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We fully admit that some of the things we snark are just matters of taste as opposed to historically inaccuracy. Hey, we’re allowed, this is our blog! If you disagree with us, go start your own media empire to praise that stuff ;)
Unfortunately for me, my beloved Brontë Sisters lived and wrote during the 1840s, so many of the filmed versions of their novels are set during this period, as are any biographical movies and TV shows. Thus, I’ve been especially subjected to the irritation of the 1840s fashions, and it’s about time to explain why that period does not appeal to us as it’s shown in frock flicks…
First off, take look at the rest of the 19th century for comparison — everything else has some kind of exaggerated shape that we find more fun! The 1800s-20s are the slim Regency styles. The 1830s has increasingly giant gigot sleeves. If we must look at the 1860s, at least there are enormous hoopskirts. The 1870s starts the big bustles, then brings in the natural form. The 1880s continues that narrow shape and then goes for the aggressive bustle. Finally, the 1890s close out the century with giant sleeves again.
But the 1840s and to a lesser extent the 1850s are meek, demure, and plain. It’s the epitome of sad trombone.
This is intentional because the fashionable idea of “femininity” in the 1840s was demure and restrained. The style was a distinct reaction against the perceived “excess” of the 1830s. The big sleeves collapsed, and all the emphasis went to a small waist with delicate pleats, smocking, etc. Everything that had been big, wild, expansive, and dramatic in fashion was drawn inward, tightened up, controlled, and flattened. As 21st-century women, we’re not fond of that sentiment, so it adds to our dislike of the fashion.
Head to Toe Horrible
Now let’s look at specific things we dislike about ’40s-’50s fashion in movies and TV shows, because it seems like frock flicks really lean into the worst elements of this era’s fashion. Starting at the top, there’s bonnets. The whole 19th century has bonnets, but these ones can be especially lackluster.
Worst of all are the coal-scuttle bonnets, so named because it looks like a woman’s head is hidden in a coal scuttle. IDGAF if it’s historically accurate, it’s hideous. You can’t see the woman’s face. She’s wearing blinders!
It’s a depressing fashion, so I guess appropriate when your secret lesbian romance goes bad?
Gotta hide those Brontë sisters, don’t want their literary genius to be seen by the world!
Even if the bonnets go a bit smaller, they’re no better, not when they’re dumpy little things like this:
Soft fabric turns the bonnet shape into a crime against headgear. (OK yes, their entire costumes are tragic, but I gotta focus my ire somewhere.)
No, decoration inside the bonnet does not make them any more endearing to me.
This is the epitome of miserable.
Usually I’m glad to see caps (they aren’t just for suckers!), but this here is just a baby bonnet on a supposedly grown-up woman.
If there’s no bonnet, then we see the sad little hairstyles of the era. Fashion plates show some wacky fun 1940s hairstyles for evening, in particular, but there aren’t a lot of frock flicks that go there. C’mon!
Mostly, movies and TV shows wimp out with a bun — are we supposed to be grateful they used hairpins?
And at least they mostly remember the 1840s-50s are a center-part era, so no side-parts.
But please, lay off the lacquer! This is too early for helmet hair.
The little bump over the ears is historically accurate, but I hate it (and yes, I’ve worn it, and hated it then too, even though I won an award in that costume). It looks so dumb unless you go really crazy with it … like full-on Princess Leia cinnamon buns.
Most flicks just do the mundane everyday version like…
Fine, accurate, but SO BORING.
If you’re going to jazz it up, this is not the way. Crimped hair is 1980s gothic, not 1840s gothic.
Hanging sausage curls on the sides were done during the 1840s-50s, and when they’re done right, the style can look fabulous. But it’s easy to go wrong, such as…
Admit it, you see it too.
Moving down, frock flicks are just gonna leave that neckline as a basic round thing, without making a big deal about collars or anything. Maybe there’s a pelerine leftover from the 1830s if you’re lucky. More neckline variety existed in the period, but not as much onscreen.
This dress needs something, anything to wake it up:
The historically fugly fabric is doing all the work here because the neckline is a big MEH.
Did someone think that little ruffle would help? I disagree.
OK, you tried with a collar and some lace but nothing really worked out. Just can’t escape the ’40s fug!
Next up, the sleeves are plain AF. If you’re lucky, you get a little smocking. Yawn. Period fashion plates show more details on sleeves, but the default is still small, dainty, and snoozy. These extant dresses are just FINE, nothing to write home about, nothing to get excited about. Go ahead and recreate them exactly in a flick. I’ll take a nap in the meantime.
Anyone want to try and work up some excitement about the ruched sleeves on the far right? Not me.
This dress looks like it’s topped by a long-sleeve T-shirt, and she wears it for most of the movie.
OK, we tried for a flared sleeve. And we failed.
Oh look — two boring sleeves on two boring dresses, with a bonus bland bonnet!
It’s like a mirror-image of dullness here.
They must have used the same sleeve pattern for this entire show.
This next one is more personal but again, this is our blog, so our pet peeves — we’re not fans of that round waistline in the ’40s and ’50s that a lot of frock flicks default to. A pointed waistline is more flattering if you’ve worn a big gown like this. Fashion plates show both styles, but for some reason, movies and TV shows love to use round waistlines for this time period. Is that because it’s easier? Or do they just love a homely silhouette like this?
