Catherine Called Birdy (2022) is an adaptation of a much-beloved Young Adult novel. Set in the 13th century (the book specifies it’s 1290 Lincolnshire), it tells the story of Catherine, nicknamed Birdy (Bella Ramsey: Becoming Elizabeth, Game of Thrones), who is a spunky and thoughtful 14-year-old girl living with her well-to-do family in a small village in England. Her ne’er-do-well father (Andrew Scott) wants to marry her off, and Birdy is just plain not ready; meanwhile her mother (Billie Piper) is pregnant after having lost multiple babies. Catherine has to navigate all of this while trying to stay true to herself, and I was impressed that they managed to keep the film vaguely medieval (nobody does anything TOO anachronistic) and resolve the story in a way that remains true to Birdy but also the period. Overall, I highly recommend it for a sweet story, although I wouldn’t go into it hoping for historically accurate costumes.
“As a kid, I remember watching Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and that is the least frumpy, least dour. I know it’s a spectacle, but it was bright, it was brash, it was fantastic. So my recollection of medieval is completely different. I think there’s this perception that everyone was perpetually covered in mud and dirt. But when I met Lena Dunham, looking at the dialogue and the focus of the film, I thought why would I want to do something that looks dour and boring? Why not do something that’s going to appeal to a modern generation?
So in some ways I wanted it to look like Coachella, or Glastonbury, or something that was fun and interesting and was appealing to a broad spectrum of the audience. But when you look at Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons and all of these Japanese designers, for instance, they’re still using these same shapes. So when anybody asks, ‘why does it look so contemporary?,’ in reality it’s all based on medieval shapes. The silhouettes are exactly the same. I stuck authentically to the same silhouette and I used colors that were authentic to the period, but I gave it a sparkle, a spice, and something that people could understand” (Costume Designers Guild 892).
Which I’m glad to read, because I don’t know a lot about medieval dress, but I spent the whole film thinking, “Wait, that can’t be period, right?” So I’m pinging Sarah for her commentary — she hasn’t watched the film, but she can at least weigh in on what she sees here!
Sarah: Oh, god, they want it to look like Glastonbury and Coachella? I’m bracing for impact.
Let’s start with a quick run-down on actual dress of the period for comparison:
13th-Century English Dress
According to A Medieval Noblewoman’s Guide to Dressing Up,
“There were three main pieces: a tunic, surcoat, and mantle. The tunic, basically a long plain shirt, was worn by both men and women. A woman’s tunic was longer than a man’s and had slightly narrower sleeves… On top of the tunic both men and women wore a surcoat, which was shorter and looser than the tunic and added an additional layer of warmth. Surcoats were often lined with fur and could be made with or without sleeves. On top of that, people wore a mantle, which was like a cloak or a cape. Older women wore veils and wimples that completely covered their hair and necks both indoors and outdoors. Married women would also cover their hair with veils and young girls wore their hair loose and uncovered.”
Costumes in Catherine Called Birdy
According to director Lena Dunham,
“So much of the time, when you see Medieval, it’s drab brown because that’s how those images have aged to us. They had a very playful relationship to colour, fabrics were being imported, and it was an incredible era for fashion. We wanted it to feel stylised without being a caricature, and I love that he was able to capture certain things. In modern times, Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) would be wearing the cute coordinated top and skirt and Birdy would be wearing Converse, cargo pants or whatever (Lena Dunham: ‘It was like we were all getting PhDs in Medieval history’).”
Birdy’s “relatable” wardrobe consists of:
Birdy’s mom is supposed to be very nouveau-riche. According to Andrew Scott,
“[She] is doing her own chic Louis Vuitton thing because they’re [mom & dad] the equivalent of an upper-middle-class family in a suburb desperate to show off their wealth” (Catherine Called Birdy is Prime Video’s Upcoming Coming-of-Age Film Set in Medieval England).
Morwenna, Birdy’s nurse, had what looked like the most historically accurate wardrobe of anyone:
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^^ Veils and wimples oh my! ^^
Sophie Okonedo as Ethelfritha Rose Splinter of Devon is supposed to be woo-woo and nutty; her wardrobe was the most anachronistic.
Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo, is definitely eyecatching. Director Dunham said, “Andrew Scott’s character is in the equivalent of Gucci on Gucci on Gucci” (Lena Dunham: ‘It was like we were all getting PhDs in Medieval history’); while Scott himself said, “Lord Rollo would be wearing Gucci now if he could. He [Lord Rollo] likes to spend money, he’s interested in art. He’s just one of those straight men” (Catherine Called Birdy is Prime Video’s Upcoming Coming-of-Age Film Set in Medieval England). Scott elaborated,
“Julian Day, our costume designer, really wanted to make them feel modern, and that’s the way I wanted it, too. I wanted the father to have a sort of louche feel about him, to even have a slightly androgynous vibe. That’s why he wore a lot of jewelry and a lot of silk, rather than in the book, where, again, he’s a much more brutal, beer-swilling, armor-wearing guy. I wanted to break out of what could potentially, on film, just look like a gender stereotype, and make him a little bit more nuanced” (Andrew Scott Is Happy to Follow a Woman’s Lead).
Uncle George was decently dressed:
Russell Brand has a bit part as a wealthy man:
One of Birdy’s suitors had what looked like the most accurately-cut surcoat:
What did you think of Catherine Called Birdy and it’s costumes?