SNARK WEEK: Top 5 Stupid Frock Flicks Tropes

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We here at Frock Flicks watch a LOT of historical/period movies and TV shows. And when we do, we notice when the same tropes get used over and over, so much that they become obvious and stupid. Here’s five that set my eyes rolling:

 

1. Servants Cutting the Grass with Scissors

Okay, in my mind THIS IS A THING. There’s some shot of the fancy aristocrat’s estate, and servants are on their hands and knees cutting the grass with scissors. Sure, back in the day there was no such thing as a lawn mower. But it’s meant to be a visual cue to tell us just how over-the-top ridiculous these aristocrats are — they have people employed not just to do some menial task for them, but to do it in the most laborious way possible.

Except … I CAN’T FIND ANY EXAMPLES OF THIS!! Did I hallucinate this trope?

In my memory, it happens in the opening of Persuasion (1995) in order to demonstrate that Anne’s family are out of touch with the realities of their financial situation — but looking at screencaps, it’s actually a servant/tenant scything, which seems semi-reasonable:

1995 Persuasion

Sure it’s laborious, but it’s more effective than scissors.

I did find that there was SUPPOSED to be such a shot in The Duchess (2008), which makes sense — the Duke of Devonshire is the richest of the rich and totally out of touch with the common person. According to the final script:

“A primitive sprinkler is operated by a GARDENER spreading water across the manicured green grass making a loud and distinctive sound. Other GARDENERS are on their hands and knees cutting the grass with scissors. Time has elapsed, perhaps a month, and it’s spring now.”

Except I re-ran the scene back, and it must have gotten edited out (it’s supposed to happen between Georgiana giving up her baby and her final reconciliation with the duke, but there’s no establishing shot of the grounds). We do see this shot of the gardens through the window while Georgiana and the Duke are talking, but I don’t see any gardeners:

2008 The Duchess

Servants on the right, yes, but those are nannies.

EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to my friend Andrew, who points out that they DO include this shot, but they moved it up to just after the wedding night scene! I’M NOT CRAZY

2008 The Duchess

I even posted about this on Facebook, and the best anyone came up with is suggestions that it might happen in parody Stiff Upper Lips (1998 – which, how have I never heard of this film??), Emma does some hedge trimming herself in the 2009 miniseries but her doing it herself undercuts the point of having servants do it for you, and maybe it happens in A Little Chaos since it’s about gardening but that would make sense.

Did I hallucinate this trope? I suppose it’s possible! If you’ve got any examples, please share them in the comments so I know I’m not crazy.

Am I hallucinating?

 

2. My Clothing Is a Prison

This one I KNOW is real: an upper-class woman is being dressed by her servants; she usually holds her arms out in crucifixion pose as sign of her suffering. Yes, it makes perfect sense to hold your arms out while someone dresses you, and of course women DID have lady’s maids to dress them (which sounds delightful). But usually this scene is included when a young woman is either about to get married or crowned, and it’s used to demonstrate how their world is closing in on them: they are being forced to submit to tight, restrictive, formal clothes that symbolize their submission to the restriction of marriage or of becoming a ruler. And sure, it’s symbolism that works, but does every single production have to include it?

In Elizabeth (1998), it happens at the end of the film, when Queen Elizabeth I has supposedly decided to stop being a “woman” and instead become a “virgin” aka iron-hearted icon:

1998 Elizabeth

Okay, so it’s more contemplative than suffering, as she’s choosing to close off her emotions rather than being forced.

Shakespeare in Love (1998) doesn’t do crucifixion arms, but the scene is all about Viola being resigned to having to marry Wessex — and even more so, putting on female clothes and therefore giving up her acting.

1998 Shakespeare in Love

Note the expression of quiet resignation.

In The Duchess (2008), it’s an undressing scene. Right before Georgiana is about to consummate her marriage to a cold duke she barely knows, two lady’s maids undress her while she stares into the distance.

2008 The Duchess

“This isn’t going to be fun, is it.”

I haven’t seen Lady Macbeth (2016), but given it’s about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, there’s no way this scene can be about anything other than her marriage closing in on her:

2016 Lady Macbeth

Correct me if I’m wrong!

