How Harlots Used Fashion to Re-Imagine “Scarlet Women” & Sex Work

Cast of Harlots in pastel colors
Lydia Quigley’s workers create a tableau. Photo: Hulu, 2017.

In film, theater, and literature, the term “scarlet woman” commonly refers to sex workers, setting them apart from other characters. According to writer Kassia St. Clair, the association between prostitution and scarlet red dates back to the Middle Ages: “It was a favorite of the Wife of Bath, a morally ambivalent character in The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare used it in conjunction with hypocrites, indignation, and ‘sinne.’” 

Not much has changed in the past several centuries: In the modern era, sex workers as portrayed on the big screen are still associated with the color scarlet. Red is a prominent color used in Moulin Rouge (2001) and Pretty Woman (1990). In the 1968 film version of the musical Oliver!, Nancy, the female lead, is depicted in a low-cut, bright scarlet dress. While not inherently problematic, these traditional costuming motifs run the risk of homogenizing sex workers and reducing them to one-dimensional stereotypes; in the popular imagination they become ornaments and fantasies, rather than complex humans with diverse motivations and needs. 

More recent depictions of sex workers have played with this traditional coding by dressing them in bright and revealing clothes, but also creating a visual journey for the characters through their clothing and style. The Hulu series Harlots is a prime example of the ways color and other costuming decisions give voice to groups of women who are often visually stereotyped. Harlots doesn’t offer a homogenous visual portrayal of sex workers. Instead, it uses a variety of aesthetics linked to each woman’s personality, loyalties, sexuality, and ethnic and class identity to help the audience understand the complexity of sex workers’ stories both historically and today. 

Harlots, Color, and Social Class

a group of harlots in typical 18th century fashions
Margaret Wells pictured with the women of her house. Screenshot: Hulu, 2017.

Harlots transports viewers to the lives of prostitutes in 18th-century England in a fun, femininst way, using upbeat music against a backdrop of colorful characters. The show is about two rival brothel houses, that of Margaret Wells and the brothel owned by her mother, Lydia Quigley; they represent each other’s fiercest competition. The series also follows the stories of Margaret’s daughters, Lydia and Charlotte, as well as a host of side characters in other London brothel houses. 

The show uses prostitution as a broader commentary on women’s work and social roles in patriarchal 18th-century society. It departs from other depictions of sex work in its refusal to use the color scarlet as a stereotypical signifier for a “fallen woman.” In fact, the women wear a wide range of colors, which are often used to show loyalty to a specific brothel or a character’s journey up or down the social ladder. Harlots doesn’t shy away from scarlet red completely; instead it uses the color in specific moments, such as when Margaret throws a masquerade ball in season one to raise funds for her brothel, or in season two, when Charlotte enacts a plan to overthrow Lydia’s brothel from within at a party the madam is throwing. During both occasions, the women wear scarlet as a way to establish their dominance over the setting.  

The costume designers of Harlots effectively use color to distinguish between the atmospheres of the different houses and the various women’s personalities. Women in Margaret’s brothel tend to be depicted in bright colors and contrasting patterns and fabrics, which reflect their vibrant, playful personalities. 

While Margaret’s brothel is more populist, open to anyone looking for a good time, Lydia’s caters to powerful gentlemen. She demands her workers wear pastel colors in shades of cream and pink. In fact, these women have been cultivated so profoundly that very little remains of their unique personalities. They are more like ornaments on display, an intentional decision by the show’s designers to suggest Lydia’s tight grip on her business and machinations of power. 

The audience sees the juxtaposition of these two houses: Margaret’s is seen first, with prostitutes wearing stereotypical garish, mismatched clothing. We then are shown Lydia’s seemingly elegant and serene house, which, however, hides the many atrocities occuring behind the scenes there, including kidnapping, rape, and murder. For Lydia, a pristine appearance projects a pristine soul. 

Within the social hierarchies of the time, prostitution was largely a profession for women with very little economic choice. Slightly above sex workers were brothel owners, or “bawds,” who achieved relative class mobility by providing for themselves and their employees as independent businesswomen. One way Harlots demonstrates the varying social class positions within the world of sex work is through scenes of “lowly” streetwalkers interposed with women who work at Lydia’s lavish brothel. 

We also see other evidence of social hierarchy on Harlots. Historically, at the top of the ladder were mistresses and courtesans who maneuvered to become the lovers of kings, noblemen, and other powerful, wealthy men. Charlotte Wells is George Howard’s mistress, which allows her to dress and gamble as extravagantly as she pleases. She is often depicted in jewels, coiffed hair, wigs, and ample makeup. The extravagance of her costumes are similar to that of her grandmother Lydia, but the bright colors signal a connection to her mother Margaret.

Nonetheless, Charlotte’s story arc also demonstrates the way people rise or fall between classes based on circumstance. When she loses the protection and money of Sir George Howard, she is forced to move back and forth, with her loyalty shifting, between her mother’s and grandmother’s brothels.

