Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

I think most people have ‘their shows’, those they gravitate to when times are tough and they just want to zone out and relax. Aside from Gilmore Girls (my #1 feel-good show), I love to watch Grace and Frankie. It’s good, quality easy-watching TV, and today, I wanted to tell you a little more about it and its surprising connections to early American history! Read on, friends…

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Lily Tomlin, left, and Jane Fonda, right, star as the titular Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie is in many ways a radical show for network TV. It features two unconventional leading ladies – older women in their 70’s and 80’s – often talking frankly about sex, relationships and (small spoiler alert) trying to start a company where they sell sex toys! The premise is basically that these two women, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), get stuck together when their husbands, longtime business partners, announce that they are gay…and marrying each other. So it’s a bit of an Odd Couple set-up: Grace and Frankie move in together when their husbands leave them. Grace is organized, severe, Type A. Frankie is a hippie, scattered, creative. They clash. Then they become besties. It’s cute.

The show has been running now for six seasons (the 7th one comes out later this year I believe and will be the last). But it’s a very relaxing watch because it’s funny, the stakes are low, and everyone more or less gets along with and loves each other.

But of course there is drama in the show, which brings me to how it ties together with American history! At the end of Season 3, Grace’s ex-husband Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) becomes involved with a gay theatre company’s production of 1776. For those of you who don’t know – 1776 is a musical set during the American Revolution. It’s about John Adams and his push for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Robert is cast in the leading role as John Adams, but his theatre company is plagued by homophobic protestors who try (and fail) to shut down the play.

Later, Robert wins an acting award for his portrayal of John Adams. He uses his acceptance speech as a platform for LGBT+ activism, citing Adams as his inspiration:

It was an honor to play John Adams, a man who stood up to things that were bigger and scarier and more powerful than he was. And you know we had a little taste of that during our run of 1776. We had to stand up to bullies, who were threatening to shut us down because we are a gay theatre group. But we did stand up. Because the show of eradicating intolerance must go on…I thank the one man who truly made all of this possible. John Adams.

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Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson, playing John Adams in a gay community theatre production of 1776 in Grace and Frankie

 

Robert’s statement that Adams ‘made all of this possible’ refers not only to how Adams inspired the musical, but also that Adams made America possible, a country where he has the right to stand up and express his beliefs. I found this scene very moving and I’ll talk more about the musical 1776, and its connections to modern progressive politics, in a later post.

So I would recommend Grace and Frankie not only because it’s cute, smart, sweet and enjoyable, but also because of its fun nods to American history. I hope that it brings you joy during this troubling time. Let me know if you’ve seen it in the comments below and please do recommend other ‘feel good’ shows. What are your favorites?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Hamilton Wasn’t Wearing Any Underwear

As a graduation present, my mom took me to go see the musical Hamilton in London’s West End last summer. It was, predictably, fantastic. I had written about the musical as part of my Doctorate of Fine Arts project, which looked at (among other things) how contemporary fiction writers represent the American Revolution. So it was a fitting PhD grad gift! We had fabulous seats and we laughed, cried, and cheered with the rest of the audience. I also managed to keep my singing along to a minimum, which I’m pretty proud of.

Afterwards we got a drink and my ever-tolerant, encouraging mother listened to all my reflections on the show: the set, the costumes, the characterizations etc. I went on and on about how I liked the choice of using mostly period-appropriate clothes and I made a joke about how I hoped they were wearing 21st century underwear though.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with confused laughter.

It was then that I explained what precisely the real Alexander Hamilton would most likely have been wearing as underclothes and it surprised her so much that I thought I’d do a whole post about it here!

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Me and my mom in seeing Hamilton: An American Musical in London’s West End!

When it comes to visualizing clothing of the past, it’s always helpful for me to look at videos, drawings, and (if possible) real life historical artifacts in museums. But since we can’t all go to a museum together, let me direct you to National Museums Liverpool’s very helpful video ‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’.

In this video, you will see that the gentleman’s first layer of clothing is a big white shirt with voluminous sleeves (imagine like a pirate shirt?). Then he puts on white stockings, which go up over the knee. A gentleman might wear drawers (which are like short trousers made of thin linen) but it’s not necessary because the white shirt was really long and you just tucked it between your legs when you put on your breeches (which are short ‘trousers’ for those in the UK, ‘pants’ if you’re in the US) and the shirt acted as modern men’s underwear would!

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Example of Late 18th century man’s shirt. Photo from Pinterest.

So basically, the ‘underwear’ or base garment for men was just a long shirt! The quality and consistency of this shirt of course varied. A gentleman might have ruffles at the wrist, a laborer’s might have had stripes. But basically, as far as I could tell, our modern concept of men’s underwear (i.e boxers, briefs etc.) didn’t come about until around the 1930’s.

So Hamilton would have been wearing something under his outer clothing, it just probably wasn’t what you would have expected!

So what were women wearing as a form of undergarments? Let’s save that for another post…

Further Reading:

‘Underwear in the 18th Century’ from The Macaronis

‘A Colonial Gentleman’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms’ from the Colonial Williamsburg site

‘Getting Dressed in the 18th Century – Men’, YouTube video from National Museums Liverpool

(Today’s Featured Image is of none other than, you guessed it, Alexander Hamilton! It’s from the 1805 portrait of him by John Trumbull, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.)

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!