SNARK WEEK: How Amadeus Rocked Us Into Ignoring Crap Costumes

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Since we’re friends here, I feel comfortable admitting that I love Amadeus (1984) for many reasons. The story is compelling enough for me to overlook the fact that it is heavily embellished to the point of being fiction, but the music, of course, is fabulous (raging Mozart fangirl, checking in). Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham are wonderfully competitive in their roles as Mozart and Salieri. There’s humor, pathos, romance, all set against the backdrop of 1780s Vienna.

And as a little girl, I watched Amadeus and dreamed of one day getting to wear fabulous 18th-century clothes. It was the first 18th-century movie I remember seeing, and it had a big impact on 10-year-old me, soaking in all of the pastel colors and the cream-puff hairdos. I wanted to live in that macaroon-colored world so badly that I spent hours upon hours locked up in my bedroom drawing 18th-century clothing designs, all because of Amadeus.

Then I made the mistake of watching Amadeus as an adult with a degree in clothing history and 20 years of experience in researching, making, and wearing period costume, and while the story and the acting still hold up, the costumes haven’t. In fact I’ve compared these outfits to contemporary 1980s historical films and was left wondering how on earth this film won an Academy Award for Best Costume in 1985.

First of all, let’s look at the competition that year for the coveted Best Costume Oscar:

The Bostonians

The Bostonians

Based on a novel by Henry James, this Merchant-Ivory film had a star-studded cast, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Reeves, and Jessica Tandy. The costume design team was made up of Jenny Beavan (who later went on to design Cranford, The King’s Speech, Jefferson in Paris to name a few) and John Bright (A Room With a View, Howards End).

 

2010

2010: The Year We Make Contact
The somewhat less surreal sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey2010 starred Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, and Roy Scheider. Costumes were designed by Patricia Norris, who had a pretty epic career, even in 1984. Notable costume design credits are 12 Years a Slave, Victor/Victoria, Johnny Dangerously, and Scarface. I have to go on the record here and say that 2010 is actually one of my favorite sci-fi films and is pretty much overlooked in favor of its predecessor. Also, Helen Mirren. Have I mentioned I want to have her babies?

 

 A Passage to India

A Passage To India
Two words: Merchant Ivory. Another cast packed with Big Names, this one starred Judy Davis, Alec Guinness, and Peggy Ashcroft. Costume design was by Judy Moorcroft, whose CV includes The Prince and the Pauper (one of the best costumed 16th-century films out there), Yentl, and The Killing Fields. Unfortunately, it’s one of those types of films where people are more interested in the plot and acting than the costumes, so I can’t find any good still shots that represent the 1920s clothing. Sheesh. I guess that’s a good indication as to why it didn’t win for Best Costume…

 

Places in the Heart

Places In The Heart
John Malkovich, Sally Field, Ed Harris, and Danny Glover are cast in this look at interracial friendship in the 1930s South. Costume design by Ann Roth, who later went on to work on The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Hours, and The Book of Mormon. Again, this is the sort of film where it’s the acting that takes center stage, so since it’s rare that costume design Oscars go to science-fiction films, gritty Depression-era films, or prim 1920s films, that basically leaves The Bostonians as the only real contender with Amadeus in the category at the 1985 Academy Awards.

Costume designer Theodor Pištěk (who went on to costume Valmont a few years later) was interviewed by Vice a few years ago, reflecting on his work on Amadeus, which was an interesting reminder that Amadeus was filmed on location in Prague during the Cold War. Also, Pištěk seems to have the same gripes every costume designer has about historical accuracy being thrown out for a weird mishmash of styles and eras: 

[Hollywood has] tremendous problems with [capturing historical details correctly]. When the main production designer flew in for a meeting, he was mixing up Romanesque with Roman culture. But they wanted to truthfully capture the atmosphere of Mozart’s time so they wanted to hire someone from Prague, which is connected with Mozart. That’s why Forman asked me.

So, with that in mind, let’s revisit some of the costumes from Amadeus, shall we?

Let’s see, there’s boobs:

amadeus movie costumes

Does anyone remember anything else about this movie other than Elizabeth Berridge’s cleavage?

 

Bad wigs:

amadeus movie costumes

Someone get this girl an aspirin!

 

Bad lace:

amadeus movie costumes

Crafter’s lace galore!

 

More bad wigs:

amadeus movie costumes

We are THRILLED to be here.

 

Princess seams and bad wigs:

amadeus movie costumes

I can’t believe he’s managing to look her in the eyes.

 

Polyester baroque satin from the Casa Collection at Jo-Ann’s:

amadeus movie costumes

Note the random pink triangle “stomacher” and what we think is a pair of wings attached to the back…

 

Turkish delight:

amadeus movie costumes

Raise your hand if this was your favorite costume in the movie.

 

Crafter’s lace capes:

amadeus movie costumes

No capes!

 

Lest we hear the cry from the masses, “BUT IT WAS THE EIGHTIES! We can’t expect historically accurate costumes in the 1980s!” I want to remind you that Dangerous Liaisons was a product of the same era, only four years later.

dangerous liaisons movie costumes

Glenn Close is judging your Casa Collection satin gown.

