In Part 1 of my series “Playing Fast and Loose With History,” I looked at how this “trend” isn’t new. Historical movies and TV — and really, all forms of drama — have always mixed history with fiction, whether for dramatic purposes or for simply for fashion. It’s a story as old as time, and it’s not going away. There are valid reasons for doing it, even if this bugs the crap out of us at Frock Flicks and our readers.
Now in Part 2, I’ll look why playing fast and loose with history happens in movies and TV series, whether due to ignorance or market forces or artistic vision. Because we realize that every movie has its own reasons for what they do, and they’re all on a spectrum of historical accuracy, from vaguely set in ye olden times to precisely recreating a specific time and place.
Movies Playing Fast and Loose With History
- Part I: It’s Not New
- Part II: Why Does It Happen?
- Part III: Why Does It Bother Us?
- Part IV: Does It Really Matter?
As I alluded to in Part 1, the Frock Flicks audience is a little different than the mainstream movie and TV-watching audience. We actually like history. We think history is interesting. History is part of the draw when we choose a film or TV series as our entertainment du jour. But that’s not typical.
Many people are looking for a show based on whether it will make them laugh or cry or does it star their favorite actor or does it have explosions. I’m not saying people are stupid, not at all. People want to see entertaining stories and be transported out of their everyday lives by movies and TV. That could be with a complicated story or a simple story, but the film or TV show has to be entertaining and do something for them. Now, for you and me, an entertaining story that “transports” us may mean “tell me more about the court of Queen Elizabeth” or “take me to a party with Marie Antoinette,” but we’re in the minority. And that’s a big part of why things are made the way they are, or to put it more bluntly:
Historical accuracy is not the Number One goal of making movies and TV shows.
Let that sink in for a bit. I’ll wait. What is the goal of making a movie or TV show? Usually, it’s some combination of a) entertaining a specific audience, b) making money, and c) fulfilling the artistic vision of a director and/or a producer. There can be other factors, of course, but those three tend to be the big drivers at work. For major productions, issues (a) and (b) work together and may overpower (c) — a film or TV show trying to make money by entertaining a specific audience demographic may sacrifice artistic vision, for example, and along with that goes any pretense at historical accuracy. But thems the breaks.
You can’t make movies for free, and Hollywood isn’t run as a nonprofit. Compare with PBS, which has to literally beg for donations and corporate sponsors in order to show mostly high-quality historical dramas. So let’s keep this top of mind when we’re talking about WHY the movies play fast and loose with history. It’s not their goal, they’ve got other fish to fry.
Now let’s talk about some of the common questions bandied about when we complain about historical inaccuracy in movie and TV costumes. From a viewer’s perspective, we often imagine that the directors, producers, actors, and ultimately the costume designers have a specific reason for why they do what they do. But whoa, it’s way more complicated than we imagine. I’m going to address several issues separately, but let’s realize that all of these can interact together at different levels in a single production!
Are They Ignorant?
Sometimes, we’re watching a historical movie with strikingly inaccurate costumes, and we’ll think, ‘OMG, was the costume designer stupid? or were they high?’ And yeah, we have our fun during Snark Week mocking the really out-there takes on ‘historical’ costume. But realistically, we at Frock Flicks know most costume designers aren’t totally ignorant about historical fashions. They have Google and Wikipedia just like you and me. These days, vast numbers of museum collections are searchable online, where anyone can pull up period images of people from most any era, in addition to tons of photos of extant garments from at least the 18th century to the present. Costume designers may have even taken some kind of fashion history overview class in school. I doubt each one is an in-depth expert in every single historical era — who could be? — but any costume designer can crack open a library book (one with pictures even). So no, they’re not stupid.
But just like fashion designers who take inspiration from historical clothing and interpret it into something new, movie/TV costume designers may be interpreting historical fashion for their work instead of making literal copies of historical outfits. They’re designing costumes, after all, and the costumes are for characters within a story. A lead character has to stand out from a supporting character, heroes and villains need to look certain ways, and the story may indicate something iconic about a character that must be displayed through his or her dress.
