IF ever we needed to indulge in a bout of collective escapism, if only for 60 minutes on a Sunday night, then that time is now. Thankfully ITV has just the thing – Belgravia, the latest big budget costume drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and a series that positively ripples with dimples, quiffs, honey-coloured chiffon frocks, eye-popping millinery and glamorous uniforms.

Opening on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 then jumping forward to the 1840s it stars Tamsin Greig and Philip Glenister as Anne and James Trenchard, a rich merchant and his wife who have climbed the social ladder high enough to have entered the smart aristocratic society now occupying the recently-constructed London district which gives the show its title. The series is adapted from Fellowes’s 2016 novel of the same name.

Shot partly in a CGI-enhanced Moray Place in Edinburgh’s New Town – the real Belgravia itself isn’t what it used to be, apparently – the story involves family tragedies and scandals, and pits the Trenchards against Harriet Walter’s Lady Brockenhurst. She’s the mother of the dashing young officer who tricked and seduced the Trenchard’s doomed daughter, Susan (played by Alice Eve), and who died fighting the French at Waterloo – though not before Susan became pregnant by him, meaning the Trenchards and Lady Brockenhurst now have a grandchild in common.

Like Andrew Davies, who struck gold when he adapted Pride And Prejudice in 1995 and has since worked his magic on everything from Bleak House to War And Peace, Julian Fellowes has made a career out of taking past epochs and re-tooling them for the present. And as audiences, we lap them up. He wrote the script for Robert Altman’s 1930s-set black comedy Gosford Park and in 2004 adapted William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair for the big screen. In 2009 he wrote the original screenplay for The Young Victoria, Jean-Marc Vallee’s film about the early years of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert, and a year later came the first series of Downton Abbey, a bona fide TV phenomenon. Six more series would follow over the next five years, plus last year’s film version, a box office smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Belgravia, as in Downton Abbey, the wider story is about class and the growing empowerment of women, a process highlighted in this case by the fact that by the 1840s there was a young woman on the British throne.

“There was enormous prosperity thanks to the boom after the fall of Napoleon, but it was also a period which indicated that Victoria's reign was going to be marked by innovation and invention,” says Fellowes, describing the milieu in which Belgravia is set. “She came to the throne in 1837, when Britain was still lodged in 18th-century values, and by the time of her death in 1901, the modern world had arrived. I'm always interested in change and particularly in how supposedly immovable institutions alter and develop.”

Pleasingly, Fellowes has a personal connection to the story. “The past has always fascinated me, even as a child,” he explains. “I was very lucky to get interested while my great aunts were still alive. When I was 15, I was able to talk to my Great Aunt Isie, who was born in 1880. She was presented to Queen Victoria. That was really interesting to me – I was talking to someone who was effectively from another planet.”

Belgravia isn’t the only costume drama Fellowes has on TV at the moment. Last week Netflix premiered another series written by him, The English Game. Contentious title aside, it’s a history of the origins of football and once again Fellowes views the story through the prism of the class divide. The English Game stars Sunshine On Leith’s Kevin Guthrie as Glasgow-born Fergus Suter, stonemason-turned-footballer and thought to be the world’s first professional. After playing for Partick FC, Suter moved to England to play for Darwen, one of the earliest professional clubs, and then Blackburn Rovers. Fellowes picks up the story in the Lancashire cotton mills and interweaves Suter’s experiences with those of Eton-educated Arthur Kinnaird (played by Edward Holcroft), a five-time winner of the FA Cup with first Wanderers FC and then Old Etonians.

Cast an eye over the TV schedules for the coming months and there are plenty more period dramas coming down the track. Yet another Fellowes creation, The Gilded Age, set in 1880s New York, will air this year on HBO, and Netflix will soon unleash Bridgerton, an eight-part series set in London’s high society during the Regency Period of the early 19th century and based on American author Julia Quinn’s series of romantic novels. Meanwhile Grantchester writer Rachel New has created Miss Scarlet And The Duke, which stars Peaky Blinders’s Kate Phillips as Eliza Scarlet, the first female detective in Victorian London. It starts on UKTV’s Alibi channel on Tuesday.

Not to be outdone, the BBC has three starry costume dramas on the stocks ready to go: The Luminaries, an adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winner starring Eva Green and set in 1860s New Zealand; an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel Around The World In 80 Days with David Tennant as Phileas Fogg; and The North Water, a gritty 19th century story about Hull whalers set against the background of the Arctic. It stars Colin Farrell, Tom Courtenay and Peter Mullan. Think Moby Dick-meets-Ernest Shackleton.

So what exactly is the appeal of the costume drama? Escapism certainly has something to do with it. But that’s not the only reason they’re served up so regularly and enjoyed so widely. For Julian Fellowes, it’s about something deeper – charting progress by comparing our own times with previous ones, while also realising that aspects of human behaviour are consistent across all periods and cultures.

“Period dramas have to tell us about ourselves to catch on,” he says. “There’s something quite interesting when you demonstrate that human nature doesn’t alter. Crinolines and carriages may change but audiences see people with impulses they recognise, making choices they would make. The fact that those characters are in a top hat or a tiara doesn’t make any difference.”

