Frock Flicks POV: Just the Facts, Ma’am

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I recently had an interaction via Facebook with a designer who was clearly a little bit miffed that I was pointing out something that was historically inaccurate (when I’d even said that it was pretty! Just not accurate!), and it got me thinking…

Yes, we know that designers are frequently constrained by directors, producers, budgets, actors, and much much more. And we know that historical accuracy isn’t always the filmmakers’ goal.

But our self-designated job here at Frock Flicks is primarily to discuss historical accuracy in costume (although we’re interested in other aspects as well). Our audience is comprised of people who love historical costume movies, and a large subset of those are people who know about costume history. And the Frock Flicks team is made up of writers who have an appreciation for all kinds of costume, but who are particularly versed in costume history.

So, when we point out inaccuracies, we’re just discussing the facts. I’m sorry if it hurts feelings, but it’s not a judgement call. There are probably 5 million people who love that design element, and we’re the 0.0001% who aren’t necessarily saying we don’t like it, we’re just saying that it’s not accurate to the period. That’s all. It’s a fact that gold lamé wasn’t invented in Cleopatra’s time. I’m not saying that to be mean or to be a spoilsport. I’m not going to lie and claim that Mary Queen of Scots totally dug the Coachella boho look, just because that’s how she’s been dressed in Reign.

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Of course, there’s always lots of room for interpretation when it comes to history, and there’s lots that’s still unknown, and lots where we have to guess. But when it comes to what we know, if a movie or TV show chooses to go with something that’s inaccurate? That’s on you (the collective “you”). *I* didn’t dress Queen Elizabeth in neoprene. I’m just sitting here noting that scuba-diving material hadn’t yet been invented. It’s a statement of fact, ma’am.

Also, historically accurate isn’t necessarily ugly, or un-interesting, or not-serving-the-character-and-plot! There are many goals in costume design for media, and we do talk about and appreciate those. So, saying that something is “inaccurate” doesn’t mean we’re saying we don’t like it. Liking is an emotional response. Whether something is accurate is (within a range of interpretation) a fact.

Also — yes, we approach costume in movies/TV from a historical perspective, not a design perspective. None of us are professional costume designers in any way, shape, or form. We do make costumes, but for ourselves or other individuals who are wearing them for historical reenactment or fun. So we fully admit that there is a wide range of considerations and needs in terms of costuming a large cast, working with tight budgets, and dealing with producers/directors/actors/etc. who all have their own vision, all of which we are less familiar with. We hope to soon have a few interviews with some working costume designers who will help educate us and our audience more about this, and who we can ask our questions about history and accuracy and all that, and hopefully that will broaden the conversation.

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But there’s nothing wrong, or mean, about evaluating something that purports to be historical on its historical basis. There are whole books written by historians about history in the media. Historical societies publish (serious research and also fun, lightweight) articles about history in the media. We’re not here to be big meanies out raining on anyone’s parade — we’re writing for an audience of people who love history, and clothes are one aspect of that.

So, I come back around to facts. There is a lot we don’t know about clothing in history, but for what we do know, we’re going to keep on talking about what’s right accurate (“right” really implies value). We’re not doing it to be mean. We’re doing it because we’re interested.

 

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. Stephani

    Thanks for doing what you do, ladies! I know that I have, in past comments, been vocal about the difference between historical costuming/reenactment needs versus theatrical costuming when I felt the wrong thing was being dwelt on, but I really do appreciate–and enjoy–the goal of Frock Flicks. If a film/show/whatever claims to be historically accurate or a true portrayal, then it should make its best efforts to include accurate costuming in that portrayal. And it’s really valuable to have knowledgeable people out there, such as yourselves and your learned commenters, pointing out inaccuracies so as not to perpetuate misinformation. I recently had to listen to a museum program director discussing his facility’s costume collection (*cough*SanDiego*cough*) and perpetrating the same old historical dress myths (corsets deformed women and made them faint a lot–luckily there were lots of conveniently placed ‘fainting couches’ everywhere, etc…). So the more people that get educated–via Frock Flicks–the better.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I appreciate your vocalness! We need people to bring in other perspectives… but we are going to be primarily interested in the history side of things, just because that’s our background!

