19 thoughts on “SNARK WEEK: 5 Ways Movies Screw Up How People See Historical Costume

    1. My spouse did Civil War re-enacting for a while, and it was wool, wool, wool. I washed the wool before making the garments — no itch! Best part, he could keep washing it without any shrinkage.

  1. Among the many culprits of misguided information on matters historical in general were the Victorians, especially the painters, who tended to portray historical clothing along contemporary lines. Sir Walter Scott may have publicised the Scots, but he also romanticised them to an absurd degree. A particular set of Villains in the tartan tangle were two guys named “Sobieski-Stewart,” who published “Vestiarum Scotiorum,” a nice piece of whimsy about clan tartans, etc. In this regard, see George MacDonald Fraser, “The Steel Bonnets,” a history of the Borders, and “The Hollywood History of the World.”

  2. The one that always irritates me movies featuring modern militaries (mostly 20th Century) is when the haircuts are completely wrong and nobody wears a hat or helmet when they should be. One of the worst offenders is Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall” when he joins the Canadian Army to fight in France with his brothers and he keeps that long hair. Sorry, no hippies in 1915.

  3. The first step in enforcing conformity and discipline on new recruits is cutting the hair.
    Wool — I have several pairs of Scottish Regimental trews — the relative softness, feel, and comfort of each pair is quite different to the other. Lamb’s wool can be quite as soft and comfortable as the finest cotton.

    1. It was also a matter of hygiene with lice and such. Moreover, excessive hair doesn’t allow for a good seal while wearing a gas mask, something that was of critical importance.

      Nothing destroys credibility of military chapters quicker than improper groom and incorrect uniforms. It’s not like the information isn’t out there. :-)

  4. The best out there I’ve seen so far is “The Duelists,”which not only got the details of uniforms and hairstyles, but showed the changes over time. Consultants were the Mollo brothers who have written several excellent books on historical uniform.

  5. I’ll give that scene in Shakespeare In Love a pass re: loose hair, because Viola is playing Juliet and it’s not too far-fetched to imagine using loose hair as part of the costume to emphasize the character’s youth and purity (and femininity, since everyone thinks the role is being played by a teenage boy). In other scenes like the ball or meeting with Wessex in the red dress, though, there’s no excuse.

  6. I did a masters degree which partially looked at whether period dramas should portray accurate period costume or whether they should be less about accuracy and more with current aspects. When I started the research I was very much that they should be accurate. Of course that’s what those of us interested in costume would like to see. As the research went on I realised no one would want to see accuracy, it’s sometimes less attractive, less camera friendly or flattering. For example Jane Austen dramas of the 90s. The make up would be very unattractive. Actresses would look larger due to the accurate petticoats. John Bright designer of Sense and Sensibility told me that the key actresses wanted to appear smaller and for this reason accuracy was ignored. I found that when looking back at period dramas you can always tell which decade they were filmed in by hair, make up and silhouette. It’s how people today can relate, and maybe a little subconscious. Entertainment is about relating to the populous and making money ultimately. Accuracy is for museums and not tv/film. Personally I would love to see accurate representation xx

    1. “when I started the research I was very much that they should be accurate. Of course that’s what those of us interested in costume would like to see. ”

      and those interested in language would also like to see the correct language 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.

      but as you have said the rest of your post, it is all about being relatable.

      so the complains about the incorrect costumes, incorrect sword fight and incorrect languages are all much ado about nothing actually.

      1. Don’t be ridiculous! We have the ability these days, thanks in large part to the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) movement to know what correct historical swordsmanship is like; we have many good costume references and examples in museums. But the majority of us don’t have the ability to speak an historical language. So our “complaints” are not much ado about nothing; they are much ado about getting right what can practically be gotten right.

        1. I don’t see the problem. Many interesting stories of humankind came from interpreting past story tfrom 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 is a huge part of the legends even though that was not really a thing in 5th or 6th century England. Who to say the 1981 Excalibur movie is not a good movie?

          Not to mention the Shakespearean plays were interpreting old tales through contemporary Elizabethan lense.

          Human culture would be a lot poorer without those stories.

          1. Legends are legends because they contain an enduring truth that isn’t tied to a time or place. But if you’re claiming that a film takes place in a given time and setting, then the more accurately that can be reproduced, the more educational as well as entertaining it can be.

  7. My current curmudgeonly irritation focuses on Netflix’s “Father Brown”. They get so much of the 1950s perfectly. They get Fr Brown’s outfits perfectly — except for the fact that priests usually switched from cassock to suit when traveling. But for the bishop the outfit is some weird, made-up fantasy. It’s as if someone looked at a Renaissance painting and said “Ok. Maybe a bishop looks like this.” They could have bought the real thing on eBay for 50 GBP!

  8. On Myth 4- I also heard that most of the upper classes of Scotland were more likely to look like their English neighbours, in pants {whatever the period-correct equivalent to ‘pants’ happens to be}, than kilts- or more accurately earlier, ‘kilted plaids’.

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