The audience has expectations too — romantic leads are very often dressed and styled in a more contemporary fashion, no matter the movie or TV show’s historical period, because they need to be appealing to a broad audience as the Love Interest. This can be especially noticeable with the hair and makeup. In Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s, makeup was always done in the then-modern styles on the studio stars, by decree, so audiences could identify the stars, no matter what movie, historical or modern. Bette Davis always had her penciled-in 1940s eyebrows, even if she was playing a Victorian governess. That’s how you knew it was Bette Davis. Similarly, Aidan Turner’s Poldark gets a five o’clock shadow because it reads “sexy rebel” to 2015 eyes, even if in the 18th century, it would have read as “lazy bastard.” The men-with-open-shirts/doublets thing is another attempt to make historical men more appealing to modern audiences.
Now, some Frock Flicks fans may say, “oh, so they’re not stupid but they think WE’RE stupid, huh?” But again, I remind you that we are not the main audience, and historical accuracy is not the main goal of movies and TV shows. It’s not pandering to stupidity, it’s broadening the appeal or simply appealing to someone who isn’t you. Subtle difference, I know (but, then, I work in marketing as my day-job).
What’s Their Budget?
If you’ve watched Project Runway, maybe you can imagine designing, sourcing, and sewing an entire gown in one day and with $100. Now try making it historically accurate! Good luck! That’s pretty much what happens in many movie and TV productions. Movies may have a somewhat longer lead time, but a network TV series may have only a few days from when a designer learns what costumes are required for an episode until the complete outfit is needed on set.
Add to that the fact that costumes are typically a very small part of a film or TV series’ budget. For example, the upcoming Versailles series made news because the set decoration and costumes combined for an impressive 12% of the production’s total budget. And the set decorations include “pieces carefully designed to reproduce Louis XIII’s hunting lodge that Louis XIV transformed into a sizable castle during his reign” — so the actual budget for costumes is even less than 12%.
Now some historical costume dramas do get big budgets … if they’re produced by an American pay-cable channel (or a streaming service trying to compete with cable). Four of the top 10 most expensive TV shows ever produced are historical — Deadwood (HBO, $4.5 per episode), Boardwalk Empire (HBO, $5 million per episode), Rome (HBO, $9 million per episode), and Marco Polo (Netflix, $9 million per episode). But most US network shows have an average budget of $3 million an episode.
Yet where do our costume faves rank? Sure, those HBO series have some great costumes because they can afford it. But they’re the exception. A bit more common are Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, produced in Australia for about $800,000 USD per episode (according to IF Magazine in 2012) and Downton Abbey, made by Britain’s ITV for about $1,500,000 USD per episode (as of 2014, reports The Telegraph). At best, that’s half of what an average show has and a fraction of what those cable shows got.
Plus, these are the total costs, including actors, travel, special effects, you name it. Take less than 10% of that relatively small budget and then stretch it to costume all the leads with multiple outfit changes in one episode. Plus each episode may have a dozen or more extras in street scenes and crowds and also add any special guests. So that could be hundreds of full costumes to create, from headgear to shoes, corsets to coats, which the designer needs to buy materials for and create with his or her staff. Because, oh yes, you need staff to make the costumes. Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood get all the glory at the Oscars, but they have minions cutting, sewing, and making their designs come to life. For what it’s worth, minimum wage in the UK is approximately $10 US and California‘s minimum wage will be $10 as of January 1, 2016, thus Hollywood would be the same — though I’d hope that costume shop staff would be paid more.
So it’s no wonder that historical movies and TV series take shortcuts with costumes. Whether that means using less-than-period materials (because real silk and authentic lace is ridiculously expensive) or skimping on petticoats and other undergarments, it may just be a lack of budget or time issue. If you aren’t lucky enough to work for HBO or another big-budget project, you’re likely to be scraping by.
One way costumer designers deal with the the budget/time problem is by using recycled historical costumes, which we’ve often pointed out in our podcasts and reviews (and we direct you to our favorite resource on the topic). Costumes made for one movie may go into stock at one of the big rental houses like Angels, CosProp, or Western Costume, where they can be rented over and over again, sometimes with alterations, sometimes in parts or pieces. Rental costumes are frequently used on extras in a production and often for supporting characters, but you’ll find them on lead characters too if the budget isn’t there to make brand-new costumes (and if the actors can fit or the story doesn’t require a particular item).
Rentals are also where we tend to see less historical accuracy. Back-lacing gowns in the 18th century screams “rental” because it’s easier to fit multiple sizes without showing (as long as the extra has her back to a wall!). Less-than-period fabric choices like dupioni silk and the infamous poly baroque satin also say “rental backstock” to me. Yeah, it’s annoying, and we’ll snark, but we also get it. They need to fill a scene on a budget somehow.
