How Bridgerton killed the costume drama
Netflix’s swaggering Regency romp is back for a second series – but is its enormous success entirely for the good?
Television Editor's Choice, Television
3/24/2022 7:30:00 PM
It was only a matter of time before the Americans came for our costume dramas. They’ve been consuming them, hungrily, for decades, dimly aware that somewhere in their DNA is the need for the vitamin-hit of a corseted maiden exchanging furtive glances with a grumpy baron inside an English Heritage folly. This is England, they think, this is my ancestry. This is the real thing. America, until recently, has been too bashful, too deferent to the mother tongue, to actually make an English costume drama. ...
That has changed. Not only are Uncle Sam’s tanks on the lawns of Castle Howard, but his GIs are in the Antique Passage having their way with the countess.I speak, of course, of Bridgerton, Netflix’s Regency romp/adventure playground, which returns tomorrow for eight more episodes of hot, scurrilous Jane Austen fan fiction (premise: what if we turned all those furtive glances into knee-tremblers in the drawing room?). Based on the novels by Julia Quinn (American), Bridgerton is an entertaining but ersatz fantasy land, with little interest in historical accuracy but an enormous appetite for the superficial airs and graces of early 19th-century English society.
It is produced by Shonda Rhimes’s all-conquering Shondaland company (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Inventing Anna), with the confidence and belligerence of an oligarch eyeing a Tudor mansion in the Cotswolds: “Why can’t it be mine?”Bridgerton has been an enormous global success – Netflix’s biggest English-language series – with series three and four already commissioned (there are eight novels to work through, knee-trembler fans). While it is no surprise that the drama was lapped up across the Atlantic, its considerable success in the UK is more interesting and has major ramifications for the nation as a powerhouse of serious-minded, straightforward, literary costume drama. It looks like Bridgerton has killed off the traditional costume drama.
Long before it landed on Netflix, on Christmas Day 2020, in the height of lockdown, Bridgerton was making headlines for its diverse casting. It isn’t quite colour-blind casting – the black characters are black, the white characters are white, and so on – but the quiet television revolution going on inside Bridgerton is that, for the purposes of this show, race does not matter, despite the setting being Regency England.
Several prominent families in its high society are non-white, while Queen Charlotte is mixed race (which may, in fact, be historically accurate, but that’s of no particular concern to Bridgerton). It is more akin to Dev Patel being cast as David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s superb film adaptation. The message from viewers, especially younger viewers, is very clear: all-white casting, even in a costume drama that wants to be historically accurate, is a big turn off.
Bridgerton rips up the costume drama rulebook in many other ways too: female empowerment, an anachronistic soundtrack (Nirvana played by a string quartet, etc.), a less than slavish devotion to contemporary speech and, most notably, oodles of rumpy-pumpy. And it arrived on these shores at a time when we were seemingly falling out of love with dusty old books adapted by dusty old men – the nation’s traditional source of costume drama.
The 1970s through to the early 2000s was a period of untrammelled success for the British costume drama industry, potentially reaching its apex in 1995 with notable productions of Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. We are now coming to the end of what we might call the Downton Abbey era. Though not adapted from a novel, Julian Fellowes’s Sunday-night soap opera was a faithful costume drama in every other sense, and, in a Chekhovian twist, presaged the death of the costume drama itself. What is Downton but a chronicle of the decline of the British aristocracy?
It seemed to close a chapter, signalling the end of our obsession with the past. In this vacuum it would be hard to imagine the BBC or ITV commissioning a strait-laced, historically accurate Austen or Brontë adaptation or, perhaps the purest example of them all, the superb 1981 Brideshead Revisited, less a TV drama than a costumed recitation of the book. headtopics.com
Traditional costume dramas are still getting made, but they creak, don’t they? Right now, Fellowes’s The Gilded Age and Andrew Davies’s Sanditon are on television. They include diverse casting yet, nevertheless, seem as old-fashioned as can be with their slow-paced tales, stuffy glances and somewhat broad-brush characters.
And considering this pair, Fellowes and Davies, have been the giants of British costume drama for decades, their recent output has failed to provide a hit. Belgravia, The English Game, Les Misérables, A Suitable Boy – none of these struck the chords their predecessors did. Davies’s sublime 2016 War & Peace is the last truly great British costume drama.
Is it a loss, then, that we are unlikely to see the likes of War & Peace again? I admire the sexy, swaggering Bridgerton. And, make no mistake, it is merely the headline show of a pack of in-your-face, anachronistic period dramas – there’s also the Russian Empire as a black-comic farce in The Great and interwar inner city British gangs given the Guy Ritchie, rock’n’roll treatment in Peaky Blinders.