In Maria Theresa (2017), it’s again an undressing scene. Maria is unhappy about her husband’s philandering, and her mom is about to yell at her for not yet having had a son.

2017 Maria Theresia ep2

The arrow was from a recap post, where I was pointing out some inaccurate closure.

And in The Spanish Princess (2019), it was a wedding dress fitting rather than a straight being-dressed scene, but the scene moves between “yay happy wedding dress!” and “oh shit I have majorly lied to my fiancé this might not end well.”

2019 The Spanish Princess

Also, the dress was weird.

The suffering

Note there’s a variant, in which the lady is serenely and/or happily being dressed as a symbol of just how luxurious her life is, like:

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Dangerous Liaisons (1988), in which the opening scene shows the marquise being dressed as a sign of just how pampered (and artificial) her life is.

 

3. Corset Yanking

Technically, this is a variation of My Clothing Is a Prison — but it’s specifically a girl/woman being dressed into a corset, and whoever is doing the dressing isn’t doing their job right because they’re YANKING the shit out it. This is supposed to convey to the audience just how awful and uncomfortable corsets are, and usually symbolic once again of the restrictions being placed upon the woman.

Note that one laces a corset in some ways like one laces an athletic shoe. So sure, you COULD give just one yank to tighten your laces but it’s going to be abrupt and probably not work very well.

Gone With the Wind (1939) may have originated this trope, I’m not sure:

Scarlett O'Hara knows that corsets must be tight!

Although here it’s more about Scarlett’s vanity and desire for a small waist than it is about The World Closing In On Her.

Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is probably the worst offender. Elizabeth acts like she’s never seen a corset before, let alone worn one:

2003 Pirates Of The Caribbean

Poor Keira! The suffering!

Her lady’s maids are clearly new at this.

And then later in the film there’s this excellent dialogue:

In Titanic (1997), Rose is being dressed reasonably by a lady’s maid, when mom takes over and starts literally yanking away.

Titanic corset

The scene is one in which Rose’s mom tells her she has to give up her lower-class love interest in favor of the evil rich guy. When Rose says it’s unfair, her mom says, “Of course it’s unfair. We’re women. Our choices are never easy” — in other words, suck it up, buttercup.

1997 Titanic

THE WALLS AND CORSETS ARE CLOSING IN ON HER

And, of course, there’s the already infamous scene in Bridgerton (2020) in which one of the Featherington girls is having her corset yanked on by two lady’s maids AND mom, with mom bitching, “I was able to squeeze my waist into the size of an orange-and-a-half when I was Prudence’s age.”

Bridgerton corset

Lots of people have taken this down — us, Smithsonian magazine: there’s no reason to be yanking away on a corset to get a tiny waist in an era in which the waist isn’t highlighted. When the waist is your underbust, there’s no point in yanking — your ribs aren’t going to get any smaller.

Bridgerton (2020)

Also, jut like lacing an athletic shoe, you’d probably get a better result if you smoothly worked the laces through their holes rather than YANKING like you’re a parachutist just noticing the ground.

Claustrophobia

 

4. Woman Horse Riding as Sign of Her Spunkiness

Yes, life in past decades and centuries often confined women to specific gender roles. And yes, there were certain physical activities they could enjoy, and I’m sure that was a release. But it drives me CRAZY when I’m watching a period show and the totally conventional heroine decides to demonstrate her spunkiness by horse riding. I mean, what, is everyone falling over because she can ride a horse? Really? I’m not saying I’m at all a horse rider, just, that seems like a low bar. Ooooo. You go fast. Wow.

Sarah remembers that in Impromptu (1991), George Sand steals a horse that’s not been totally broken in, while dressed as a man, and it throws her off into a pond or mud puddle or something.

1991 Impromptu

Possibly pre-puddle? And yes, George Sand wasn’t exactly conventional.

In Dangerous Beauty (1998), Veronica shows she’s “spirited” by horse riding with lover in their “happy in love” montage:

1998 Dangerous Beauty

Where does one ride horses in Venice?

