Costuming & Historical Movies

Today we’re going out on a limb on this one but we feel that it needs to be discussed: over the years, we have often been approached about making garments for film and TV projects and while we readily accept this work, we have also found that creating a garment (or garments) that are within budget, accomplishes the production design or vision, and look good on film can be challenging. So here we go…

One of the guilty pleasures of working with historical fashion is seeing how it’s portrayed in film and television. Almost nothing gives greater pleasure than watching a period piece made by Merchant-Ivory with its lush production values and excellent wardrobing and it’s a real treat to see a particular era in history portrayed correctly. Unfortunately this is a somewhat rare experience and often what passes for “historical costuming” is akin to nails being dragged across a chalkboard.

Now, before we go any further, we just want to clarify that having worked a little in the film business ourselves, we understand the enormous challenges that costume designers undergo in trying to wardrobe a production under often less-than-ideal circumstances. We understand that costuming exists to help propel the story and that liberties can be take at times towards this end BUT at the same time, it does not excuse poor or non-existent research, ignorance, or just sheer laziness.

This is admittedly a subjective thing and what we would consider to be substandard in a certain film or television show might be given a pass by someone else. However, we firmly believe that if one is attempting to draw the viewer into a story set in a specific time and place in the past, it is incumbent on the costume designer to make an effort to support this.

Now, just to put a bit of a scientific spin on this, let’s consider some of the key factors that can make or break the effectiveness of the costuming in a period production. Below is a basic list of what we consider to be some critical areas when we look at a film or television show:

    • Is the basic silhouette appropriate for the period?
    • Is the style appropriate for the period?
    • Are the materials used appropriate for the period?
    • Is the actor’s grooming and makeup appropriate for the period?

So you probably now thinking, just what do you mean? Well, let’s start with silhouette. By silhouette, we mean that basic outline of the garment. For example, if we have a production depicting a middle class woman of c. 1885, we’re going to be looking for a bustle, and in particular a “shelf” bustle. Conversely, if we are depicting a middle class woman c. 1897, we’re going to be looking for an A-line skirt and a bodice with some large leg-of-mutton sleeves.

One example where the costume’s dating is contrary to the declared date of the story can be found in the 1992 movie Dracula. The story is allegedly set in 1897 yet the dresses that that Mina wears read c. 1885:


One of Mina’s Day Dresses- Note the train.


Rendering of the same day dress.

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Day Dress- Rear View.

From the above pictures, this dress reads mid-1880s. Perhaps the bustling is a bit muted but it’s still pretty obvious and it’s definitely NOT 1897. While this is certainly not a deal-breaker in the major scheme of things, it’s still irritating.

Next, is the particular style appropriate for the period or more precisely, the particular time and place that is supposedly being depicted in the movie? This is a pretty broad question and volumes of ink (or electrons these days) has been spilt over this one. However, for our purposes, just about any Western made during the 1950s and early 1960s will do- here’s one example worn by the character “Laura” from the 1957 movie Gunfight at the OK Corral:

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Rhonda Fleming as Laura, Wyatt Earp’s love interest

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Costume rendering of the Laura dress.

Laura is supposed to be a “lady gambler” who Wyatt Earp first meets up with in Dodge City. Historically, Wyatt was in Dodge City during the years 1876 – 1879 so a correct dress for Laura would be something involving a bustled dress- probably an evening dress or perhaps a ball gown. So what do we have here? The 1950s version of an evening dress with off-the-shoulder sleeves and a weak attempt at some skirt draping and underneath it, she’s certainly not wearing a corset appropriate to the 1870s.

Correct materials go hand-in-hand with style and even if a style might be correct, it might be made of material(s) that are not appropriate for the period. The classic offender is using polyester or some other cheap synthetic as a substitute for period fabrics and this is really evident with dresses that are supposed to be made from silk. One example of this can be found in the poly-acetate dresses found in the TV miniseries North and South:

Not only are these a travesty in terms of materials, for the most part they bear a faint resemblance to anything remotely having an 1860s style or even silhouette- at best, they’re 1980s era prom dresses and we’ll leave it at that.

Finally, we get to the actor’s grooming- does it support the period being portrayed? This is probably one of the most problematic areas. Below is just one example of Kevin Costner from Dances With Wolves:

What is it? The closest thing we can think of is an overgrown mullet… Just to add to this, the pictures above from North and South are a great example of incorrect hair styles. While they have nothing to do with the historical 1860s, they are a reflection of the 1980s when the series was created, thus proving once again the old adage that film and TV costumes say more about the era in which the production was made than the historical period being portrayed.

And while we’re at it, just one last note: one of the worst offenders are war movies, mostly modern, where the main character does not have a haircut that is appropriate to the military organization of a particular historical period. Often times, the reason for the lapse in authenticity is as simple as the actor refusing to get a proper military haircut (yes, it does happen and if they’re a big enough star, the hair stays on).

Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed this short excursion through the world of costuming for film and TV and while it’s by no means exhaustive, we hope we’ve distilled things down to their basic elements. What we find so amazing is that a good part of the time, it costs as just as much to do something right as to do it wrong and while we appreciate that productions do labor under various constraints, it does show just how short of mark things can fall at times.

P.S. For a detailed view of costuming for film and TV, we highly recommend Frock Flicks.



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