This BBC television series broadcast between 1991 and 1994 is a sleeper, dramatizing feminism immediately after the First World War. A consistent theme throughout “The House of Eliott” is the struggle of women in the 1920s to live fulfilling and independent lives. Created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who had previously devised “Upstairs, Downstairs,” this is a period drama focused on the same era as “Downton Abbey”.
Two sisters, Evangeline and Beatrice Eliott establish a fashion house designing haute couture after they are forced to be on their own by the sudden death of their father. Left almost destitute and without any education, the sisters are forced to sell the family home. Refusing to accept the extremely low wages paid by prominent fashion houses, they decide to establish their own business at a time when women were not allowed control their own finances, when women could not obtain bank loans, and when working was considered an oddity and a scandal, except for the poor. On the cusp of the women’s suffrage movement, Bea and Evangeline have to carve out their own destiny in a man’s world of fashion.
“The House of Eliott” charts the two young women’s struggle to assert their newly discovered independence and establish a successful fashion house as well as confront those who try to interfere with their business plans. The sisters’ personal and professional breakthroughs are aided by a fun-loving photographer, Jack Maddox, who encourages them at the same time he pampers the vanity of the wealthy women who become the Eliott sisters’ customers.
This is an entertaining BBC series, but the paced is slow as is common in the nineties. Marsh and Atkins have written endearing and intriguing characters. The clothing– beautiful yet controversial in design– could almost be considered a stand-in for the freedom and independence of women. As the clothes become more comfortable and less confining so do the Eliott sisters. Fans of “Downton Abbey” will be in for a treat with “The House of Eliott”.