52 thoughts on “Movies Playing Fast and Loose With History Part II: Why Does It Happen?

  1. Unless you were there, it’s anyone’s educated guess as to the actuality of how garments truly were. HEAVY & NOT ODOR FREE is my EDUCATED guess.

    1. Except they aren’t that heavy as they are balanced across the body (I know I wear them for a week at a time) and odor is in the nose of the beholder. Our ancestors did understand and wish to keep themselves and their environment as clean as they could. This included clothing but many period materials cannot be immersed in water unless one wishes to ruin them. Our ancestors had their own methods of “dry cleaning”.

  2. Sad, but true. Probably better now in some cases than in the heyday of the studio system, which had its good and bad points. But even so, I remember the to-do over “Forever Amber,” which got a big spread in the Saturday Evening Post for the big budget for costumes ($75 for one ostrich feather, e.g.) But in the end, it came out with all the men except Charles II (George Sanders) wearing 1640s suits complete with padded shoulders, while His Majesty was in full Restoration drag. It also has to be considered that garments were not mass-produced then, so each outfit would have minor variations in any case.

    1. Hah, Forever Amber! That’s one I need to find for a Throwback Thursday — so very ‘of it’s time,’ & by that, I mean, when it was produced, not the supposed historical period.

      I’d like to write about how we generally give a pass to older historical costume movies/TV & expect more today, trying to figure out what date that happened & why. I know it started sometime in my lifetime, but I’m not sure when or why. The BBC 1970s productions like Elizabeth R had something to do with it, but also the 1990s Merchant-Ivory films. This will be an ongoing series, as you can see :)

      1. My theory is that it all started with Piero Tosi’s costumes with The Leopard– even the underpinnings were historically accurate. As far as I know, that was the first time that was ever done, and the attention to detail shows (it still looks amazing 50+ years later). It seems to me that many films (especially those directed by Zefirelli) that were involved with the Tirelli costuming shop– founded in ’64 by Tosi– had far better/detailed/more historically accurate costuming than many other films. (There’s a history here of his atelier– the guy is hardcore.)

        So, anyway, things still haven’t reached the costuming singularity, it seems that there’s more of an expectation of an effort to be made along those lines than there was sixty years ago. Look at the fine work Terry Dresbach is doing for TV! You’d never see costumes with that level of detail or historicity even twenty years ago.

        1. The Leopard was a huge influence, to be sure, & Tirelli has produced some AH-MAY-ZING work ever since. Also, starting in late ’60s & peaking the ’70s, there was a trend for “realism” in cinematography, mostly was in evidence with gritty works like Scorsese but I think it filtered into historical dramas as well. After all, Kubrick filmed Barry Lyndon in ’75 by candlelight! Nobody did that (until Wolf Hall in 2015).

  3. Oh — speaking of Zeffirelli, has anyone ever commented on his “Romeo & Juliet”? Or, in the words of Ogden Nash, “Twas in a restaurant they met. Romeo & Juliet. He had no dough to pay the debt, so Rome owed what Julie et.”

    1. Thank you & love your blog, btw!

      I do get what Moore was saying, specifically about Water Lilies at least. Impressionism was about the light & emotions & sensations. Of course, it can be said that Monet’s gardens really do look a lot like he painted them too. (And “Imitation Game” pissed me off royally; my review is linked above.) But I was trying to play devil’s advocate there :)

    2. Ha! I was about to reach out to you, because, as Trystan said, we love your blog, only to see you posting here first!

      I’m a friend of Matt’s btw. We slum it in the middle ages on the weekends. ;)

  4. tl:dr. It’s because they think we’re stupid. Too stupid to know any history, too stupid to pay attention long enough to learn any history, too stupid to look at someone dressed in styles that aren’t modern, too stupid to appreciate anything other than our selfie, instagramming shallow appearance laden culture.
    (why yes, I had a REALLY SHITTY day, and tomorrow isn’t looking any better. Feel free to delete if you don’t need a side of vitriol with your dinners.)