Another reason the period dramas keep coming season after season is that they form one of the UK’s major cultural exports and reflect two wider British resources: history and heritage on the one hand, literature on the other. We have the grand architecture and the grand people who occupied it, and when it comes to literary adaptations we have a wealth of (often lengthy) works to draw on. Although the BBC adapted Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur Des Dames as The Paradise in 2012 we can’t quite manage an A to Z from Britain – but from Jane Austen to HG Wells and Evelyn Waugh there’s almost an entire alphabet’s worth of 19th century and early 20th century authors whose work can be pillaged

There are, perhaps, less uplifting reasons for the popularity of the costume drama, or bonnet project, or whatever you want to call it. One is that life often doesn’t look as complicated in the past as it does in the present, where there are smartphones and other digital technologies to distract us, and the lure of ever more consumer goods requiring ever more money and shopping time. In that sense, a period of less choice is appealing to many people. Conversely some may view the costume drama as a chance to indulge in a little historical schadenfreude: however bad things are now, at least we have indoor toilets, gas central heating and no death penalty. Yet others may enjoy the inherent conservatism of times and societies that were more rigidly hierarchical than our own.

For Belgravia’s executive producer Gareth Neame, that last point is also part of the appeal of shows like Downton. “The reason Downton Abbey was so popular all over the world is that all human beings organise themselves in a tribal, hierarchical structure,” he says. “That's the only way we know how to live among each other. But a lot of people don’t write about that. Julian had such a great understanding of why it’s important for some people to live inside a society and to keep others out. He understands about the glue that keeps society together.”

But Julian Fellowes isn’t quite right when he says that what the characters in a costume drama are wearing makes no difference at all. That is to underestimate the visual appeal of the form and the sartorial impact it can have. As proof, from time to time a costume drama comes along that not only “catches on”, as he puts it, but affect both fashions and manners. Two examples from the same year, and both set largely in the 1920s, are Brideshead Revisited, Granada TV’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel, and Chariots Of Fire, the Oscar-winning film about the 1924 Paris Olympics.

“Brideshead Revisited and Chariots Of Fire are having an undeniable impact on fashion, both here and abroad,” wrote The New York Times Magazine in April 1982. “The British fashion press reports that London’s new look is that of the ‘trad English gentleman – cool, dashing, aristocratic’, as exemplified by Nigel Havers, who plays Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots Of Fire, and Anthony Andrews, who portrays Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited … If these films have attracted appreciative audiences, none have been more attentive than the men and women who design American ready-to-wear – notably Perry Ellis and Ralph Lauren”.

Two years later the so-called Brideshead Effect was still palpable in the US. The late Christopher Hitchens once recalled walking home through Washington DC in 1984 on the day his son was born, not long after Brideshead Revisited had screened Stateside. As he sauntered through the streets Hitchens, wearing a white linen suit and carrying a teddy bear, was regaled by more than one shout of “Hello, Sebastian”, so closely did he resemble Anthony Andrews’s portrayal of the doomed, teddy-toting aristocrat Sebastian Flyte.

And of course there’s the now infamous 1987 photograph of Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club featuring David Cameron and Boris Johnson in black tie and tails. For a generation of middle and upper-middle class Britons, usually male, usually students at the UK’s more storied seats of learning, the aesthetic of Brideshead Revisited was a temple at which to pray (and bray).

Fast forward three decades and you see something similar happening with BBC’s Birmingham-set crime drama Peaky Blinders, though there’s nothing fey or effete or privileged about Cillian Murphy’s gang leader Tommy Selby. But wander into any of the hipster barbers which have sprung up over the last few years and you’ll see rows of young men waiting for haircuts that closely resemble the severe short-back-and-sides the Irish actor wears in the series. Late last year, meanwhile, Primark unveiled a Peaky Blinders range including boots, pegged trousers with turn-ups and (of course) those baker boy-style flat caps everyone wears. And Scottish-based glasses manufacturer Iolla has a range based on the round spectacles Murphy wears in the later series. It's called The Selby.

But how well has Scotland itself been served by period dramas over the years? Perhaps hampered by lack of finances, BBC Scotland’s costume drama output has been scant. Instead, it has been cinema which has churned out Scottish period dramas. Notable examples include Mrs Brown (Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as her Scottish favourite John Brown), Tommy’s Honour (directed by Jason Connery and centred on St Andrews golfing legends the Morrises) and Sunset Song, Terence Davies’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s famous novel. In fact the story of Scottish costume dramas is as much about stalled projects as it is completed ones: James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, Robin Guthrie’s The Cone Gatherers and Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings are all classics from the Scottish literary canon which have resisted many producers’ attempts to film them in the modern era. Which brings us to Outlander. It’s a rare example of a costume drama which isn’t exactly Scottish – the novels on which the series is based are by American author Diana Gabaldon and only one of the three leads is Scottish – but it is at least set here and largely filmed here.

Of course costume dramas have been with us for decades, so in a sense what's new? Some of the most popular TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s – Poldark, The Onedin Line, Upstairs Downstairs, The Duchess Of Duke Street and The Forsyte Saga to name just five – fall into that category and the production line continued through the 1980s and 1990s. But if anything the rise of streaming platforms and the advent of binge viewing have whetted appetites and increased demand. In a recent article for film magazine Sight & Sound titled The Age Of Binge Television, illustrious film critic David Thomson laid out some of his favourites boxsets. Top of his list was a costume drama: Babylon Berlin, a German language series set in the Weimar Republic. Thomson watched the whole series in a couple of days and then watched it all over again, he loved it so much. He just couldn't stop himself. “There is something about the rush towards doom in Babylon Berlin that overrides our will,” he wrote. “Just think of being German in 1929 with 1933 coming.” Likewise, think of being below stairs in the Crawley household in 1913 with the First World War coming. And that’s the other reason we keep going back to the costume drama – the past may be another country, but it’s one in which we viewers know what lies ahead. Perhaps that’s why it’s perfect for our own uncertain times.