Bows, bodices & fashion's latest passion

Bows, bodices & fashion’s latest passion

As the nation’s favourite costume dramas return to our screens, Laura Craik explains why we can’t resist a period look 

Divine and dandy: Sophie Rundle (left) and Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack

Empire-line elegance: Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne in Bridgerton

Divine and dandy: Sophie Rundle (left) and Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack.  And Empire-line elegance: Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne in Bridgerton

We’re not saying modern fashion is boring; there are many positives about wearing jeans. It’s just that sometimes a person wants to dress up a bit, cast aside everyday garb and be a little… fancy. And also a little retro.

But why travel back to the 1980s or 1960s when you can go even further? Never mind time-hopping a few decades: true escapism comes from skipping back a century or two.

With a surfeit of costume dramas gracing our screens, there’s never been a better time to join the periodistas: people who love to take their fashion cues from history. And, of course, with most of us having spent recent times in sweatpants, getting inspiration from the big and small screen is a great way to break out of a style rut.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to embrace your romantic side. And your Regency side. And your inner flapper…



Regency romance: Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor in Bridgerton

Regency romance: Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor in Bridgerton

When Bridgerton first aired on Christmas Day 2020, its influence on our wardrobes was swift and far-reaching. According to fashion intelligence outlet Lyst, in the weeks immediately afterwards, searches for corsets increased by 123 per cent, empire-line dresses by 93 per cent and pearl and feather headbands by 49 per cent. Given the UK was in lockdown until the following spring, it’s unclear where anyone was wearing this stuff, but maybe dressing like Daphne Bridgerton made cooking dinner more fun.

The series is set in the Regency period (1795-1820, while George IV was prince regent), and its lavish costumes caught the public imagination for two reasons. Firstly, there were a lot of looks: an estimated 7,500 pieces in total, with 5,000 costumes captured on camera, including 104 for Daphne alone.

Secondly, the costume department worked hard on making the Regency period seem more daring and contemporary, meaning the clothes looked more accessible to modern audiences.

Elle Fanning

Strictly’s Nadiya Bychkova

Elle Fanning and Strictly’s Nadiya Bychkova

‘We don’t tie ourselves down to producing costumes that stick steadfastly to the rules of period dressing,’ explains the show’s costume designer Sophie Canale. ‘The use of colours, contemporary fabrics, embellishment and jewellery are key, and the audience really seems to buy into this vision.’

Thus, instead of bonnets, there were headbands; colours were powdery and pale, and the empire line that was so popular at the time was given a scooped neckline that accentuated the wearer’s breasts and prompted every influencer worth her following to crave a corset. Most coveted were those by Vivienne Westwood and Marques’ Almeida. Instagram users flocked to post pics of themselves in corsets, many giving them a modern twist either by layering them over contemporary dresses or teaming them with combat trousers or jeans.

That Bridgerton’s costumes were embellished with embroidery, trimmed with feathers or decorated with pearls gave the show’s fans all the inspiration they needed to embrace their maximalist side, so overlooked in lockdown. Search #Regencycore (as the trend is known) on Instagram and you’ll find 5,000 tags and counting. And while some are literal (yes, it appears people have taken to wearing bonnets), most are modern takes.

Iris Law

Bella Hadid

Iris Law and Bella Hadid

Meanwhile, on TikTok the #Regencycore hashtag has earned 18.7 million views – with one user, @asta.darling, even re-creating Daphne Bridgerton’s wedding dress.

If you want to nod to the style without looking too extreme and risk the wagging tongue of your local Lady Whistledown, look for inspiration from designers such as Simone Rocha, who was fond of a romantic, embellished aesthetic long before Bridgerton came along. While a tulle dress with puff sleeves will cost four figures, Rocha’s recent collaboration with H&M was more affordable, and although it sold out online, pieces are still being resold on Ebay.

Sophie Canale also namechecks the corset tops and puff-sleeved dresses at Urban Outfitters. She can’t divulge anything about the costumes in season two, but she will say that ‘again, it’s all about the detail’. We cannot wait.

  • Bridgerton will return to Netflix on 25 March



Dressing up, Downton style: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham with Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary

Dressing up, Downton style: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham with Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary

Who hasn’t been inspired by Downton? Can it really be 12 years since it first graced our screens? It was as far back as 2012 that designer Marc Jacobs confessed to binge-watching the show. Before you could say ‘Dowager Countess’, he’d put an Edwardian-themed collection on the catwalk for Louis Vuitton, the Parisian house for whom he was creative director at the time, complete with elbow-length gloves, oversized hats and long coats with wide collars and bold, decorative buttons. Jacobs even invited Michelle Dockery (who plays Lady Mary Crawley) to sit in his front row. In the same season, Ralph Lauren opened his show with the Downton soundtrack and sent his models out in English tweeds.

