Tuesday, January 29, 2013

1830's Drama Queens

Gurl! Get a Chemisette on...Mr. Knightley
doesn't want your sunburned shoulders!
For those of us with a love of historical clothing comes an almost requisite love of the costume drama. Of course, the negative side of that is A) you send your significant other screaming from the room when you suggest watching Pride & Prejudice (Jennifer Ehle version no doubt!) for the 297th time and B) your "literary" friends refuse to watch any period piece movie with you because of your unsolicited running commentary on the historical accuracy of each and every character's ensemble. Yep, we've all been there...alone, very likely in the sewing room, or perhaps the couch...watching Emma and yelling at no one that she really ought to be wearing a chemisette with that day dress...puhlease!  Ahem...okay, enough embarrassing insight into my life and on to what we're here for...the COSTUME DRAMA!
In particular, I want to introduce you to some...or should I say a few (because they're aren't many) that concern the time period we've been talking about in relation to the book Sophie du Pont: A Young Lady in America...the 1820's and 30's.  So, there isn't a whole lot out there to satisfy your wish of watching leg-o-mutton sleeves (Gigot sleeves in 1830's speak) grace the silver screen, but I'll share with you the ones I know...please feel free to share any other suggestions.  Keep in mind the list is in no particular order...shall we begin?

Wives & Daughters - 1999 miniseries, joint production of BBC & WGBH Boston, starring Justine Waddell, Bill Patterson, Francesa Annis, Anthony Howell (*sigh*) and many other familiar BBC faces. An adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story, the story centers around Molly Gibson, the headstrong and quirky daughter of a widowed country doctor and her struggles with a wicked stepmother, beautiful stepsister and love.  In my opinion, it's a great movie and they did a   very good job with the costuming, especially for this little understood time period. Much of Molly's wardrobe is a bit more 1820's in style, while her Stepmother and Stepsister wear the height of 1830's fashion with huge gigot sleeves and elaborate hair pieces. This speaks to Molly's simple but elegant taste and her character.  Keep in mind, that during much of the 19th Century being too fashionable was often seen as reflective of a character flaw...selfish, greedy, vain, etc. In addition to the lovely costumes the story is great...true to form of Mrs. Haskell's work.  If you love Cranford then you should enjoy Wives & Daughters. Here's a few examples of extant dresses that remind me of Molly's simple style...

Cotton dress, British, c.1827
MET Collections
American or European, 1830's
MET Collections
Cotton dress 1825-1835
Tasha Tudor Collection - Augusta Aucti

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Click here for a great article
from the New Yorker on Eliot's
childhood home, Griff House.
The fashionably annoying
Middlemarch - Another BBC production, this one aired in 1994 with seven episodes.  The adaptation was based on the 1871 novel, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans).  The novel/ movie are set in the fictional town of Middlemarch during the period of 1830-32 and focuses on many of the towns characters, but in particular Dorothea Brooke, played by Juliet Aubrey. Again, this one stars many familiar BBC faces such as Douglas Hodge, Robert Hardy, usual baddie Rufus Sewell and Colin Firth's little brother, Jonathan Firth. This is a great series and received tons of praise and awards on the other side of the pond.  Matter of fact, it even inspired a cottage industry of Middlemarch inspired stuff, from spin-off novels and comics to lectures and debates.  As far as the costuming, it's pretty good...however, Dorothea being quite the intellectual dresses somewhat plain and in general the backwater burg of Middlemarch is lacking in fashion know-how. The vain and remarkably annoying Rosamond is a spoiled fashionista with some fantastic dresses...the only problem is you have to watch her to see them.  This is another series I would highly recommend...it's not as funny as Cranford and not as depressing as a Dickens adaptation, but tows the line in-between with just the right amount of humor and tragedy with some great costumes thrown in for good measure.

Intellectual Dorthea would stick to elegant and
sensible dark silks with little adornment.
European, 1832-35, silk, MET
Fashionable and vain Rosamond would
go for the extra-large puffs!
British, ca.1830, cotton walking dress, MET 

Little Dorrit - The 2008 miniseries production of BBC and WGBH Boston is an adaptation of Charles Dickens' serial novel by the same name.  The novel was originally published between 1855 and 1857, consisting of 19 monthly installments at a cost of about a shilling each. The story centers around Amy Dorrit and her father who both live in the infamous debtors prison Marshalsea.  The story twists and turns as Dickens is prone to do so you'll just have to watch the series (or better yet read the book) to know what happens.  There have been a few adaptations of the novel, however the most recent one is at the top of my list.  The cast includes Claire Foy, Matthew Macfadyen, Bill Patterson (again), Tom Courtenay and a whole slew of characters that'll keep you going..."wait, wasn't that, yep it was", through every episode. Little Dorrit (click on the link for a great article about the inspiration for Amy's character) is one of my favorite costume dramas. I admit I'm biased because I love pretty much any Dickens adaptation, but more than that it was just great costuming (with some occasional minor missteps).  The novel begins in 1826 and this particular adaptation did a great job in conveying the fashion changes of the period...the wealthier folks wear the latest styles of increasingly puffy sleeves and large bonnets, while the elderly or the poor still sport empire fashions.  Also, the characters were portrayed in large part by their clothing.  Sweet, kind and giving, Amy is neatly dressed and lovely, but slightly out of fashion in her higher-waist dresses and narrower skirts.  Meanwhile, her sister, a dance hall girl, flirts her way into getting fashionable clothes though decidedly lacking in taste. It's fitting that big lug John Chivery, assistant turnkey of Marshalsea, puts on his best clothes complete with a fetching belcher to profess his love of Amy.  
Tough, but well mannered, Jem Belcher
might just smack you for belching
A belcher (no, not a teenage boy) was a brightly colored neck cloth named after the bare-knuckle prize fighter Jem Belcher. By the way, Dr. Who fans will recognize some familiar faces in the cast, and perhaps even the work of costume designer, Barbara Kidd.

