The things we wear to go whoring: ‘Harlots’ and costume

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Lucy Wells’ blue dress and blonde hair is sufficiently Alice-like for her trip down the rabbit hole  (Harlots, Episode 1)

Season 1, Episode 1

Rejoice, Harlots has arrived on Hulu! It’s a female-centered period piece, which focuses on the entrepreneurs who own and operate brothels in London. Through a feminist lens, and overlaid upon feuding dynasties, this series explores themes of family loyalty, social status, ambition (particularly that of females), sexuality, and gender fluidity.

While I would love to chat about every clever and nuanced decision on the part of the creators, writers, designers, actors, and directors of the show, I thought that (for today) I would comment on costumes.

I must first commend, however, the creators of Harlots for brilliantly selecting the name of the eldest Ms. Wells; the very word, ‘harlot,’ lives in the name Charlotte. It’s as if our lovely “Queen pretend” (as she names herself) could no sooner stop being a harlot, as she could stop being herself. We are constantly reminded of the juxtaposition of sex work and freedom by the character’s name. Charlotte is a derivative of Charles, which is a derivative of Karl, meaning “free man.” So, when Charlotte sits on her bed— her prison, her throne—and ponders her future with and without George Howard’s contract, we too must wonder if harlotry is a contradiction to her freedom, or if harlotry itself is her freedom.

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To start, costumers had a bit of a laugh with their pineapple. The first time we properly meet Charlotte is when she wakes upon the arrival of George Howard. On the heels of his entrance, is his presentation of a pineapple to Charlotte. Despite later scoffing at Howard’s suggestion that she is the aforementioned fruit, Charlotte was indeed dressed as one.

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The eldest Ms. Wells, however, does not appear dressed as a pineapple in the courtroom after her mother has been arrested in the raid. While Lucy is still dressed in the clothing she wore to fetch her sister, Charlotte has since changed. Fittingly wearing red, white, and blue, she stands before the judge in opposition of his citation and application of currents laws, which diminish the sex workers’ agency, restrict their freedom, and punish their financial independence. Later, Charlotte is still dressed in the colors of liberty as she sits in a different courtroom of sorts—a bedroom which may sentence a woman, or exonerate her, for being female—and considers the contract before her. Will agreeing to be the property of George Howard limit or augment her personal freedoms?

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Emily Lacey appears before Lydia Quigley’s House of Earthly Delights in a conspicuous medallion-colored frock, shining as brightly as she so claimed at the beginning of the episode. And as well she should, for Ms. Quigley does not accept Emily because of her talents with the ‘male instrument,’ but rather Ms. Quigley accepts Emily because she is a shiny medal. She is a keepsake of warfare. Just as a soldier proudly displays his rank with a collection of medals hanging from his uniform, Quigley too desires a medal with which to adorn herself, symbolizing a victory over Margaret Wells. Today, that medal is Emily Lacey. Later in the episode, the shoes which Margaret gifts Lucy are also medallion-hued. As such, we’ll have to watch this color, watch the shoes, and watch what else may become the spoils of war.

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In a very quick scene, the narcissism (and possibly deranged obsession) of George Howard is succinctly stated. We already know that he wants to own Charlotte, but by dressing in her clothes as he professes love for himself, Howard exhibits the desire to be Charlotte, and to experience the pleasure of loving himself through her.

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And finally we arrive at the opera, where Lucy is viewed by prospective buyers interested in bidding for her virginity. Between Lucy’s blue frock and the style of her blonde hair, I smelt a whiff of Alice in Wonderland on the ensemble. While the same Lucy-blue of innocence and wonder exists in the fabric of Charlotte’s dress, the color is entwined with (or perhaps overtaken by) a more complex pattern. These sisters share the same beginnings, but make no mistake, the career of Charlotte wells has left an indelible print on the fabric of her character.

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Atop either daughter’s crown is a hint of red, the color worn by their mother, Margaret, a red queen-like figure. Positioned opposite her, is our white queen, Lydia Quigley. The sight of these two brings to mind the players and imagery of the Wars of the Roses, which were the wars for control of the English throne. One house was represented by a red rose; the other, by a white one. I find it most delightful that our Margaret Wells shares the same name as the red queen of old, Margaret Beaufort, and perhaps shares Beaufort’s ambition as well. After all, Beaufort famously masterminded the upset of the House of York. She groomed her son, a pretender to the throne, and successfully established him as the King of England. When Charlotte calls herself the “Queen pretend,” it is all the more clear that Margaret has long-envisioned a title for herself and her daughters.

There is so much to sink one’s teeth in! I very much look forward to Episode 2!

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