of the best shows dealing with that period of American history that he had ever watched. I kind of made some lame attempt to explain that if I watch a historical show, it’s for the costumes, not so much the content, but that made me sound like a weirdly stuck-up idiot, so I acquiesced and we put it on.

This was probably my third attempt at watching the show, but now I started to get interested because I had someone sitting beside me who was overflowing with interesting discussion points about the lead up to the American Revolution (which, again, is not my historical jam). And a funny thing happened … I started getting interested in the characters, the plot, the sets, and even, yes, the costumes. And without revealing too much for those who still think spoilers are a thing (also, why are you even here? Our motto is”there are no spoilers in history”) the costumes get much more interesting as the series progresses.

So! On to the costuming content for episode 1 (just be prepared … it’s not exciting).

John Adams is called to represent a regiment of British soldiers who allegedly open fired unprovoked on a crowd of Colonists. This is a career-defining moment for Adams, and he does not back down even though his own political leanings are against the British.

 

Abigail gives him sound advice while sitting in a cozy curtained bed.

 

Alright, you have my attention. The first somewhat interesting outfit Abigail wears in the series as she witnesses John’s closing statement in court. It’s a gorgeous brown/blue shot silk gown, which was super fashionable for this era, believe it or not. The only thing I have a gripe about, and this hold true throughout the series, is that her gowns OBVIOUSLY hook-and-eye in the front. Yes, they got the front closure right, but it would have been pinned, not hooked.

 

Abigail’s at-home costume is very utilitarian. There are no house servants, which I kiiiiind of wrinkled my face at, since the Adamses were decently well-off even at this point in John’s career. Even though they did not own slaves, they would have surely had a paid servant or two, yet Abigail is shown to be the sole “help” around the house (I’m sure our readers will chime in to correct me if I’m wrong about them not having any kind of paid help … 🙄).

 

What’s this? Looks like silk! Go on…

 

Ah, yes, a tasteful green silk frock and silk fichu for dinner at the British Attorney General’s home.

 

This is something that you will see throughout the series: the secondary female characters have passable-but-not-as-good-as-Abigail’s dresses, though the hair is pretty decent. Since most of the camerawork focuses on the neck up, the hair is usually the focal point in every shot, and the costumes are largely secondary.

 

The AG has a smart silk suit and an on-trend wig without being too over the top.

 

John and his cousin Samuel discuss Important Things while walking down by the docks. I do love me a good Garrick coat.

 

Attorney General Sewall wears an unpretentiously pretentious black silk satin frock coat and matching weskit.

 

I have nothing interesting to say about this scene other than I love the composition.

 

EXCELLENT wig, sir!

 

You catch the briefest glimpse of Abigail’s gown here. I like a lot about it, but the thing I disagree with is how high the neckline is. It needs to be lowered about 2-3″. I think they’re trying to convey that she’s pregnant (because “pregnant” = “extreme modesty,” I guess) since, like I mentioned above, the camera focus is on the neck up in almost every scene.

 

Kendra has promised to do a post in the near future on the trope of Girls Wearing Their Hair Down in the 18th Century and Why It Is Not Period, Thank You Very Much. Stay tuned.

 

Abigail is preggers and is wearing a nice patterned jacked in a suitably boring greige. John, meanwhile, is killing it in a tastefully blah brownish-mauve.

 

The whole family sends John off on the next stage of his career … As Massachusetts’ delegate in the Continental Congress.

 

Check in next week for another episode of John Adams!

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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.

23 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I loved this series when it came out. John and Abigail Adams are my favourite Revolutionary Americsn couple. Donna Zakowska did on the whole excellent costumes.
    I think the high neckline on Abigail’s brown preggers dress is suppose to convey ‘Bistonians are more puritanical when it comes to dress than their Southern neighbors (Philadelphia and the South)’ and not being preggers.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I think the high neckline on Abigail’s brown preggers dress is suppose to convey ‘Bistonians are more puritanical when it comes to dress than their Southern neighbors (Philadelphia and the South)’ and not being preggers.

      I’d buy that if it weren’t for the fact that pre-pregnant Abigail is shown wearing a normal low neckline out and about (without a fichu while she’s at home, but with one while she’s in public/at dinner with the Sewalls). After she becomes pregnant, the necklines on all her outfits get higher, to the point where they’re almost at the base of her neck.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        Ok it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. Cannot find my copy either. So you’ve convinced me.

        Reply
        • Sarah Lorraine

          I’m mostly convinced it’s the costume designer’s attempt to compensate for the fact that almost every shot is a close-up of the actor from the shoulders up. It’s a visual cue that the character has changed somehow, since shots that show her expanding waistline don’t show up as much.