Anne Boleyn partially lured Henry with her spunky riding skillz in season 1 of The Tudors (2007):

2007 The Tudors

Sarah said of this image, “That skirt looks like so much ass bunched around her legs … WHAT WERE THEY THINKING”

Sarah has a vague memory that this happens in The Mask of Zorro (1998):

1998 The Mask of Zorro

How can this NOT be about spunk?

It’s been a long time since I watched Robin Hood (2010), but I vaguely remember that Lady Marian demonstrates that she’s down with the people by riding around with Robin:

That’s her down-with-the-people flappy-bits corset.

Queen of the Desert (2017) switched things up by using a camel:

Queen of the Desert (2015)

As I wrote in my review, Gertrude “Bell rides in on her camel, simple natives ‘capture’ her and take her to their leader, leader is wiser and understands European ways (including speaking fluent English), leader welcomes Bell.”

If this isn’t a thing in The White Princess (2017), I will eat my own hat. Aren’t all Philippa Fucking Gregory adaptations contractually required to include this element?

Okay, maybe we’re off to war here, but nonetheless.

We learn that Catherine of Aragon in spunky in the trailer for The Spanish Princess (2019) because she rides a horse (and worse, spars with Henry).

The Spanish Princess (2019)

See? A frisky filly!

eye roll

 

5. “The Dung Ages”

In which the peasants or working classes are always wearing brown, no colors of any kind, and the clothes are always caked in mud. This one is such a trope that TV Tropes has created this fabulous term and listed a whole series of references. Sure, people in the past were poor, and cities and rural areas could be dirty. But some films/movies like to embrace the grit, and often it’s in a “ew the past was gross/look at how superior we are” kind of way that grates.

There are SO MANY examples of this — check out our mud & pigs tag for just some, or search our site for the word “gritty.” Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is probably the best of them:

The best, because the film hilariously subverts this trope.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Basically all the peasants in this film are disgustingly (hilariously) dirty.

There are SO MANY examples of this that I couldn’t possibly list them all; here’s a few that come to mind:

1991 Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

Sure, the outlaws in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) are living rough in the woods, but they’re also all filthy and wearing brown and grey nubby fabrics.

1995 Braveheart

In Braveheart (1995), William Wallace is a knight yet he and his fellow Scots are dressed as mud-grubbing peasants — he can’t afford a shirt with actual sleeves? This has always confused me.

2006 Perfume the Story of a Murderer

In Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (2006), Paris is disgustingly filthy.

Gangs of New York 2002

Gangs of New York‘s (2002) vision of mid-19th century New York is all filth, all the time.

Sherlock Holmes 2009

Sherlock Holmes (2009) portrays London as a cesspool.

Jamaica Inn (2014)

Despite an impressive cast, I have zero interest in watching Jamaica Inn (2014).

2014-15 Jamaica Inn

I mean, she could, ya know, LIFT her skirt out of the muck? Just sayin’.

Taboo (2017)

As I wrote in my review, Taboo (2017) is “going for the mud & pigs aesthetic.”

2015 Poldark

Poldark (2015-19) is rife with dirty peasants, and let us not forget that Demelza was not only super poor and dirty when first introduced, but so scraggy that everyone took her for a boy.

2015- Poldark

Even after her marriage, Demelza primarily sticks with the ratty hair and nubby fabrics.

And then there’s the whole sub-genre of 17th-century colonial America films. In which, sure, things were rough. But I recently had this discussion on Facebook with Sarah:

Sarah: That new 17th c. “covered in mud” show that I can’t fucking remember the name of because it’s that unmemorable

Kendra: Aren’t all 17th c. TV shows “covered in mud”? Maybe we need a FF post about this…

There are a million examples (see our 17th century category), but a few standouts for me are:

New Worlds (2014): Shades of brown.

Saints & Strangers (2015): Everyone is wearing grey/brown/black.

Jamestown (2017) may be the most egregious offender. Yes she has color, but that’s some sad, sad clothing there.

Filthy

 

Which frock flick tropes drive you crazy?

 

 

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46 Responses

  1. Betsy

    I feel in almost all 18th century films only the supporting characters and bad guys wear wigs, the leading man is allowed to have natural hair in order to relate to modern audiences. See: Amadeus, Poldark, Outlander, Casanova, La Revolution, The Great … I could go on. And in the Russian Ekaterina- it’s like they forgot about the men’s wigs altogether- brrr!