  5. For many years I was fine with historically inaccurate costuming (as long as it was quality work according to the seeming budget of the production) and fully understand all of the considerations you’ve mentioned – and the ones you’ve yet to present. I took a lot of costuming and costume design classes during my undergrad, had all of this drilled into me and used to think I wanted to be a costume designer (except that it turned out the real history was my real love). So I get it, I get it all, I really do. However, I am increasingly questioning this total self-absolution of all responsibility to historical integrity, supposedly in the name of art. The general public spends a lot more time watching tv and movies than they do visiting museums (traditional, living history or otherwise) or reading books. So, their primary encounters with history and its fashions occur within this entertainment context, by which they are perpetually miseducated. Now, I might not be too bothered about this, except for the fact that this directly impacts me as an actual dress historian who genuinely wants to contribute to people’s understanding of the past and its meaning for us today but constantly comes up against all this (dare I say, willful?) misinformation. With the average person I have to spend some time de-educating them because of what they’ve seen on screen before I can get to the really fun/relevant/real stuff of historical dress practices. Essentially, I feel like: I’m not the one who misrepresents history to people, why should I be responsible for cleaning up a mess I didn’t make, just because it’s my area of interest? The nature of my kind of work is challenging enough (cycles of years of research then years of writing, more research, more writing, and on it goes with hopefully some exhibitions thrown in for extra fun – and don’t mistake this for complaining, I love it and am beyond grateful I get to do this, but the fact is it’s tons of challenging work) without these additional hurdles recklessly thrown in my way. It just doesn’t make the educative aspect of my life any easier. Add to this that the study of dress history still struggles for legitimacy and acceptance within both academia and museums and I just can’t feel as indulgent towards inaccurate costuming and the defense of “this isn’t a history lesson” as I used to. Unfortunately, oftentimes it’s the closest to a history lesson that a lot of people will get.

    1. I should specify that I meant flippantly, thoughtlessly, or carelessly inaccurate costuming (or some such descriptive) at the end of my comment. And perhaps reinforce that it’s the coupling of willful inaccuracy with a total washing of the hands of any responsibility for miseducating people by saying it’s just entertainment that has really come to irk me.

      1. Interestingly, I agree with you.
        But here is the thing. The costume designer is almost never the source of this. You just cannot underestimate the pressure put on designers to make costumes modern (and SEXY!!). It is phenomenal.
        And this is the way we all make our living, and there are not many people in this business, or any other, that can turn their back on their livelihood. It is not as if they just need to speak up, and then everyone will go “oh it’s not accurate? The audience will watch historically accurate costume design??? Well then, let’s do it right.”

        They will be asked to step aside, and lose their job. It is a cutthroat business.

        And not only does the study of dress struggle for legitimacy and acceptance in academia and museums, it struggles mightily in film and television.

        Costumes departments are 99.9% women and gay men, in an incredibly old school, boys club.

        Think costumes take front and centre in the making of a costume drama? Think again.
        It is a very complicated and nuanced issue.

    2. As a medieval historian who does a lot of teaching, I ENTIRELY empathize with this. Every time a new movie about the Middle Ages comes out, part of me groans and thinks “Oh, lord, what am I got to have to unteach my students about now?” I’ve learned I have to go see the big films simply so I know what nonsense is in my students’ heads now.

      On the other hand, movies do provide a jumping off point for my students, a point of contact between me and them, and they are generally willing to hear that 300 or Braveheart bear about as much relationship to actual history as Star Wars does. And if a movie like this gets students interested in history, then it’s done some good.

      1. “movies do provide a jumping off point for my students” — true true! And not just for the classroom, but even in the SCA & renfaire, plenty of people get interested because they love Game of Thrones or The Tudors, & then they start researching actual history & see how fascinating that is vs. the fantasy. I’ve seen this having run newcomer events :)

    3. Valid points! And I want to take this into consideration in the next article about ‘why this bugs us.’ I’m digging up conflicting studies about how much movie history does & does not influence people’s understanding & memory of actual historical events. I think there’s a broad spectrum of ‘the general public’ to consider & how much they may get that movies aren’t historical fact.

      1. I will be very interested to see what sort of studies you find. I recall one that I read years ago that concluded that Stone’s JFK had substantially altered viewers’ ideas about the assassination, but I’ve never been able to find it again.

        1. Two I’ve read so far were done specifically to see if using historical movies in a classroom setting influenced students’ memory of historical events — which the movies did, but it depended on what they were told before & after about the movies. So it sounds to me that if people are told “this is not accurate history,” they’ll get that a movie is fiction. It’s when they’re told “this movie is a true story” that things go awry.

