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As the eldest on Frock Flicks’ staff, and creaking halfway through a century on this lil’ planet, I admit I’m personally peeved when historical costume movies and TV shows fall back on the trope of “old women must wear out-of-date fashions.” Is Miss Havisham to blame? C’mon, we’re not all pining over a lost love and wandering around in clothes from our faded youth! It’s a cliche, it’s trite, it’s dumb, it’s boring, it’s definitely ageist, and it’s a bit sexist.
There aren’t as many older men portrayed onscreen as wearing ridiculously out-dated clothes (trust me, I looked). The most you find are 18th-century powdered wigs that kept being being worn by certain professions past when the general populace wore them. The best example are the wigs worn by judges and barristers in British and Commonwealth courts. Those have ossified into a uniform.
But frock flicks aren’t as fond of showing old men in decades-out-of-fashion clothes as a plot point, it’s reserved for old ladies. Fie, I say! I shake my virtual cane at them! No more!
And before you say “my grandma wears outdated clothes!” yes, it happens, but that doesn’t mean it is now or ever was universal. Cliches can have an element of truth to them. People don’t like changes, and especially a radical fashion change can be hard to adapt to or outright rejected. But consider how this trope plays out today — every time the Rachel from Friends haircut tries to make a comeback, it doesn’t work. That’s a 1995 hairstyle, folks. A quarter-century out of date, and it’s the butt of jokes. Same thing with the looks here.
Here are some places the cliche annoyed me and how I think these frock flicks could have done it better!
Maria Thins in Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)
The most noticeable thing is that the mother-in-law character wears a large ruff but nobody else does. These big ruffs were fashionable in the Netherlands through the 1640s-50s, but this film is set in 1665, so she’s hanging on to a formerly fashionable style until the very end of the film.
Instead, Maria Thins could be wearing linen and lace collars like this:
Aunt Agatha in Poldark (2015-8)
Great character and one of the better costumes in the series, but she’s been wearing a sack-back gown for a decade or so two long. Kendra excused it in her initial review of the series, and I will admit that it’s not half as bad as some of the others here. But I’m still including it, so there!
Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton (2020)
I hesitate to include the queen because I love how she looked in the series. The costumes and wigs were spectacular and visually reinforced her unique and powerful status. If this cliche hadn’t been so overused, then this usage could stand out as a singular example of how to bend the rules for theatrical effect. But it gets diluted when everybody does it.
Besides, there were other historically accurate ways to set the queen and her court apart visually.
Lady Catherine de Bourg in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (1995) doesn’t resort to the cliche for Lady Catherine de Bourgh — she wears dark colors but the cut of her gowns are contemporary with that of the Bennets and the Bingleys. Yet the pig fiesta that was the Pride & Prejudice (2005) version put Judi Dench‘s Lady Catherine de Bourg in a 1770s-ish dress that’s earlier than the supposedly 1790s of everyone else.
Lady Catherine de Bourg in Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
Another Lady Catherine (played by Penelope Keith), dressed in 1780s, so 20 years out of date? Plus, her dress doesn’t fit, WTFrock?!?
Both of these productions are inventing stuff that Jane Austen didn’t have in mind. Lady Catherine is rich and snooty but not cluelessly old-fashioned. It’s a relatively new idea that she should be outdated — 19th-century editions of the novel showed Lady Catherine in clothes contemporary with Elizabeth Bennet.
This series had so many problems, but this one really irritated me. Lady Denham (Anne Reid) was a stock villain in shitty old dresses that didn’t fit (with bad hair too).
Attention, everyone costuming Regency dramas, not limited to but including Jane Austen! Here are some examples of what older women actually looked like in the 1800s-10s. Note the empire-waist gowns, filled-in necklines, and caps. Jazz it up with fancy fabrics and trims if the character is rich, but if these non-royal, relatively simple ladies can wear clothes of their times, so can fictional charaters!
Here’s one that doesn’t make sense AT ALL. The town of Cranford is chock filled with little old ladies, either spinsters or widows — the Jenkyns sisters, Matty (Judi Dench) and Deborah (Eileen Atkins), Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), etc. The series is set in the early 1840s, and these ladies dress in a mix of 1830s and early 1840s fashions. They frequently shop for new lace, ribbons, and whatever new bits the town’s haberdashery might have to add to their wardrobes as well. It’s only the younger generation characters who wear distinctly up-to-date 1840s clothes.
Yet the rich lady of town, Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis), is stuck in clothes that are about 50 years out of date. Why is this the only way to show she doesn’t like change? All the other little old ladies of Cranford are shown as conservative and not fond of changes either, and their clothes show a realistic incorporation of slightly older styles.
While Jenny Bevan‘s costume designs here, as always, are always fantastic, I do think Lady Ludlow could be dressed more updated and still show her ways are set in stone. How about having her just a decade off so she could wear more of the wacky 1830s styles, still posh, and also removed from everyone else.
Enchanted April (1991)
Pick out the stuffy old biddy! It’s not hard, she’s the only one stuck in the previous century’s fashion. Poor Joan Plowright :(
Somewhere in Time (1980)
The most egregious version of this cliche is when the 80ish-year-old version of this guy’s lover shows up in the 1970s wearing 1900s clothes. She hasn’t time-traveled, nope, she’s just aged. So y’know, she could have bought new clothes!
Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)
Now we’re getting to some real people, and sure there aren’t always photos and evidence of how they looked in their elder years, it’s also the 20th century, when fashion changes faster, clothes are mass-produced, and people will notice when someone (even, and maybe more when, someone super-rich) dresses wildly out of date! Having Olivia de Havilland play the Dowager Empress wearing elaborate Edwardian evening gowns in the ’20s is such an affectation.
I scrounged up one photo of the Dowager Empress in exile towards the end of her life, and I’m spotting a dropped-waist on that velvet dress, plus her coat looks like a 1920s cocoon shape.
Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt in Little Gloria … Happy at Last (1982)
Bette Davis, we love you! But this is the same deal as the last flick — why would the matriarch of the richest family in the U.S. be stuck so far behind the times? There’s conservative dress and then there’s eccentric dress, and unless a person is known for the later, this is just weird.
Alice Vanderbilt was very fashionable as a young woman, so it seems likely that she’d keep up with the times a smidge more than the TV biopic shows.
Downton Abbey (2010-2015, 2019)
Maggie Smith wore lovely 1930s gowns in Richard III (1995) and Gosford Park (2001), but the 1920s was a no-go when Downton got there over the course of six seasons (and a movie). OK, being old, sounding old, and therefore looking old is kind of the Dowager Countess‘ thing, so the costume works here from a design point of view. Still.
The contrast is obvious between the old-fashioned Countess and Cora’s nouveau riche American mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine). She’s allowed to wear 1920s fashions, which look great, btw!
Death on the Nile (1978)
Is Davis 100% fabulous here? YES. Do I want every part of her wardrobe? HELLS YEAH. But I am still compelled to point out that she’s wearing more Edwardian than 1930s. Like Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton, if the trope wasn’t overdone, I wouldn’t have to point it out.
Not half so fabulous, but more realistic, these older women in 1930s movies blend right in with their contemporaries.
Ladies of a certain age, does this cliche bug you too?