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)
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.
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.
The Long Song (2018)
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.
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.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)
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.
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
Do you have any favorite frock flicks set in the 1830s?