          It’ll take me about a month to finish that article tho! These longer ones are more work :-)

      2. To your point, when you google 18th century clothing, and any sub-category therein these days, pictures from Outlander come up.
        I am appalled by this.
        Our costumes are fictional. Though we work really hard to make historically accurate clothing, it is impossible to accomplish, for no reason other than we are modern designers and makers, working with modern fabric. It cannot be accurate no matter how meticulous we are, because it is not an actual garment from the period.
        Yet it is right there on the page under 18th century gown, or stock or waistcoat.

        Not sure how you deal with that, but you do see how history gets slowly subverted.

  6. The other factor to consider (and I speak as someone in the wardrobe side of the industry ) is that producers can often have more control than designers regarding what ends up as the final costume. So while a designer may have a gorgeous and accurate design, it can be thwarted by a ‘can we make this sexier? ‘ production meeting.

  7. Reading this, I remembered my irritation at “The Last Samurai.” I remember being irritated at a number of things, but the only one I recall now were scenes where Japanese people wore shoes indoors. I know budget is a huge consideration, but I don’t understand when the matter is as inexpensive as going in stocking feet.

    1. If you have more than two or three people in a room, bare or stocking feet are an issue. Everyone worries about actors getting hurt, including insurance companies. An actor with a slinger id a big friggin deal.

  8. The film may not have been wrong. No shoes indoors is a part of traditional Japanese custom, but during a period where Westernisation was being pushed, it may have been part of that movement.

    1. Having seen the “History vs. Hollywood” featurette on the DVD, I don’t believe the production had that level of thought in the matter.

  9. I really appreciated this article. Recently I found myself in an unintentional argument with a lady who really knows her costuming and was upset over some photos of Season 2 filming of Poldark — noting that the female lead was dressed inappropriately for her class and station in life. I suggested it was a dramatic license – a symbol of the fact that the character came from poverty and did not identify with the upper crust. Big mistake on my part! Your article explains the dichotomy beautifully and I appreciated it. Thanks for this great blog!

  10. A lot of films are derived from novels, or even from occasional nonfiction, and the writers may have already tweaked the history for the sake of drama. Even the estimable Dorothy Dunnett was not above inserting a character into “Pawn in Frankincense” who was actually from the 19th century.

  11. What a wonderful idea for a spinoff of Project Runway—PR: Costume Drama Edition! Each week, the aspiring costume designers are given a script, a time period, and a character to design a costume for, with a budget of $100 for all materials, one hour to do research online, and one day to complete the challenge.

    But would “historically accurate” be one of the scoring categories?

  12. I feel like a possible, partial solution is to build up a stock in the costume houses of pieces rife in historical details, but with *hidden* adjust-ability. The designers I know rushing around for 75 background costumes in a week rarely worry about reusing outfits, but would welcome features (even 5 or 10 years out of date) that did not necessitate blurry long shots, or bodices that could go up a cup size or two. (In this fantasy I get to sit around all day making and researching these costumes on a living wage.) This wouldn’t do much for principal costumes, but extras would look great!

  13. There is no real solution to this.

    A historical drama is not a documentary. To expect a historical drama in terms of story, costume, makeup etc. is to set yourself on the road to madness.

    I once read a book on how to write a novel. The author made it clear that if real history gets in the way of your story while writing a historical drama, toss it aside.

    And in regard to makeup, costumes, hairstyles, etc., one has to consider the production’s budget or the production designer’s/director’s vision.

    It’s just not worth making an effort to demand that all historical dramas be historically accurate. Frankly, I think one should be more concerned about documentaries and history books being accurate.

  14. We have a lot of academics and professionals commenting here so I am jumping in too. From the point of view of social science, people’s understanding of history forms their underlying ideologies and influences not only how they live their lives but how they view others too. Whether the directors and producers want to accept it or not, presenting a show as historical means that it is taken more seriously by the audience as being based in fact. It gives it added weight and creates more interest. Why else would the romantic drama Reign have been created using the names of historical people and yet bare no resemblence to history? If it didn’t have “Mary Queen of Scots” and French royalty in it, it would not have stood out as much. It is also very clear from the aftermath of Braveheart the reverberations of which can still be observed among tourists and in Scottish cultural forums online more than 20 years later.