Gender and Social Mobility

A young woman character in Harlots dressed in a pink men's suit
Lucy Wells dressed in men’s attire. Screenshot: Hulu, 2017

In addition to the relative fluidity in sex workers’ movement between different social classes, they often transgressed gender norms. In the 18th century, it was highly inappropriate for a woman to cross-dress, a rule that some broke for financial and personal reasons. Dan Cruickshank writes: “Women in the 18th century dressed…as men to satisfy their particular preferences, but others did so in order to gain access to a wider world of employment.” There are quite a few characters on Harlots that experiment with cross-dressing. 

In season one, Lucy Wells, Margaret’s youngest daughter, is frequently seen in baggy, comfortable men’s clothing when alone. While her mother often dresses her up to appeal to the parade of men vying to buy her virginity, men’s clothing acts as a shield for Lucy. It allows her to blend in and move about town freely and unnoticed, and to keep the prying eyes of men away from her.  

In season three, Lucy wears a beautiful pale pink men’s suit and blond wig while atop a horse as part of a fundraising event. She performs a strip tease atop the horse, revealing her feminine undergarments to entice potential clients. By this moment in the series, Lucy has learned how to use both men’s and women’s clothing to assert her independence—she no longer uses men’s clothing to hide and is less of a pawn in her mother’s schemes. 

The image of Lucy dressed in men’s clothing atop a horse calls to mind A Morning Frolic, or the Transmutation of the Sexes, an 18th-century painting depicting a woman wearing the tricorn hat and sash of a military officer, while said officer wears her wig and fan. This is of course a reversal of traditional gender roles. 

A Morning Frolic, or the Transmutation of the Sexes, a mezzotint depicting crossdressing in the 18th century.

Another Harlots character who challenges gender norms is Nancy Birch, a brothel owner rarely seen without her tricorn hat and whip, whose dress is both a reflection of her sexuality as a queer woman and the dominatrix persona she uses professionally. Nancy tends towards men’s jackets and breeches, but is still seen in a corset, blending gender-typical with gender-transgressive clothing to create her own identity.  

As Dan Cruickshank points out, in the 18th century, “some women […] dressed as men […] as a symbol of emancipation from any form of male domination.” Nancy’s masculine dress is not only a way to present herself as the 18th-century equivalent of a dominatrix, but is also a representation of her sexuality. 

Black Women and Prostitution in Harlots

Harriet Lennox while she is still married, seated with Margaret Wells. Screenshot: Hulu, 2017

Whereas white women (like Nancy and Lucy in Harlots) had some freedom in flouting societal gender norms, their Black counterparts were much more confined, as they were expected to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards of the 18th century. Nonetheless, Harlots takes some liberties with this history via the hairstyles of the Black female characters. Violet Cross and Harriet Lennox frequently wear their natural hair, proudly displaying their Blackness and using it to lure clients, particularly when Harriet opens a house of “exotics.” Elizabeth Harvey, on the other hand, chooses to wear the powdered wigs favored by white society as a way to assimilate and attract white clientele.

Hairstyles are used by Black female characters to reclaim their cultural identity, particularly in the case of Harriet Lennox, who was formerly enslaved. Sukhdev Sandhu explains that “enslaved people were often dressed in fancy garb, their heads wrapped in bright turbans.” While turbans and headwraps have long been a part of Black hair care, the show uses these accoutrements with Harriet to suggest white society’s fascination with exoticism. 

When married to an enslaver, Harriet’s hair is covered by a white head wrap, but when she is widowed and fights for her freedom and that of her children by turning to prositution to earn money, she is depicted with natural hair. This symbolizes Harriet’s transformation from an enslaved woman trapped in the exotic image her husband desires, to a relatively free one who uses her own cultural uniqueness to lure clients. 

Appearance and Agency

Circling back to the color scarlet, ironically, Harriet’s first taste of freedom involves the bright color: When she begins to work for Margaret, she’s wearing a scarlet red dress with black lace, and a scarlet red mask. While many have argued over the centuries that sex work constitutes another form of slavery, there were very few options for Black women in 18th-century England, and sex work represented a type of empowerment for them. Harriet gains agency by controlling when and how she has sex with men and ensuring economic freedom for herself and her children. The series narrates this shift by merging old signifiers with new, unraveling singular ideas about sex work.

Maintaining individuality and choice within a profession where a particular appearance is expected is a main theme of Harlots. While not all characters are given the same depth in terms of costume changes to accompany their shifting narrative arcs, the show’s design choices make a significant contribution to the narrative, humanizing sex workers and recontextualizing the idea of a “scarlet woman.” 

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Emily is a freelance dresser, stitcher, and educator in the Washington D.C. Area. She is often working backstage at regional theatres such as Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and others. When not backstage, she can be found teaching sewing and fashion history as well as mentoring future costume designers at the high school level. Her interests include tea gowns, trying new foods, and antiquing.