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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Bletchley Circle, Part 2: Costume Design.

Previously: The Bletchley Circle.

Historical dramas have a symbiotic relationship with costume design, with the clothes in high-profile shows like Downton Abbey receiving almost as much coverage as the stars. I suspect that this is one of the contributing factors to the popularity of historical movies about aristocrats, since it's a lot easier to interview Keira Knightley about corset logistics for the fiftieth time than it is to publicise a bunch of photoshoots of people wearing muddy pinafores and staid woollen caps. I love a good crinoline as much as the next girl, but sometimes movies about The Poors can be just as visually interesting because the costumes can illustrate more than just a statement of expense and luxury.
Downton Abbey is the reigning queen of costume-design coverage because it just entered the 1920s, and fashion magazines looooove the 1920s. Downton is in an enviable position, costume-wise, because several of its main characters are real clothes-horses and are rich enough that it's believable for them to be agonisingly on-trend as the show inches forwards into the first years of "modern" fashion. Once you reach the mid-20th century, popular fashions begin to move fast enough that most viewers will know the time period without much need for scene-setting, whereas it would take a historian to tell the difference between, say, 1830 and 1850 based on visuals alone. The problem is that it's easy to get carried away with year-by-year trend accuracy, and forget that not everyone could or even want to be up-to-date with the very latest styles.

The popular image of 1950s fashion stems from Dior's New Look, a "return to femininity" after the supposed horror of having to wear trousers, uniforms and sensible shoes during wartime. (Unsurprisingly, the New Look was not immediately met with widespread jubilation -- I imagine that a couple of our Bletchley girls would have been less than enthused about the return of the corset girdle.) Full-skirted New Look outfits have never really gone out of style for things like prom dresses and semi-formalwear because they still represent a certain kind of 1950s ultra-femininity. But while The Bletchley Circle is set in 1952, it's very aware of the social background of its main characters, none of whom are exactly fashion plates. In some ways it reminded me of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a movie whose story relied upon a particular historical setting but whose visuals were often strangely nebulous when it came to time-specific details. A couple of the younger characters in Tinker, Tailor were very obviously living in the 1970s, but many of the older men were either stuck in the past, or were just wearing the same suits they'd been wearing for the past twenty years. Which is, I think, satisfyingly realistic.
From left to right: Susan, Millie, Lucy, and Jean.
People don't just throw away all their old clothes as soon as a new decade rolls in. In The Bletchley Circle, Jean's matronly suits could easily have been worn by her character any time from 1935 to the present day, and Susan isn't much more fashion-forward. In fact, Susan is gloriously lacking in vanity, dressing in a selection of sensible, drab skirts and home-made knitwear. I kind of love the fact that she wears no makeup whatsoever, which is vanishingly rare to see on TV. It definitely adds to the contrast between Susan and Millie -- Millie being the character who spends the most time and money on her appearance despite probably being the poorest person in the group.
While Jean, Susan and Lucy are still mostly stuck with rationing-era clothes, Millie is closer in appearance to a classic 1950s look. She wears trousers and headscarves, and understands why a young woman would follow a strange man off a train in order to buy black-market cosmetics. When it comes to the moment when Lucy has to play decoy to lure in the Strangler, Millie is the one who supplies the dress and the lipstick. That scene was a real standout for me because the characters evidently had such a clear idea of what kind of look they were going for, whereas the end result seemed, to a modern eye, to be relatively sedate. It was a very narrow, precise cultural distinction, hinted at in the first episode when Susan's husband makes an offhand remark about the Strangler's victims being "not our kind of girls". That kind of girl being young single women who take the evening train home from work by themselves, and wear makeup. Yet if Lucy's temporary disguise as that type of girl had been introduced at the beginning of the show rather than halfway through (as a contrast to her frumpier outfits as a working-class housewife), I doubt that any viewer would have picked it out as being in any way unusual.
Lucy, after her makeover.
One last thing: UNDERWEAR. You do see Lucy getting undressed at one point, but I was pleased to find out that the costume designer made them all wear 1950s underwear under their clothes. This may sound like a weird thing to appreciate, but underwear does make a big difference to whatever is worn on top, particularly once you get beyond the long reign of the corset. Not only have ideal body-shapes changed a lot over the past few decades (thanks, idiotic internet memes, we know that Marilyn Monroe was "fatter" than "modern supermodels"), but "normal" body-shapes have changed as well. A middle-aged woman in 1952 would have been a young adult during the Great Depression and lived with rationing for over a decade of her life, which was definitely a contributing factor towards dress and waist sizes being dramatically smaller then than they are today. Add to that the fact that people were aiming for different body-shapes than we do, and it's surprisingly difficult for modern-day actresses to successfully wear fashions from 50+ years ago. Particularly if, as in this show, the costumes were at least partially made up of real vintage clothing. Some uncomfortable stockings and a pointy bullet-bra not only mean that the clothes look and fit better, but they help the actors stand and walk correctly as well.


  1. Great article!

  2. Well written and very interesting, thank you! I am definitely a new fan of yours!;)

  3. Really enjoyed this article. Also lots about The Bletchley Circle
    costumes, including bullet bras etc @

  4. I just got round to watching this and it was GREAT. Ladies solve crimes with maths! I saw an interesting interview with the costume designer, talking about mirroring the patterns in the plot in the costumes. There are no florals, only graphics prints and grids.