 

Another interesting factoid that I recently discovered was that Meg Tilly was originally cast to play Constanze, but was injured the day before her scenes were set to begin shooting. She was replaced with Elizabeth Berridge at the last possible second, but there are a few stills of Tilly out there that show her in Stanze’s blue dress and plastic wig from the first scene:

amadeus movie costumes

Thus the world was nearly deprived of Elizabeth Berridge’s wazambis.

I wonder if the sudden, last minute change in actresses accounts for some of the fitting weirdnesses we see in Stanze’s costumes? Since there’s no good before and after photos out there, we can only speculate that perhaps the Victorian corset and princess seams were an attempt to shoehorn Berridge into costumes made for Tilly.

amadeus movie costumes

Trystan wants me to mention that this scene was NOT included in the original theatrical release.

 

I think, as far as 18th-century movie costumes go, this fails to hold up when compared to predecessors such as Barry Lyndon (1975), but as Trystan points out, the widespread success of Amadeus was proof to Hollywood that the historical “frock flick” was lucrative enough to warrant films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Madness of King George (1994), and Marie Antoinette (2006).

In the end, I think it all points to the fact that Amadeus was the only “costume-y” film up for consideration in 1985. The competition that year was pretty stiff in the acting and directing categories, but in the costume category, a couple of early-20th century films about wallowing in dirt, an film about lesbians in the 1880s, and a sci-fi movie about sci-fi stuff just isn’t going to be a match for the almighty spectacle that is the 18th century.

And when you take it all in as a whole, the awfulness of the wigs and costumes do sorta start to fade out while you’re getting swept up in the glitz of a rockstar’s epic rise and fall. Because that’s all that Amadeus really is when you boil it all down… Hell, this movie inspired Falco to produce this little gem:

 

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

15 Responses

  1. Katy

    The Casa Collection!!! *Snort*

    I will say that I love Amadeus as well. Incredible script, acting, storyline, and of course the music. But WOW, I had forgotten just how bad the costumes were. I mean I remember them being bad but WOW.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      It just goes to show you that when you take it all in as one big flashy spectacle, the costumes barely stand out against the rest of the scenery and music and acting. And I’m ok with that. It’s just… we knew better then. We know WAY better now. It’s still a mystery as to why so many of the costumes had zippers up the back, for crying out loud!

      Reply
      • Trystan

        Couldn’t get (any / enough) better rentals into Prague? Blame the Cold War!

        “Valmont” was filmed almost entirely in France, so it doesn’t have any excuses (KENDRA).

        Reply
  2. Music History Prof

    I’ll have to send my baroque/classical music class to this page during Mozart Week! (Wait, every week is Mozart Week.)

    Anyway, I just wanted to offer an excuse for the “get this girl an aspirin” wig (and beauty mark) – because the character is an opera singer and that yellow yarn wig is part of her costume in the opera.

    But there’s no excuse for the rest of the wigs and costumes! They are atrocious and they haven’t aged well.

    Reply
    • Trystan

      Yeah, unfortunately her ‘off stage’ wigs are about the same. And period stage makeup wouldn’t have looked so straight-outta-1984, heh (I might resemble that eyeliner).

      But it’s such a good movie!

      Reply
  3. Patricia

    We costumers with little to no budget, depend on the Casa collection and coupons for many of our stage costumes. We do the best we can with what we can afford. Many audiences don’t know the difference. Where would you suggest I find better fabrics that don’t cost a fortune to costume a cast of 40?

    Reply
    • Kendra

      I think we absolutely understand about limited budget, and know that that’s not YOUR decision! You’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got. It’s up to producers/the people with the money to decide whether costumes are important enough to spend money on.

      Reply
  4. Quaintrelle Georgiana

    Great article. I actually surprised that I overlooked all the details just because it is such a great movie. However the stills from the movie are proving the misconducts.

    Reply
  5. Trystan

    Random: I found that blue satin gown shown on the dress form, it’s worn in the party scene where everyone’s wearing masks, & those ARE wings for a masquerade costume in the background, seen for a few seconds!

    Reply
  6. Eli

    I think the main problem with these costumes is that (sadly) they are made to appeal to the 1984 audience: think of Mozart as an 80s popstar and BOOM, you have all this nonsense of wigs of satin gowns.

    Reply
  7. Adina

    I was rewatching the movie and I think the lace “cape” was just a half-baked attempt at a robe a la francaise.

    Reply
  8. ladylavinia1932

    [Hollywood has] tremendous problems with [capturing historical details correctly]. When the main production designer flew in for a meeting, he was mixing up Romanesque with Roman culture. But they wanted to truthfully capture the atmosphere of Mozart’s time so they wanted to hire someone from Prague, which is connected with Mozart. That’s why Forman asked me.

    Why do they always complain about Hollywood productions, when making comments about filmmaking? I’ve come across non-Hollywood productions that featured historically inaccurate costumes.

    Reply
  9. Ryan Lege

    Being a general history nut and not a costume one… Amadeus…I was under the assumption from looking at many paintings of that time period that the wigs, at least for the men, were rather believeable. So…apparently I am either blind or not seeing the details correctly. For example, Joseph II, from his paintings, and Jeremy Jones look dead on…anyway…it would be helpful for someone like myself to maybe have a percentage for accuracy.

    Reply

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