I haven’t watched all the episodes of The Nevers (2021), currently playing on HBO, and a dozen will air in the first season. But I’ve gotten a good taste, plus there’s been some interesting press about the show and the costumes. While this is definitely a science fiction / fantasy series, it’s set in a pretty realistic 1890s London, so it counts as a frock flick IMO.
Some of the early reviews have been critical of the show, which is fine, not every show will be instantly or widely loved. The critiques I’ve heard have boiled down to a) this story was already done as the X-Men (um, no, not in 1890s London that I’m aware of, but then, I only watched one X-Men movie and didn’t care!), b) the characters / plots are just like all of showrunner Joss Whedon’s other shows (I haven’t watched more than one episode of Buffy either, so I have no idea!), and c) toxic and abusive behavior by showrunner Joss Whedon. OK, on the last one, I have no reason to disbelieve the accusations, since power and abuse in Hollywood go together like bread and butter. But does the art reflect the disgusting aspects of the artist? I think that’s the question we should ask, on a case by case basis, and not automatically cancel any piece of art just because it’s made by someone horrible. I don’t see particularly abusive or gross themes in the season so far, plus Whedon left the show after this season. All the actors, the other five writers, the other two directors, and of course, the two costume designers deserve a lot of credit for their work on this series, and I don’t think it’s fair to throw that down the drain just because Whedon is an asshole.
That aside, I’m enjoying the series for the variety of characters, each with complications and backstories of their own that get slowly revealed. The characters have interesting relationships too, and I especially like watching Mrs. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and Miss Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) together — they’re like close sisters, who have complimentary personalities, they play off each other well. Most of the main characters are female, and they’re all different and react to their gaining these strange new powers in their own ways. Some parts of the plot are predictable but there’s enough that feels fresh so I tend to come back for another episode. Not quickly, but I’m just not a binge-watcher anyway.
What I am really interested in is the costumes, and they’re good fodder for Frock Flicks because, unlike the plot, the costumes don’t stray too far from historical. They aren’t fantastical, but the whole world does have its own distinctive look, which is fine, that’s what any movie or TV production would do. The 2020 Emma went all-in with candy-colored pastels in the costumes and art direction to make a point about the artificiality of that world, vs. the soft, natural hues in some Jane Austen period flicks. It’d be unfair to write off The Nevers as “steampunk” — goggles (and, OK, sunglasses) are only worn for appropriate jobs, not casually! — because the costumes have more subtlety than that.
Michele Clapton is the main designer, while Jane Petrie is credited with the pilot episode. Clapton is best-known for her stunning, world-building costume designs for all 8 seasons of Game of Thrones (2011-2019), and she also designed the first season of The Crown (2016), Queen of the Desert (2015), and the David Tennant Casanova (2005), among others. Jane Petrie’s work includes Outlaw King (2018) and the second season of The Crown (2017). Clapton has done some press for The Nevers and explained to Town & Country how she started work on the show:
“It’s funny because I was approached to do it a while before [filming began], but unfortunately, I wasn’t available, so I came in on the second episode, which is always strange. I think it worked quite well, though. I suppose I wanted to create each of these very strong women in their own particular way so that they were identifiable very quickly and would play to their strengths because we get so much of the story just from looking at them.”
The show has a specific timeline — a fantastical event happened in 1893, and the main action of the show happens in 1899 — but the costumes range all over the 1890s. This actually makes good sense because real people in a real city aren’t all wearing clothes that reflect the fashions of one exact year. The women’s clothing silhouettes range around the decade like this:
In the Town & Country interview, Clapton said:
“The mid 1890s is where we were. I particularly love the huge sleeves and the silhouettes; in fact, sometimes doing the research you can’t believe that these shapes were really worn because they were so extreme. I think some of the men’s wear and most of the society figures — in particular Lavinia Bidlow, who was one of my favorites to design for — are truer to period. Whereas with the orphans, we could have more fun because their backgrounds were diverse, and we often have to think about how we could disguise whatever their affliction was. I say [the costumes on the series are] slightly heightened. I think they make you feel secure in the fact that you are actually in this period and it’s not just a fantasy land.”
