Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Aubry, who has been creating costumes and historical clothing for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t obsessing over the 1790s, she works as a freelance editor and writer to keep her cats in comfort. You can see her work at afracturedfairytale.com and abennettediting.com.
The TV series Beecham House (2019) is set in 1795, in Delhi, the during the decline of the Mogul Empire in India. The British Raj is still over 60 years away, and the East India Company and France are vying with the Indian maharajas for power. In an interview with Bradford Zone, director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha commented:
“We decided to set it at the beginning of the British Empire because that period was very interesting to me. It was a time when India was literally up for grabs. … My idea was to set it in that world, but see it as my perspective as a British Asian. I have also made it from a female perspective and I think that’s where a lot of the nuance comes from.”
Whether or not the show is entirely successful at illustrating these nuances, and to what degree, is debatable, but I enjoyed watching a show explore a period of Indian and English history that isn’t often discussed. While most of the Indian main characters are in subservient roles by nature of the upstairs/downstairs plot structure, many others are shown in positions of power, even if they have to carefully guard that power from the encroaching British. In general, the show is all rather soapy and melodramatic, but I was entertained enough to watch all six episodes over the course of two days.
This won’t be an in-depth review of all the costumes, but rather an overview where I highlight things I particularly loved or found particularly jarring. I will try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything. Now, before we get to costumes, I must note that while I have had a fascination with the fashions and history of 1790s Europe for over a decade, I don’t know enough about 18th-century Indian clothing to comment on its historical accuracy in the show. So in this article, the bulk of my comments will necessarily be framed from the European perspective, and I will make an attempt with the rest as a regular viewer.
Overall, I think the show creates a beautiful, believable mid-1790s world. There are a few missteps and modernizations (don’t worry, we’ll get to those), and maybe I’m just excited to see my favorite period attempted on screen, but I was pleased at how close they got to the transitional silhouette in the women’s clothing especially. The costumes were designed by Joanna Eatwell, whose other credits include Wolf Hall (2015) and Taboo (2017-), so I shouldn’t be surprised that I enjoyed them so much. Actress Pallavi Sharda, who plays Chandrika, commented:
“Our costume team, headed by Joanna Eatwell, undertook research into what women of that era wore. They have created the costumes in keeping with the hues, textures and silhouettes of the time.”
The show opens with John Beecham, an Englishman with a mysterious past, arriving mysteriously at his new home. The show also opens with what is the most egregious crime against 1790s fashion in the whole show: John’s Crocodile Dundee hat. The shape is close but not quite right (too western with that center dip) and combined with the printed fabric band and overall adventurer look of his outfit, it reads too modern, making him look straight out of a 1980s movie. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the leather belt he wears. I know I haven’t seen anything like it in period imagery, but I guess it’s practical?
This is what his hat should look like. Also, both Margaret and Violet wear similar hats to the one on the right throughout the series.
The rest of the men’s clothing, however, is pretty good. Offending hat aside, I really like the long duster John wears throughout the series. You see this type of buff overcoat in men’s fashion plates from the 1780s through the 1820s, the cut varying with the changing fashions, and it seems like a practical garment for his physical character. Also, just look at those collars and lapels! Rrrrrr! The mid to late-1790s is the heyday of exaggerated lapels and ridiculously large stand collars, and I was happy to see them well-represented on screen.
John wears this coat a lot. A LOT. Note the giant lapels, even bigger collar, and fashionable square cut of the jacket front.
General Castillion rocking the giant lapels. I have no clue how accurate this is in relation to actual French military uniforms of the period, but it looks plausible to me.
They did a great job subtly expressing the disparity in wealth and social station through the character’s clothing. Notice how Samuel’s jacket has a much more old-fashioned cut, and his waistcoats in the series look like linen or cotton, compared to John’s silk waistcoats.
Unfortunately, there is a shocking lack of cravats and many an open shirt, but I will forgive them. Mostly. It’s a hot climate and many of the situations are informal. The only times it truly bothered me were in scenes where the character was dressed for a particularly important meeting or social visit with a fully buttoned jacket, waistcoat, and shirt, but no cravat. The whole look felt off without it, and far outside of the polite impression the character was attempting to make.