Fast-forward ten years, and news that the release of the much-anticipated second film –Downton Abbey: A New Era – has been pushed back until April has left fans disappointed. On the bright side, at least this leaves us with more time to prep our wardrobes in homage to the 1920s, the period in which the film is set (rumour has it that 1929 will be the specific year). Once it’s out, there will inevitably be a rush on duster coats, drop-waisted dresses and Mary Jane shoes, so it would pay to steal a march.

Louis Vuitton


Louis Vuitton and Chanel

Serendipitously, some designers did include roaring 20s references in their spring collections. Fendi and Dior showed dresses with long, undulating fringing, many of which had dropped waists. Manolo Blahnik and The Row both showed Mary Janes. And at January’s Chanel Couture show in Paris, chiffon and organza dresses came with recognisably 20s hemlines, and were embellished with ostrich feathers and crystal beads.

Those might be beyond the reach of us mere mortals, but they’re useful for inspiration. On the high street, Asos has a fine selection of fringed dresses, or try Accessorize for beaded 20s bags.


Ralph Lauren

Fendi and Ralph Lauren

Even without the added persuasion of Downton Abbey, there’s a logic to the 1920s being in vogue. The original roaring 20s followed the economic and social unrest of the First World War and Spanish flu pandemic, and many believe our own global pandemic is likely to be followed by a similar degree of hedonism and creative energy.

Fringeing, beading and party frocks not being for everyone, however, your 20s interpretation could be a high-necked blouse as worn by the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith), or a thin silk scarf embroidered with flowers à la Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern). Or you could join the myriad celebrities who have already gone for the chop and are sporting blunt, jaw-length, Louise Brooks-style bobs, such as the actresses Sienna Miller and Margot Robbie, and the model Kaia Gerber. Feather headband optional.

  • Downton Abbey: A New Era will be in cinemas from 29 April


Bringing androgyny back: Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Bringing androgyny back: Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack

Long before Gentleman Jack aired in 2019, designers had been engaged in a love affair with androgyny. In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent made a career out of putting women in tuxedos and trousers, and in more recent times, designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Ann Demeulemeester and Grace Wales Bonner have blurred the lines between traditionally masculine and feminine notions of dressing.

But there was something particularly compelling about Gentleman Jack, aka Anne Lister, the trailblazing lesbian on whose diaries the TV show is based. Maybe it’s the fact that Anne is played by the indomitable Suranne Jones. Or maybe it’s the fact that her wardrobe, by costume designer Tom Pye, is so stylish that viewers have had little trouble reinterpreting it for the modern day, despite the show being set in 1832.

Naomi Campbell at Lanvin

Kristen Stewart

Naomi Campbell at Lanvin  and Kristen Stewart

‘There are so few LGBTQ+ role models on TV, especially in period dramas, where their lives have too often been erased,’ is Pye’s explanation as to why Anne’s character caught the imagination. ‘Maybe there was something liberating about the boldness of her hijacking the power aesthetic of male clothing that appeals. We strove to make costumes that would enable audiences to see how uninhibited she was, despite the social constraints of the time.’

While most viewers assumed Anne wore trousers, she actually wore skirts that gave the impression of trousers, teamed with traditionally masculine pieces such as tailored waistcoats, trenchcoats, sweeping capes and striped balloon-sleeved shirts.

Those wanting to adopt the style could consider the sort of strong silhouettes touted by designers such as Bella Freud, whose black waistcoat nods to the look. Valentino and Givenchy both offer tailored black capes this season, although they’re far from inexpensive. On the high street, head to H&M for a selection of white blouses with balloon sleeves, or Missguided for floor-length coats. On Etsy, meanwhile, seller StefansUnitedKingdom is offering a replica of Anne Lister’s onyx ring for £68.


Cara Delevingne

Erdem and Cara Delevingne

As Pye points out, designers have always looked to historical dress to propel their work forward, but he believes that TV is currently experiencing a golden age, with more budget for costumes that renders them particularly persuasive. ‘I wouldn’t be so bold as to say they were influenced by Gentleman Jack specifically, but there did seem to be a flourish of leg-of-mutton sleeves on the 2020 spring catwalks, by the likes of McQueen, Erdem and Dries Van Noten. Something about the period caught the collective imagination.’

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

Pye can’t give details, but says there will be ‘wardrobe surprises’ in series two, including more bespoke looks for Anne and her lover Ann Walker. Which will drive fans wild on social media: on TikTok, the #gentlemanjack hashtag has had 11.5 million views. Pye says he’s even heard of women getting married in outfits inspired by the couple. And if you’re sustainably minded, you’re already unknowingly copying Anne: her diary often refers to her sister Marian repairing clothes for her. Stylish and the ultimate thrifter: what a gal.

  • Gentleman Jack will return to the BBC this spring




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