However, it feels a shame that the razzle dazzle attractions of these programmes look like, for the time being at any rate, as if they are monopolising the screen-writing talents of those seduced by corsets and top hats. What’s now almost entirely neglected is any televisual interrogation of this era whose pursuit is authenticity, probably most persuasively achieved via the insights of a great contemporary novelist who knew rather more about it than we do, and was less eager to “correct” it. headtopics.com
Surely, the television landscape has room for both.
Making History: Bridgerton Costumes
Last Updated on March 18, 2022
“Bridgerton,” Netflix’s latest period drama is a glitzy, ribald, and theatrical Regency era romp. Produced by Shonda Rhimes, the 2020 breakout is based on the first book in the eight-volume historical romance series Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, The Duke and I.
The story follows Daphne, the eldest daughter of the powerful Bridgerton family as she makes her debut onto Regency London’s competitive marriage market. “Bridgerton” has its share of Austenian yearning glances, hand flexes and ballroom dances, but departs from the visuals we have grown accustomed to in period dramas.
In a blend of historical silhouettes, fluorescent tones, and modern-day high fashion, “Bridgerton’s” costumes divert greatly from the fashion trends of the Regency era. And they work.
Her creations are lush, exuberant head-turners, by turns purposefully gaudy and outrageous, and always relatable. The designs sparked criticism from some period drama aficionados, maintaining the costumes were historically inaccurate. They are, intentionally.
“If you’re able to go into a romantic love story as if you were reading it, are you going to be a historian? Or are you going to use your imagination?… We’re not historians. And we’re telling a luscious story, and we’re hoping that you use your imagination as we tell it, and you get sucked in, and you love the story that you’re watching,” Mirojnick explained. She happily and unequivocally sees her role to be in service to “the director and the creative vision,” even if that means creating a scandalously bonnet-free world.
Certainly “Bridgerton” isn’t the first costume drama to dress its characters in unrealistic ways for the depicted era. Costuming anachronisms have been executed in many other movies or shows marketed as period dramas, with varying degrees of success.
The costumes in CW’s Reign are a standout example of bungling the attempt. Hoping to appeal to their teenaged audience, the costume department utilized modern, Renaissance-inspired clothing from designer brands to create a contemporary version of Mary Stuart’s wardrobe.
The outcome was that “Reign’s” costumes look like something from an Indie music festival or a Renaissance-themed prom, entirely out of place in the French court. Instead of drawing the viewer into a costumer’s alternate version of history, the let’s-pretend-our-creative-liberties-are-historically-correct styles are jarring.
In contrast, Disney’s 2015 live-action Cinderella use of other-era fashion was commendable, and effectual. Its electric hues and 1950s Dior inspired silhouettes blend with 19th-century corsets and castles to create a sense of timelessness in a world and era of its own: a fairytale.
“Bridgerton” is also a romantic fairytale, albeit a very sexually-charged one for grown-ups, and makes no attempt to pass off inaccuracy as history. Mirojnick explained to Harper’s BAZAAR that she wanted to “overlay the look of the Regency era with a bit of a modern sensibility, make it aspirational, intriguing, and with… a layer that would actually be very imaginative.”
The result: the anachronisms are an asset to the storyline scripted by Chris Van Dusen. The period drama is set in 1813, but from the start it’s clear that “Bridgerton” doesn’t takes itself (or its era) too seriously. It’s delightfully absurd and over-dramatic, a Regency era “Gossip Girl” if you will. It takes an era and turns it into a clearly embellished fantasy.
In an interview with the British magazine Tatler about her approach to “Bridgerton’s” costumes, Mirojnick said “The point was to take that Regency period as a foundation, and not betray it in any way, but we didn’t want to make it a history lesson.” She kept the silhouettes, changed the fabrics and color palette, drew from couture and made delicious, easy-access garments for the sexy love story.
The modernization of the costumes aligns with the modernization of music, dialogue, and the characters’ behavior. It serves as a form of storytelling. The Bridgerton family is often seen in shades of pastel and blue, sophisticated, crisp, and representative of their place in society. Blue signifies wisdom and stability: the Bridgerton family is the ideal.
We see the leading lady, Miss Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), in various blue dresses with the classic Regency empire waist cut, but they’re often made from organza and silk-like materials. While the fabric use is period-inaccurate, the choice emphasizes the softness of Daphne’s demeanor and gives her attire a touch of whimsy.
