There are great films that have recreated 18th century dress extraordinarily well: The Lady and the Duke, Jefferson in Paris, The Affair of the Necklace, The Duchess, The Madness of King George, Dangerous Liasons, Marie Antoinette (if you exclude the wigs and shoes), even Barry Lyndon. However, the British television series Garrow’s Law is not among these. Although the costuming improves with each season, it is not consistent and appears to have been done on a limited budget. The clothes of the background actors especially confuse eras and appropriateness of occasion and time of day, and even the principals are not always well fitted out.
However, as a series, Garrow’s Law is mesmerizing. The series is based on the work of William Garrow (1760-1840), who began as a barrister at the Old Bailey in 1783 and eventually revolutionized the British legal system. It is Garrow who is credited with the phrase ‘Innocent until proven guilty.’ What I find particularly interesting is that the shows are based on original cases from the Old Bailey, and many are fashion related.
One story recounts how Garrow saved the lives of two shoplifters for stealing lace valued in excess of 25 pounds but the sentence was transmuted to a year of hard labour because Garrow argued that although the retail value of the stolen goods was 25 pounds, the items were fenced for only 4 pounds, an amount that was not punishable by death.
The most fascinating of all stories was about an attempted murder that resulted in the slashing of the intended victim’s dress but no injury to its wearer. Attempted murder was considered only a misdemeanor then, so the prosecution devised a strategy to use a statute from 1721 which stated the malicious damage of clothes was a capital offense. Garrow saved the attacker’s life by proving he had intended to kill his victim, not damage her clothes! For these, and other weird 18th century clothing-related statutes, I highly recommend the series – just don’t look too closely at how everyone is dressed…
The first two seasons have been shown on PBS – and the third series just aired in the UK. If they show up again in your TV listings, take a look.