We’ve gotten some feedback from some of our readers, especially those who work as costume designers, that we’re ignoring the fact that costume designers aren’t necessarily the ones who make decisions on whether or not to go with historical accuracy in costumes, and that their job is to tweak/adapt/create rather than reproduce. Commenter Allisa probably summed this up best when she wrote,
While every point you made is quite true, I must defend my fellow costume designers (myself included).
Firstly, not all costume decisions are left up to us. Producers (most often), directors & actors can take an odd view of how history “looked” and they make most decisions on what they feel will sell (I’m sure that doesn’t come as much of a shock). Rarely, if ever, is what is accurate important to those above the line (BBC seems to be a larger exception to that).
To that end, we are not costume reproducers -like those of you in the SCA and other reenactment clubs who labour beautifully over accuracy!- we are costume DESIGNERS, so we are hired to take what was and rework that to fit the aesthetic of the current day, the aesthetic of the people who are in charge, the aesthetic of the actors and actresses and roll it all up into one happy little ball. Sometimes the public notices our great discrepancies, most people however, do not. And, if we do it right, it’s best when the audience doesn’t even care.
So, let’s talk about this!
Who Makes the Decisions?
One thing we try to be very careful about around here (although we may slip up occasionally) is not to assume that the costume designer is calling all the shots about the overall costume design. The director sets the vision for any film/television production and is the person who works with lead individuals to decide what the film is trying to achieve — scriptwriters, costume designers, set designers, etc. And, of course, we’ve all heard the stories of producers and studios getting involved in the vision and either proactively, or during filming, influencing how a production is shaped. So costume designers are not all on their own in an ivory tower, doing exactly what and how they want.
Our post on Dangerous Beauty provides a great example of this. Director Marshall Herskovitz didn’t like the historically accurate designs for the courtesans, so he negotiated with costume designer Gabriella Pescucci to create something sexier and more fantastical that worked for his vision of the film:
Gabriella [Gabriella Pescucci, costume designer] and I debated extensively about the costumes. When I first saw the designs for the courtesan’s outfits, they were utterly boring and unsexy. In fact, they looked just liked the wives’ outfits, but in red instead of black. They were heavy wool dresses that came up to here [the neck]. I thought back to all these paintings from the Renaissance with half-naked courtesans in Grecian dresses. So, I said to Gabriella, “what about the Grecian dresses?” and she said, “Oh, no, those are mythological; they didn’t exist; the women never wore them in public.” Eventually, I had to force her to create a hybrid between what was in the paintings and what they actually would have worn. What she came up with was not historically accurate but was brilliant and beautiful. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.
We try to acknowledge this fact by talking about “the filmmakers” when we talk about decisions in costume design. We usually don’t know who was involved in making the decisions, and we need to be careful not to say who decided on what.
Again, looking at Dangerous Beauty, most people who know Renaissance fashion history think of that movie as shlock. But, as I wrote in my post,
[The] costumes… were designed by Gabriella Pescucci, an Italian designer known for The Name of the Rose, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing, and Showtime’s The Borgias. So, clearly she’s got a big resume, and she knows her stuff. Just think of the gorgeousness and historical accuracy of The Age of Innocence, and you know we’re not dealing with a hack here.
Should Historical Films Aim for Accuracy in Costume?
Some readers have taken our posts (particularly those from Snark Week) about X Things Movies Screw Up About Historical Costume (examples here and here and here) as meaning that we expect all historically-set movies to feature accurate costumes. Actually, that’s not the case!
What we’re trying to do in posts like those is to point out what’s incorrect for the edification and entertainment of our readers. I think all of us here at Frock Flicks will defend filmmakers’ right to tweak historical costume until the cows come home! And if you listen to our podcasts, you’ll hear some very nuanced discussions of this about specific films. However, your average movie viewer doesn’t know much about history, let alone the specifics of clothing. For those who enjoy history and/or historical costume, or want to learn more, we’re simply pointing out the deviations and mistakes. Hell, this blog and podcast would be hard to do without them!
I think the key thing we do champion, however, is this: Go ahead and tweak the historical costume. Dress everyone in neoprene and fairy wings. But do it WELL.
In other words, have a vision that goes beyond, “We need to sex things up!” or “We can’t just show them in what they really wore, that’s unoriginal!” or “Most of the audience doesn’t care!” or “We don’t want to be boring/stuffy BBC/Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory!” Have a vision! WHY is Queen Elizabeth I wearing a scuba-diving suit? Go big or go home! Commit to your vision and see it executed as fabulously as you can!
