Costumes on Film

People who are not experts in all the fields of Arts, Science, Language etc. will believe everything they see on TV. Somebody should be aware of that – here, I would like to address costume designers who did their job on history-reconstructing motion pictures’ projects i.e. historical films (movies, series, documentaries etc.) You wouldn’t believe in how many cases you’ve been fooled, adopting a completely/partially false picture of some period in history and, sad but true, in most cases the instruments of fooling are the most expensive Hollywood productions (at least they could have afforded experts and authenticity!). As a matter of fact, it’s not the problem of money that causes historical reconstructions to be unreliable. People themselves for some reason have false vision of some historical period and if big producers want to sell their product (a film, series…) they will go “down their customer’s hair”.

They will show what people want to see and not what was/is true. For instance, if you say “baroque”, most people with an average knowledge of history (not even costuming) will span that period all the way from 1600 to 1800 and imagine women with colossal wigs and crinolines in the manner of Marie Antoinette. Which is, of course, terribly wrong and causes allergic reactions at people of a bit over-average knowledge of history or costuming.

I’ve got my Hollywood vaccine and I can watch most of “big” historical films without commenting or minding something even if the style was completely missed by about 200 years. I just act like all the other people: it’s amusing, it’s shiny, it’s expensive, ergo – it’s good! But as soon as I have no better thing to gibber and gossip about I remember Braveheart / Scarlet Letter / Ana Karenyina and immediately the chosen film turns into “a complete trash that I wouldn’t watch only for the matter of my principles!” There is no need to be too fussy if you want to keep friends, but after you’ve left the cinema with pockets full of completely soaked hankies it is interesting to think about what you’ve just seen. The biggest amusement comes only then! So, I would need to see all those historical films all over again, but there are a few that I still remember quite well. For being utterly inaccurate, of course. If you are one of such fussy people, you are welcome to submit your comments on films you’ve seen.

As I’ve promised, here I’ll comment on most of the historical films and discuss their accuracy. As you will read in Costumes Today chapter, my ideal of a good costume screen adaptation are BBC series. Is there a film to rival them?

Braveheart (1995) Costumes

I’m putting this film on the top of my list very gladly. Even when not considering costume part, isn’t it strange how a film so full of inaccuracies, false history, pathos and patriotism can at the same time be so appealing and – cute? Is it for Mel Gibson? Is there enough humour (unlike in one more kilt-sensation Rob Roy) to make you feel as if everything is just a big joke? You should better feel so. So that you wouldn’t get annoyed by so much mistakes in interpreting a whole era. The first, and the biggest thing to say about costumes in this film, is one big truth that people seem to overhear. Namely, the fact is that kilts just didn’t exist at the time of William Wallace. Wallace lived in late 13th to early 14th century and the kilts were – oh yeah! – invented in the late sixteenth. So, this must be a big disappointment for Scottish-lovers who considered a kilt to be the ancient robe of the Celts. However, if you are a male lover of one hole for the legs, I could cheer you up with the fact that the Irish and Scottish possibly wore something like that. Namely, they wore a long shirt or a tunic called leine. According to some illustrations, they wore it without trousers underneath, which was later on misinterpreted as a kilt. Kilt, as we know it today, was really invented in sixteenth century, very possibly by an English tailor who wanted to make a distinguishable garment for Scots. Bastard Wallace Here are the two Wallaces. One of them is a great Scottish hero, the other is a sleek opportunist bastard. Both of them are supposed to be the same person, but one of them is already Mel Gibson. Hero Wallace Would the man on the left really ever manage to seduce Sophie Marceau, the english princess? The kilt, however, possibly didn’t derive from the leine, but from brat, a woolen piece of cloth used as a cloak. Combining brat, which was wrapped around the shoulders and pinned on the side, and leine, which was a long shirt belted around the waist, people could easily come up with an illusion of a kilt as it was shown to be worn in Braveheart. Honestly, the way that piece of tartan was shown to be wrapped around the waist as in Braveheart looks to me more suitable for sarong than for anything else worn in Scotland. Braveheart is a great example of how history looks like in an average spectator’s opinion. 13th century clothes were obviously not attractive enough and the story of Scottish patriotism is lame without kilts. But men’s skirts are not the only mistake. Namely, the noble English people are wearing something that would be more suitable for 15th century. Maybe the early 14th century doesn’t have enough brocade for a lively vision of “knights-and tournaments” Middle Ages as the audience would like them to be. However, admit you were yelling Freeeeeedom!!! along with Mel Gibson as he was being quartered by dirty bad deceitful cruel greedy Englishmen at the end!

