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17 Must-See Historical/Costume Dramas

best costume dramas, movies and historical tv series to watch

It’s now the dark time of year, where the evenings are perfect for snuggling up with a hot drink and a blanket, reading or watching movies. So here are my favorite movies and series – both historical and fantasy, from a variety of different cultures. As I grouped these movies by historical (or imagined historical) era, the first 5 are actually set in ancient China, and all of them feature the most stunning outfits. After that we go back into the western world for the remaining 10 dramas on this list.

1. The Legend of the Phoenix

This fantasy costume drama has it all: gorgeous costumes, drama, love, treachery and fighting. In ancient China, in an undefined period, but costume-wise probably inspired by the Wei dynasty, a young circus performer, Ye Ningzhi, comes to the palace to perform for the Empress Dowagers birthday. An evil princess uses her as a pawn in a her plot to install her brother as the emperor, and frames her and her troupe for treason. Thanks to the quick thinking of General Wei Guang, the performers are saved. Two years later, in order to protect Ningzhi from assassins, the general tells her to enter the palace as a maid to the Empress. To avoid being caught up in the plots and dangers within the palace walls, she needs to use her wits and sometimes also her circus skills to survive.

The drama is available for free on YouTube, and though it is in Mandarin, excellent English subtitles are available.

2. Wrong Carriage, Right Groom

Another excellent Chinese costume fantasy series, all about two young brides who are married off on the same day, wearing the same outfits. To escape a sudden downpour, both brides take refuge in a temple, to wait for the rain to stop. Alone with each other, the two girls confide in each other: both are getting married to strangers against their will. Suddenly, a group of rebels storm the area, and both brides have to flee. By mistake, they get on the wrong bridal sedans, and are married to each others husbands. At first, only the girls know they switched grooms, but over time, both couples fall in love, and eventually the husbands find out the true identity of their brides.

3. Empresses in the Palace/The Legend of Zhen Huan

Based on actual historical figures: In the 18th century, during the Qing dynasty, a young girl is selected to enter the Forbidden City as a concubine to Emperor Yongzhang. Soon she is caught up in the power struggle between hundreds of women striving for the Emperors attention. Locked in a golden cage full of treachery, she must protect herself and the few concubines she can trust.

The entire Series is very well researched and accurately done. You will notice, that the actors are not wearing Hanfu (the traditional clothing of most Chinese people) but the Manchu dress, which was mandated by the Qing Emperors.

4. Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace

Very similar to Empresses in the palace, but tells the story of court life during the reign of the next Emperor, Qianlong (end of 18th century). He wants to marry his childhood sweetheart, Ruyi, but due to court politics, is forced to take another Empress, and Ruyi as a concubine. Sensing, that the Emperors hart is really with Ruyi, the other women are constantly attacking and framing her.

5. The Story of Yanxi Palace

This drama again illustrates court life at Qinglongs court so you will recognize many of the concubines names fro Ruyi’s Royal Love. This time the story is told from a completely different viewpoint – that of a maid, Wei Yingluo who enters the palace to solve the murder of her sister. Wei Yinglou has a hard time adapting to all the rules one is supposed to keep in the forbidden city, and only escapes punishment through her extraordinary ability to talk herself (and others) out of trouble. During the course of the series we see her going from an embroidery maid, to a high-ranking maid of the Empress, to Imperial Noble Consort Ling.

It’s funny to note though, that the characters of the concubines are reversed in this drama, in Ruyi’s Royal Love, Ruyi (Consort Chun) is the main character batteling against the evil Empress from the Fuca Clan, and later Consort Ling, a former palace maid from the Wei family. In Yanxi Palace, Wei Yingluo works for the kind Empress Fuca, and after becoming Consort Ling, has to battle against the seemingly benevolent Consort Chun.

6. Ever After

A Cindarella story set in Renaissance Italy, starring Drew Barrymore. The costumes are decent (though there’s a little bit too much hair worn down) and it’s a very well done movie.

7. Three Wishes for Cindarella (1998)

Another Cindarella story, but as cold as Ever After is warm. Set in snowy winter landscapes, this Czech fairytale features a lovely soundtrack, and is often watched around Christmas time. Costume-wise also set in would-be renaissance times – some elements decidedly NOT really historically accurate (but still a hundred times better than the average modern “historical” drama!)

8. Pride and Prejudice (1995)

A faithful adaptation of Jane Austens novel Pride and Prejudice. Very historically accurate, (about 9/10!) and very funny, especially when Mr Bennett is around.

9. Emma (2020)

Another great Jane Austen adaptation, based on the beloved classic, Emma, a highly accomplished (and might I add, vain) young woman living with her eccentric and invalid father, amusing herself by matchmaking. Costume-wise, the producers have really outdone themselves, basing many outfits directly off extant garments and paintings.

10. North and South

A family is forced to relocate from the gently south of England to the rough, industrial North. Here, Margaret Hale sees first-hand the poverty and misery of the workers in the factories, while slowly falling in love with the seemingly cruel Mr Thornton, who is the owner of the local cotton mill. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.

11. Little Women (1994)

Based on Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel, we get a look at the quiet home life of 4 sisters growing up during the American civil war, while the father is away at the front.

12. Sissi (1955)

A marriage is arranged between Princess Line of Bavaria and Emperor Franz of Austria. Shortly before the engagement is announced, the Emperor falls in love with her younger sister Elisabeth instead, who goes on to become the famous Empress Sissi of Austria. Set in the late 1850s and 1860s, the costumes are lovely, but sometimes bear quite a resemblance to 1950s fashion!

13. The Inheritance

Based on another novel of Louisa May Alcott, and set in the 1870s/1880s. The governess of a wealthy family falls in love with dashing James Percy. The plot really follows the line of a traditional Cinderella story.

14. The Gilded Age (2022)

Set in the second bustle period, this drama tells of the battle between old New York and the Nouveau Riche. The series is written by Julian Fellows, who also created the iconic series Downton Abbey (see below). The costumes are en pointe, though creative liberties have been taken to highlight the personalities of the characters.

15. BONUS: Back to the Future Part 3

Who would have thought? But actually, the historical accuracy is very good in the iconic Back to the Future movies (save perhaps the bit in 2015).

16. Downton Abbey

English aristocracy against the modern world, tradition vs modern society: the Crawly family needs to adjust to the ever-changing society. A drama that covers the time period from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the late 20s/30s. Intertwined in this series are many smaller stories, giving special attention to each character portrayed, from the footmen to the Countess Dowager.

17. El Tiempo Entre Costuras / The Time In-Between

A young seamstress from Madrid elopes to Tetuan in Morocco. As the second world war breaks out, she is recruited as a British agent, and sent back to Madrid, to open a dress-shop and infiltrate a group of wealthy Nazi-supporters.

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