There are few things more delightful than a period drama when you’re really in the mood – unless you’re a historian. As it is for anyone watching a show set in their industry, it can be far from relaxing when you see liberties being taken with accuracy to further plot, or to make something look really cool.
And because we all love a bit of pedantry from time to time, we thought we’d really lean into this and ask one of our favourite historians, Kate Strasdin, author of The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes, to examine the accuracy of scenes from some of the biggest TV shows and films of recent years.
“I think the biggest mistake is always this idea of the corset as instrument of torture,” Strasdin explains. “The corset was just an everyday object for women. It wasn’t as problematic as we think it might be now, just because we don’t wear it and it’s unfamiliar. It has become this object that seems to stand up for all the oppression that women have undoubtedly been subjected to over the centuries.”
Are you ready with your red pen? Then let’s get cracking.
1) Bridgerton: Presentation at Court
“Corset myth bonanza here,” says Strasdin, snapping pause on a video of an extremely uncomfortable-looking Prudence Featherington being strenuously laced up. “There are many things I love about Bridgerton costumes – Bridgerton is a fantasy, it isn’t supposed to be accurate – but the myth of the corset and being winched into your corset and the idea that it’s going to draw blood!”
Prudence should be wearing a shift or chemise underneath her corset, to protect her skin, and the corset from body odour, Strasdin explains. It would also not be uncomfortable to wear. “I’ve done a lot of research into women mountaineers, climbing mountains and doing everything in their corsets because they’re used to it,” she says. It might be trickier for us to try going into cold, but society women of the time would be completely used to their corsets. “I wonder if people will look at things like skinny jeans and go, ‘Why did people wear them?’”
Daphne Bridgerton’s white gown for her debut at court is just right for the early 1800s setting, while Queen Charlotte is dressed in the fashions of her youth in the 1770s. “It shows someone who is not quite ready to let go of her past.” The Queen’s underskirt paniers serve to show the expensive fabrics off as if on a canvas. “The bigger the panier, the posher the occasion.”
The silhouettes are all spot on, Strasdin says, but leaning into that fantasy aspect again, the fabrics and colours are all very contemporary.
2) Gentleman Jack: The Wedding
The silhouettes on the dresses of Anne Lister’s wife, Ann Walker, might look exaggerated but are accurate for the period of 1820s-1830s. Women would have worn a type of arm band under the fabric to emphasis the shape. “Enormous leg of mutton sleeves, as they were called, were all the rage at that time,” says Strasdin, before moving onto Anne, the titular gentleman, and wealthy landowner, who is dressed in male fashion down to her waist when it’s revealed that she’s wearing a skirt.
“There would have been no way that someone in her position, even someone with lots of money, would have worn trousers,” agrees Strasdin. “Although she’s wearing this very masculine wardrobe in terms of this waistcoat, jacket, and headwear, she’s still wearing a skirt.” Anne’s vivid patterned waistcoat matches the fashions of the times, with outerwear becoming more sober but waistcoats giving an opportunity for flair. While her diaries give a lot of information in terms of what she bought, and how, it isn’t clear how overtly masculine her wardrobe would have been.
Hats were of vital importance – nobody left home without one. “If you were a woman, you wear a bonnet trimmed with ribbons; if you were a man, you were wearing a top hat, a cap if you’re a working man. To go outside with a bare head is unthinkable.”
3) Little Women: Beth’s last Christmas
Marmee sitting at the breakfast table with her hair down in a plait shows the family being completely at ease with each other, but also on the fringes of convention. Later, the use of cosy plaids and wool dresses reflect the Victorian love of tartan. “In the US it has association with people looking at their Celtic roots. Plaids were made in the States and became a part of the textile traditions of that country.”
The family’s economic status is also shown through the use of mended clothing and hand me downs, while Jo’s feeling that she doesn’t belong within the boundaries of conventional femininity reveals itself through her wearing a man’s style denim shirt and knitted waistcoat. “There’s so much detail there, and the characters develop through the costumes.”
4) The Personal History of David Copperfield: Meeting David’s great-aunt Trotwood
Set in the mid-1800s, the film is a splendid combination of style and substance. “The smocking on Tilda Swinton’s sleeve is very much a period detail from that decade, then you have other details that bend it a bit and make it unexpected,” says Strasdin. The heavily saturated colour is one example. “It works because it’s intentional.”
Mr Dick’s eccentric ensemble is also on the money; a banyan (a type of early dressing gown) was a classic example of indoor wear, with quilting to help keep as much warmth close to the body as possible in draughty homes.
Unlike those of the middle and upper classes, examples of working-class dress haven’t survived, so designers are usually working from images and descriptions. For David Copperfield’s own early outfits, the costume designer looked at daguerrotypes from America that showed bright plaids. “It might look bright, but it’s a nod to these emerging industries.” As his fortunes improve, his clothing gets bolder and with more pattern – again, it looks quirky and unusual to our eyes, and patterns might not be clashed with the same style as shown, but it’s not far off the mark. “Certainly, men’s trousers could be really, really bold and that’s captured here.”