    So it is irrespective of how conscious people are of this influence or how seriously they take it. As another commenter said, she has to spend a lot of time and energy on cleaning up this mess when the audience members of previous slap dash presentations of history start taking history seriously. This idea of the historical production as pure entertainment is frozen in time and freezes also the audience in time. It does not take into account that the audience for Reign will grow up, join Ancestry.com at some point and want to wear tartan to weddings when they find they have Scottish ancestry. Then they may watch Outlander and Braveheart and think that all Scottish history is about the downtrodden Scottish Catholics defying the evil English protestant imperialists, when nothing could be further from the truth!

    1. well, why not you suggest that the correct language being used, like the story about set in 15 century England should use 15th century English as the language and story set in French court should use French and not the language of the country of the production company.

      You see how absurd it is? Yes it is.

      I don’t care about historical accuracy. Many interesting stories of humankind came from interpreting past story through the view of the period when the story was being told.

      Arthurian legends tell the story about 5th or 6th century England through the perspective of High Middle Age and beyond. The concept of knighthood forming a huge part of the legends even though it was not really a thing in 5th or 6th century England. and the Shakespearean plays were inserting the contemporary Elizabethan perspective to old tales.

      Human culture would be a lot poorer without those stories.

      1. This isn’t about myths,legends and folklore.
        I love watching the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. The costumes are not accurate, it’s based on a myth though so it’svsupposed to be a fantasy.
        It’s about how historical events and novels are portrayed.
        Braveheart had William Wallace have an affair with a queen who was a child at the time. Scottish friends have said this film was rubbish and historicaly inaccurate.
        Novels set in a certain time period don’t have to have inaccurate costumes. The charm of these novels is they are set in the past. Or were written in a particular period. It does the stories justice to have costumes that are as accurate as possible.
        Whilst Shakespeare tweeked his history plays, there were still people around at the time who were aware of the recent past.
        His other plays were very much fantasy. The costumes were what they could get hold, even donations from rich patrons.
        We might not know everything about history but there is enough information out there.
        Legends, myths and folklore are interesting and make great entertainment.
        History is equally interesting and doesn’t have to be sexed up to do so.

        1. Braveheart is not history. Kingdom of Heaven is not history. Historical novels are not history. They are mass entertainment, just like the Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were mass entertainment of their time.

          You want to know what is history? Documentaries. Non-fiction historical books. If you want to poke hole & fault them for misrepresentation, go ahead.

          Judging Braveheart against Britannica Encyclopedia instead of judging it against legends, folk fores & fictional plays is nonsensical. Some people might confuse Braveheart as real history, but then there were also people at the past periods who were confuse that Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were real history. Just because some people in the past confuse Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were real history doesn’t mean they would be better if they “fixed it” and created a historically accurate Arthurian tales or Shakespearean plays.

  15. Braveheart is not history. Kingdom of Heaven is not history. Historical novels are not history. They are mass entertainment, just like the Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were mass entertainment of their time.

    You want to know what is history? Documentaries. Non-fiction historical books. If you want to poke hole & fault them for misrepresentation, go ahead.

    Judging Braveheart against Britannica Encyclopedia instead of judging it against legends, folk fores & fictional plays is nonsensical. Some people might confuse Braveheart as real history, but then there were also people at the past periods who were confuse that Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were real history. Just because some people in the past confuse Arthurian legends & Shakespearean plays were real history doesn’t mean they would be better if they “fixed it” and created a historically accurate Arthurian tales or Shakespearean plays.

  16. Budget — most historical reenactors who make their own historically accurate costumes don’t have big budgets. Things that are often stumbling blocks for any costumer are shoes and trims. For a long time, there were no 17th-century shoes available, nor were there montero caps — but now, there are because interest in those areas have grown. We were never able to find really good trims for 17th-c outfits. Nor, I would imagine, does anyone else for any earlier period. Unless you can embroider.

    1. That would imply a positive trend for the importance of adhering to historical accuracy, wherever possible – the more interest there is, the greater the likelihood of having stuff, right? It’s kind of an on-flow thing, isn’t it? You create, or draw from the niche- the more exposure is given to increase the niche.

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