If you’ve ever thought a period drama could do with fewer turns around the drawing room and more action, welcome to Bridgerton. The new series, on Netflix today, is mega-producer Shonda Rhimes’s tilt at out-dazzling all the other period dramas, one-upping them with more feathers, more sparkle, more dresses, more hats, more brooches - and yes, more sex, too.
The costumes are among the show’s greatest delights. Moments into the first episode, we’re cued into their importance when Lady Violet Bridgerton (played by Ruth Gemmell) trills, “Your dresses have arrived,” prompting her daughters to stampede from one drawing room to another to examine their ensembles for an audience with the Queen. “This one is quite ravishing,” Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) declares of a white satin gown with an empire waist, puff-sleeves and delicate gold embroidery.
The real ravishing comes later. First, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) will declare Phoebe the “incomparable” debutante of the season, then the eldest Bridgerton daughter will cavort through a number of balls in more elaborate white or gold dresses (she’s so pure; we get it), then she’ll dream of the rakish Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) in white cotton nightgowns bound to have any nap-dress fans sighing.
The costumes and overall production design aren’t intended to be totally true to the era. Writer-creator Chris van Dusen said he wanted watching the show to feel like reading a romance novel - not a history book. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who worked on 2013’s similarly OTT Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra and Rhimes’s How to Get Away With Murder, has said she started with real Regency dress - hence all the empire waists and puffed cap sleeves - but then went wild.
She told Fashionista that she visited the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams show at the Victoria & Albert Museum on a weekly basis, always finding something new to include. She also cherry-picked details from Chanel couture shows, Wedgwood china patterns, Sixties fashion, crown moulding and pastry design for the costumes, mixing it all together to achieve the sparkling, bright, aspirational, modern-Regency look.
While many period dramas pull costumes from rental agencies or warehouses full of dresses used in past productions, especially for the extras, Mirojnick and her team of 230-plus costumers made every outfit specifically for Bridgerton. That amounted to more than 7,500 costumes, including more than 100 for Daphne alone.
And the costumes have a lot to tell us about the characters. All the Bridgertons - "the shockingly prolific family known for its bounty of handsome sons and perfectly beautiful daughters," as Regency-era Gossip Girl Lady Whistledown describes them in her scandal sheets - favour Bridgerton blue and refined pastel tones.
Their nouveau riche neighbours, the Featheringtons, conversely, parade in garish yellow and marigold dresses. Portia, Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) wants to make sure that no potential marriage prospects can miss her three daughters - and anyway, the retina-burning hues are her favourites.
Sure, it’s soapy - bosoms are less heaving than hoiked up to chin level. But that’s part of the fun. Period London has never looked so sparkling or perfect as it does in Bridgerton, nor so racially inclusive, nor quite so astonishingly attired. And all the extras - the corsets, jewels, hats, gloves, shoes and some frankly insane wigs - add layers of richness to the production.
Not, of course, that it’s all about the ladies. The men, when they’re not half-stripped for boxing or other pursuits, look dashing in morning suits. The Duke of Hastings, Daphne’s unwilling (or is he?) love interest, stands out from the crowd of more eager suitors in his red velvet jackets and elaborate waistcoats. They’re so good, we’re almost sorry to see them come off...