SNARK WEEK: This Is How Your Audience Talks

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We here at Frock Flicks have run afoul of numerous people, both inside and outside the film industry, with our snarky commentary on historical costume movies and TV series. We’ve gotten into many aspects of why we do what we do previously, but here’s one that came up for me when I was responding to A Certain Costume Designer who didn’t like me pointing out inaccuracies in a comic and/or flippant tone: this is how your audience talks. We’re just putting it out there more publicly than you may have previously come across.

Go back through the history of cinema and television, and let me tell you, whether or not the filmmakers or the fans realized it, there was at least ONE person out there scoffing at the history, the costumes, the set, the bullet bra, the horse’s bridle, the kind of candles being used, the idea of this queen being in love with that king, the suggestion that this person said that. At least one person leaned over to another during a 1939 screening of Gone With the Wind and said, “Yeah, I kind of doubt the slaves were quite that happy.” Meanwhile, in a theater in 1952, someone was watching Singin’ in the Rain and thinking, “You know, I lived through the 1920s and the clothes didn’t look like that.” And at least one person finished watching Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and muttered, “But Catherine of Aragon was a redhead!”

Gone With the Wind

Maaaaaybe Gone With the Wind (1939) isn’t the most accurate representation of slavery ever? And maybe someone has noticed?

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Does this Paul Poiret-inspired ensemble from Singin’ in the Rain (1952, left) reference real Poiret 1920s designs (right)? Sure! Are they the exact same aesthetic? Nope. Given Singin‘ was released 22 years after the period in question, I think it may have come up.

Michael Sittow, Catherine of Aragon as Madonna, late 15th century | Anne of the Thousand Days

These hair colors are not the same. Michael Sittow, Catherine of Aragon as Madonna, late 15th century | Irene Papas in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

First of all, there is a long legacy of historians reviewing films and television shows. Allow me to quote from a 1926 letter written by a historian at the University College of the South-West of England, Exeter, and published in History, an academic history journal:

“It seems evident … that the production of films on historical subjects for schools is not practical … owing to the great expense of time and money involved … But it appears to me that teachers of history might very good work by visiting the Cinema shows in their area, and by pointing out to their pupils in what respects the productions are good or bad from an historical point of view. I do not see why this criticism should be given in a spirit hostile to the cinema habit, or in a manner uninteresting to the pupils, in whom it might encourage a critical attitude of mind and by this means the cinema habit might be converted into a useful means of instruction” (Harte, Walter J. “History and the Cinema.” History, NEW SERIES, 11, no. 41 (1926): 45. Accessed January 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24399638.).

Maybe Walter wasn’t imagining the concept of Snark Week or of poking fun at “errors” or misguided anachronisms. But it’s not just the academics. Check out this rant by MacKinlay Kantor, a journalist, screenwriter, and novelist who was particularly interested in the Civil War, published in the New York Times in 1940. No it’s not about the costumes, but it’s the kind of thing we’d point out:

“For the life of me, I don’t know why these Hollywood people make even the pretense of historical accuracy in their pictures … I recall one particularly painful episode in ‘Operator 13,’ released in 1934. Marion Davies rolled her eyes and exclaimed to a companion in a gray uniform, ‘Mah goodness, those Stahs and Bahs suttenly look lovely up on that flag-pole!’ The camera obligingly panned up and disclosed to us, not the Stars and Bars, but the Confederate battleflag — the famous St. Andrew’s Cross — snapping in all its glory” (May 26, 1940).

1934 Operator 13

Also, what the fuck does Marion Davies’s (left) costume have to do with the mid-1860s?

Move forward in time, and any of us old timers who were on the H-costume mailing list (an email discussion list for people interested in historic costume; yes, that and usenet is how we used to interact!) will remember the VITRIOL and HORROR that Elizabeth (1998) engendered. So that was nerds nerding out with other nerds, and probably no costume designers or armchair “period drama” aficionados were reading. But trust me, we were snarking away. I’m such a librarian that I literally just went through the mailing list archives and found these comments about the film written in 1998:

“Mary of Guise seems to be a floozy who never brushes her hair and likes riding about in armour.”

Fanny Ardant in Elizabeth (1998)

Mary of Guise in Elizabeth: scraggy hair, armor. Check!

“The costuming on the other hand had me laughing out loud. Pretty much all of the ladies gowns laced up the back [MY PEOPLE] (including the ones with stading [sic] collars)?!”

1998 Elizabeth back lacing

They’re not wrong!

“The ring that Walsingham wears (brilliant character though I thought, he was the most fun to watch) is straight from Bali, not history.”

1998 Elizabeth Geoffrey Rush

Is this the ring in question? It does resemble ones you can easily find today…

Ali Express ring

 

“I will still despair over the Spanish Ambassador who looked like Prince.”

