Friday, April 8, 2011

The House of Elliot (1991-1994)

I just finished watching the entire BBC miniseries The House of Elliot. It is about the tribulations of two sisters trying to build a business in the fashion industry in the 1920's. Beatrice (Stella Gonet) rears her little sister Evangeline (Louise Lombard) after their mother dies in childbirth. Left penniless by a tyrannical father, who refused to educate them properly while failing to provide for them, the girls are forced to turn to the only thing they know how to do: sewing. Because of their innate creativity and sense of style, the clothes they design are soon popular with the ladies of London high society.

According to Blogger News Network:
“The House of Eliott” is a lavish and lush treat for anyone who loves the beautifully detailed BBC costume dramas.... I’ve never been able to figure out why the Brits do this sort of thing so consistently well, but American producers attempting the same thing more often fall flat. Attention to detail, I think… or a total willingness to put the acting company in authentic costumes and hairdos that may look distinctly odd, or unattractive to conventional modern eyes.

This three-season long series aired originally from 1991-1994 and follows the fortunes of the Eliott sisters, Beatrice “Bea”, (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline “Evie” (Louise Lombard) who are left apparently impoverished by sudden death of their domineering father early in 1920s London. Bea is a thirty-year old spinster who has raised her seventeen-year old sister after the death of their mother. Neither of them have any professional training, only the usual education thought fit for a middle-class woman of the time, no prospects for marriage… and no money.

But Bea has the experience of running a household, and Evie is a skilled amateur artist… and they are accustomed to making their own clothes. They are fiercely determined to be independent, to have successful lives on their own… and with the aid of a circle of friends they are able to establish a small couture firm; the “House of Elliot”. The series follows the sisters’ business and personal ups and downs, and those of their circle of friends and employees. Bea and Evie clash with each other, over what they want to focus on with their business, just as often as they agree. It’s soap-opera-ish but briskly paced. The details of period fashion are exquisite and fascinating, as the sisters very gradually develop confidence and style of their own, moving from dowdy post-war styles that seem a hangover from the age of Victoria, to very chic, jewel-colored clothes befitting the owners of a notable haute couture house.

So much of our current culture landscape was just coming into flower in the 1920s. Mass entertainment like the movies, radio and recorded music, the retail fashion trade, telephones and commercial air transport, the near-universal utility of automobiles, and women pursuing independent careers and balancing that with a family life. The world of the Eliott sisters looks just enough like ours to be familiar… but just different enough to be intriguing. But one absolutely timeless, brief scene of an elegant Evie Eliott, in high heels and a knee-length skirt, sashaying briskly along a London sidewalk is a reminder of how swiftly expectations of what a woman should be, and those that a woman had of herself had changed in a bare two decades.
The Elliot sisters' rise from simple dressmakers to couturiers is fraught with financial adversity and scandal. Because of their early cloistered existence the girls are easily taken in by any number of swindlers and bad eggs throughout the series. Their innate honor and integrity always get them through as well as a coterie of devoted friends. The most devoted is Jack Maddox, a popular society photographer who turns to film making, journalism and eventually politics. Over and over again Jack drops everything to save Beatrice and Evangeline from disaster.

The stormy romance of Bea (Beatrice) and Jack is one of the undercurrents that hold the story together amid many twists and turns. Having been betrayed by her father, Bea finds it difficult to trust men, even the man who has repeatedly demonstrated his trustworthiness. Since she struggled so hard to succeed in business she is terrified to lose control of all she has worked for, and so often puts the House of Elliot ahead of her relationship with Jack. The conflict many women have between career and family is thus vividly illustrated. Seeing all she has gone through makes it easy to understand Bea's point of view, although she comes close to losing the love for which she has longed. By the end, she realizes that she can surrender the business to other hands and focus on the domestic life which has always been her ultimate goal. Although she loses her temper at times, Bea is consistently a lady, putting up with snubs and humiliations with patience. She never loses her dignity and manages to bounce back from every calamity.

Evie (Evangeline) is thirteen years younger than Bea; she is a teenager when the story begins. Along with possessing a rare beauty, Evie is bubbling over with creativity as well as with curiosity about the big, bad world. Jack's feminist crusader sister Penelope gives Evie information about birth control without Bea's knowledge. After an initial affair with a French designer, Evie quickly goes from being a schoolgirl to femme fatale. She does not listen to Bea's advice but embraces a bohemian lifestyle, insisting upon learning about life the hard way. A torrid affair with Lord Montford almost destroys both Evie and the House of Elliot. Throughout it all, Evie retains a naive, almost innocent quality which is endearing, for she always looks for the good in people and wants to help the unfortunate. She refuses to accept money from her aristocratic lover, even when she desperately needs it to save the business. When she takes up with scruffy Daniel, the self-centered, impoverished artist, it seems to be part of a negative pattern of bad taste in men. In the end, however, Evie becomes a bride, with her prince awaiting her at the altar.

For those who love the history of fashion and couture, I highly recommend The House of Elliot. It is also a perfect portrait of England in the years between the Wars. And since it is the Roaring Twenties, the champagne flows. Every aspect of British life in the 1920's is touched upon, from the impossible living conditions of the working class to the rise of Communism and feminism. As the aristocracy declines, the way business is done and the way clothes are made and worn are changed forever.

Evie becomes a bride at last.
Bea and Jack At Home
(WARNING: The House of Elliot is highly addictive.)

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Julygirl said...

Highly addictive indeed! It is also a beautiful reminder of how a person can react in a cultured manner to unpleasant situations and art lost to many these days.

laughingsalmon said...

I loved The House of Elliot series and had the great privilege of viewing the special exhibition of costumes from the program at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London...

elena maria vidal said...

My only complaint is that it came to an end.

Julygirl said...

Would loved to have seen that exhibition! The costumes alone it seems would have bankrupted any production. They put other costume designers in Hollywood or elsewhere to shame.

laughingsalmon said...

Something I look forward to in British films...The costume,hair,and sets will always be...perfect...It really doesn't take that much more effort to get these things right in a period production...

elena maria vidal said...

I agree!