Bonnets, Bridgerton & why we get history wrong
When reality is stranger — and more boring — than fiction.
I originally intended this article to go up a while ago, but I’ve been sitting on it because it also had something to do with another popular show I had a beef with. I felt like I was too close to the subject to write about it properly and fairly. I might pick it up again, but it will be a while. Until then, here are some of the lighter parts of that article.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” I started a watercooler conversation at work, and it caused DISCOURSE. I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch it, but I’m sure a lot of the stuff below also applies! Also, if you watched it, please tell me what you thought. I’m living for the drama of other people’s hot takes.
Enjoy this mindless rant about Bridgerton and a less mindless rant about historical adaptations to film.
A few months ago — like any self-respecting, fashion history-loving Jane Austenite — I hate-watched the entire second season of Bridgerton in 48 hours. It was terrible. I will be hate-watching season three.
I’m a bad person to watch historical dramas with because I spend most of the time fact-checking things on my phone and rolling my eyes, but Bridgerton season 2 was particularly bad [emphasis added emphatically].
The costumes looked like cheap prom dresses, and the story felt like an Austen fanfic written by a horse girl who had never seen the inside of a book. But one thing bothered me above all else: Almost every outdoor scene was shot in full sunlight, and all of the actors were giving this sultry look to the camera.
Do you know what would have fixed that? BONNETS AND HATS AND CAPS!
Directors of period dramas usually don’t use these because they aren’t sexy or “accessible” enough and can be hard to film. (But that didn’t stop Ang Lee from using it in his brilliant adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, did it? No.) Nevertheless, everyone — women in particular — always wore some sort of headwear — especially outdoors, so it would protect the delicate skin on their neck and face from the sun. It also kept them cooler since their skin wasn’t in the direct sunlight. Indoors, women would wear linen or cotton caps to keep their hair low maintenance and sometimes even indicate they were off the marriage market.
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I’m annoying to watch a period drama with, but it’s not because I’m a pedant or a purist. Okay, so that’s not the only reason. I do enjoy artistic interpretations of historical events. I liked the costume design in the first season of Bridgerton because it had such a clear point of view. However, I think that we view fictionalized events in books, film, and TV as the cold hard truth when it’s only an artistic interpretation. Ultimately, even though we’ve written these kinds of stories for centuries, the speed with which these stories are produced affects how we view ourselves in the present.
I once was talking to someone who mentioned how terrible it was Prince Philip had that affair with the famous ballet dancer Galina Ulanova and how he did Queen Elizabeth dirty by cheating on her. This was a storyline from Netflix’s The Crown, and they were stunned when I told them this wasn’t factual.
The chances of Prince Philip and Galina Ulanova having had an affair is slim, if at all possible. During her 1950s tour of Europe, she was 46 — eleven years older than Prince Philip. Furthermore, she was notoriously dedicated to her work and constantly meditating, rehearsing and reading about her roles, so she was probably too busy to have a dalliance with anyone, let alone a highly secret one with the husband of a figurehead of state.1 Although she was rumored to have been married several times over, it was also rumored she ultimately ended up with a woman at the end of her life2 — so there’s a possibility he may not have been her type anyway.
And this is mostly just a rumor. Of course, it could have been true, but little evidence exists to support it, and rumors spread like wildfire when a lack of real, verifiable information exists.
What was the biggest deterrent, however? She was from a hostile nation. Great Britain had been dealing with intense Soviet espionage since the 1930s, and Ulanova refused to even disembark her boat until she got the green light from Moscow — she made her allegiances clear before setting foot on English soil. British intelligence agencies would have been ALL over an affair between a possible Soviet spy and the spouse of a figurehead of state.
To some extent, we all take these nicely packaged narratives we see in pop culture as fact. We only have so much energy to dedicate to learning and remembering facts, and it’s easier when it’s served up in the form of an HBO miniseries. Although it’s fun to rewrite history for TV or a film by exaggerating juicy rumors, creating new characters or reorganizing a timeline, we risk losing touch with reality, ourselves and our future.
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Doomed to Repeat the Past
We all know the adage that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, but what of those who think they know the past? We live in an age filled with Twitter content, pop historians, news publications, and Wikipedia,3 all confidently asserting correctness on any given historical subject. We flock towards it, especially if it supports a narrative that confirms our worldview. Ultimately, it affects how we view politics, each other, and our future.
We prefer our watered-down, revised history for a few reasons:
#1 It makes things simple to understand.
If you take it at face value, revisionist history is salient and fascinating. Still, if you put even the tiniest bit extra effort into fact-checking, following up on timelines, archived news articles and read — dare I say — actual books, you’ll find context which adds complications making a story a lot harder to tell in one 50-minute episode. One of the most frustrating problems this poses to the modern viewer is that it makes it impossible to tell who the real heroes and villains are.
People love stories with a clear thesis with a beginning, middle and resolution, but life is messy, and history is complicated. No one’s life has a thesis or a “moral to the story.” Unless you are one of the blessed few who seem to turn everything they touch into gold (in which case, thank you for reading my Substack, Dolly Parton), most of us are just bumbling through life.
Reality: Humans are complex, so it stands to reason that human history is also complicated. One issue popular in current public discourse I can’t get my mind around is the raging culture wars around statues and the people they represent. To some extent, I see the point of taking down some of the Robert E. Lee statues because … well, his side lost. But also, not all of them are diamonds…
But to some extent, agree with the reason why the statue was erected or not, it is the evidence of thoughts, beliefs and values of people in the past. To some extent, we should acknowledge the fingerprints of those predecessors and be willing to have thoughtful discourse about public works of art. For example, when I’ve asked people why they think we should take down statues of Thomas Jefferson (the response usually being that he benefitted from and defended the institution of slavery), they’ll rarely engage in a discussion of how they also benefit from and further entrench modern-day slavery in the form of fast fashion. Why? Because it’s complicated. I don’t know a person alive who does not own or has consumed something made by slaves.4 As repulsive as we might find human trafficking, there are not many other ways for us to get our resources, not least of all because most people living in the western world don’t have the skills to generate their own resources.
#2 It makes us feel virtuous.
If there is one movie trope that needs to die, it’s the performative corsets-are-evil-restrictive-devices-of-the-patriarchy-and-we’re-going-to-show-you-a-woman-being-painfully-strapped-into-one-against-her-will scene. This scene is in virtually every 20th–21st century period drama, from Gone with the Wind to Pirates of the Caribbean. I cannot stress this enough, but this narrative is just not true.
This obligatory scene is usually shown in stark contrast with a female character who is “not like other girls” as if to tell the viewer, “Look how repressive and terrible it used to be for women! You’re so much more enlightened now!” As a viewer, you might reflect upon how women can vote and own land and think, “Yeah! We ARE better than those stupid women in the past!”
Robert Henderson, who published this piece about why we participate in cancel culture, put it like this:
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