    Reply
  2. Kathy

    I think the corset yanking and the “clothes as a prison” are some of the ones that annoy me the most, probably having to do with my overall irritation at when very modern feminist ideas are given to the female lead to make her seem #relatable and fun, instead of having her work within the norms and ideas of her time to accomplish her goals. I’m obsessed with this one historical fiction novel(a cool murder mystery) I read recently because for once it is about a woman actually excited for her royal marriage and to rule over a grand court….because that was her upbringing! She doesn’t spend half the book whining about how she wishes she were a man or a simple peasant girl.

    Reply
    • Saraquill

      The middle class 1740s video on Prior Attire’s YouTube channel has a comment about how the stays and layers equal female oppression, in contrast to modern “enlightened” clothing. Cue costume geeks jumping in to point out decent bust support, size adjustable clothing and big ass pockets as shown in the video are pretty awesome.

      Reply
    • Jindra

      Well, I did once know a lady who trimmed the grass on her garden path with manicure scissors. It was the talk of the week in our village…..

      Reply
    • Saraquill

      The main example I can think of isn’t a frock flick. It’s called Brokedown Palace, where prison inmates spent their days plucking grass on the same patch of ground.

      Reply
  3. transamws6

    I swear I’ve seen the gardeners-with-scissors thing, too, but I can’t remember where.
    In the last of the original 7 Poldark books, The Angry Tide, there’s a scene at Trenwith where social-climbing George Warleggan is hosting a house party for important people. His wife Elizabeth steps outside for a quiet breath of fresh air, and it’s mentioned that, though the grass is damp with dew, her slippers are safe because the gardeners trimmed the lawn & brushed away the clippings earlier. I always picture men on their knees with scissors, painstakingly cutting the individual blades.
    Speaking of Poldark, in the books Demelza grows gracefully and realistically from a filthy urchin wearing her brother’s britches to beg, into a gentleman’s wife and the capable mistress of Nampara. She begins wearing stays, keeps her hair neatly trimmed and dressed, and is interested in fashion and looking her best. There’s a scene in one of the books where Ross comes home to find her working in her flower garden, and she’s wearing gloves and has her hair neatly under a proper cap.
    That’s why I don’t like the Poldark adaptations. The books are so rich and layered, with so much character development. The 70s tv series was mud & pigs & slutty Demelza, and the modern version is all about Aidan Turner’s chest.

    Reply
    • Lily Lotus Rose

      I hear you, but there’s no way that I’m going to complain about Aidan Turner’s chest.

      Reply
  4. nadalie

    Love this post! Another example of the corset tightening trope is in Meet Me In St Louis with Judy Garland

    Reply
  5. Katie

    As far as I know, the “getting dressed montage” trope started with Dangerous Liasons. And it works well, in that film. And pretty much only in that film.

    Reply
  6. Karen K.

    SO TIRED of the filthy peasant trope — and the variation, that poor people only wear gray and brown. It’s almost as if colors didn’t exist unless you were rich in period film & TV!

    Reply
  7. Aleko

    To be fair, the corset-yanking trope originated as a popular subject for caricatures in the 1770s (when the new fashionable shape did call for a small waist). The Duchess of Devonshire wrote a novel in which a character writes this in a letter to a friend:

    “My dear Louisa, you will laugh when I tell you, that poor Winifred, who was reduced to be my gentlewoman’s gentlewoman, broke two laces in endeavouring to draw my new French stays close. You know I am naturally small at bottom but now you might literally span me. You never saw such a doll. Then, they [the stays] are so intolerably wide across the breast, that my arms are absolutely sore with them; and my sides so pinched! – But it is the ‘ton’; and pride feels no pain.”

    http://www.james-gillray.org/pop/fashion.html

    https://artsandculture.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/a-correct-view-of-the-new-machine-for-winding-up-the-ladies-mclean-thomas-maker/-wGv2UofhkM8bg?hl=en

    The problem is that the writers and directors have forgotten that these are caricatures, not reportage.

    Reply
    • D.M.A.C.C.