The Bridgertons are juxtaposed with the Featheringtons, who favor vibrant, borderline neon shades of yellows, pinks, purples and greens. This aligns with the Featheringtons’ desire to be noticed within society, their physical presence reminiscent of a muster of peacocks.
In the novels, Quinn describes the Featheringtons as “tacky and ugly and citrusy.” The costumer’s use of bright ostentatious hues (which didn’t exist in Regency era dyes) and over-embellished garments signify poor taste. (It’s worth noting that Penelope, the youngest, and most sensible of the Featherington girls, is dismayed by her mother’s penchant for dressing her in canary yellows and spicy oranges.)
In a nod to her character’s desire for attention, Lady Featherington’s (Polly Walker) dresses have an empire waistline, but are then tailored to hug her figure and cut to show off her cleavage. Lady Featherington dresses to be seen and her tight dresses enable her to achieve just that… as well as a tawdry reputation, since baring skin was considered vulgar in the Regency era. (An overelaborate hairstyle, think Mrs. Elton in the 2020 “Emma.,” or overdone accessories would have telegraphed the character’s tackiness and maintained a sense of historical accuracy, but it would have been less visually enticing to a 21st century audience.)
As stand-alone garments, Lady Featherington’s dresses don’t evoke the aesthetics of the Regency era, and hold some modern appeal, almost haute-couture in a way. (Google searches for “Where can I buy clothes like those in Bridgerton” are now commonplace.) Featherington’s dresses are gaudy, but not perfectly ugly, designed to show off wares, which is far more grotesque within the upper echelons of “Bridgerton” than just wearing something hideous.
The only character in the series based on a person from history is Queen Charlotte, whose dresses also divert from the silhouette of the time period, clinging to the styles of the late 1700s. In an interview with Vogue, Mirojnick said that her designs for Queen Charlotte’s dresses were a reflection of Queen Charlotte being known “for never changing her silhouette from when she became queen in the 18th century.”
While a store of historical portraits and archival resources show Queen Charlotte in the fashions of the 18th century, Queen Charlotte’s last surviving gown, recently on display at the Fashion Museum in Bath, did feature the more modern empire waist. Still, the earlier fashion is an excellent choice for Queen Charlotte, as her character is someone focused on the past, on the times before her husband King George slipped into madness. She’s clearly a powerful woman, but a part of her can’t move forward and we see that represented in her attire.
While the historical inaccuracies of the costuming may be nettlesome to many period drama purists, they work within the world of the created by the filmmakers. This isn’t an Austenian romance. The story is racy and shocking, diving headfirst into the less decorous and demure side of Regency England with a modern lens. The entire “Bridgerton” universe has been created and imagined, not pulled from history textbooks.
In “Bridgerton” social classes mix and mingle, people of color are equal within society and can hold positions of power, and Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” and Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” play on string quartets while couples waltz across the dance floor.
It’s pure escapism into a world of fantasy and fiction, a world where the glittery, vibrant, and downright flamboyant costumes of “Bridgerton” fit right in.
“Bridgerton” returns to Netflix on March 25, 2022, with Season 2.
Faith Brammer studies English Literature and History at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she devotes herself to preserving narratives of the past for future generations. When she’s not reading 19th-century literature, or researching life on the Home Front during World War Two, you can find her patronizing local coffee shops, studying historical fashion, or visiting historic estates. She runs the popular Instagram account @perioddramas, where she posts about historical films and television.
Sir Allan Ramsay’s 1762 portrait of Queen Charlotte in the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photograph: Guardian
Queen Charlotte was the wife of George III and, like him, of German descent. But did she also have African ancestry? By Stuart Jeffries
Thu 12 Mar 2009 00.01 GMT
Queen Charlotte died nearly two centuries ago but is still celebrated in her namesake American city. When you drive from the airport in North Carolina, you can't miss the monumental bronze sculpture of the woman said to be Britain's first black queen, dramatically bent backwards as if blown by a jet engine. Downtown, there is another prominent sculpture of Queen Charlotte, in which she's walking with two dogs as if out for a stroll in 21st-century America.
Street after street is named after her, and Charlotte itself revels in the nickname the Queen City - even though, shortly after the city was named in her honour, the American War of Independence broke out, making her the queen of the enemy. And the city's art gallery, the Mint museum, holds a sumptuous 1762 portrait of Charlotte by the Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsay, showing the Queen of England in regal robes aged 17, the year after she married George III.