          Also, appropos of nothing, I really dislike the shaky cam style of cinematography used in this era of film, and John Adams is no exception. I get that it’s supposed to appear “intimate” and give the viewer a sense of being in the room with the actors, but it’s SO distracting. Also, motion sickness inducing. Bleh.

          Reply
          • Susan Pola Staples

            Well why not add your favourite tipple during Part II? I can’t stand shaky cam either and imho it’s sloppy, not intimate. I mean, Sir Peter didn’t use it for Aragorn’s Arwen Dream in LOTR:TTT and him kissing the horse brought a needed chuckle.

            Reply
          • Author Jennifer Quail

            The part that really drives me nuts with this show is long before we actually get to the Netherlands there are so many Dutch angles you’d think Boston was built on a very steel cliff. (It’s on a hill but not THAT much, guys.)

            Reply
  2. DRush76

    Jefferson and his louche lounging will quickly become a fixture for me. In this scene, he wears an unpretentiously pretentious black silk satin frock coat and matching weskit.

    That’s not Jefferson. Jefferson made his first appearance in Episode 2. The man in that photo is actor Guy Henry portraying a friend of Adams’, Jonathan Sewell.

    Reply
  3. Al Don

    I like some aspects of the series more than others; I appreciate that the filmmakers trust the audience’s attention span without actively testing it. I cannot get over the incessant Dutch angles.

    The author of the source material, David McCullough, spoke at my university. He had just the nicest things to say about actor Paul Giamatti. He said all those months of filming and Paul Giamatti did not flub one. single. line. McCullough said he’ll never again doubt how sedulous actors can be.

    Reply
  4. Emily

    I am really glad you’re doing this! I love John Adams and colonial history is my favorite history!

    Reply
  5. Charity

    I love this series. I watch it at least once a year and cry over certain episodes. But admittedly, the first episode is the dullest and hardest for me to get into. By the time Stephen Dillane’s sexy Jefferson showed up, though, I was all in and my friends and I spent weeks talking about if it was wrong to have the hots for a Founding Father. We concluded that if he looks, sounds, and flirts as well as Dillane, the answer is no, it’s perfectly within our right. ;)

    Reply
    • Amanda J Shirk

      STEPHEN DILLANE’S SEXY JEFFERSON. THIS. ALL OF THIS. Omg my sister and I re-watched all of the jefferson scenes twice omg. There are so many reasons why I love this series but Stephen Dillane is. The. main. reason.

      Reply
      • Charity

        Yessss. I like how they did all the characters, but admittedly I pay way more attention whenever Dillane is around. ;)

        Reply
  6. Lily Lotus Rose

    This was a good series. Like you, Sarah, I ended up watching years after it came out. When I finally did make the time for it, I enjoyed it. As a non-costume expert, it looked “right” to me, and it looked like they spent money on this production. Sometimes I’m more turned off by a production that looks cheap rather than a production that doesn’t look accurate. Costume-wise there’s nothing in this post that grabs me except for the British soldiers in the background of the court scene. I feel a kinship with Mrs. Bennet, “I remember the time when I liked a redcoat myself very well–and indeed so I do still at heart.” :) Charity, yes,Stephen Dillane’s “sexy Jefferson” was a visual treat in this series, and Rufus Sewell’s Alexander Hamilton was an all too brief snack. Looking forward to more posts on this series…

    Reply
    • SarahV

      I forgot all about Rufus Sewell was Hamilton!!!!! Bring on the Hot Federalists!

      Reply
  7. M.E. Lawrence

    I had almost forgotten how great that cast was. And do I recall correctly that Sarah Polley was Abigail Jr.? I’d forgive Sarah Polley anything, even loose hair in public.

    Reply
  8. A. M.

    I remember watching this in high school history class! Delighted to return to it with Frock Flicks!
    Rewatching it now, I weirdly love how they got the teacups correct? (The lack of handle is very period.)

    Reply
  9. SarahV

    I was obsessed (obsessed!) with this when it first came out and watched all the “making of” mini documentaries – Laura Linney herself gushed about her costumes particularly the ‘beautiful line’ of her costumes as First Lady. I don’t even know what we would call this period – Is it Regency? Even in America?

    Also, not a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about how dreamy Stephen Dillane was as Thomas Jefferson and his just :this: side of foppish day suits.

    *setting aside how icky Tom Jeff might have been IRL. ahem.. Saly Hemmings.

    Reply
    • Jamie

      Here it was called the Federalist style I believe. as we didn’t have a Regency. :-)

      Reply
  10. Sarah M Walsh

    The Adamses did have paid help, something like three or four servants by the time she had all four children. When Abigail’s father died, there were at least two (possibly three) enslaved persons who were freed according to his will, whom Abigail then employed in her household on a paid salary.

    Reply

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