2020 proved that Gen Z is really into period dramas. From Cold War-era big hitter The Queen’s Gambit, to the much-anticipated fourth season of The Crown and #regencycore blockbuster Bridgerton, it's clear that the internet is obsessed with small-screen historical depictions — and it’s the dreamy costumes that have particularly captured people's attention.
According to fashion search platform Lyst, since the release of Bridgerton there has been a 123% increase in searches for corsets and a 93% increase in searches for empire line dresses. Elsewhere on the internet — on TikTok, for the most part — young people are making and wearing these items, educating their followers on the history behind these garments as they go. TikTok is known for both producing and reflecting current trends — especially when it comes to fashion — but there is a host of style-oriented creators on the platform who are drawn specifically to the past.
Shae (@shaetalksfashion), 24, living in Metro Detroit, Michigan, is one of them. "I just found it so interesting, how [in the past] what you wore said so much about who you were as a person," she tells Refinery29, explaining her interest in historical dress. "Especially with fast fashion, we don’t put as much value in our clothing as they did and their clothing was everything, it was their status, it was their essence as a human being."
Shae began making TikToks during the first lockdown, in May 2020, and has since found a community of people who are similarly interested in fashion history. Her most popular video, which explores the details of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, has gained over one million views.
Asta (asta.darling), 31, has also found success making TikToks about historical fashion. She studied costume history for stage and screen at Wimbledon College of Arts but decided to start posting to TikTok when a lecture she was due to give for the Historical Society she volunteers at in Tennessee was cancelled due to coronavirus. She posted the talk to TikTok and it immediately blew up. "It’s been great to see young people say, 'I want to get into history!'" she explains. "I’ve had people reach out from Kentucky to say that young people from TikTok have reached out to their historical group wanting to volunteer!"
Fashion and TikTok are both often trivialized, but these creators are adamant that historical fashion holds great significance. "Fashion follows politics," Asta explains. "You had the Edwardian period when everyone was really buttoned up and [then] politically everything changed and you went into the '20s, so the hems raised." But most people don’t go to TikTok for education, right? Most people go for viral dances and lip syncs. Well, perhaps not. Shae explains: "The TikTok algorithm really shouldn’t favour educational content like this but it does. And it works well because the videos are only one minute long and it inspires people enough to be interested in it, even kids with short attention spans." These creators have found themselves boosted by the algorithm on a whole new level since the release of Bridgerton, with many of them creating TikToks of looks inspired by the show or critiquing the costumes.
There are lots of people in the fashion history community who dislike the Bridgerton costumes, describing them as inaccurate and gaudy. But 19-year-old Molly (@ladymollyelizabeth), who lives in London, U.K., describes the show as a "Georgian fantasy show" and explains that historical inaccuracy in film and TV costuming can be interesting. "If you’re going to go for historical inaccuracy, you have to really go for it and do it well, which Bridgerton did," she says.
The main inaccuracies in the Bridgerton costumes are the bright colours and unusual fabrics but it is perhaps these elements that a younger audience most enjoys. Ellen Mirojnick, the costume designer for the blockbuster Netflix series, injects life and colour into the show via the costumes, which is a welcome change from the more muted colour schemes period dramas traditionally opt for. Asta is particularly interested in the clever ways in which Bridgerton uses colour. She explains her favourite detail: "Daphne’s colour is blue and the Duke of Hastings was red so when they got married, she started wearing purple and you could tell when she was angry with him, she went right back into blue."
Every creator I spoke to had some issues with the show, especially the tightlacing scene in episode one, when one of the Featherington daughters is squeezed into a corset. According to these TikTokers, this was a rare practice, as was wearing a corset without a slip or chemise underneath, which would have been uncomfortable and expensive.
The Crown and Emma (2020) come up a lot in discussions of the most historically accurate period dramas. Shae also mentions Pride and Prejudice (1995), describing the costumes as "so accurate that [the costume designers] went to find clothing patterns in museums and copied them. They went way over budget but it’s as historically accurate as you can get without making your own fabric on a loom."
With so many young people watching period dramas, it is no wonder that trends like corsets, huge sleeves and Regency-esque square necklines are on the return — but what is it that attracts some of these creators to wearing full period costume?
Deidrehannah (@thewoodmother), 25, living in Atlanta, posts TikToks explaining how to make and wear historical garments like corsets. "One of the things I enjoy the most about historical costuming is the way it allows me to connect with my ancestors, especially all my Black ancestors whose names I’ll never know," they explain. "When I wear the clothes they would’ve worn, I can know what it felt like for them to roll up their sleeves and hitch up their skirts and wipe their hands on their aprons. I can feel the weight of the skirts, and how the corsets affected their posture. And if I can embody them in some small way, I can know that they aren’t forgotten."
This connection to history seems to be something young people are particularly enjoying at the moment, longing for the escape that TV shows like The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton offer after a difficult year. Conveniently for them, there is a whole world of historical fashion on TikTok where wearing an 1830s dress or a 1980s skirt suit is not only considered the norm but celebrated.