Lavinia Bidlow is the wealthy benefactor of the “orphaned” women with magical talents, called The Touched. Lavinia’s money shows in her elaborate costumes and, I guess, because she’s the only woman who consistently wears hats (wtf? did they run out of money for more millinery?).
In an interview with Refinery 29, Michele Clapton commented on how she contrasts the wardrobes of friends Amalia and Penance: “I had the idea to darken Amalia’s color palette and play on the softer tones of Penance’s.”
Her wardrobe definitely draws from 1890s styles, such as :
Though one outfit really stood out to me.
Penance’s clothes do have a lighter overall tone than Amalia’s, fitting her character’s softer personality.
Poldark‘s Eleanor Tomlinson shows up as Mary Brighton wearing this gorgeous embroidered blouse:
Harriet Kaur (Kiran Sonia Sawar), one of the young ladies at the orphanage, seems to have a background that will be revealed in a subplot, and I like that the colors and prints of her dresses hint at her South Asian heritage. But hairpins, please!
The closest to steampunk the costumes get is Rochelle Neil as Annie Carbey in this leather-accented outfit:
This is a rare show with some slightly interesting (to me!) men’s costumes. Specifically, the degenerate Lord Swan (James Norton):
Plus, the nasty Beggar King, Declan Orrun (Nick Frost), has some posh duds:
Are you watching The Nevers?
I kinda wish they’d share where they keep finding that green striped fabric or who’s hoarding it, because I want to make that jacket ensemble from Poldark and having the exact same fabric would be pretty rad.
It’s on my list, but I’ll finish Shadow and Bone first.
That asymmetrical bodice!!! Want!!
I’ll be adding HBO to my streaming Amazon account on the 20th. And will watch then. But Bernadette Banner and Abby Cox have given the show thumbs up too.
I wasn’t actually planning on watching The Nevers … but now that I know James Norton is in it … well …
I enjoyed .the show. I liked the mix and match of colours in the dresses, especially on Amalia. Mostly contrasting sleeves. To tell the truth, I was thinking she was not rich, then using good pieces of old dresses on a new one! Didnt know it could be so victorian.fashion, as you prove it.
Annie”s leather suit is weird.
Bonfire Annie is anachronistic as hell, but she is fucking fabulous! That jauntily worn bowler slays me every time.
Also, take a closer look at her dress and also Mrs.True’s. Some of them appear to actually be riding habits with divided skirts.
Aww it’s so nice to see a well-tailored fat character! (I haven’t seen the show so I can’t speak to the characterization, but I love me some Nick Frost.)
He needs to do a biography of Boss Tweed.
If you enjoy this show, as I do, I recommend watching Abby Cox and Bernadette Banner’s YouTube videos about the costumes.
Abby discusses the references used to create the costumes, specifically the extant Victorian patterns from The Delineator magazines.
Bernadette discusses the ability of the actors to perform all kinds of physical activity in these costumes, specifically Laura Donnelly’s management of her skirts, showing the video of her climbing stairs with NO SKIRT HIKING. She also discusses things like Maladie’s wearing her bodice inside out, thus allowing the costumers to totally show off all the finer details of appropriate garment construction. She has some excellent discussion of Amalia True’s apparent tight-lacing, which is unique to her character, does not at all interfere with her ability (and thereby Laura Donnelly’s or her stunt performer) to fight impressively, and is part of the psychological makeup of this probably not-fully-human character.
Laura Donnelly, if you are wondering “where have I seen her before” is Jenny from Outlander, who always made an interesting foil for Claire, and whose breast-milk-expression scene was totally relatable and pretty awesome! Her ability to do all the things in period costume is impressive, and knocks large holes into any ideas that women in the past were limited by all the clothings.
I’m really enjoying this show, anachronisms and all, and I especially love some of the performances (Ann Skelly in particular is new to me and just a delight). But I’m curious about the decision to portray “the Touched” as a group viewed with suspicion and phobia by Victorian society at large. I know that fits with X-Men model, but the Victorians were so interested in supernatural phenomena like psychics, soothsayers, and mystics! I almost wonder whether a group of people suddenly granted inexplicable powers would actually be kind of lionized by thatsociety, and whether that might be a fresher and more interesting “people with shocking new superpowers” story.