Do They Have a Vision?
We’ve talked about this before. Sometimes the director or screenwriter has an idea about how the history should be. Not how it was. Usually, this starts with the action of the story — changing names, dates, and what happened for dramatic effect. Nine times out of ten, this leaks down into the costume and means historical accuracy will be sacrificed in the looks department too. It’s totally a thing that when a biopic becomes “inspired by true events” then the costumes become “inspired by historical clothing,” and nothing is very historically accurate.
Now, some may say this can make for better storytelling and a more entertaining movie. For example, in regards to The Imitation Game (2014), which was knocked for being wildly inaccurate about the pioneering WWII scientist Alan Turing’s life, the screenwriter and director told the Huffington Post:
“When you use the language of ‘fact checking’ to talk about a film, I think you’re sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works,” he [screenwriter Graham Moore] explained. “You don’t fact check Monet’s ‘Water Lilies. That’s not what water lilies look like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That’s the goal of the piece.”
“A lot of historical films sometimes feel like people reading a Wikipedia page to you onscreen, like just reciting ‘and then he did that, and then he did that, and then he did this other thing’ — it’s like a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation,” [director Morten] Tyldum said. “We wanted the movie to be emotional and passionate.”
I may not agree with these filmmakers (see my review of The Imitation Game), but at least they had a specific vision. They saw a historical story, and they wanted to make a particular kind of emotional tale out of it, without getting wrapped up in specific historical facts (as I’ve said before, historical details sound boring to most people). They did what they set out to do.
Likewise, some historical productions have a specific aesthetic vision that deviates from the historical era for whatever reason. And that’s fine as long as it’s done consistently and clearly to carry out this vision — which we’ve discussed before. My favorite example of historical-costumes-with-a-vision done right is Angels & Insects (1995), where the big 1860s crinoline gowns on the main female lead all have insect themes in the colors and trim. It’s visually stunning, reinforces the story, and is subtly anachronistic.
Who Are They Making This For?
I don’t mean to beat this like a dead horse, but movies and TV are a business, and thus market forces are at play. Yep, they aren’t always making this for us, the history-loving weirdos. They’re making the movie or TV show for the 99% who don’t know and don’t judge the history, they want a story (smart, silly, or somewhere in between).
Let’s take everyone’s current favorite punching bag, Reign. Look at this interview on Tyranny of Style with Reign‘s costume designer Meredith Markworth Pollack. Check out the photos of the designer’s “Research and Inspiration Board” for the show’s designs. I see at least 10 images of historical portraits, all recognizable French and English 1550s or 1560s women, including several the same as on my Pinterest board of authentic MQoS images. This designer knows what Mary Queen of Scots really wore, she is not ignorant of historical sources. But she has different priorities than you and me.
As she told Tyranny of Style: “Being very familiar with the CW network and their strong relationship with fashion and fans — it was presented from our first conversation that there would be contemporary elements — elements that the fans could emulate on their own.” The show’s producers wanted to mix historical stories and modern fashion to appeal to the teen-girl demographic that the network advertises to. As I discussed in Part 1, the historical elements have a romantic draw, but the modern clothes make it more relatable and/or aspirational.
Lest you think this attitude is a product of the last few decades, I found this gem of a quote about the movie Young Bess, released in 1953, and telling about the teen years of Elizabeth I of England. Producer Sidney Franklin said:
We’re telling an intimate story against a background of 16th-century court life, as opposed to a historical pageant about royal intrigues. We feel the love story between the Princess and Seymour — actually he was 25 years older than Elizabeth — will be more valid to audiences than a lot of historical detail which has no relation to our customers lives.
Romance over historical fact, that suits our “customers,” they say. Go fig. Nothing is new under the sun.
These are undoubtedly just a few of the factors that go into why movies and TV play fast and loose with history. We’re not industry insiders, so we can’t tell you how every production is made and the reasoning behind every decision. This is just my research and current understanding, and I’m sure there are also big differences between both movies and TV shows, as well as different tiers of production (just think of the pay-cable network budgets, for example), and series produced in the US vs. Britain or Europe. We’re working on some interviews with costumer designers in the biz for more background info to help answer some of these “why do they do that?” type questions as well. But for now, let’s just try to keep in mind that movies and TV have the main goal of entertaining an audience first, and historical accuracy is down much farther on the list.