Thursday, 7 November 2013

Historically accurate or just good and bad costumes?

Source
Source
Last weekend we went to Milan to see Verdi’s Aida at La Scala, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I know that opera isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I like it. And this was the best production I have ever seen! Not only were the singers and the orchestra top notch, the scene and costumes were absolutely stunning. It was breathtaking and wonderful and I feel happy every time I think about it. It also made me thought, yet again, about costumes and historical credibility. Before I started to make historical clothes for myself, I spent ten years making costumes for various opera and theater productions. On amateur basis with lousy budget, but it was great fun and something I’m still very interested in. A costumer can set moods and enhance the director’s vision and, for sets that take place in the past, there is the issue of historical accuracy. Here, I think, there is a difference between the stage and the movies. Stage production need simplification and bigger gestures because the visual impact has to reach an audience that can be quite far away. Aida, for example, made use of the Egyptian iconography, but didn’t try to make authentic Ancient Egypt-costumes. It worked splendidly on stage, but in a movie it would probably look a bit crude. In movies, (or TV-series) I have a much higher expectation on historical accuracy, but it is still a bit tricky to say that I expect, or even need, a 100% accuracy. Costumes aren’t just clothes, but need to fit into an artistic whole. Still, sometimes inaccurate costumes makes me annoyed and irritated and I have been thinking of why I find it ok at times and sometimes not ok at all.

Take Queen Margot, for example, a spectacular movie, set in Paris in 1575. The costumes are spectacular as well, but though they invoke the late 16th century, they do play hard and fast with historical accuracy at times and I still love it. It is a larger-than-life story, not directly based on the actual historical events it depicts, but on Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel. The costumes may not be perfect from a historic point of view, but they are made to fit this story, and they do it very well.

Source
 
Source
Another good example is Fanny and Alexander from 1982. It is set in the first decade of the 20th century and I think the costumes do a good job invoking that time (the won an Oscar). But the costumer, Marik Voos-Lundh  has describes how she tried to keep to silhouettes and colour schemes of the time, she also purposefully simplified the clothes, using a lot less trim than was fashionable then. She also worked with matching costumes for a visual impact you just don’t get in real life. That is quite common, if you watch Downton Abbey, for example, the costumes are clearly matched so the colours harmonize with each other.

Christmas celeberation in the beginning of the movie. Red is a traditional Christmas colour, but was also symbolically important to Ingmar Bergman.
Source

Source
 
Muted pastels, not looking good together by coincidence.
Source


Source
Source
Ripper Street has just started for a second season, and I really enjoy the costumes in that show too. It is set around 1890, which isn’t a period I know that much about more than the general look, so I guess those who are keener on the period can pick the fashion apart, much as I can do with anything set in the 18th century. I still think it evokes a very nice period feeling. The blonde on the pictures here may look quite garish, but she is a character who runs a better sort of brothel, so demure isn’t something to aim for. The strong colours became fashionable with the new dyes that were developed at the time and she always wears a corset and don’t leave her home without a hat.


For a stark contrast, take a look at this picture and tell me what period of time they are aiming for.

Source
I would say late 1980’s. Well, why not say it must be 1990, just for effect. Because, in fact, the costumes are from the new Dracula series, set in 1890. I’m sorry to say, because I have been a fan of vampires since I was 12 that this series just isn’t good on so many levels, but the costumes are appallingly bad. And if they aren’t bad, like a beautiful suit with a tilt hat Mina wears in a later scene, they are still completely wrong- Mina suit would look great in something set in the 1940’s. I read an article were the costumes are described as Victorian meets Steampunk, but I can’t see neither here.

Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort of England
as she was depicted ca. 1471.
Dracula is truly a prime example of historical inaccuracies that irritates me. To various extent series like The White Queen, The Tudors and Reign fits in here as well and I think I have pinpointed the reasons why I dislike the costumes. I think it is because the disregard for fashion history only has one purpose and that is to make something that looks old-fashioned but still doesn’t offend the aesthetics of the modern viewer. That is the sole reason and as it isn’t a very good reason, the costuming fells flat. If you have an idea, if you want to say something with the way the costumes are designed, then mistakes doesn’t matter that much. If it is just a fear of losing viewers, it will show.

Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort of England
as she was depicted on television, 2013.
It is probably true that the average viewer has very dim ideas of fashion history and generally costumes gets more accurate the closer the time period is to or own time. Perhaps because more and more people actually know what was worn I, say, the 1920’s than they do about the 1520’s. I still don’t think that it is any reason to be lazy and slipshod about what was worn. Even if the costumes needs to, for whatever reason, to not be 100 % accurate, it must be a better deal to start with the actual proper fashion and work from that, adapting, than just making something that looks old-fashioned. In The White Queen, for examples, wimples and veils were banned just because they were deemed too unappealing for modern eyes. Mmm, ok, I sort of get that. Kind of, though I don’t agree. But I can’t see the reason to clothe the cast in something that looks more pseudo-medieval than late 15th century. And even if people don’t know about the correct fashion, I think it is a bit insulting to think that it can’t be appreciated anyway.

