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Monday 3 December 2012

Costume design and "The Hour": Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon.

(N.B. This post is mostly about costumes so I've tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible. There are a couple of minor characterisation spoilers, but nothing plot-related for either season.)

I recently mainlined the entire six-episode first season of The Hour, and it quickly rocketed to the top of my list of Best Historical Dramas Ever. Basically, it is flawless. I think it's fair to say that I'm pretty easy when it comes to overtly feminist historical dramas, but while The Bletchley Circle is great, The Hour goes a lot deeper than a three-episode crime show could ever manage. On top of working with the intriguing premise of the birth of TV journalism, the main characters are all beautifully three-dimensional and interact with the same levels of humour and emotional complexity as seen in The Good Wife. 
I love the way The Hour manages to integrate an obsessive attention to historical detail with a few necessary elements of romanticisation. They sourced period-specific pencils for the characters to use on set, but at the same time the basic concept of the show relies upon a 28-year-old woman being the producer of the BBC's flagship news programme. Obviously in 1956 this would be impossible but The Hour makes it effortlessly believable, and Bel's relationship with the two male leads -- Freddie the writer and Hector the presenter -- is the heart and soul of the show. As for historical detail, The Hour bears most of the hallmarks of a classic thriller about journalism, censorship and government conspiracies, and the topics Freddie and Bel investigate are very well chosen. The first season focuses on Cold War paranoia in London while the Suez Crisis rages on overseas, and I'm already obsessed with the amount of historical detail going in the background of season 2. Freddie, Bel and Hector are currently looking into corruption and vice in Soho, and we're already starting to see hints of Rachmanism and precursers to the Profumo Affair -- even though in 1957, all that was still unknown to the general public.
The mid-50s are a great period for costume design because this was the point when personal style really became A Thing, particularly for women. As well as the classic image of the 1950s housewife with her wardrobe of  frothy skirts and brightly-coloured cocktail dresses, this was the advent of fashions specifically aimed at women in the workplace. And while most of the main characters in The Hour are career-driven adults, there are still occasional appearances from 1950s teen subcultures like Teddy Boys or leather-clad rockers. It's interesting to look at the aesthetic of The Bletchley Circle and compare it to The Hour, since both seem authentic and yet are so obviously different. The Bletchley Circle takes place four years earlier than The Hour and the characters are still rooted in the styles of wartime rationing, so they look very drab when compared to richer and more image-conscious women like Bel Rowley or Marnie Madden.
Bel's costumes run to a strict work uniform of form-fitting pencil skirt suits and brightly coloured jersey dresses. She actually has a couple of near-identical outfits in block colours, indicating that she knows what suits to her and sticks to it. A practical consideration, when you remember that she works in the relatively conservative environment of the BBC in 1956. Obviously Bel wants to look good but there are no hints of frivolity in her appearance, for all that she's usually colourful and eye-catching. Outside work we only really see her wearing vampy cocktail dresses, which she suits amazingly well because Romola Garai has such a great hourglass figure. Unlike a lot of the other female characters she doesn't often wear makeup, and there are several scenes where we see her changing outfits very quickly -- the benefits of an efficient capsule wardrobe, as it would nowadays be called. Bel enjoys the effects of looking attractive and stylish, but doesn't really "dress up" in the same way girlier characters like Marnie Madden do. In fact she has what could be interpreted as a traditionally masculine attitude towards dressing, since she basically constructed her own equivalent of the formulaic suits her male colleagues wear every day.
When it comes to costuming, Freddie and Bel are a real odd-couple pair. In season 1 Freddie's slightly scruffy appearance is all part of his role as a maverick at the BBC, and indicates his refusal to buy into the kind of conventionality Hector Madden effortlessly represents. Ben Whishaw's skinny frame lends itself well to gawkiness and youth, but Freddie is far from nervous. In fact he's kind of a bantamweight fighter, doggedly following dangerous stories well after any other journalist would have compromised or given up. Also, in the first season a lot more emphasis is put upon Freddie's attitude towards social class, both because he's far more sensitive to class differences at this point and because the main storyline is so closely tied up in the lifestyle of the British aristocracy.
Freddie comes from a working-class background but is heavily influenced by his time as an evacuee with the aristocratic Elms family, and by his friendship with the upwardly-mobile Cambridge graduate Bel. He wears a shirt and tie because that's the only real option for a man who works in an office in the 1950s, but aside from that he quite openly doesn't care about fashion or style. Next to the handsome and well-tailored Hector Madden he looks unapologetically weedy and unkempt, something I suspect Freddie is oddly proud of. Wearing ill-fitting trousers and sweater-vests, he knows to his bones that he's different from all the rich and powerful people he writes about at work. There's one particular scene I remember from when Bel and Freddie spent a weekend at the country house of Hector's extremely upper-class wife, Marnie. They're given a full schedule grouse-shooting and dinner parties, for which Freddie is unashamedly unprepared. In the end Hector makes him borrow a full black-tie outfit, which of course swamps Freddie and makes him look like a Dickensian waif. This is a familiar trope in British costume dramas, most recently seen in Downton Abbey when a former chauffeur is scorned for showing up to dinner wearing an ordinary suit.
Freddie changes a lot between seasons 1 and 2, maturing past the kind of reverse snobbery he espoused when he first met Hector. At first, Freddie's constant state of mild dishevelment highlighted the differences between himself and Hector's classically handsome, well-to-do appearance. Interestingly, Hector probably put less thought into his appearance than Freddie did into his purposeful lack of style, since Hector not only has a wife who picks out his clothes for him, but he also has a backstage crew making sure he looks good enough for television. As for basic elements of personal grooming, Hector was in the army and probably went to boarding school, so his general neatness and devotion to masculine style conventions would have been drilled into him from a young age. At first Freddie rebels against all the things that a good suit and neat hair represent, but in season 2 he returns with greater confidence and different priorities -- and, for the first time, is in front of the cameras on a regular basis. The shabby cardigans are replaced with closely-tailored suits that actually fit his slim frame, and he mostly restrains himself to a rather subdued palette.
Continued in the Menswear of The Hour.


  1. I'm really impressed by clothes that producers choose for Lix Storm ( Anna Chancellor) - her whole personality is reflected in her outfit - I love that. And I really like your post :)

  2. I'd love to read what you have to say about Marnie and Lix!

  3. I haven't watched The Hour yet, but this -- " the basic concept of the show relies upon a 28-year-old woman being the producer of the BBC's flagship news programme. Obviously in 1956 this would be impossible" -- makes me think of Verity Lambert, who went on to have a job at the BBC as producer, albeit to a then much less prestigious children's programme, seven years later at the same age.

  4. I believe Garai's character was based on this woman, who was a producer of several BBC news programmes in the 1950s:
    She was born in 1900 though; a 28-year-old wouldn't have been allowed to do it.

  5. I love this show and was delighted to see your posts about it! Here's hoping they film a third season.

  6. Sorry, but Bel's skirts are WAY too short! In 1956, no working woman would have worn them above the knee. They look great, but they are so NOT period that it takes me right out of the show.

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