Amy Dorrit might not be caught
dead in such an ensemble...but I might!

The Young Victoria - Now, of course we can't leave out a recent fave of many costume drama devotees...The Young VictoriaA feature film, released in 2009 and starring                                  

"The Old Victoria" just didn't have
the same ring to it...
Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend and Paul Bettany, it wowed us with stunning sets and costumes.  Who didn't envy the Queen's wardrobe..and those hairstyles?  But...I'm not the biggest fan of Queen Victoria so I had significant issues with the story line and characters that big, puffy sleeves just couldn't overcome. Plus, the movie is set in 1836 and by that point the styles are beginning to change once again toward the pointed bodices and cleaner lines of the 1840's, style changes that owed much to Victoria's influence...did I say I'm not a big fan of the big Queen V?  I did enjoy the movie, but it's one of those that I probably won't watch over and over again.  Some of the costuming ..such as the sheer bonnets were dead accurate and much of that owed to the stalker like reporting of what Queen Victoria wore at every public appearance and of course to the talents of Oscar winning costume designer, Sandy Powell (she won one for this film).  If you're in search of great costume eye candy of the 1830's (mostly the later 1830's) and sappy romanticism, then The Young Victoria is your movie!
The bald mannequins totally creep me out!
(Costumes from The Young Victoria)
Oh, hunky young Ewan...can you save this
movie from absolute awfulness?

Scarlet and Black  - Well, this is one that I slightly cringe at putting on the list because I thought it almost un-watchable...almost...you see it stars a young Ewan McGregor and it has fairly good costuming so if you turn the volume down and just stare at the eye candy...then it's tolerable.  The 1993, four-part BBC series, also starred a teenage Rachel Weisz, the elegantly haunting Alice Krige and our favorite Mr. Bingley, Crispin Bonham-Carter.  The series is based on the 1830 novel, The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) by the French novelist, Stendhal (Mari-Henri Beyle). Occurring from 1826 to 1831, the historical psychological novel (pretty much lost me there) strove to be both a psychological study of the protagonist Julien Sorel and a satire of French society under the Bourbon Restoration.  Let me translate...so this poor, smart kid gets educated by the clergy, but he's always questioning the man so he takes off to find his own way and by the way, he has visions of Napoleon. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a kindly cougar and a spoiled socialite...neither relationship goes very well and in the end everything pretty much sucks. Did I mention it stars a young Ewan McGregor?

French, about 1830, MFA Boston
ca.1830, LA Museum of Art

In case that's not enough for you, here are a few more
films that contain some 1820's/30's, but not quite enough
to be a full-fledged costume drama for this period...

Les Miserables (pretty much any adaptation, musical or not) -
Victor Hugo's classic is set in the 1830's, unfortunately there's not a whole lot of cutting edge fashion in French prisons!  I thouroughly enjoyed the new musical-based release and there are some other great adaptations of the novel...you'll find a review of them here. The version
released in 2000 with Gerard Depardieu as Jean Valjean and John Malkovick as Javert (heck yeah!) got great reviews and is available on Netflix.

Jane Eyre - While most of the story takes place in the 1840's, the really scary part...Jane's childhood is set in the 1830's. Multiple adaptations are available with at least two on Netflix and the most recent version, released in 2011 is on DVD.

Swashbuckling ensues!
The Count of Monte Cristo - A good compromise to watch
the 2002 version with the fella...you get eye candy in the way of      Guy Pearce and Jim Caviezel and he gets sword fights and the beautiful Mercedes, played by Dagmara Dominczyk. The downside is with all the swashbuckling going on there's not much time for pretty dresses.

George Sand not in pants

Impromptu - 1991 film starring Hugh Grant and Judy Davis that is set in 1830's France and examines the strained relationship between composer
Frederic Chopin and the authoress George Sand.  Sand was one tough lady and to show it she often wore men's clothing...hence the lack of lovely 1830's ladies fashions in this odd, but likable film.

This list is no means exhaustive...I left out many older movies simply because the costuming tends to be a general "old timey" look and not necessarily period specific.  You can find Middlemarch, Wives & Daughters, Impromptu, Scarlet and Black, and various versions of Les Miserables and Jane Eyre on Netflix.  Happy watching and feel free to share your own favorite 1820's/1830's costume dramas!


  1. LOVE Impromptu....Emma Thompson's hair and gowns made me fall in love with the period. "Stupid, stupid rain..."

  2. Ah, so true...she did have some lovely gowns! :) Plus I LOVE Mandy Pantinkin! :)