      It is interesting because a normal contemporary viewer might think that she (The character in the novel) is complaining about her stays,

      But I see it as someone who knows a bit of dress history, as more of that she was complaining more on the NEW FASHION than the stays themselves.

      (which some people even NOW do today).

      Reply
  8. ScreenFashions

    I swear I’ve seen the cutting the grass with scissors scene before too! I feel like it was in a modern piece though. I also seem to recall a character being so OCD there was a scene with them cutting the carpet with scissors. Another example of “trapped by her clothes/corset” is from Tuck Everlasting.

    Reply
  9. Susan Pola Staples

    Mary Sue. You know beautiful fill in the blank for hair colour having ….saves the universe.

    Reply
    • Susanna

      I recently watched the Handmaiden again, and there’s a corset yanking scene .. but apart from that, I really like this movie!

      Reply
  10. Jamie LaMoreaux

    things that drive me mad in tv and movies:
    bad bleach jobs with dark roots and eyebrows
    hair down and messy on adult women
    zippers
    floating ruffs
    boots instead of men
    Henry VIII as anything other than a red head
    modern feminism and thought given to ANYONE before 1970.
    modern social acts and thought given to historic characters and people.
    bad history.

    Reply
    • Jen

      Dark eyebrows on blondes – ugh. I hate them so much.
      I agree with you about modern thought being applied to cultures that had no concept of it.

      Reply
      • Kendra

        SRSLY. I frequently comment on that! Yes, it occasionally happens in real life, but 99% of the time it means they’ve bleached their hair. (Side note, I stare at Danaerys’s eyebrows all the time on Game of Thrones).

        Reply
  11. Andrew.

    Weren’t there people cutting grass with scissors in the Versailles scene in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1? Also CGWS is a real modern thing. Search for that term and you’ll find videos on how to do it.

    Regarding ‘The Dung Ages”, when I first saw a photo from the soon to be released Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), I thought that “That has to be the same designer as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Its all studded leather and mud.” Turns out I was right.

    Reply
  12. Maureen

    The trope that gets me (or is it two tropes?) is the “no sleeves/bare shoulders because I’m poor” look. I mean, I like what they did with Constance’s character in The Musketeers, but her costuming was SO wrong!

    Reply
  13. Frannie Germeshausen

    When I was a kid, I did help edge the lawn with shears (sorta scissors) specific to the task. And that was in the 1960s. But it was just edging. Could that be what’s going on?

    Reply
  14. Michael McQuown

    Costume-wise, the best thing about Robin Hood was the scene where he gets peeled out of the mail. Otherwise, the costumes are so-so. I liked the story and was amused at the number of non=English actors in this essentially English story: Robin, Marian, Max von Sydow as the father, William Hurt as William Marshall, and several other Canadian, American, Costa Rican actors. At least the French princess is played by a French actress.

    Reply
  15. Pain.frau

    I have seen Lady Mcbeth and can confirm the scene you are referring to is exactly about a woman trapped in a (cage) crinoline and an awful marriage.

    Reply
  16. Anna

    The mud thing is annoying. Yes, some hygiene standards were different, waste treatment was different, and having the type of bath where you submersed yourself in water was typically reserved for bathhouses or the wealthy because it’s a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grab a bucket of water and give yourself a sponge bath or change out your shift once it’s absorbed all your sweat for the day. People generally don’t enjoy being filthy and will find ways to clean themselves.

    Reply
  17. DB

    I always felt that the opening dressing scenes of Dangerous Liasions were about the characters putting on their armor for battle.

    Reply
  18. M.E. Lawrence

    I finally realized, thanks to this fab article, that the corset-lacing trope was responsible for my mother-of-the-bride nerves. The maid of honor backed out at the last minute (smart!), and the matron of honor couldn’t show up early because she was breastfeeding, so I would have to lace my girl into this sleeveless gown that made her look like a 7-year-old masquerading as Lena Horne. And I stressed ALL NIGHT about getting the lacing right. (The act itself was really pretty simple; I had just watched too many traumatic corset-lacing scenes.)

    Reply
  19. Andrew.

