Top Five Frock Flicks Set in the 1830s

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The 1830s have such wacky fashions that you’d think nobody would present them on film or in TV because they’re so “unrelatable” to 20th/21st-century fashions. But a whole bunch of good stories, real and fictional, took place during this era, so if they show up onscreen, they come with the giant sleeve plumpers, wide V-shaped pelerines, and bell skirts on the ladies. Plus, there should be some tall, loopy hairdos for evening and enormous bonnets for daytime. At least for wealthy women who keep up with the current styles, though even the middling sorts would wear the same general silhouette.

Since there are many too choose from, I had a hard time narrowing it down to my favorite five, and I threw one more in (or Kendra would kill me!).

 

Gentleman Jack (2019)

Gentleman Jack (2019)

Top of my list is series one of this HBO TV show about Anne Lister and her lesbian love life! The costumes by Tom Pye are delightful, with exaggerated 1830s fashions for the straights, plus Ann Walker, and wonderful period-butch outfits on Lister. The acting is perfect, the settings are accurate, and the story is just so satisfying. Word on the Internet has it that season two has begun filming in the U.K., after many pandemic delays.

Sophie Rundle, Gentleman Jack (2019) Sophie Rundle, Gentleman Jack (2019) Gemma Whelan - Gentleman Jack (2019-)

 

 

Middlemarch (1994)

Middlemarch (1994)

I love George Eliot, and I love this adaption of her masterwork. It covers all the complicated, interwoven stories in this small town beautifully, and there’s some early Rufus Sewell eye candy too. The costumes aren’t flashy, but you can see a good range of the 1830s styles on the townfolk, from the social-climber Rosamund to the modest Dorothea.

Middlemarch (1994) Middlemarch (1994) Middlemarch (1994)

 

 

The Long Song (2018)

The Long Song (2018). Photo credit: BBC Pictures, Heyday Television, Carlos Rodriguez.

I was so glad this finally made it to Masterpiece in the U.S., even though it seemed like a ridiculously long wait. But this is a well-told story, lyrical, poignant, and funny, which is hard to achieve when the topic is the Jamaican slave revolt of the 1830s. Much like in Gentleman Jack, the wild 1830s fashions are used to make the oppressive British slaveowners look ridiculous, especially in the tropical heat.

The Long Song (2018) The Long Song (2018)

 

 

Impromptu (1991)

Hugh Grant historical movies

This is such a funny little movie, and every time it rains, I have to quote Emma Thompson saying, “stupid, stupid rain!” from Impromptu. Plotting around the start of George Sand and Chopin’s love affair, it’s a romp filled with free-loading artists and doting aristocrats. All parties are in various levels of 1830s costume, including a bit of cross-dressing.

Emma Thompson in Impromptu (1991) Impromptu (1991)

 

 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)

1996 Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Of course I had to get some Brontë in here — and this is one that’s appropriate to set in the 1830s to 40s because of the subject nature and when it was written. This Anne Brontë’s novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband has costumes by Rosalind Ebbutt, who knows a thing or two about this period. In the early flashback scenes, there are some fancy ballgowns before everything goes sombre, but big sleeves abound.

1996 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)

 

But wait, there’s one more!

 

Wives & Daughters (1999)

What Kendra considers the number one, be-all and end-all of 1830s frock flicks, Wives & Daughters is based on a Elizabeth Gaskell novel and has a cast of well-known faces dressed in costumes by Deirdre Clancy (who doesn’t seem to have done much else?). Here’s where I admit that I haven’t seen this series. I missed it on PBS way back when, and now it’s not available for streaming or online rental anywhere. I could buy a DVD, but we already have a four part in-depth review on the blog, so I’m not motivated. #SorryNotSorry

Wives & Daughters (1999) Wives & Daughters (1999) Wives & Daughters (1999)

 

 

 

 

Do you have any favorite frock flicks set in the 1830s?

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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.”

23 Responses

  1. Jill

    There is the famously switched-to-a-different-decade 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice. Filmed in black and white, the (possibly apocryphal) story goes that the director was just off another production set in the Regency era and didn’t want to have yet another empire gowns film to his credit that same year, so he told the costumer to set Pride & Prejudice in the 1830s. I remember being terribly confused the first time I saw it. I can’t remember much about the authenticity of the costumes, but it does stick in my mind when I think about films set in the 1830s.