Maybe it’s OK with the little bow? IDK.
Eh, the prints are OK but still not a fan.
This outfit is such a try-hard. The capelet, smocking, and slightly puffed sleeves are giving their all, but everything is so bland and unappealing, they never had a chance.
When I have insomnia, I’ll come back and look at this 1850s dress.
Let’s finish out with the skirts. They’re just so wishy-washy, neither as full as the crinolines of the 1830s or wearing actual hoopskirts as the 1850s and 1860s. Get thee some petticoats, girl!
I can practically see their legs!
Her droopy skirts really emphasize the “poor governess” bit.
Are we out churning the butter?
Potentially cute dress, if it had a petticoat or two.
The closest to period dress in that mess of a show, except it desperately needs some petticoats.
Fan-Fronts to Frump
One 1840s-50s fashion detail I do love is a fan-front bodice. That’s where the bodice’s front fabric piece is gathered tightly at the bottom point, and when done well, it’s lovely and flattering. It draws attention to the waist, making it look smaller. Some extant examples:
But like many techniques, it’s not easy to get right. When mistakes show up onscreen, they’re magnified, and that pretty fan-front turns frumpy. Starting with this one, which isn’t that bad, but…
Here’s the same dress without the lace collar and possibly a different fit on a different actress, so it looks more wrinkly than pleated.
Not sure what the intent was with this design, but it turned out a mess. Poor Ada Lovelace deserves better!
Great hair for a change! Wrinkly bodice though (and the same damn sleeves as on all the other Belgravia dresses).
Nice try on the hair, but the bodice looks wonky.
I think there are angles you should just never shoot a fan-front gown from, or you’ll end up showing an unintended bustline pouf. It’s not flattering at all.
Beautiful Women Made Ugly
The worst thing about the 1840s and 1850s fashion to me is that it makes women look ugly. All of these actresses are beautiful, some of them stunningly so. But put them in these frumpy dresses, and they look terrible. I suppose that’s the point — Serious Drama requires ugly costumes. Except there’s plenty of Serious Drama with gorgeous costumes too! I watch historical drama as much for the costumes as for the drama, and I don’t want to see dumpy clothes in nubby linen all the time. And I’m not saying women have to look beautiful all the time, but Serious does not have to mean Ugly either. It’s a cliché.
Speaking of clichés, if the Brontës are on film, they’re wandering the moors, and they’re gonna die of TB, so they must dress ugly. Noooooo! I’ve been to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth a couple times, and while there’s only a few items of clothing and accessories personally connected to the sisters left, they aren’t ugly and dull. Charlotte’s ‘going away’ dress (after her wedding) was of shot silk in a lavender stripe, and another of her dresses is in a fine muslin with a delicate and colorful paisley pattern printed on white. A bright red silk shawl survives, along with fringed handkerchiefs and jewelry. They weren’t sad, dull, poor women, and it’s annoying to see them portrayed as such all the time.
Les Soeurs Brontë (1979) was especially bad about this, and making the stunningly beautiful Isabelle Adjani into a drab Emily Brontë irritated me.
Sure, Isabelle Adjani has been in a lot of tragic frock flicks, but she can look much prettier, when given the chance. She can even make a bonnet look pretty damn fine.
Likewise, in Les Soeurs Brontë, a young Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Brontë in dull brown boringness, crimped hair notwithstanding. But hold on! Just a few years later, Huppert stars in another 1840s period production, complete with the same shape of costumes and bonnets galore. But she looks glam AF!
The difference? Legendary costume designer Piero Tosi, that’s what. It takes an supreme master with insane skill and vision to not churn out fugly ’40s bog clothes and instead make the period look freakin’ gorgeous on an appropriately gorgeous actress.
It’s not just the Brontës that get require actresses to play ugly onscreen. Any pinched, repressed character must have unflattering clothes, right? Like poor Gillian Anderson looking very bleak in Bleak House. I think Charles Dickens hated women, so maybe it’s appropriate they don’t look good in adaptions of his work.
However, compare with The House of Mirth, which has an equally depressing story and the main female character has a tragic outcome, yet Gillian Anderson looked beautiful there!
Yet more clichés — the serious, isolated lesbian has to look ugly, right?
When OBVIOUSLY Kate Winslet can look glam as hell in serious roles. So is it just the lesbian part? Historical lesbians have to wear ugly clothes? What kind of heterosexist bullshit is that???
Even in a melancholy and earlier period piece, Winslet can look beautiful and historically accurate.
Then there’s Polly Walker, best known for playing bad-ass babes like:
Take her to the 1840s, where she’s supposed to be the town hottie with a past, and she somehow looks shitty! Even the whooore red dress doesn’t help.
So weird and unfair when Walker was in another Thomas Hardy adaption, set around the 1850s-60s and with a smaller role, she got more flattering costumes.
It’s possible to make 1840s and 1850s costumes interesting, even attractive in frock flicks. But it seems like few people trying! There’s a whole lot of blandness to wade through out there, and it better have a killer story to make up for the snoozfest fashions if I’m going to review it.
Do 1840s fashions put you to sleep too?