Imagine watching your favorite rom-com: Katherine Heigl and George Clooney are high-powered lawyers on opposite sides of a dog custody case. They hate each other but realize that dogs are actually aliens, and they have to work together to save the earth from certain destruction in 24 hours, and they’re falling in love! They’re in court, bickering! They’re running around New York, defusing bombs! And they’re doing it all wearing pants with only one leg! Why? Well the filmmakers didn’t want to be boring and stuffy, and they thought more bare skin would sex things up!
That’s what seeing historical costume tweaked/reinterpreted BADLY feels like to us. Stop it. You’re giving us an eye twitch.
Important side note: The argument that “We put the historical characters into modern (1950s to present) haute couture to show you that these people were the crème de la crème of their society!” has been done. To death. Please, try to pick a new vision. I’m looking at you, Elizabeth: the Golden Age and Anna Karenina (2012).
What About Budgets?!
Patricia points out,
We costumers with little to no budget, depend on the Casa collection and coupons for many of our stage costumes. We do the best we can with what we can afford. Many audiences don’t know the difference. Where would you suggest I find better fabrics that don’t cost a fortune to costume a cast of 40?
Good point, Patricia. Many film, TV, and theater productions are indeed made on limited budgets. The currently-in-production TV series Versailles is notable for spending 12% of its budget on set decoration and costumes. Many, many productions have to make do with a much smaller percentage, and a very tight number of dollars (or euros or pounds or whatever).
Again, this comes back to my point above: Studios and producers set the budgets. It’s up to them to decide whether or not it’s important to spend money on costumes. I think we here at Frock Flicks would argue that they SHOULD, but I doubt Stacey Snider, CEO of DreamWorks Studios, is currently reading this and taking copious notes.
So what do you do if you have a limited budget? You do the best you can! You decide where to get the most bang for your buck. Should you save money using cheap fabrics? Rent costumes? Put everyone in toga bedsheets? That’s up to you to decide! Personally, I’d say you either come up with some kind of “vision” that allows for a cheaper implementation (reset Richard III in the 1930s, because you can rent 1930s costumes cheaper than Renaissance), or try to evoke the period without going full bore (like Queen Margot did relatively successfully. Okay, yes, they probably still had a pretty big budget).
The Audience Doesn’t Care
Okay, so we may be a niche audience. We fully admit this. We are history nerds who geek out on the minor specifics of historical costume. You put the actors in 3″ heels, but only 1″ were worn in the period? We probably notice. And yes, we are probably 1% of your viewers. So, ignore us if you want to! You’re always going to have critics, right? You’re never going to make everyone happy.
Or consider this. Most people who watch a historically-set movie or TV show do so because they are, on some level, interested in history. Maybe they like ye-oldey-timey things. Maybe they once read Wuthering Heights and think that old-fashioned dresses are pretty. Maybe they read really good reviews of your movie/TV series, and while they normally don’t go in for that sort of thing, they’re making an exception this time.
Most of these viewers would probably prefer some sense of history and/or attractive and/or interesting costumes. Sure, you can ditch those who would like a sense of the history if you want to, and just aim at those who want attractive and/or interesting. But I think you’re doing a disservice if you put Queen Elizabeth I in that scuba-diving suit without a good reason why. Because part of QEI’s life was wearing specific clothes. That’s how she experienced the world. That’s what the past looked like. And those of us who have some level of interest in history would like to see that on screen, to whatever degree your budget allows.
Amsfellow traveller notes,
I don’t sweat the inauthenticity of costumes in this movie [Queen Margot], because the costumes are so effective in communicating character. And they’re so beautiful and authentically rich and regal looking!
Also, the 19th-c novel that this movie is based on was already “fan fiction” about the 16th-century — Dumas in 1845 wasn’t trying to write accurate history, but to conjure up a bygone heroic era in French history when people followed their passions and “lived large” in defiance of the rules, when people were willing to kill or die for their desires and ambitions. He wasn’t limited by facts about the actual 16th century, but used that period and those historical figures as a sort of theater for his own ideas about “look how awesome we French used to be, compared with our pallid bureaucratic bourgeois lives now”.
[Which, arguably, is what historical fiction is always doing: DISCUSS]
And I think they are right. But I would also argue that most people reading those Philippa Gregory novels or watching Downton Abbey do so because they are, at least in part, interested in the past. History. How it used to be, back in the day. So while maybe there should be more room to maneuver when you’re working on a historical fiction story, rather than straight history, I would still say that people watching The Tudors knew they could get topless women and simulated sex scenes in any number of venues. I’m thinking they were there for the history.
Call me crazy.