As is usual with most modern productions, all the men seem to be wearing pantaloons instead of breeches. For riding and other sporty activities, they’re practical, sure. However, breeches were still part of fashionable dress at this time, so you would think you would see them represented on screen for formal events, at least, but no.
Now for the women’s costumes: So many lush colors and textures! So many dresses that I instantly recognized! I was positively giddy spotting things inspired by extant dresses throughout the series. Yes, I would have liked to have seen a petticoat or two more on Margaret, but still, well done! Again, I appreciated how successfully they delineated the various class distinctions in both the English and India societies through their clothing, as well as used the clothing to echo the character’s choices and movements within the plot. I particularly enjoyed the plot point where Henrietta and Violet refuse to adapt their dress to the climate, in contrast with the Beecham brothers who have become more acclimatized to living in India.
Each of the main female characters seems to have one or two styles (or patterns) of dresses made up in different fabrics, and the English dresses are accessorized with a nice variety of shawls, fichus, hats, belts, jewelry, etc. I also appreciated how they restyled different dresses with different accessories throughout the series, like one would for a real wardrobe. I would like to have seen more caps or other hair things worn during the day, but that’s just a quibble. Everything else is so well done, I won’t complain.
As the wealthiest English woman, Violet has the most fashionable dresses and the greatest variety. Her wardrobe is made up of bright silks, while Margaret, as a governess for a wealthy Indian family, favors more practical printed cottons and muted colors. Margaret also has touches showing how she has become more assimilated within the culture, like the various scarves she wears to cover her hair when visiting the palace.
Margaret does get a few fancier dresses, like this gorgeous orange silk dress.
Violet, however, is all silk, all the time.
Henrietta favors dark colors and black accessories, but she still has a fashionable, contemporary silhouette. I loathe the trope of automatically putting the older woman in fashions 30 years out of date regardless of if it makes sense for the character, and I was grateful they didn’t dress her as another Miss Havisham. While her dresses are dark, all the fabric has an interesting pattern or texture, like the other characters’ costumes, giving them depth on screen.
Henrietta’s dresses were very obviously inspired by this gown at the Met.
I also must give them credit for doing a nice job with the hair. For the most part the hair was up, styled, and had a good amount of volume. No bobby pin shortage here! I would have liked a less sharp center part on Margaret, but I love her loose curls hanging down as this was often seen in portraits and fashion plates of the mid-1790s. Her hairstyles also reflected her emotions in a particular scene, and I appreciated that touch.
Henrietta wears more formal, restrained style, which is fitting for her character, though I question who is fixing her buckles every day. Violet’s hair is a little too structured for my taste (it read more 1780s than 1790s), but that’s just me. You do see portraits of women with more structured styles well into the 1790s.
Like I mentioned at the start, I can’t comment on the Indian clothing with authority, but it sure is gorgeous! Everything is bright and colorful, with none of the recent tendency to ye olde griminess to be seen. In both the men and women’s clothing, there is a clear distinction between the various cultural styles of dress, as well as attention to what type of clothing would have been worn by people in different castes.
Chandrika is the highest ranking female in the Beecham house and wears the most brightly colored and heavily embellished outfits, with her attendants wearing similar colors in less elaborate styles.
But the baby’s nursemaid, Chanchal, wears more muted, soft colors until a pivotal point in her storyline.
I really loved the detail on the costumes of all the more minor characters, too. These are just some of my favorites. There were so many other beautiful examples in the show!
As the uppermost servant in the house, Baadal wears this simple white outfit most of the time, but the subtle embroidery and flashes of green give it visual interest and show off the wealth of the household.
Begum Samru (left) was a fascinating historical figure. I wished we could have gotten more of her story in the show. The Empress (right) wore this red outfit several times, but as it was gorgeous, I didn’t mind.
I’ll stop there, but if you are in the mood for something pretty and distracting this cold, grey winter, I highly recommend giving Beecham House a watch!