On period dramas: corsets, culture and the stories we tell

The challenges of daily life – news, virus, horrible, dangerous people around the world – it’s unsurprising so many of us spend our leisure time escaping the current *gestures wildly out the window* stuff out there by reading and watching things that are far removed from our daily experience. We love to pop something on and get whisked away to different times; usually, these times require vastly more undergarments and much more letter-writing and ardent glances.

I am a big believer in the joy of suspending my disbelief and sitting my butt on the couch for a good period drama binge. My current ‘on in the background because it’s comfortable and familiar’ is the ever-excellent David Suchet as Poirot (I’ve watched almost all of them several times) – so a big thank you to ITV for basically having them on repeat. We never had the Miss Marple DVDs, so I guess when I’ve officially watched through all of the Poirot there is, I will start at the beginning of those. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (thank you so much, Netflix, for your continued support of my 1930s-ish binge) is also a good addition, with a female main character who consistently pushes the boundaries of acceptability for ladies of polite society. She’s a badass.

Now, the internet is bubbling with the latest version of period intrigue, with more corsets and minuets and some steamy scenes that raise high society eyebrows…

Necessary disclaimer: I’ve not yet read or watched quite a few of the things I’ll be mentioning, so any misapprehensions I have about some of them (particularly Poldark, Outlander and the thing that inspired this, the latest, greatest and trendiest, Bridgerton) I definitely admit are due to a lack of *ahem* research. Gimme time, we’ve still got a pandemic going on.

Not all that’s the past is good

I think that something that Bridgerton is getting right (from my very limited watching of the promo material and googling it briefly) is having a more diverse cast than one usually sees in period entertainment. Without putting too fine a point on it, lots of period TV (certainly things set pre-1930s) tend to have a heavily all-white cast. This is one of the elements about period dramas that I didn’t notice when I was growing up (there’s white privilege in action), but it’s very obvious now. Race relations are seldom (if ever) talked through. It’s true that Jane Austen’s disapproval of slavery is discussed by critical readers, but, like, critical race theory is largely not the reason you watch Mansfield Park. During Black History Month, there were a number of programmes on TV about Black Britons from history, including Mary Seacole (an incredible historical person after whom a building at work is named, prompting me to look her up). These people, who did a whole bunch of really incredible things have largely been erased from a common imagination of historical Britain by (you guessed it) portrayals of times gone by in books and television. Further reading about the unwhitewashing of history here, Hannah Flint’s article entitled “Is it time the all-white period drama was made extinct?” or Amanda-Rae Prescott’s excellent article on colour-conscious casting in period dramas – from Hamilton to Bridgerton. I really wish WordPress did footnotes, because I’d stick lots of great stuff in there.

On another front, I saw someone muttering on instagram about how she was frustrated at how people were once again getting very excited about a time period in which women were so restricted. The poor social position of women, not to mention a largely erased LGBTQ+ experience, uncomfortable undergarments. Two of those three things are worth getting peeved at. I’ll hazard a guess that the person whose post I saw hasn’t worn a corset – but also, uncomfortable fashions aren’t limited to a particular decade in history. And, like, isn’t it unfeminist to tell people what they can and can’t wear? [Sidebar on the LGBTQ+ history: Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s Tiktok series on Queer History 101 is very informative (Youtube link because I am an old fart who hasn’t figured it out yet). Also, Gentleman Jack is very much on my to-watch list.]

What is it about period TV we like so much?

So if it usually portrays restrictive and challenging social relationships, what is it that keeps us looking back, whether it’s sixty years, a hundred years, or even a few centuries, to people so removed from our own experience of life? I know that I’m not alone in my love of period TV, well, because they keep making so much of it, and from such various eras, based on quite diverse source material. There’s the stuff that’s based on the classics (I’ll do a post at some stage about the classic literature canon, because I have some strong opinions about that, as a previous lit scholar who did an MA in Literature at an African university), and the stuff that’s based on like, other books. The stuff that leaps to mind is the expanding Jane Austen universe of adaptations, Little Women, some Gaskell, Bronte, the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery and so on – AKA books that were written a long time ago, set roughly contemporary to their authors’ lives (yes, I know that there’s a gap between Austen and Montgomery). Then there’s the Agatha Christie, Wodehouse, Great Gatsby era of content (all written loosely in the first half of the 20th century), but is now ‘period’ drama/entertainment. Lastly (for the case of this example), there’s the Outlander series, Phillipa Gregory, Bridgerton, and so on, all written much more recently (hemhem 1990 is still recent, k?), that was all written in the age of personal computers, but is often about the age of corsets and horses and complex social hierarchy and more. Then, going beyond what’s based on books, there’s the darling of period soap operas, Downton Abbey, or the decidedly more gritty Peaky Blinders.

So what gives?

I mean, I think there are two loose categories of stuff here; on the one side, would be stuff that we’d happily sit down and watch with our moms, mothers-in-law, great aunts and grannies. And on the other side is, well, stuff we watch but feel like those same respected older ladies might blush, or maybe we would, if we were to watch them together. I saw, as a review of Bridgerton, a warning to watch it but not with your parents. Which, I think is the very 2020s way of taking a particular category of period tv to its somewhat logical conclusion.

Is the thing we like about these period pieces (whether written or filmed) the romance, either just as romance or as “romance” (winkwink nudgenudge)? It’s an acceptable format of romance – the watch-it-with-mom version or the bodice-ripper version – people who don’t like modern romance (or erotica) are much happier to consume it if it’s historical. Sprinkle a bit of history on it, and *bam*. Even for the sexed up stuff, if your chiselled-bod of choice wears a historical loose shirt and some culottes, you know, it’s fine for a bunch of women (mostly) to get all hot under the collar.

Whether it’s Sexy-in-the-Castle or Prim-and-Proper-at-Court, I think part of what we like is the richness of the situation; lush historical details and costuming (even if they’re not super accurate), because it’s a bit closer to our idea of fairy tales, part of the stories we tell ourselves, that form our cultural imagination. And that is why good casting, and telling previously limited stories is so important.

What should be top of my list, when I’m not just rewatching my old favourites?

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