Costume dramas are a great source for accurate portrayals of how people acted and dressed in past times, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, no.
It’s not hard to think of all the ways movies and TV get historical clothing wrong, but let’s start with some of the more obvious ones. Because really, someone needs to point these things out, and that’s precisely what Frock Flicks is here for. So for Snark Week, let us review some of the ways movies screw up how people see historical costume!
Myth 1: Women’s Corsets Were Really Tight
When you’re all trussed up in a corset, you can hardly breathe! Corsets make you faint, they’re so tight. And of course you have to hold onto a bedpost to lace up a corset tight enough, right, Scarlett? Right?
Fact: Different types of corsets were worn throughout history, and various corset shapes provided different types and amounts of compression. This didn’t always mean they were tight or reduced the waist, even in the 19th century. A well-fitted corset was meant to be supportive and create a fashionable silhouette, not limit movement or restructure a body. Read how everything you know about corsets is false from Collectors Weekly and how wearing a corset affects you and your clothes from The Pragmatic Costumer.
Myth 2: Women’s Long Hair Flowed Free
Long, flowing tresses are the mark of purity, beauty, and femininity. Just look at those Disney princesses, and you know how historically accurate they are. Also look at all the lovely, grown-up ladies in movies from every historical period, from the middle ages through the renaissance to the Victorian era. Long, flowing hair. Why cover up all that prettiness with a hat?
Fact: For every one historical portrait of an adult woman pre-20th-century shown with long hair flowing down her back or shoulders (that isn’t allegorical or Biblical in intent), you can easily find 100 more images that show women with hair pinned up, styled, and often covered. Scroll through Wikimedia’s Portrait Paintings of Women by Century or Female Hair Fashion in Art categories for a sampling. You’ll find that the vast majority of women have their hair tucked up, plus they wear some kind of headgear. Throughout most of history, it was a sign of adulthood that women wore their hair up, and they also wore a cap or hat outside the house (men wore hats outside the home too before the mid-20th century).
Myth 3: Men Wore Nothing but Tights
Men wore nothing but tights on their butts, especially in the middle ages. No pants required when you’re robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Robin Hood’s era was all about the spandex leggings. Pants probably weren’t invented until cars were.
Fact: “Tights” were not like today’s spandex two-legged things. Hosen were made of wool, cut on the bias to fit each leg and foot, and the results could look a bit baggy. Most of the time, these hose were worn under tunics that reached to a man’s knees or lower. There was a point in the late 15th century when long hose were worn tied to a short doublet, and the crotch was covered with a rudimentary codpiece. This fashion evolved into the Elizabethan style with short, puffy pants, pointy codpiece, and elaborate doublet, worn with gartered hose. It was a relatively short period in fashion history that men wore only tights-like garments on the lower half of their bodies. For a whole lot more about historical hosiery, check out this annotated page on medieval underwear by Maistre Emrys Eustace.
Myth 4: Scots Wore Tartan and Kilts
From the dawn of time, every man, woman, and child in Scotland has been clad, head to toe, in their clan tartan. It’s a plaid, plaid, plaid world among them haggis-eaters. By the different tartans, you could tell who was from which clan or family, who they were related to, where their allegiances laid, what side of the bed they slept on, you name it! Most of all, real Scotsmen wore kilts and let it all hang out. You can take away our pants, but you can never take our freedom!
Fact: Scottish clan tartans are mostly a romantic 19th-century century invention. Woven plaid fabric did exist much earlier in Scotland, and different regions had their own specialty plaid patterns based on what vegetable dyes were available in that area. But the tartan wasn’t linked to families or clans until late in the game — the naming of official clan tartans began in 1815 by the Highland Society of London. Also, the kilt we all know and love has, at best, been documented to the very late 16th century in the remote Scottish Highlands, plus it was outlawed from 1746 to 1782. The 1814 publication of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel Waverley, which told a fictionalized version of the Jacobite Rising of a century earlier, helped create a fascination for all things Scottish, and this 19th-century revival is where we get most of our ideas about tartan and kilts from. Sorrynotsorry, Mel Gibson. Read more at the Historical Scottish Clothing Project by Sharon L. Krossa, PhD, from the Scottish Tartans Museum by Matthew Newsome, and the Evolution of the Kilt by Kass McGann.
Myth 5: Servants Had to Be Dressed Identically
They kept those outfits perfectly, crisply clean too, even if one was the scullery maid. From the smallest house to the largest, your servants were dressed in matching outfits, and sometimes they even wore your personal badge or mark on them. Because the world had to know who their boss was.
Fact: Servants were a lot more ubiquitous throughout history than we realize today — you didn’t have to be super-rich to have a servant in the home. Most everybody needed and hired help. Also, tons of people needed jobs, especially women and young men, so domestic service or farm labor were common employment. In some periods and places, servants could be upper-class young adults out to get more experience in the world. Employers might provide clothing as part of the servant’s payment, but they might not. The clothes might match other servants or be liveried (show the employer’s heraldry), or they might not. It varied wildly from person to person and over time. In England and America, domestic servants became a status symbol in the 19th century and thus dressed more formally. Before that, a servant wore whatever clothes they had, with the addition of an apron or any gear needed to do her or his job. Find out more from Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson, Domestic Service in the Hidden History of Kent, and the books The Queen’s Servants and The King’s Servants.
This is barely the tip of the iceberg for how movies get historical costume wrong, of course! We can’t possibly list every single way Hollywood screws up people’s understanding of period fashions — but we’re trying. Stay tuned for all of Snark Week, where we’ll look at some of our favorite terrible historically inaccurate costume dramas and show exactly how movies and TV get different types of historical clothing wrongity-wrong over and over again. Chime in with your faves too!