      Reply
  2. Cassidy

    Well said!

    There are whole books written by historians about history in the media. Historical societies publish (serious research and also fun, lightweight) articles about history in the media.

    I think this is very important to the issue, because the message that sometimes comes across is that Real History in media is okay to critique, but fashion history is unimportant and if you’re looking at that, you’re a wrong person with wrong opinions. Obviously there are always remarks and calls of “nerd” when people are pedantic about dates, troop movements, he-should-have-said-that-not-the-other-guy, etc. but I never, ever see people say that non-fashion historical pedantry is mean or devaluing filmmakers’ work. Dare I say there are some gender issues here?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      That’s a very interesting point, Cassidy. Also, the tendency to see critiques by females/of females as “bitchy” versus critiques of/by males as “healthy criticism/debate.”

      Reply
  3. brocadegoddess

    I’m only sorry that you feel the need to explain/defend yourselves on this point. Identifying inaccuracies is simply, as a previous commenter posted, helping to limit the perpetuation of misinformation. The primary visuals the public have for historical dress are film and television productions, if they present something inaccurately it actually behooves someone to point that out so others can know – and knowing is half the battle, right? ;o) And I think this is equally important whether a production purports to be historically faithful or not, it’s simply a matter of fact vs fiction. Nor does a historical critique detract from the visual/aestheic quality of the work or a person’s enjoyment of it – that’s all up to the designer. This excuse that’s it’s “just a movie, it’s not meant to be serious history so shut up” is just that, an excuse. Most people will not understand where and in what way it’s inaccurate and then go around with an inaccurate impression of lived history and spread it around to other people.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I actually think your point that “nor does a historical critique detract from the visual/aesthetic quality of the work or a person’s enjoyment of it” is why I wanted to write this explanation! I was getting the feeling from a few people that they felt like we were raining on everyone’s parade, when what we’re doing is just talking! About stuff! Like history! And other stuff! I mean, if the filmmakers hypothetically didn’t care about historical accuracy when they made the film, why would they care if we point out what is inaccurate?

      Reply
      • brocadegoddess

        Exactly! If they know it’s inaccurate (which they must if they’ve done any research, which they probably did – at least a little bit) why do they care? And, that being said, if they get huffy about inaccuracies being pointed out, are they then deliberately desirous of misleading people and wish to prevent the dissemination of actual historical knowledge? Ok, I’m probably going a little overboard now, but still.

        Reply
  4. Michael L. McQuown

    Perception and misinformation often go hand in hand. When my wife and I were at the Napoleonic at the Met, we were looking at the manikins in their Empire dresses, several of which were quite tall. But right in front of us one woman told her friend, with absolute certainty, “they were all shorter back then.” Actually, one member of our 17th century coalition had done some in-depth research on this question and discovered that average height had in fact fluctuated over the centuries.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Yep. And even when “they were shorter back then” IS true, we’re talking one, or just a few, inches. They weren’t trolls!

      Reply
    • MoHub

      There is a Bonaparte collector who has one of the Emperor’s actual uniforms, and based on the proportions, it seems that Napoléon was taller than most people believe. Per the measurements of the uniform. Bonaparte was closer to 5-foot-6 than the 5-foot-2 most folks put him at.

      Reply
  5. Michael L. McQuown

    Brocade: but still…yes! After all it’s probably no harder to get it right than to do it wrong. Anthony de Longis, a professional stuntman and expert historical swordsman, made the same point about swordfights, and worded it even more strongly, maintaining that it is a disservice to the audience to misrepresent something when the information to do it correctly is available,

    Reply
  6. Adam Lid

    My background is in military history but I’ve recently been working with fashion history and I am amazed at the level of misinformation that flourishes out there compared to what I am used to. You do a great service and point out a lot of things that would have otherwise gone past me- it’s been an education.

    And if you think the level pushback is bad with movies set in the 16th Century, try Westerns. :-)

    Reply

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