You Should Be Watching: TV Shows Set in Fashion History

In addition to some of the great costume dramas currently airing–Wolf Hall, Outlander, Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders–several series in past decades have specifically focused on an aspect of fashion history. Department stores are a popular setting, likely due to the opportunity for a range of characters and interactions. Mr. Selfridge, a recent, successful show in this genre, has been ordered for a fourth season. If you can’t wait until next year for your department store fix, or you just enjoy binge-watching with a little academic analysis thrown in, here are three more fashion-focused shows you might enjoy.

Are You Being Served? 1972-1985

Are You Being Served? is most often descirbed as “quintessentially British,” and its risqué humor and laugh track is part of its charm. The show is set primarily at the fictional London store Grace Brothers, where Men’s Ready-Made shares the floor with the lingerie counter. Served? has more depth than just silly visual gags and awkward workplace dynamics. The creator of the show, Jeremy Lloyd, worked in menswear at the London department store Simpsons of Piccadilly in the 1950s. Lloyd said he included his own experiences in the scripts. The sales associates on Served? glued their pocket handkerchiefs to cardboard and “kneed” jacket sleeves to ease their fit for larger customers, both techniques that Lloyd claimed to have employed himself at Simpsons. The entire series is currently on Youtube.

The House of Eliott 1991-1994

The House of Eliott ‘s first season is set in the early 1920s, when two sisters are left in debt and without support. Talented dressmakers, the women find funding to open a business that becomes a couture house. As with most costume dramas, Eliott approaches soap opera territory by its third season; but the business is the focus of the series, and the writers obviously researched the structure of couture houses of this era. Dramatic subplots involve seamstresses, illustrators, fabrics and the vendeuse, and the fashion shows are a treat. The House of Eliott is available to rent on disc from Netflix, or the entire series can be purchased from Amazon for just $30.

The Paradise 2012-2013

Based on Émile Zola’s The Ladies Paradise, this department store drama is the earliest of the bunch, set in 1875 in Northern England. The protagonist is Denise Lovett, a Scottish woman of modest means who works her way through the ranks at the store with ambition and talent in sales. The show was abruptly canceled after its second season and was said to have lost the ratings contest with Mr. Selfridge, but is nonetheless enjoyable and takes place in a very different era in fashion than Selfridge does. The Paradise is available streaming on Amazon and Google Play.

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