Culture Costume and Dress

5-7th May 2021 Birmingham UK

The Bridgerton Effect

March 25th, 2021

I have been watching current fashion trends and wondering if we will see a Bridgerton effect, and when we do how will it look? Will we see princess line dresses in powder blue satin from the early sixties or frilly white dresses with pastel sashes such as I wore to parties while at infant school? Both have featured in the Regency parallel universe inhabited by the world that is Bridgerton, based on the novels by Julia Quinn. With its modern storyline, strong female characters and narrative-led colour-blind casting.

There has been a long and honourable history of fashion responding to the latest film or TV show. Remember Annie Hall (1977) and all those baggy pants, waistcoats and trilby hats? Or more recently, catwalks adorned with red cloaks in response to Handmaid’s Tale (2017) and clouds of Tulle from that pink dress worn by Jodie Comer in Killing Eve (2018)?

Ellen Mironjnick, costume designer for Bridgerton told Vogue magazine (Dec. 2020) that this was a period drama that needed to feel ‘scandalous and modern’. Taking the Regency silhouette of the 1810s she applied a Christian Dior aesthetic, with the V&A’s 2019 exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams as her starting point. There were to be no bonnets, that would hide women’s faces and no muslin, that made women look like Greek statues but quickly crumples into a limp rag. She also subtly changed the necklines of the women’s dresses, replacing the straight line with an elegant scoop shape that is far more flattering.

Updating a period style to give a modern and acceptable aesthetic is a tricky business to pull off. Maintaining the period feel while also allowing the audience to identify with the characters and thus be drawn into the narrative demands walking a fine line. Mirojnick is an experienced Hollywood costume designer with films such as Behind the Candelabra (2013), for which she won an Emmy, The Greatest Showman (2017) and Malificent: Mistress of Evil (2019) under her belt. 

As well as subtly altering necklines and head shapes Mirojnick also used colour to emphasise the up-to-date feel of the characters, adding visual emphasis to their narratives. As eldest daughter of the ‘old money’ Bridgerton family Daphne began the series in pastel blues, moving to more dusky colours and deeper tones of silver and blue. As Mironjnick puts it ‘she begins as a porcelain doll and becomes a woman’. In contrast, daughters of the ‘nouveau riches’ Featherington family were given sizzling oranges, greens and purples. As their pushy mother (played by Polly Walker) puts it at one point, ‘I need them to stand out from the crowd and to be noticed if they are to make advantageous marriages’. You will have to watch the series to see if she succeeds.

Both families – Bridgertons and Featheringtons – have strong mothers each given a personal style. For Lady Bridgerton (played by Ruth Gemmell) her look is more 1950s, nicely pre-dating the early 60s feel of her daughters, but still with the Regency silhouette. My one quibble is with Lady Featherington, whose silhouette is more figure hugging and Edwardian in feel, more 1910 than 1810. Was this to show off her figure, to emphasise her hips, which barely feature in the Regency line? Or to take attention away from her décolletage? Added to the large garish prints of her fabrics is this a reminder of her aspirational status? 

The real matriarch of this society is the Queen (played by Golda Rosheuvel) and she has a delightful eccentricity, after all no one at court would dare to criticise her, so why not have some fun with her look? Her gowns were kept to the formal style worn by the real Queen Charlotte – all the better to set off her outrageous wigs. These were extraordinary, sometimes high, sometimes wide, in a range of tones from hard white to gunmetal grey, but always precisely curled and sculptural. Each added to a superior demeanour accompanied by her withering put-downs.

Bridgerton has caused outrage among adherents to a certain style of period drama, but that is not what this series is. The description above may make the semiotics of the costumes sound a little crude, but by carefully setting up their rules and parameters in advance Mironjnick has been able to create a complete look, one that resonates throughout and gives us a coherent and believable universe. The story is not about Regency heroines with little personal agency waiting with bated breath for the right man, but young women learning to challenge their status. It is a modern story of kicking back against accepted norms and creating your own path; one that not only includes love, but also partnership and agency.

As I write this piece the week’s fashion pages arrive in the newspaper, including a feature on next season’s dresses by Reformation. Their collection includes several styles with low scoop necks as featured by Mironjnick; so maybe the Bridgertoneffect has already arrived!

— Joanna Jarvis