TBT: The Princess Bride (1987)

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Normally we don’t cover fantasy films here on Frock Flicks, largely because the “fantasy” element in costuming goes so far in the opposite direction from history that it is basically impossible to compare the two (i.e. Why we haven’t talked about Game of Thrones in any depth, so stop pestering us about it). However, every so often there is a film that is definitely a fantasy but is grounded in a particular time and place that either is historical or is closely based off of a historical period. One such film is The Princess Bride (1987).

I may, or may not, have read this book so many times I’ve lost count.

Adapted from William Goldman’s “abridged” novel, The Princess Bride tells the epic love story between the most beautiful woman in the world and her “poor, but perfect” farm boy. The film does a pretty good job of getting the main plot points, but the book… Oh, just read it. If nothing else, it will make the entire dueling scene atop the Cliffs of Insanity between Inigo and Westley make sense. That, alone, is a pretty good reason to read it.

And yes. It is a kissing book.

True story: 10-year old me actually asked my mom if it was a “kissing movie” when it first hit the theaters.

For those three of you who haven’t seen the film…

It takes place in the country of Florin, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a prototypical 15th-century European country. There are parallels to be drawn between Florin and its rival country across the channel, Guilder, with that of England and France during the period of inter-kingdom conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War, but one shouldn’t get hung up on the details. This is a fairy tale, after all. That said, there are no fairy godmothers (though there is a crotchety Miracle Man that sort of fits that role) and the only magic is True Love, which does, indeed, conquer all — even death. Even the terrifying Fire Swamp and its R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size) inhabitants are improbable, but not necessarily unrealistic. The evil in The Princess Bride is not cast in black magic, but in all-too-real human desires for power and domination.

We are going to skip the peasant outfits and focus on the flashy stuff, because that’s how we roll.

Costume designer Phyllis Dalton, whose screen credits include Lawrence of Arabia (1962) , Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1990) among a host of other extremely well-known and beloved historical films, took her cue from this slightly skewed realism and remained fairly faithful to the silhouette of the mid-15th-century fashion popular in France and England.

The first glimpse we have of the heroine Buttercup (Robin Wright) after she has been plucked from peasant obscurity to become the fiancée of the scheming Prince Humperdinck (a nice, sardonic twist on the rags-to-riches trope), she is in a flowing red houppelande. Her hair is down, but she is wearing a pearled cap (at least until she’s kidnapped and manages to lose it in the fray). We can debate until the cows come home as to how historically accurate having her hair down would be for a woman of her age/station — IIRC, she’s 18 when she goes to Florin City to marry Humperdinck, but allegedly a virgin, so the standard rule of young girls and unmarried young women of upper classes wearing one’s hair down can apply.

Buttercup’s iconic red gown, before it goes through hell and back for True Love.

Left: Portrait of Lysbeth van Duvenvoorde, anonymous, c. 1430; Right: Detail from “April”, Très Riches Heures, Limbourg brothers, c. 1412-1416.

Not to digress, but I’m 99.9% sure that Buttercup’s red houppe was worn by Amy Poehler in the 2013 Parks & Recreation episode “Recall Vote.”

Same cartridge pleating on the cuffs.

Detail showing the back lacing and the visible side back seam seam placement on both gowns.

Buttercup wears a few different high-waisted gowns that evoke a more Italianate feeling, such as her wedding gown, but then switches it up in the middle of the film with a fitted kirtle and tippets. The kirtle was a hold-over from the previous century that continued in various permutations right up until the first decades of the 16th century, so it’s plausibly placed within the loosely defined 15th-century-ish period of the film.

Buttercup’s wedding gown, flanked by the outfits for Inigo Montoya (left) and Westley’s Dread Pirate Roberts getup (right). Via Camknows.

This gown has a similar cut as her wedding gown, including the hanging split sleeves. She wears this dress twice in two different dream sequences.

One of the “fitted” kirtles. Obviously, this relies on the modern shaping of princess seams from the shoulder over the bust — so far as we know, this is not seen in any gowns before the 19th century. But you get the gist.

So freaking hard to find a clear image of this gown online, and it’s my favorite one of them all… But it’s the same pattern as the pink one above, with contrasting “tippets” sewn in at the bicep.

Another detail from “April” showing a fitted kirtle with tippets. Très Riches Heures, Limbourg brothers, c. 1412-1416.

So what of the menswear? Setting aside the roguish characters of Inigo Montoya, Fezzick, and Vizzini who all wear pretty generic tunics and trousers with knee high boots, and the all-black pirate ensemble Westley spends most of the film wearing, that leaves us with the two bad guys, Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Rugen (played by a disturbingly attractive Christopher Guest).

That crown just screams “DOUCHE BAG.”

I am a little ashamed that it took me well over a decade to realize this was Christopher Guest.

Like Buttercup’s costumes, both Humperdinck and Rugen’s outfits mostly adhere to the 1430s-1440s. Both wear knee-length houppelandes and knee-high boots. Historically, of course, the boots would only be worn for outdoor activities, but given that they are “men of action,” I’ll let it go this time. Also, both never wear appropriate headgear of any sort (unless it’s Humperdinck’s massive crown), but again, so very few films ever get this detail remotely correct that I’ve stopped giving a damn about it.