#accurate

So sure, we often attempt to include comedy in our reviews. But honestly, that comedy is NOT complicated. All we’re generally doing is saying “one of these things is not like the other.” Those who care may find that funny. Those who don’t will say “so what?” It’s not rocket science, and if it bothers you that we’ve pointed out that thing X isn’t like thing Y, then, maybe make thing X like thing Y next time? Or don’t! Whatever! You keep doing your thing, and we’ll do ours.

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

 

Do you not snark? Ever? If so, why not?

 

 

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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.

17 Responses

  1. Tracey Walker

    Oh hell yeah I snark. I also LOVE costume drama and hunt down every single one that I hear about. So it’s definitely coming from a place of love.

    Reply
  2. heratech

    Back in the day when I was a baby costumer I learned SO MUCH from the costume snark community on Livejournal where people who knew more than I did were busy pointing out errors.

    The one I will never forget was the poor bride who proudly wore her lovely custom white wedding corset upside down with the cups down at ovary level. I sincerely hope that no one who saw her or her wedding photos EVER pointed out her error to her, because she looked so happy.

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I kinda give Irene Pappas a pass in Anne of a Thousand Days simply bc she conveys KoA’s badassness so well. But I refuse to watch Spanish Princess bc it’s Philippa Fucking Gregory no matter if what’s her face the actress has strawberry blonde hair.
    What I wonder is why they get history so bloody wrong. It’s not hard. Pick up a book, scroll on line, visit a museum – LACMA and MMA come to mind -etc.
    And although my favourite March Sister is Amy, the recent movie was RUNNING FROM THE THEATRE SCREAMING.

    Reply
  4. Michael McQuown

    The flag most people associate with the Confederacy, the one carried at the White House incursion, is the Beauregard flag; the Stars and Bars has one red, one white, and another red bar with blue canton with 13 white stars in the field. There were a number of battle flags carried by Confederate troops, but no national flag was ever adopted.

    Reply
  5. Marie McGowan-Irving

    I am Scottish. I had the misfortune to see Braveheart in the cinema and I caused something of a scene when the one historically accurate episode of the entire film happened and two people in front of me tutted and complained it didn’t happen. I had a massive rant at them about how the nobles did, in fact, leave the Battle of Stirling Bridge after having been paid by the English, and that Burns wrote a poem about it. I swear my friends say ‘Braveheart’ to me for the fun of watching me fume!

    We’ve been around a long time, and we’re fed up with films and TV not getting basic things right. The costumes, the speech, the hair, the jewellery, the actual events involving real people that actually happened, all get messed around with for ‘artistic vision’ and I swear to god if I have to sit through another film where MQos and QE1 actually meet I will scream until I’m sedated.

    The problem is that too many people watch these films and think that’s history. They have always been with us so filmmakers should take a bit more responsibility instead of just bleating about ‘their art’ when mistakes are pointed out.

    Reply
  6. Shashwat

    I had first watched GWTW when I was 11,and I had zero idea of American history.Still I wondered why the servants had to be over the top giggly around their masters when people are so mean in real life.It doesn’t really take the combined genius of Newton and Einstein to point out problematic elements.The history of anti-semitism is often glossed over in Asian countries(to the point that folks cannot distinguish them from Christians),but everyone can notice the glaring bigotry in Merchant of Venice.The idea that audience can be taken for granted if they are not boring academics is stupid,as certain things are too hard to ignore.
    And honestly,costumes that are historically inadequate tend to look ugly,if not inaccurate.One might need to do some research to know about foundation garments,but a boned Elizabethan bodice will look ugly even to the untrained eye.Back lacing bodice for 18th century is stupid if it incorporates a split skirt-why will any sane person split the bodice and skirt on different sides?Jewellery supposed to accentuate the centre part will obviously look odd with side parts.Or fabrics like denim and polyester,which are too distinctly modern.It is just hard not to snark at the stark inaccuracies.

    Reply
  7. Frannie Germeshausen

    Ah, “Elizabeth.” Saw it in a theater. Mistake. I was shouting at the screen at the historical inaccuracies, which didn’t go over well. (Why mess with the truth when it’s more interesting that what you’ve made up?!?!?)

    Reply
  8. Terry Towels

    I don’t snark at costuming so much (just wonder WTF). However, I can get really going looking at movies and naming the earlier films they ripped off scenes and scripts from. One time 4 of us, with very different tastes in movies accidentally set off all of our neighbors in the cinema during “Meteor”. It’s a feast for steals.

    Reply
  9. Lily Lotus Rose

    I’m currently reading Volume 2 of The Official Companion to The Crown, which discusses Seasons 2 and 3. In one chapter they quote a man who published criticiques of Queen’s speeches. Apparently, he received a lot of push back about his criticism and was often asked “why he hated the monarchy,” to which he replied “Does a literary critic hate books?” Like most devoted followers of this blog, I appreciate that your critiques and snark come from fondness not from bitterness. Keep up the good work!!

    Reply

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