Hairpin Costume Drama Club: The Duchess of Duke Street

by Danielle Roderick

Loving costume dramas must be how some people love sci-fi, or renaissance fairs: You get to explore power structures, but in a fun way. You get to calm your lower brain with the fantasy of what it was like to live back then (the snacks, the bedside decanters, the cloaks!), while your upper brain gets to chew on things like patriarchy and class structure. Thus, hoop skirts are great! Cordials all around!

When steeped in something from the Masterpiece Theatre oeuvre, you can’t really think about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, or why abortion isn’t part of regular health insurance, but you can chew on urchinhood, or why everybody had to give their babies opium. Costume dramas are very equal-opportunity escapism. Plus, I think most people like to think about corsets, in one way or another.

So, I hereby call together the very first meeting of the Hairpin Costume Drama Club. It’s like a book club, but we’ll only watch the books, not read them. And because of Netflix Instant, public libraries, and PBS, we’re rich in period pieces. The club is not for the weak. Some of these shows come in volumes. But, you need to watch something, right? And the more peau de soie and inter-class romance, the better!

I hope we can find some eternal truths in our club. I’m betting we’ll find consensus on things like following one’s heart, the responsibilities of the aristocracy, and which particular era of men’s fashion was the hottest. I’m also hoping we can stir up such a ruckus about some of the older dramas that their creators join our conversation.

For our inaugural meeting, I invite you to watch The Duchess of Duke Street. Netflix cruelly removed it from their instant offerings, but if you have Amazon Prime, the first season is streaming on Amazon Instant Video for free. Your public library should have the rest, fingers crossed. I’m suggesting we start with this one because it’s a classic (BBC 1976), and though slow to start, it will slay you. It covers the costume-rich decline of London leaving the age of decadence and sliding past the first world war.

We have Gemma Jones starring, who coincidentally later played Bridget Jones’ mother. There is pluck, there is food, there is a doddy butler. This is the same era as Downton Abbey, but it will break your heart more, even though it looks goofier. I promise.

If you’ve already seen it, watch it again. Order a case of champagne (cava is fine), and dig in. We have a month or so. Check back here, let me know how you’re keeping up, and then join us in October, where we will reconvene and brag about how much we cried.

Seriously, they drink champagne like water in this series, so get ready. You’re going to want some champagne, or at least some Martinelli’s on deck.

Danielle Roderick will dress up if you will, and writes as Carla Fran at Millicent and Carla Fran.