Most of the story’s drama is sparked by change and the town’s resistance to it. Take, for example, Lady Ludlow, played by Francesca Annis. As Cranford’s resident high-class rich bitch, her staid notions—for example, no education for the poor—are threatened by the Industrial Revolution, represented here in the form of a railway line through Cranford. Clotheswise, her conservatism translates to some seriously passé looks. “She’s really held back into the 18th century because she feels that’s when values and morals were correct,” says Beavan. “She even keeps to her wig because that was the fashion of her youth.” And while Lady Ludlow is well-off, at least superficially, the rest of the women are, as Beavan puts it, “poor as church mice.” With the exception of the spoiled Caroline Tomkinson (Selina Griffiths), who gets a new outfit for Lady Ludlow’s annual garden party with the hope of luring love, the townswomen appear in the same one or two dresses throughout the series. “Gaskell was very clear that these people didn’t have a lot of money,” says Birtwistle. “So those frocks would be well worn and well washed. In one incident, Miss Pole has had a frock for years and years, and it finally ends up as curtains because you never wasted anything.”
In fact, the most noticeable wardrobe changes come with funerals, of which there are a considerable number during the course of a year in Cranford. “There were terrific rules for mourning,” says Beavan, “depending on how close the relative was who died—how many months you stayed in full black and when you could slowly introduce gray or mauve.” Thus, she kept a detailed chart of all the characters clad in black to make sure they were following the proper schedule. But fade to gray or mauve too quickly and one ran the risk of raising a few eyebrows, as in the case of the widow Mrs. Rose (Lesley Manville), whose color transition is misinterpreted as a sign of romantic interest in her young charge, Dr. Frank Harrison, played by Simon Woods. The ensuing confusion is another clever use of Cranford’s strict notions of propriety, which apply not only to funeral attire but also to fruit—and how to eat it. This is the subject of one of the series’ most amusing scenes: When the Jenkyns’ houseguest Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) suggests they poke holes in their oranges’ peels and suck out the pulp, she’s met with revulsion. As Matty explains, Deborah thinks the act “vulgar and altogether too redolent of a ritual undertaken by...little babies. My sister does not care for the expression ‘suck,’” to which an obviously disgusted Deborah replies, “We will repair to our rooms and consume our fruit in solitude.” In Cranford, even eating an orange can be juicy.