Top Five Comedies With Good Historical Costumes

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Most historical costume movies are Serious Business. Frequently, there’s a great tragedy at the center of the story, and somebody dies. Even when the story ends with a wedding, there’s some heartbreak and sobbing along the way. Finding historical comedic romps are few and far between, and when we do, whoo-hoo!, we’re thrilled, although they often have pretty weak costumes (I’m looking at you, Bill and Ted).

Here, I want to look at some movies that set out to be comedies first and foremost, and just happened to have historical costumes — and when they did, the costumes didn’t suck! I’m talking about comedies that you wouldn’t expect to have decent historical costumes. So enough with both the depressing stories and the sad-sack costumes. Let’s LOL in style.

 

 

History of the World, Part I (1981)

History of the World, Part I (1981)

I’m a HUGE Mel Brooks fan. I could have just made a list of five Mel Brooks movies with decent historical costumes and been done with it, because I’ve seen every film of his more times than I can count and I love them all. But History of the World holds a very special place in my heart, and hey, it’s got “history” in the title! This one has both good yucks from Brooks and not-yucky costumes, thanks to costume designer Patricia Norris. From Ancient Rome to the French Revolution, it’s a festival of frivolous fun. The costumes aren’t super historically accurate, but they have lots of period details and, unlike frock flicks made in, say, the 1950s, the look isn’t egregiously 1980s (other than the makeup). For example, the wigs in the 18th-century portion are a fabulous blend of history and hilarity, purposefully styled for laughs but playing on actual styles.

History of the World, Part I (1981)

 

Zelig (1983)

Zelig (1983)

This is one of the weirdest, funniest movies you’ve never seen. I admit, I wouldn’t have seen it either if not for a film class in college. Woody Allen made this mock-documentary about a man named Zelig (played by Allen) in the 1920s and ’30s, who could adapt or change to resemble the people he was around, like a chameleon. Mia Farrow plays Zelig’s psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher. The movie is in black and white and most of it uses historical newsreel footage that Zelig, Fletcher, and others are inserted into. Thus, the costuming is precisely done to match the ’20s and ’30s styles, seamlessly blending the look together. It works awfully well — and if you think this sounds familiar, yeah, this was a decade before Forrest Gump (1994) did something similar on a much smaller scale with digital technology!

Zelig (1983)

 

Victor / Victoria (1982)

Victor / Victoria (1982)

Again, costume designer Patricia Norris struts her stuff — much like Julie Andrews struts her stuff as a woman pretending to be a man cross-dressing as a woman. Norris designed excellent 1920s menswear for the biological men in this raunchy comedy as well as for Andrews in drag. And then Norris created ah-may-zing female stage costumes for Andrews’ cross-cross-dressing cabaret performances, especially “Le Jazz Hot.” Norris was nominated for an Oscar for Victor / Victoria and earned a total of six Oscar nods, up to 12 Years a Slave (2013), just two years before her death, but unfortunately, she never won.

Victor / Victoria (1982)

 

Hairspray (1988)

Hairspray (1988)

Long before the Broadway musical or the Broadway-musical-turned-movie, there was a weird, funky, super-funny John Waters movie about a sweet, chubby teenager in 1962 who wants to be a dance star. There’s awesome big hair, cool beatniks, cute shoes, and an integrated dance dance revolution! I usually don’t care about “costumes” that are this modern, but the look of this movie is so over-the-top that it’s hard not to love it. How many cans of Aqua Net were used in the making of this film? How big of a hole in the ozone layer was created? Despite being an environmentalist, I don’t care about the damage because the hair in this movie is EVERYTHING.

Hairspray (1988)

 

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

How could I not include Edith Head‘s final movie? This epic costume designer actually passed away in 1981 before the film’s release, but she had worked on Steve Martin’s homage to classic 1940s film noir. Unlike Zelig, this movie doesn’t actually insert Martin et. al. into the old films, but the old movies and the new footage are cut together in such a way that it appears that they’re part of the same film. Of course, it’s essential that the new movie footage have authentic-appearing 1940s costumes, which Edith Head knew a little something about, having done it the first time around.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

 

I didn’t even talk about TV comedies (hey, Blackadder, we love you the most!) — what other comedies have decent historical costumes?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

27 Responses

  1. Kathleen Norvell

    I would give a shout-out to “Start the Revolution without Me.” Still one of my faves. I know you’ve discussed it elsewhere, but it’s still funny and it’s still 18th century over-the-top.

