Is a furtive discomfort with our own lax and shaggy times behind the current affection for the corseted silhouettes of the 1950s and ’60s? Ignited by Mad Men, now on seemingly endless hiatus (who can even remember the name of that French Canadian whom Don is engaged to anymore?), this passion is lately inflamed by The Hour, an excellent six-part British series set in the BBC newsroom in 1956. As the Suez crisis flares abroad, inside the Lime Grove Studios a staff of good-looking people are desperate to (1) shake off the government’s censorious mandates and cover the news in a fresh, interesting way; (2) figure out who murdered a debutante and some other people; and (3) have sex with each other.
While they struggle with these pressing needs, the men are itching in tweed ulsters and Fair Isle vests and the women are flouncing around in less flamboyant versions of the ensembles we’re accustomed to seeing on Betty, Peggy, and Joan. But if the female cast members of The Hour never reach the dazzling sartorial highs of Mad Men—maybe because London in the ’50s was just emerging from rationing, while Americans were enjoying a burgeoning prosperity—The Hour’s fashions exert their own quieter brand of mid-20th-century allure.
The show’s costume designer, Suzanne Cave, explains that though she immersed herself in the period by studying Pathé newsreels and perusing old British Vogues, “we didn’t really concentrate that much on high fashion. We didn’t want to slavishly reproduce, but rather to interpret, to make the show relevant—not a fusty costume drama, but something a contemporary audience could relate to.”
This proved a lucky break for Romola Garai, who plays The Hour’s Bel Rowley, a woman with the rare serious job at the network. Unlike Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who once complained that her foundation garments were so awful they gave her battle wounds, Garai (seen below with actor Ben Whishaw) managed to wriggle out of similar constraints. “We had a little short corset called a Waspie and a repro period bra for her,” Cave remembers. “And after a few days she asked, ‘Do I have to wear this? It’s killing me!’?” Cave let her off the hook, though some of Garai’s dresses have their own built-in restraints, and all of her ensembles are narrow. “We wanted her to have a slimmer silhouette, a strong look, because her character is quite strong,” Cave explains. “Actually, it’s the secretary who is in the full skirt and sweater—that’s more of an American look.”
Asked about the trench Rowley wears throughout the series—would she really have tossed this casual khaki over those jewel-toned frocks?—Cave says the coat was intended as a homage to film noir. “We looked at French films of the period, ones with guys in macs and berets and trilbies.” She admits that there are a lot more people wearing this headgear in The Hour than there likely were at the mid-20th-century BBC.
But some things never change. When the luckless debutante in one episode is complimented on her faintly slatternly leopard-print coat, the character responds, “Mother hates it. I wear it to annoy her.”