Charlotte is intrigued by its namesake. Some Charlotteans even find her lovable. "We think your queen speaks to us on lots of levels," says Cheryl Palmer, director of education at the Mint museum. "As a woman, an immigrant, a person who may have had African forebears, botanist, a queen who opposed slavery - she speaks to Americans, especially in a city in the south like Charlotte that is trying to redefine itself."
Yet Charlotte (1744-1818) has much less resonance in the land where she was actually queen. If she is known at all here, it is from her depiction in Alan Bennett's play as the wife of "mad" King George III. We have forgotten or perhaps never knew that she founded Kew Gardens, that she bore 15 children (13 of whom survived to adulthood), and that she was a patron of the arts who may have commissioned Mozart.
Here, Charlotte is a woman who hasn't so much intrigued as been regularly damned. In the opening of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities she is dismissed in the second paragraph: "There was a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England." Historian John H Plumb described her as "plain and undesirable". Even her physician, Baron Christian Friedrich Stockmar, reportedly described the elderly queen as "small and crooked, with a true mulatto face".
"She was famously ugly," says Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen's pictures. "One courtier once said of Charlotte late in life: 'Her Majesty's ugliness has quite faded.' There was quite a miaow factor at court."
Charlotte's name was given to thoroughfares throughout Georgian Britain - most notably Charlotte Square in Edinburgh's New Town - but her lack of resonance and glamour in the minds of Londoners is typified by the fact that there is a little square in Bloomsbury called Queen's Square. In the middle is a sculpture of a queen. For much of the 19th century, the sculpture was thought to depict Queen Anne and, as a result, the square was known as Queen Anne's Square. Only later was it realised that the sculpture actually depicted Charlotte and the square renamed Queen Square.
Hold on, you might be saying. Britain has had a black queen? Did I miss something? Surely Helen Mirren played Charlotte in the film The Madness of King George and she was, last time I looked, white? Yet the theory that Queen Charlotte may have been black, albeit sketchy, is nonetheless one that is gaining currency.
If you google Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, you'll quickly come across a historian called Mario de Valdes y Cocom. He argues that her features, as seen in royal portraits, were conspicuously African, and contends that they were noted by numerous contemporaries. He claims that the queen, though German, was directly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, related to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th-century Portuguese noblewoman nine generations removed, whose ancestry she traces from the 13th-century ruler Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, whom Valdes takes to have been a Moor and thus a black African.
It is a great "what if" of history. "If she was black," says the historian Kate Williams, "this raises a lot of important suggestions about not only our royal family but those of most of Europe, considering that Queen Victoria's descendants are spread across most of the royal families of Europe and beyond. If we class Charlotte as black, then ergo Queen Victoria and our entire royal family, [down] to Prince Harry, are also black ... a very interesting concept."
That said, Williams and many other historians are very sceptical about Valdes's theory. They argue the generational distance between Charlotte and her presumed African forebear is so great as to make the suggestion ridiculous. Furthermore, they say even the evidence that Madragana was black is thin.
But Valdes suggests that the way Queen Charlotte is depicted in Ramsay's 1762 portrait - which US artist Ken Aptekar is now using as the starting point for a new art project called Charlotte's Charlotte - supports the view she had African ancestors.
Valdes writes: "Artists of that period were expected to play down, soften or even obliterate undesirable features in a subject's face. [But] Sir Allan Ramsay was the artist responsible for the majority of the paintings of the queen, and his representations of her were the most decidedly African of all her portraits."
Valdes's suggestion is that Ramsay was an anti-slavery campaigner who would not have suppressed any "African characteristics" but perhaps might have stressed them for political reasons. "I can't see it to be honest," says Shawe-Taylor. "We've got a version of the same portrait. I look at it pretty often and it's never occurred to me that she's got African features of any kind. It sounds like the ancestry is there and it's not impossible it was reflected in her features, but I can't see it."
Is it possible that other portraitists of Queen Charlotte might have soft-pedalled her African features? "That makes much more sense. It's quite possible. The thing about Ramsay is that, unlike Reynolds and Gainsborough, who were quite imprecise in their portraits, he was a very accurate depicter of his subjects, so that if she looked slightly more African in his portraits than others, that might be because she was more well depicted. How can you tell? She's dead!"
Shawe-Taylor says that a more instructive source of images of Queen Charlotte might well be the many caricatures of her held at the British Museum. "None of them shows her as African, and you'd suspect they would if she was visibly of African descent. You'd expect they would have a field day if she was."
In fact, Charlotte may not have been our first black queen: there is another theory that suggests that Philippa of Hainault (1314-69), consort of Edward III and a woman who may have had African ancestry, holds that title.
