Support Frock Flicks with a small donation! During Snark Week and beyond, we’re grateful for your monthly pledges for exclusive content via Patreon or your one-time contributions via Ko-fi or PayPal to offset the costs of running this site. You can even buy our T-shirts and merch. Think of this like supporting public broadcasting, but with swearing and no tax deductions!
In an ideal frock flick, all the costumes would work together seamlessly to create a cohesive story. Everyone would look like they’re in the same time period and same world. Even if the filmmakers have a “vision” that puts some supposedly unique spin on historical fashion, that style would extend to costumes worn by all the characters so they fit together.
Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world ourselves, so we don’t get to watch ideal frock flicks! That’s why we have Snark Week (and this blog, lol). One thing that bugs us is when just the leading character’s costume sticks out — as if the audience won’t be able to tell this IS the leading character unless they are visually marked as such. What, are we dumb? Do they want to test that we’re paying attention?
Actually, this is leftover from the early days of Hollywood and the studio system, when the big production studios tightly controlled how their actors looked on and off screen. This peaked in the 1930s as movies became hugely popular. Studios essentially owned an actor’s image and dictated that the actor looked the same from film to film so they were recognizable and marketable. Female actors, in particular, were used in advertising for makeup and toiletries which further emphasized their looks.
According to Kirsty Sinclair Dootson’s article “‘The Hollywood Powder Puff War’: Technicolor Cosmetics in the 1930s” in Film History:
“By the 1930s, Hollywood had perfected its mutually beneficial relationship with the American marketplace, a relationship formalized through what was known as a “tie-up.” By arrangement, films were used to promote consumer goods to the American public by showcasing cars, refrigerators, soda, and soap, and in turn, print advertisements for these products would highlight the films in which they were featured. …
The emergence of the female consumer in the 1920s, the preponderance of women among cinema audiences, as well as the dominance of the star system by actresses, meant that products, particularly fashion items, targeting young women with disposable incomes were absolutely central to the development of the symbiotic system whereby the ideal viewer and the ideal consumer were identified as one and the same. Cosmetics were undoubtedly the cornerstone in this structure and perhaps benefited from the tie-up more than any other industry.”
Making actors look the same, and thus familiar, from movie to movie was good for business, even if the actor was playing a Harvey Girl or a Broadway babe. Period pieces got the same makeup and hairstyling as contemporary movies where a star was concerned.
The big female stars of the 1930s always stand out in historical movies because of their eyebrows! Oh Bette Davis, we love you, but that arch is a dead giveaway.
Merle Oberon is ridiculously pretty, but the brows (and cupid’s bow pout) are strangely identical across the centuries.
They’re not the only ones, of course.
It’s not just the makeup that shows who’s the leading lady. Greta Garbo‘s short hair shines through as the Swedish queen, adding to the character’s ambiguous sexuality. Of course, that’s a modern way to show it because when she ruled in the 1640s, she had long hair like any other woman of her time, certainly not a blunt cut.
An anti-trust suit in 1948 officially ended the Hollywood studio system, but the tendency to package stars with one look across different films and in advertising still lingered. It could be due to filmmakers or the actors themselves, who knows? But it’s obvious when you look at supposedly historical movies starring folks like Barbra Streisand:
And Sophia Loren who always looks like Sophia Loren:
Here, the eye makeup might say “Egyptian queen,” but everything else says “Elizabeth Taylor.”
It’s not just the classic stars that suffer from Leading Character Costume Syndrome — it’s an ongoing problem. Signs include:
- Historical costumes made “sexy” in a modern way.
- Long hair, not styled in any historical fashion.
- Modern makeup.
- No hats or caps.
- The extras are dressed in better historical costumes.
Now, I’m not going to complain about the super nitpicky things like the teeth whitening and plastic surgery that are epidemic in the modern movie/TV industry. Casting directors like Nina Gold for Les Misérables (2012) said in the LA Times it took twice as long to get the right look:
“These people have to look like they haven’t eaten since 1830. They’ve never been to a doctor, and they don’t use moisturizer. If actors look too well fed and comfortable and like they just walked out of their well-appointed Winnebago, it just wouldn’t feel right.”
That can effect the historical realism, but I also realize there are limits because it’s just entertainment, folks! I don’t need Henry VIII to smell like “blood, fecal matter, and sweat,” which apparently Jude Law sprayed himself with for the upcoming movie Firebrand just to make his role more realistic (GAG).
So yeah, Leading Character Costume Syndrome isn’t limited to women, though men don’t need to go to such disgusting lengths. More typically, you’ll find them sporting anachronistically long hair and open shirts.
Aidan Turner is a repeat offender, at least when it comes to hair…
Joseph Fiennes also gets casual in his early frock flicks:
I suspect the reason so many leading male characters wear leather pants (which are rarely accurate for the period) is for that cliché modern “sexy” and relatable aspect, such as…
I think most every version of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights onscreen suffers from the same problems. The character is weird and unpleasant, so filmmakers try to make him “romantic” in a cheesy modern romance-novel way.
Proof you can mix good historical costumes with leading character clichés — the hair and the boots bring down the look.
But there’s no hope for this guy:
Leading character makeup didn’t stop after Hollywood’s Golden Age. Academy Award-nominated makeup artist Daniel Parker told PopSugar:
“I did a war film called ‘In Love and War,’ and there are all these nurses in the First World War. “I said, ‘Sorry, no mascara. You’re not allowed.’ And these actresses would disappear behind the building, put their mascara on, and come back to set, and I’d have to get one of the assistants to remove it.”
Sounds like he’s not a fan of stars looking like stars! He continued:
“If it looks like makeup or if it’s wrong as a period, then it’s distracting. People will be looking at that as opposed to looking at the performance or the story. And to me, the story is the most important thing.”
Alas, Leading Character Syndrome still pops up with wildly bright red lipstick on otherwise mild characters, for example:
The reverse of 1930s eyebrows and makeup in historical movies is modern eyebrows and makeup in frock flicks set in the 1930s, like this:
It’s not just modern makeup that actors sometimes demand. A few stars have bent the costume designer to their will, historical accuracy be damned! For the otherwise beautifully accurate to the period The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), Raquel Welch refused to wear historical costumes designed by Yvonne Blake. She didn’t like the 17th-century style, so she had her then-boyfriend Ron Talsky create her wardrobe for the film, so she sticks out like a sore thumb.
Other victims of Leading Character Costume Syndrome include…
The hatless queen:
The cold-shouldered courtesan and her open-shirted suitors:
The girl who has a court gown, but no hairpins, and also kicks around in boy clothes:
The cook who runs around in her corset and with her head uncovered, even though those she feeds have jackets and hats:
The wealthy lady who’s “artsy” or something so she can’t possibly pin her hair up, even though her maid can:
The “relatable” Jane Austen-ish heroine:
These two, maybe because their unlikely love required Leading Character Hair:
And everything about this chick:
Obviously these are the central characters in these stories so they already have “main character energy.” It’s not necessary to dress them totally differently from everyone else in the show. We’re not as clueless as all that.
What inaccurate leading characters in frock flicks have you noticed?