Why are modern twists on ye-old silhouettes so fascinating to young women?
In recent years, we have not only witnessed the establishment of ultra-feminine, romantic corsets off the runway and into mainstream fashion — but also the rebranding and revival of bows and other traditionally feminine accessories. Media such as Bridgerton, adaptations of classic period pieces such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion or Emma, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Suki Waterhouse’s “Nostalgia” music video… the list could go on forever. Even media pieces that are not as recent, like the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice, are experiencing a renaissance thanks to our current corset fascination and bow fever.
As I watched Apple TV’s The Buccaneers, I could not stop asking myself: Why are we actively choosing historical pieces as a mirror in which to reflect our much more modern ideology? Of course, with corsets’ long history as a symbol of women’s oppression, it makes perfect sense to take these types of stories and turn them into feminist retellings of women’s liberation. But what do these ye-old time periods have that would not allow the story to work in a modern context?
In The Buccaneers, we are presented with a group of five free-spirited best friends living during the 1870s. And, much as in Bridgerton, we are presented with a more modern approach to storytelling: 21st-century girls trapped in a gilded cage. They share a certain disdain towards the idea of marriage, a desire for sexual liberation, and a rejection of their contemporary ideals. Twirls of colorful pieces of cloth, wonderful interiors, and stunning costume design are usually the main selling points of this type of modern adaptation, all of them wrapped up in a perfectly curated modern girl playlist. It is precisely aesthetics — costume design in particular — that seem to be the most obvious reason why creators are choosing earlier time periods to set their stories in; heavily accessorized dresses, extravagant balls, and stunning manors are a type of eye candy that very few can resist.
But above that, the 19th century seems to be experiencing a process of fairytale-zation, led mostly by our unexamined enjoyment of the quaintness of the past and its consequential romanticization. Much as with the Medieval period—which lives in the general imagination through a mixture of fantasy and history — the Regency and Victorian times have been experiencing their share of fantasy and idealism, most notably through the combination of color and glamour formulated in Bridgerton, that unfailingly leads to a generally inaccurate perception of the society of the time. There is no desire to examine past ideals; instead, there is an exploration of their preconception, as well as the impressions that past works make on modern sensibilities and minds.
As for what placing modern convictions in past times does to a narrative, the tighter restrictions and harsher social punishments of the 19th century indeed allow the modern spectator to perceive social mistakes more clearly. After all, contemporary times do have the blessings of modernity, and many of the lessons implied in these types of media would get lost in the context of a modern setting. Additionally, the popularization of trends such as cottagecore and its multiple spin-offs have sparked a 19th-century interest in youth; from its fashion to its ways of living, this type of media piece has become rather attractive and marketable to both a young and a not-so-young audience. The massive interest in fashion’s microaesthetics — which has become a signature aspect of our time — has also allowed us to look at the past and see a place of fantasy and dreams, which inevitably turns it into some kind of fairytale from which we can learn and grow.
Driven by the daintiness and apparent fun of the times — traits wholly embodied by rising brands such as Selkie or Miss Sohee — and at a point in time in which being just a girl implies a certain degree of powerlessness, one cannot think of this return as anything but fated. As such, instead of rejecting traditional femininity, we have now embraced all of it — including some of its negative traits. Why deal with modern, seemingly unsolvable problems when we can revel in the ones that have already been tackled? This dismissal of the crushing weight of expectations that cannot be met and responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled are dealt with in the easier-to-control aesthetic realm, in which young women can idly glide around in a Selkie dress instead of girlbossing their way to the top in tight office wear.
Then, at the very core of it all, we find the element of romance.
Times change, paradigms break, romance dies. The relentless degradation that traditional romance has suffered through time has made women yearn for it: looking back at Medieval ladies, modern girls know better than to envy them, but at the same time, they wish for the kind of love that would lead a knight to challenge someone to a duel over the ownership of their used handkerchief. The type of love that leads a Bridgerton boy to defy every social norm and member of their family, to act against every single one of their principles, just to marry the girl of his dreams. Lords, Dukes, and knights are portrayed to have a solidity and firmness to their feelings and persona that modern men simply lack.
We yearn, long, ache for a fairytale romance, which is more and more often taking the shape of a storybook tale instead of one filled with dragons and knights in shining armor. Sir Lancelot was replaced by Mr. Darcy long ago; the Round Table is no more, as we now more than ever march to Jane Austen’s eternal drums. Only time will tell if Medievalism, with its rigid hennins and dreams of honor, can conquer popular media again. In the meantime, let’s enjoy bows, corsets, empire waistlines, and the romantic blur that the 19th-century era has come out to be, but with the dutiful pinch of salt we ought to take when approaching the past in that spirit. 🌀
Paula Luengo is a freelance writer based in Madrid. Her interests draw from music to fashion and media analysis, with special emphasis on all that’s old and battered. You can find her on Instagram at @0030300.