Listen, I love a good historical period film. Ever since I was a little girl, although I was too young to understand the intricate plot points, I was swept away by the gorgeous gowns, sumptuous wide-shots of cinematography, and subtle dialogue I couldn’t quite grasp. It’s what fostered my love of writing; I wanted to use the written word to make people feel how I felt, make them see what I saw. And of course, the key component of any period piece is the clothes. This is the key aspect that makes us all feel transported into the past, after all, and the main thing we notice even if there’s no background music or the characters are just silently staring at each other.
But after a while, I noticed something. They were all a bit…white. And okay, by “a bit” I mean completely. As a Black woman in America, after consuming dozens and dozens of media adaptations, I only ever saw a handful of depictions with people who looked like me, and almost none of those were female characters. And eight-year-old me certainly noticed they didn’t get to have pretty outfits.
Think about it: the casts of nearly all the classic reigning (western) historical movies and TV shows (Dangerous Liasions, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth, Room With a View, Little Women (1994), Emma…) are almost blatantly white, in such a stark way that most other movies and shows in Hollywood couldn’t get away with in a post-Civil Rights era film world; it has only been in the past two or three decades that we’ve seen any people of color as minor or supporting characters (as seen in Valmont, A Little Princess, and now Outlander) or even as silent background extras (as in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Nicholas Nickleby). And the idea of a Black, or indeed, any non-white person being a main character (let alone the main character) in any period adaptation seemed like a pipe dream for little brown girls like me draping themselves in bedsheets and pretending they were yards of silk petticoats.
Many people may claim that this is because prior to about 1900, the western world was all-white, with the exception of antebellum slavery. Besides the fact that history itself disproves this repeatedly, the beauty of living in the modern era is that we should understand that fiction can- and should- be used to include everyone. Thankfully, the new millennium did not come to play; I’ve noticed a marked trend of more and more characters of color ever since the late 1990s, and after 2010 the idea of a period piece featuring Black characters was no longer the stuff of fantasy- it was popping up right in your local streaming service. While we clearly still have a ways to go in terms of Black and other people of color being represented, this increasing Black representation is a step in the right direction and I hope to see more!
And because Black women are the most underrepresented in on-screen media, I thought what better way to celebrate this fact by sharing the fashions of my top 5 fictional Black women in history? *curtsies* Shall I begin?
[Mild spoilers ahead. You have been warned.]
Georgian England: Harriet Lennox of Harlots (2017- present)
The 18th century is often depicted as the height of genteel refinement. Hulu’s original series Harlots comes along to remind us that that simply wasn’t true for the majority of London’s population, chronicling the trials and tribulations of two rival madams. Harriet Lennox starts out as a timid- but cunning- American ex-slave trying to live out her freedom in England, but quickly discovers after being suddenly widowed that being a woman without a man makes that almost impossible. As she begins to make her way in the world through less…orthodox means, her fashion changes as well, showing her confidence as she increasingly claims autonomy of her life.
Georgian England: Dido Lindsay of Belle (2013)
Based on the true story of Englishwoman Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, depicted in the famous portrait by Johann Zoffany, this film focuses on the life of the wealthy but culturally isolated heiress as she navigates her mixed race background, belonging neither to her father’s white upper class who spurn her but neither to her Black mother’s class of the enslaved or impoverished who cannot relate to her. As she learns to accept herself, she refuses to suffer being merely tolerated and she takes an interest in the legal case of the Zong slave ship, leading to a trial that changed England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade forever. Her clothing is utterly resplendent throughout the movie, but becomes more unique as she stops trying to blend in and becomes more comfortable with her Blackness in a white world.
Regency England: Georgiana Lambe of Sanditon (2019)
Georgiana is the willful teenaged ward of the show’s main love interest. It is heavily implied that she’s the illegitimate daughter of a white West Indian merchant and his enslaved Black “mistress,” giving her quite a large fortune, and thus making her one of the upper class. Unlike in Belle, it is hinted at that this young woman has spent some time around other Black people earlier in her life and so doesn’t struggle with the self-hate and self-acceptance that Dido does. Instead, she seems to revel in her high status, seemingly feeling as if she deserves it for what other Blacks endure under the hardships of slavery. While she is subjected to some rude and humiliating remarks, for the most part she enjoys the same access to society as her white counterparts. So her outfits are always in-style and even outlandish at some points, hinting that perhaps Georgiana enjoys retail therapy just as much as any spoiled teenager might today.
Civil War America: Charlotte Jenkins of Mercy Street (2016)
Whenever you mention the Civil War, Black depictions usually turn to the enslaved, which can (but not always) be rather limiting, fashion-wise. But it’s important to remember that there were many free Black and people of color living their lives well before the Emancipation. Charlotte Jenkins in Mercy Street is based off the real-life abolitionist of the same name, who was a nurse during the war and championed for all Americans having access to medical care. Abolitionists wanted to look good too, and I appreciate PBS for giving Charlotte her own style that reflected her status and assertiveness in a world that denied her agency, but while still being decidedly fashionable.
Edwardian Canada: Mary Lacroix of Anne With an E (2017)
As an American I hardly ever see Black women depicted outside of England so it was a real treat to become acquainted with the fictional Mary, a washerwoman in the outskirts of Canada during the late 19th century. Unlike the other characters I’ve chosen, Mary is neither highborn nor devoted to any great cause, emphasizing that for marginalized people of any era, sometimes merely surviving is an achievement in and of itself. As her trade suggests, her clothing is plain but always neat and clean; as her circumstances improve however, we her see her have a little more fun with her outfits and add a few more details here and there.
As much as I enjoy fashions of previous centuries, there is no other time I’d want to live in but the present, where we are coming closer each year to media that represents us all. For example, I’ve been noticing more Asian depictions in western period films and I’m excited to see it increase and hopefully one day, this won’t be notable at all, but the standard. I am so glad to live in a time where everyone is being included.
Have you watched any of these? Or do you know of other shows and movies that have incredible fashion and accurate representation? Drop me a line anywhere on social media and let me know- I’m always on the hunt for more gorgeous gowns.