Related links: – for more information on a very interesting history of kilts and other clothes worn by (ancient) Celts – for those interested in wearing kilts – for those interested in the truth

The Scarlet Letter (1995) Costumes

This is one more film to which there are a bit more things to mind than only costuming. Unlike Braveheart, it wasn’t even some fun and many people who read Hawthorne’s book were only annoyed by this screen adaptation. I will stick to the costumes. So, the story is taking place in Puritan America. This immediately determines the time (17th century) and place (East Coast). But it also determines the society. It is quite obvious what a Puritan is. Somebody who fled from England or Netherlands because he took religion too seriously. Not somebody from a French court who was taking holidays in a harsh and muddy wasteland in his trunk hut. However, the costume designer who got a job for this film obviously had the latter image in his mind. Demi MooreHester Prynne is more a fashionable lady who wears her scarlet letter on silk and brocade, surrounded by pearls than a society-martyr in a Puritan surroundings as Hawthorne depicted her. Since Puritans took religion so seriously, they surely adopted the old medieval belief that body is just a cage of an eternal soul and that it deserves no care to be taken of. That’s why you’ll see those first Puritan settlers’ images as those of people dressed in simple, monochrome clothes, with hardly any of that baroque lace on collars and cuffs. Although that would be the ideal image of a Puritan, there was also a distinction to be made in such a society. As they all found their place in the New World, there again came to that old social distinction. Somebody was a farmer and somebody was a priest or a judge. The distinction was, surely, made through clothes, among other things. However, I don’t accept any possibility that Puritans of a “higher rank” wore something that European noblety would have at that time. Fashion would have been hardly followed and I don’t think anyone would have even tried, living in such a restricted society. If Hester Prynne was a brazen individual who dared to wear such clothes, I wonder where she would have got the material from and wouldn’t the people have punished her for that long before she commited the adultery. What the Puritans possibly wore can be seen on this photo from one of the Renaissance Faires (click image for better view) – courtesy of David Bedno Puritans There is several other adaptations of this story and nearly all of them seem to have costumes far better than this one. Even if, in some alternative history, Puritan world would have looked like the court of Louis XIII, just for the art’s sake I would have made the costumes simple and restricted, just to reflect the atmosphere of that society. A better image of Puritan clothes we can now get from many illustrations of witches-of-Salem trials. Many of them are contradictory because they were made in later centuries, but there are some contemporary works that are quite reliable. The clothes people are wearing there are mostly something that European peasants would have worn. The people of higher rank: judges, priests and their wives, would be only privileged in wearing some moderate lace borders or corsets. And I don’t think Hester Prynne would have looked much different from that. Related links: – for the information on other screen adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and images – for stills from The Crucible, a film with a nice idea of Puritan fashion Top Gone with the Wind (1939) Some people say that costumes were far better and more accurate in “those olden times”. I would actually say that newer films show much more care for authenticity than the older ones (mostly black and white), where costumes were often a decadent mixture of history and contemporary fashion. This authenticity goes so far today that you are finally able to see how those famed Renaissance “high foreheads” and shaved eyebrows actually looked like. In films before, say, seventies’, depicting something that was accurate but not “tasteful” to a modern audience was just a taboo. ScarlettThat is why I’d like to emphasize Gone with the Wind both as an exception and follower to this rule.

Gone With the Wind Costumes

On the one side, there is an indeed astonishing costumography, where spectators can only admire the pedantic care for details (and not just copying from pictures and images of the era) and a capability of the designer to follow the fashion changes within some 15 years of 19th century. On the other side, actual 1860’s hairdos were not good enough for the main characters. Vivien Leigh, that ways, throughout the Civil War wears something that would have been more suitable in late 1930’s, when the film was made. Melanie Wilkes, however, and all the other women characters of less importance regularly have those tightened shiny Victorian hairdos. The same is with the men. Although men’s hairdos haven’t changed too much from 19th century on, those horrible side-whiskers are a “privilege” only of annoying characters, like Scarlett’s husbands (before Rhett). MelanieVivien Leigh later on filmed a story about Anna Karenina, a version that was – as far as costumes are concerned – far better than 1935 version with Greta Garbo, where all of the bad things of “old movie” costuming came true. The newest version with Sophie Marceau, however, can boast the best costumography of all of the three versions, but also the worst cast in the history of filmmaking. For these reasons I would put Gone with the Wind as one of the pre-1970’s movies with the best costumes and, if you can stand 3 hours sitting in front of the TV screen, it will give you those 3 hours of feast for your eyes. Related links: Top Restoration (1995) Have you noticed that this is already the third film here made in 1995? Obviously it was the year of costume films. But only one of them won the Academy Award for the Best Costume Design. I don’t have to much regards for Academy Awards, but there are a few categories where the Oscar usually goes to the right people. Best Costume Design would be one of them. Polly WalkerThe film that won this Award in 1995 was Restoration. Unlike Braveheart, it seems to me it was too fast forgotten and I can bet many of you won’t even remember it. In my opinion, it was rather good than a great film about a doctor getting caught in all the splendour and squalor of 17th century England. The cast was quite nice, with Robert Downey Jr. in a role of a doctor and Sam Neill as King Charles II. But, what is even nicer and more important for this website, the costumes were really breath-taking. Along with the scenes of the royal court filled with gold and infamous baroque kitch, fountains of lace, brocade and silk depicted the Restoration era more than vividly. Robert Downey Jr.The film starts with this splendour, falls into mud, dirt and disease to rise up with dignity. No boastful richness, but dignified sobriety of Rationalism that was about to take place in history. And all that was presented with costumes that, as in the case of Gone with the Wind, kept a steady pace with the passing time. Indeed, that year’s Award went into right hands!