So to sum it up, I don’t mind costumes that aren’t quite correct if there is a clear idea and purpose behind it, but not when it just feels like lazy costuming. What do you think?

8 comments:

Alex Brito said...

I completely agree with you. And as a costume designer for stage, I've had problems with the issue: for example, a director asks for "historical accuracy" and then wants "medieval high heels"! ...And at least you didn't talk about organizing an historical fair. That's a complete nightmare: politic powers wanted Tudor fashion in Renaissance Portugal. And in "Tudor" I mean series-Tudor, my dear. I do not think a good costume designer has the need to go outside accuracy to be extremely creative, much the contrary, and I always bet on poor research skills. Sure, opera talks a diferent language, the costume needs to be spectacular in itself, BUT there is a line between evocative and off-mark.

Isabella said...

Queen Margot drove me crazy for a lot of reasons - one was I was told it was accurate; which it isn't in the slightest unless you mean accurate to a 19th century perspective. Borgias make me want to tear my hair out - same with the Tudors and Reign. It's annoying because we live in a world where info is at your fingertips but no one is taught to think critically. Therefore, despite all the information being a mouse click away on what was really being worn, I run into "I saw this in this tv show and I want to wear it to the Renn Fair or SCA event!" *headdesk* When I ask them if they've ever bothered to look up what was really being worn - like even search for a portrait- I get a deer in the headlights look.

For the Dracula series, I think I actually had that red dress around 1992. ;-) I don't understand why those doing costuming in the late Victorian always go bustle rather than the fabulous sleeves of doom which where at their biggest between 1893-1895. You started to see the sleeves become something peculiar as early as 1888. The bustle itself died suddenly around the same time. Instead, you have large sweeping skirts. So, for a prostitute to still be wearing bustle in 1890 is possible. However, a fashionable lady would ditch the bustle.

The funny thing is, the most accurate tv shows and movies tend to be the comedies. Princess Bride actually has some gorgeous male costumes. Doctor Who can be hit or miss - but the Victorian stuff and 18th Century stuff tends to be spot on.

egotista idealista said...

Very interesting post. I would like to contribute to the list of series with bad costumes reporting "Reign", set in XVI Century, resulting like a sort of Gossip Girl kitsch style. This is one of the dresses... http://www.youknowyoulovefashion.com/storage/reign/season1/0103/0103ReignMary1.jpg

Isis said...

Alex Brito: Absolutely! For example, many slaves in Ancient Egypt were naked- wouldn't work that well on stage and the singers would most defintily protest. :) So it would be difficult to be accurate, but bby using the icons that we all connect to Egypt, the feeling conveyed becomes very "egypty". Organizing historical fairs sound pretty nightmarish...

Isis said...

Isabella: I guess it is a matter of what you know before, then. :) I had been told that it had beautiful costumes but that I shouldn't expect them to be accurate, so I wasn't bothered.

I know peiople see this and that they like and then want to make a costume that has it all- regardless if they really fit. It is always difficult when a period is new to you, but, as you say- do some research!

I think they do the bustle because that is what people think was fashionable the rest of the 19th century after the crinoline died. I don't know all that much about the period, but at least I know it isn't true. :)

I agree! Black Adder is another good example- mostly beautiful and accurate costumes!

Isis said...

egotista idealist: Yes, Reuign are among those I'v ementioned. Horrid costumes. The one you linked to- brrr! Awful and then there isn't even a chemise!

alexism said...

Just started watching Dracula as a boxed set offering on Sky. It's a load of rubbish of course but the costumes really made me mad. When I saw the opening sequence my immediate reaction was that they'd transferred the story to the 1930-40s (the outfit Mina is wearing during her embrace bears no resemblance to anything worn in the 1890s even if you try to make it a cycling outfit). The ball gowns as shown above are appalling and for me (whilst recognising the story is ridiculous) they are an enormous distraction. I've had a long interest in historical costumes ever since the BBC produced the Six Wives of Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth R. The exhibitions were fantastic and I went on to do theatre design as an O level. There are so many sources for designers to enable them to produce visually impactful costumes and I totally agree with the other posts that a certain licence for effect is fine but to stray so far from the norms of the period ends up giving less informed viewers completely the wrong idea. As for The Tudors - gave up on that not only because of the costume but the storyline itself was so unnecessarily inaccurate. Why mess with English history when the true story is so dramatic?

Isis said...

alexism: Yes, I gave up on The Tudors for the same reason. Their lifes were certainly interesting enough, no need to spice it up!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...