Historical Looks on Film: A Rant

By Sadie MacDonald

Let’s talk about a trope I am resentfully fascinated by: inaccurate fashion in historical films. Many such films reflect the standards of attractiveness at the time they were made, often at the expense of historical accuracy.

This trend isn’t new. William Makepeace Thackeray’s illustrations for Vanity Fair show the characters in contemporary 1840s fashion rather than Regency attire, as Thackeray claimed “I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous.”

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On the left, apparently “hideous” costumes, and on the right, one of Thackeray’s… improvements. Photo Credit: Left, Sisters Dancing, Marino Bovi; right, A Family Party at Brighton, William Thackeray, scanned by Gerald Ajam.

Let’s start off our look at film examples with Disney. Snow White (1937) has a tidily-curled bob; the accentuated waists of Cinderella’s (1950) gowns evoke Christian Dior’s “New Look”; Ariel (1989) sports voluminous bangs and a wedding dress with sleeves that Princess Diana would approve of; Rapunzel’s (2010) side-part and gently-waved straight hair look very stylish for the late 2000s.

An example from the Golden Age of Cinema is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. While the costumes of the film revel in lavish stylings of antebellum American Southern dress, Vivien Leigh’s bright red lipstick and sculpted eyebrows belong more in 1939 than 1860.

It’s easy to see this convention in 1980s films. Check out the perm on the 1940s mother in A Christmas Story, or EVERYONE in Dirty Dancing, which is ostensibly set in the 1960s.

Recent films are also guilty. Pride and Prejudice (2005) is a major offender, as the Bennet sisters run around with wispy unsecured bangs and long, loose hair. It seems unfair for me to target The Tudors and Reign, as the dubious accuracy of those shows’ costuming has been endlessly lampooned, and neither show makes pretensions to historical accuracy.

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But it’s so hard to resist making fun of the show’s choices. Photo: Frock Flicks, which does a hilarious takedown of Mary’s wedding dress.

This trend is especially jarring when inconsistently applied in a film. The love interest in the 1996 French film Ridicule has straight hair, thick bangs, and simple make-up, but the unsympathetic characters of the French court look more accurate. A male example from the 90s would be Jack from Titanic, who has boyishly-floppy locks parted in the middle. Villain Cal, however, looks more period-appropriate. Clearly the film creators were okay with maintaining less-flattering historical looks for antagonistic characters, but not heroes.

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Sometimes you gotta toss your anachronistic hair. Photo: Pinterest

This illustrates that anachronistic costuming choices are not necessarily borne from laziness. In addition to making main characters look attractive and sympathetic, inaccurate fashion can also help convey aspects of character. The titular character in Marie Antoinette (2006) owns a pair of Converse sneakers to emphasize that she is a childish teenager. A Knight’s Tale puts leading lady Jocelyn in punk-rock hairstyles to illustrate her rebelliousness.

Anachronistic fashion doesn’t have to be sloppy. But when accuracy is taken into account, the results are worth it.

Take the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries. The tightly-curled hair might look funny at first, but it adds to the detailed Regency environment, the elements of which come together to bring Jane Austen’s world vibrantly to life.

Mad Men is a recent triumphant example. The actors are decked out in proper attire right down to their undergarments, as costume designer Janie Bryant understood how important this detail was to creating 1960s silhouettes. Here, historical accuracy is not exclusive with creativity, as costuming on Mad Men also reflect the characters’ personalities.

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Lookin’ good! Photo: Pinterest

These examples use costuming not to make the characters look attractive to modern sensibilities, but to fully immerse viewers in the period. If anything else, shouldn’t film be immersive?

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