    Reply
    • Brenda

      I think you’re referring to the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. What I most remember from the movie is that Greer Garson walked in such a way that she literally seemed to glide rather than taking actual steps. I’ve always wondered if women really walked that way! (And according to Wikipedia, it was the studio’s decision to move the time period to the 1830s, as they wanted more elaborate costumes than those of the Regency era.)

      Reply
  2. Mary

    These are great. You may have mistyped the description of “The Long Song” – it takes place in Jamaica, not Haiti.

    Reply
  3. Kate Dominguez

    I love Middlemarch, just finished reading the book. Wives and Daughters is another great one.

    Reply
  4. Barbara Shaurette

    That image of Gemma Whelan from Gentleman Jack just cracks me up. I only just finished bingeing Upstart Crow (what took me so long??) and she’s hilarious in that, but it was especially funny because the only thing I’d seen her in before that was Game of Thrones. I’m not saying that she was miscast as Yara Greyjoy – she was so good – but I wouldn’t have known about her comic side from that.

    Reply
  5. Kathryn Willsey

    The Pirate, with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, was also set in the 1830s, also The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt.

    Reply
  6. Viola

    I really love 1830s hairstyles, and was very pleased to see them turn up (anachronistically) in Vanity Fair (from 2004 I think). That version was highly stylised (with a lot of Indian influences) so they worked.

    Reply
  7. valarielynn

    But..but..but… you forgot Cranford! And Return to Cranford! Great 30s dresses in those.
    Val

    Reply
    • Elise

      Little Dorrit didn’t make it, either, despite having an actress, a social climber, a silly dunce-man, and 2 judgy society matrons. It’s Dickens, so…but the costumes are swell. Honestly, it’s neat to see everyone’s preferences.

      By the way, what are Justine Waddell and Anthony Howell up to, these days?

      Reply
  8. Julia R

    Une Vieille Maitresse has some (as far I my uneducated eye can tell) really beautiful 1830s costumes. If nothing else, the lead actor in it is unreasonably beautiful, Fu’ad Aït Aattou.

    Reply
  9. Kelly

    I want HBO just so I can see Gentleman Jack! I have watched all of your other choices multiple times–great stuff! Jane Eyre with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton rocks some pretty awesome 1830s attire, too. :)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Oh dammit, I forgot that version of Jane Eyre! It’s the best one out there bec. it uses so much of the book as dialog. The costumes are spot-on 1830s, tho’ rather dour at times being Jane Eyre.

      Reply
  10. Karen K.

    I am GRIEVED that you haven’t been able to watch Wives & Daughters, one of my all-time favorite frock flicks! Sucks that it’s not on streaming anywhere. Maybe try your local library? It’s really worth watching, great story, wonderful cast, and the costumes and locations are beautiful.

    Reply
  11. Lily Lotus Rose

    Ok, I don’t have anything awesome to contribute here today…but I still feel the need to remark that young Julian Sands is just…………….fans self!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  12. Saraquill

    Gentleman Jack for sure. Over the top floof plus butch wear means even more pretty outfits to see.

    Reply
  13. Julie

    An old version, but still my favourite Great Expectations adaption with Michael York as Pip, and Sarah Miles as Estella, captures this era’s fashions perfectly. Estella’s white ball dress in one scene is etched forever in my memory, and her hair is in loops and bows, studded with jewels. It’s just gloriously insane. I actually sourced this version on DVD, which I think was a made-for-television Christmas special in the mid-seventies, because I love it so much. Bonus: swelling, evocative score by Maurice Jarre

    Reply
  14. Gail

    You MUST watch “Wives and Daughters” and “Cranford.” Elizabeth Gaskell! Great acting in both … and Judi Dench and Michael Gambon in Cranford say so much with so little in Cranford … exquisite.

    Reply
  15. Roxana

    What the heck were people thinking in the 1830s!!! Ugly, ugly, ugly!
    Anne Bronte’s novels are less famous than her sisters’ perhaps because their essential realism makes them far more disturbing. Arthur Huntingdon is a far more believable villain than Heathcliff!

    Reply

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