    Reply
  2. MoHub

    Thank you for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid! It was the first film I thought of when I saw the headline. I’d also have loved it if Young Frankenstein had made an appearance as the costumes were spot on, and on top of that, Brooks shot it on James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein set.

    And being of a certain age, I can confirm that Hairspray got 1962 dead on.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Young Frankenstein — really? I watched it about a year ago and thought about reviewing it for this site but then didn’t think there was really anything noteworthy…

      Reply
      • MoHub

        I really liked Madeline Kahn’s ’30s chic and the way the all makeup achieved a ’30s look as well.

        Reply
  3. Charity

    I don’t think Oscar Wilde adaptations fit this criteria (since while they ARE comedies, they’re also literary play adaptations?), but both Rupert Everett’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest had colorful costumes.

    Reply
  4. Carrie

    Not a movie but Black Adder is a British comedy series set in several different historical periods and it always amazes me how brilliant the costumes are.

    Reply
  5. Pirate Queen

    The Great Race (1965, set ca. 1908), with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood. I’ve given up trying to count Natalie Wood’s wonderful costume changes on the road – they must pack flatter than Superman’s cape. The men have quite a few extravagant changes of costume too. Costume design by Donfeld (as Don Feld), whom I don’t know at all, but I see rec’d 4 Oscar nominations.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      There’s a feature on Holy Grail on this site. Just plug it into the search box.

      Reply
  6. Susan Pola

    What about the Court Jester, Corsican Brothers (Donald’s line ‘I will be queen’ has me rolling on the floor with laughter. Also Those Daring Young Me in Their Jaunty Jallopies. Nice 1920s
    I agree about Victor/Victoria and History of the World (*snorts* remembering ‘Hitler on Ice’ sequence) But I was surprised not to see Month Python’s Life of Bryan (‘Romani domus aut & ‘Blessed are the sheep…’

    Reply
  7. Andrew.

    For a very black comedy set in late Victorian England there is Kind Hearts and Coronets, (1949).

    Reply
    • Susan Pola

      Is that the one where Sir Alec Guiness plays all the male parts and some women’s as well? Line ‘I shot an arrow into the air, It fell down in Berkeley Square.’

      Reply
      • Andrew

        Yep. “…She fell to earth in Berkeley Square” My alternate title for the movie is ‘How to Murder your Way into the Peerage’ Dennis Price plays the protagonist, Guiness plays those in the way, and Joan Greenwood and her voice are diverting.

        Reply
      • MoHub

        Yes it is. It’s also the basis for the Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder musical.

        Reply
  8. Donna

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum … Zero and all the gang in Roman hilarity

    Reply
  9. Melinda

    The English ’80s comedy series You Rang M’Lord? set in 1927-’29 has wonderful costumes ,great casting and hilarious sotry during pre-great depression, also from the same writers ‘Allo ‘Allo played in occupied France during WWII brings back white socks&black shoes memories, although personally don’t find it that humorous.

    Reply
  10. ladylavinia1932

    Among my favorites are “BULLETS OVER BROADWAY”, “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”, “COLD COMFORT FARM” and “TOPSY-TURVY”. Great costumes in all four of them.

    Reply
  11. Susan Pola

    I love Topsy-Turvy. But then I adore G&S. But I don’t view it as a comedy. There are just too many poignant scenes.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Topsy-Turvy is visually lovely, but it’s bad history, and I couldn’t watch it more than once. I’m a complete Savoyard with a shelf full of G&S books and a 40-year performing history in the repertoire.

      Reply
  12. Julia

    So happy for that little Blackadder shout out at the end! One of the reasons I love that show so much is their relatively accurate costumes. Love that History of the World Part I was on the list <3

    Reply
  13. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Thoroughly Modern Millie is quite fun on the costuming front – not perfect, but really pretty good 1960s-does-1920s for Hollywood, and I do love Julie Andrew’s outfits

    Reply

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