17 thoughts on “Should Designers Mess With Historical Costume?

  1. I happen to love costume design in all its crazy glory. My beef is that if you’re going to stray from authentic, own up. Don’t try to justify something that is totally in authentic by gyrating around to say it is. Beauty comes in all forms – accept the flights of fancy, but to quote our favorite HP Dark Wizard with a heart of gold, Severus Snape: Don’t. Lie.

  2. My favorite example of a historical film that blends history and Design (capital D) is Shakespeare in Love. The script is both solidly based in history in a lot of the details (how the theatre worked in that period, using real figures from history, etc.) but is quite fanciful with the story line and the costumes directly reflect that. Some of dresses are shapes from the 1570s rather than the 1590s and nurse’s hat is definitely medieval, but these are all clear choices made from story purposes and the resulting costumes are PRETTY and consistent and make sense within the world of that particular movie. The same choices wouldn’t work at all in a straight-up biopic of Shakespeare. So so many of the bad costume movies are bad because the strange design choices are distracting rather than supporting the story. I think it’s totally okay not to be accurate if you have a good reason and your resulting choices support the story.

    I will teach my costume students this until the end of my days. May all of our costume movies better for it!

    1. “so many of the bad costume movies are bad because the strange design choices are distracting rather than supporting the story”
      –THIS. SO HARD.

  3. I have probably seen more incorrect historical costume from watching media than correct historical costume from research, so I sometimes get an idea that something is correct in my head that just isn’t so. Since costuming isn’t my career, I don’t have time to research all the periods.

    I like having your site point out what is and isn’t correct, to give me a starting point in my mind. And I like to know what’s correct, so that I can decide whether I want to attempt to recreate something historical or to recreate something from a movie that I know isn’t historical, but I love!

    1. Awww, thanks! Glad to know we’re helping :) And yeah, I like sometimes just doing a movie costume bec. it’s cool, even if it’s not historical — there’s nothing wrong with that too.

  4. Absolutely! One can like a costume for many reasons, not just whether or not it’s historically accurate. And as we know, historically accurate ISN’T always attractive (see: 1820s).

  5. Another great discussion!

    Personally, I not only enjoy the history, I know something about it. I know more of it than of specifics of historical fashion trends, so I care more that the permutations of Henry VIII, for instance, have cast him as lean, mean, and dark J R Meyers, or the middle-aged Henry of Wolf Hall, red-haired, at least, but still very lean Damian Lewis. Henry VIII was a large man in youth, and huge beyond his middle age. It is fundamental to our historical recognition of him. Both these actors are great fun to watch, besides being talented and skilled. But neither comes close to an even slightly historic embodiment of the man! It may not matter so much, what some other historical figures may have looked like, but Henry was so imposing in every sense, it is ridiculous to cast someone so very not Henryesque!

    My point is the same, whether costuming, story or casting: it is no sin to maintain a few historical memories, to keep people aware of where we come from. That the audience “won’t know the difference” is a lame excuse for calling fantasy, history. Some costuming is creatively close enough to be not ridiculous, some… (coughReigncough) is fairyland.

    Well, okay, I woke up testy…

    I would love to hear what you have to say about Richard Lester’s 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Not history, but historical romance and with much buckling of swash… Or do you swash the buckler?

    1. “I would love to hear what you have to say about Richard Lester’s 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Not history, but historical romance and with much buckling of swash… Or do you swash the buckler?”

      I can’t speak for my comrades, but I for one LOVE the ’73 Musketeers (and the Four Musketeers). Ignoring Raquel Welch all together, because A) Constance is WEAK, and B) Welch had a different costumer for her wardrobe than the rest of the film, the costumes are straight up stunning. There was really something about the late-60s and early-70s in terms of keeping historical movies authentic as possible with the costuming and set design (though hair and makeup is always another story) and we just don’t see the same mindset as much these days.

      We will podcast The Three Musketeers at some point in the future, but I will say one of my all-time favorite movie costumes is the silk dressing gown M’lady wears while she knife fights D’Artagnan after sexytimes. I love that the train is so impractically long that she has to keep kicking it out of the way as she lunges at him and that it is totally based on this loose gown from the V&A. Also, the Queen’s outfits are superb. And Louis XIV’s outfits. And there’s that purple damask suit that Buckingham wears (I think it’s in the Four Musketeers) that had to have been based on this doublet of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

      So yeah, LOVE it. Except for Raquel Welch, but whatever, she dies, who cares.

  6. So true! I don’t mind historical accuracy in movies as long as I feel there is a good reason for it. My favourite example is Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. The costume designer, Marik Vos, wrote a book about her costume design, which is a great read. It is set in the first decade the 20th century and she wanted the silouettes, the colours and the patterns to be right. However, she made the gowns a lot less decorated, optioning for a simplified design that would photgraphed well.


    She also worked hard to use colours that would compliment the action on stage, something that just doesn’t happen in real life. For example, in the scene where Fanny and Alexenader’s father dies their mother is wearing a dressing gown.in cool red tones:


    But on the happy last scenes the mother is wearing a warm red one:


    She had a big fight about it with Bergman because by mistake the warm red one hadn’t been test-filmed and Bergman didn’t want to use it and thought they could take the other one. But Vos insisted as she felt the scene would lose something if they used the other one.

    She also managed to make Jarl Kulle a bit plump without any fat suit, just by tailoring:


  7. Believe it or not, audiences know more than we give them credit for and often times they WILL notice an omission or change. I fully appreciate the need for make changes for the sake of production design and/or advancing the story but sometimes there’s no excuse.

  8. An outfit should match the character, place and time agreed upon by the director and the designer. Too many times actors “want to look pretty” when they are playing a gutter-snipe and interfere with the process. I have done shows with 2 actors, 130 actors; 4 to 2000 changes, budgets from 500 to 10,000.
    A budget tells you how to proceed, what compromises to make.
    We once did the MIKADO in “Sailor Moon” concept because at the last minute the Director changed it from a concert version to a full costumed show and we could not afford to rent or make 40 kimonos! The 3 little girls were in Hello Kitty sneakers and backpacks, sailor moon white school outfits, and the men were modern/slightly dated, diplomats, reporters, musician, etc. pulled from stock. It worked and we kept the costs down.
    Do not compromise with the concept once you decide.

  9. I love period dramas and when I watch them I want to be transported in some way to the past. The past is not always transmitted by the story itself (Love, war, death, etc happens in every momento in history.) but by the costumes and the locations. I always prefer authentic costume than those with a modern flare, like Anna Karenina. I liked the movie but would have loved no to see 1950’s in Anna Karenina or the crazy costumes in Marie Antoinette. I loved the costumes in The Duchess, Wolf Hall, Borgias and Downton Abbey.

  10. As some others have said, I don’t mind historical inaccuracy in period dramas if it’s for a good reason.

    What really bothers me is when the costumes are a mish mash of styles. I wish the film makers would either commit to a wildly creative approach or stick to historically accurate costumes.

    As I write this, I’m specifically thinking of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”, although other films are guilty of the same. While I loved the way Sofia used various devices to make the story more relevant to modern viewers, the costumes being a mix of reproductions of 18th century styles and pure modern fantasy (often in the same scenes) was really grating to me.

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