As for Valdes, he turns out to be an independent historian of the African diaspora who has argued that Peter Ustinov, Heather Locklear, the Medicis, and the Vanderbilts have African ancestry. His theory about Charlotte even pops up on www.100greatblackbritons.com, where she appears alongside Mary Seacole, Shirley Bassey, Sir Trevor McDonald, Zadie Smith, Naomi Campbell and Baronness Scotland as one of our great Britons. Despite being thus feted, Charlotte has not yet had much attention, say, during the annual Black History week in Britain.
Perhaps she should get more. The suggestion that Queen Charlotte was black implies that her granddaughter (Queen Victoria) and her great-great-great-great-granddaughter (Queen Elizabeth II) had African forebears. Perhaps, instead of just being a boring bunch of semi-inbred white stiffs, our royal family becomes much more interesting. Maybe - and this is just a theory - the Windsors would do well to claim their African heritage: it might be a PR coup, one that would strengthen the bonds of our queen's beloved Commonwealth.
Or would our royal family be threatened if it were shown they had African forebears? "I don't think so at all. There would be no shame attached to it all," says the royal historian Hugo Vickers. "The theory does not impress me, but even if it were true, the whole thing would have been so diluted by this stage that it couldn't matter less to our royal family. It certainly wouldn't show that they are significantly black."
What's fascinating about Aptekar's project is that he started by conducting focus group meetings with people from Charlotte to find out what the Queen and her portrait meant to citizens of the US city. "I took my cues from the passionate responses of individuals whom I asked to help me understand what Queen Charlotte represents to them."
The resulting suite of paintings is a series of riffs on that Ramsay portrait of Charlotte. In one, a reworked portion of the portrait shows the queen's face overlaid with the words "Black White Other". Another Aptekar canvas features an even tighter close up, in which the queen's face is overlaid with the words "Oh Yeah She Is".
Among those who attended Aptekar's focus groups is congressman Mel Watt, one of very few African-Americans in the House of Representatives and who represents the 12th district of North Carolina which includes Charlotte. "In private conversations, African-Americans have always acknowledged and found a sense of pride in this 'secret'," says Watt. "It's great that this discussion can now come out of the closet into the public places of Charlotte, so we all can acknowledge and celebrate it."
What about the idea that she was an immigrant - a German teenager who had to make a new life in England in the late 18th century?
"We were a lot more immigrant-friendly in those days than we were friendly to people of colour," says Watt. "We all recognised that we all came from some place else. But there was always a sense of denial, even ostracism, about being black. Putting the history on top of the table should make for opportunities for provocative, healing conversations."
Does Valdes's theory conclusively determine that Queen Charlotte had African forebears? Hardly. And if she had African forebears, would that mean we could readily infer she was black? That, surely, depends on how we define what it is to be black. In the US, there was for many decades a much-derided "one-drop rule", whereby any white-looking person with any percentage of "black blood" was not regarded as being really white. Although now just a historical curio, it was controversially invoked recently by the African-American lawyer Alton Maddox Jr, who argued that under the one-drop rule, Barack Obama wouldn't be the first black president.
In an era of mixed-race celebrities such as Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey, and at a time when in the US, the UK and any other racially diverse countries mixed-raced relationships are common, this rule seems absurd. But without such a rule, how do we determine Charlotte's ethnicity? If she is black, aren't we all?
It's striking that on US and UK census forms, respondents are asked to choose their own race by ticking the box with which they most closely identify (though there can be problems with this: some people in Cornwall are angry that the 2011 census form will not allow them to self-define as Cornish because only 37,000 ticked that box in the 2001 census and that figure has been deemed too small to constitute a separate ethnic group). We will never know which box Queen Charlotte would have ticked, though we can take a good guess. But maybe that isn't the most important issue, anyway.
For congressman Watt's wife Eulada, along with some other African-Americans in Charlotte, the most important issue is what the possibility that Queen Charlotte was black may mean for people in the city now. "I believe African-American Charlotteans have always been proud of Queen Charlotte's heritage and acknowledge it with a smile and a wink," she says. "Many of us are now enjoying a bit of 'I told you so', now that the story is out."
But isn't her heritage too sketchy to be used to heal old wounds? "Hopefully, the sketchiness will inspire others to further research and documentation of our rich history. Knowing more about an old dead queen can play a part in reconciliation."
And if an old dead queen can help improve racial trust in an American city, perhaps she could do something similar over here. Whether she will, though, is much less certain.