    Another film that begins with a meaningful (double) dressing scene is 1991’s Black Robe where it alternates between the French Champlain and the Algonquin Chomina as they put on their respective finery in order to impress the other when they meet.

    Reply
      • Andrew.

        Be warned that it is bleak, depressing, and quite likely upsetting. Howsomever, it is very well done. It presents two cultures alien to each other and both alien to the modern viewer.

        Reply
  20. Kaite Fink

    My favorite, hilariously bad, horse riding moment is from The Other Boleyn Girl. Natalie Portman’s Boleyn is asked about how she will stay on the horse by herself and she states that she will do as he does, “with my thighs.” This leads to her out riding the guys and causing an accident that gets Henry hurt. I laughed so damn hard at this scene, for so many reasons.
    As for actually cute scenes, I still enjoy the horse riding scene with Mr. Tilney and Catherine in Northanger Abbey.

    Reply
  21. Jen

    Dirty cities I can accept, but not dirty people. We have evidence of people cleaning their bodies all the way back to Ye Ancient Times. There’s no reason to think that we ever stopped doing that, even if methods varied by climate and culture.

    One thing that I miss in all of these movies is imperfect people. Where are the crooked teeth? The pox scars? The blisters, pustules, and non-comedic warts? Why no horrific infections leading to amputations? That’s the realism I want, because I think skipping it gives too rosy a picture of life before the germ theory of disease.

    Reply
  22. Ashlie Harrison

    I literally used to know someone who cut his grass with scissors. When I was a kid we lived next door to an elderly unmarried brother and sister pair and he used to do exactly that. He was one of those pathological tightwads who never spent a cent if he could help it and refused to do as little buy a diabetic chocolate bar for his sister despite the fact that she was the one who kept the house and did all the cooking and cleaning and only had a small pension of her own to live on. Then he died and we all found out he had hundreds of thousands in savings he never spent. Fortunately his entire estate went to his sister who sensibly spent it on herself rather than the nieces ans nephews who showed up out of nowhere suddenly remembering how much they liked her.

    Reply
  23. Lily Lotus Rose

    In addition to what you mentioned in the blog, I’m annoyed by: bad teeth on the villains and contemporary haircuts on the men.

    Reply
  24. Brenda

    Any time directors or screenwriters impose modern day values on historical characters, it annoys me. Corsets are unimaginably torturous to modern women who live in yoga pants, and actresses who need to wear them are understandably uncomfortable. But historically, women started wearing them young enough that they grew used to them, and their bodies became shaped accordingly. It was probably not comfortable to over-tighten them for “special events”, but wearing a corset was also not the prison modern women imagine it to be.

    Reply
  25. Charity

    Don’t they use the “spunky girl riding a horse” trope in Far From the Madding Crowd? She’s rebellious because she rides astride?

    Jamaica Inn sucked so you are missing nothing by not watching it. The actor who played her evil uncle is the same dude who mumbled his way through The Borgias as the assassin, rendering more than half his dialogue totally unintelligible.

    Reply
  26. Nzie

    The only one of these I hadn’t encountered is the grass cutting. I can see how these happen, as it’s challenging to get into how things would’ve been viewed in a previous time, and these sorts of things work as useful (often visual) shorthand for modern audiences. But it does get super annoying. Especially with corsets–oh no, bust support, how awful? And I’m guessing the rate of women using “waist training” (basically neo-corsetry) is at least a bit higher in hollywood/movie circles than elsewhere.

    Reply
  27. CatnipTARDIS

    I suspect the horse riding trope started with the “spunky” gal riding astride instead of sidesaddle, something that wouldn’t have been done if for no other reason than her clothes would have had to be hiked up to her thighs. Depending on the period, her corset might have restricted her thighs from spreading wide enough, too. So she’s not wearing underwear and the whole town can see halfway up her thighs. Who knows what that kind of close contact might be doing to her virginity or fertility—gasp!

    It seem like now the trope has expanded so much it doesn’t matter whether she’s astride, sidesaddle, or just carriage driving herself. She probably lost all her hairpins while living the fast life, too.

    (I won’t even get into the training and muscle toning required for cantering and galloping (the two fastest gaits), trick riding, and jumping.)

    Reply

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