Portrait of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. After Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1440s.

Detail of Presentation of Hainaut Chronicles to Philip the Good, attr. Rogier van der Weyden, 1448.

Humperdinck wears a blue damask houppe that coordinates wtih Buttercup’s wedding gown. It’s a good color on him, honestly.

All told, the historical reference points are solid and fairly straight-forward, adhering to a definitive location (Western Europe) and time (mid-15th century). There are fantasy embellishments, but they are relatively innocuous and mainly serve to remind us that this is a fairy tale, after all. And honestly, The Princess Bride gets far more right than it gets wrong in terms of costuming, which makes it stand apart from other historical films.

So, kick back with a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and…

 

What do you think about the costumes in The Princess Bride? 

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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.

36 Responses

  1. wildemoose

    As both a Parks and Rec and Princess Bride fan, it gives me so much joy to know that Leslie Knope was wearing the actual dress from the movie.

    Reply
  2. MoHub

    When Princes Bride first came out, I was working—in custom picture framing—with a costume designer/nerd who had a designer/nerd fiancée. All three of us were in awe of the magnificent costumes in the film.

    In fact, they had both worked on costumes for an opera company in which I sang, and we had many discussions about the construction and accuracy of what went on the stage. Unfortunately, most of what we saw/wore was woefully wrong, so our discussions of the film’s costuming—as you might expect—involved a lot of envy and gushing.

    Reply
  3. Kathleen Norvell

    I just rewatched this and was blown away by the costumes. For a fantasy film, the costumers did a great job. I was especially impressed by the houppelandes. I mean, who does that? Even the costumes for The Hollow Crown weren’t as good.

    On the other hand, I believe this portrait of Agnes Sorel, mistress of Charles VII of France, as the Virgin Mary shows a princess seam on the front of her gown. It’s faint so you really have to look carefully.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Fouquet_Madonna.jpg

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Melun-diptychon-detail.gif

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Ugh. The Melun madonna is such a problem with the whole princess seam debate. It is *literally* the only true “princess seam” that shows up pre-19th century anywhere. (Let’s be clear: I do not consider the Greenland gowns to be princess seams and I will fight anyone who says differently to the death pain.) I don’t like using a single outlying instance as “proof” of a construction technique, especially when that one example is in a religious portrait.

      It’s also an ugly-ass painting. Fouquet was tripping on some bad shit.

      Reply
      • Alys Mackyntoich

        I don’t know what’s creepier about the painting: the dead-eyed sociopath of a baby Jesus or the fact that Fouquet apparently had never seen an actual human breast.

        Reply
        • themodernmantuamaker

          I often wonder if any of the painters of the past (great and not so great) ever paid attention to what a real breast looked like. I’m constantly bewildered by incredibly beautiful and masterfully executed works with weird-shaped or otherwise unrealistic portrayals of breasts, it can be (sadly) quite jarring and off-putting.

          Anyway, this seam is a tricky one, I’ve mused over it myself. As you say, Sarah, it seems to be the *only* one during this time period. But I wonder if it can be dismissed entirely just because it is, technically, a proper princess seam. The line and location are correct and it’s doing what a princess seam does – fit close to the body. This would seem to suggest that the technique was known and understood. Yet, with it being so singular, especially within the overall oeuvre of Northern Ren painting with it’s intense level of just such details, it seems obvious that it was not part of the repertoire for actual garment construction in that time/place. I have not answer for this, so maybe my comment is pointless, lol.

          Reply
          • Kathleen Norvell

            If you cut a gown to the “Greenland” gown pattern (not the packaged one, which is good, but copy the pieces of the real one), you get a line very much like a princess seam. I was surprised when I saw a reproduction someone had made (before the commercial pattern came out) and it was very princess seam-like. I think this is where the conventional SCA wisdom comes from about princess seams.

            Reply
            • Sarah Lorraine

              I am an SCAer, and I’ve got a bit of an ax to grind on this issue. The Greenland gowns look nothing like princess seams. Yes, they are seamed and flared like a princess seam gown is, but put all the pattern pieces flat and it’s a totally different shape. We modern reenactors tend to make the Greenland gowns way tighter than they were in reality as well, which gives the same effect as a princess seamed gown, but it’s historically inaccurate for that particular extant example.

              I lean more toward the “fitted kirtle” method put forth by Robin Netherton and perfected by Tasha Kelly and Charlotte Johnson of a rectangularly constructed garment that’s been fitted to the torso as closely as possible to achieve the look of a body-hugging flared dress.

              Reply
          • MoHub

            I had an Art professor who used to tell us if we wanted to reproduce a Michelangelo female nude, all we had to do was paint a male nude and add a half grapefruit to form each breast.

            Reply
  4. Liutgard

    I don’t like the back of the red houppelande- there’s no basis for that that I know of, and frankly, once you remove the belt, you can easily slip it on and off. No need for a laced back opening.

    Or am I being too picky?

    Reply
    • Kathleen Norvell

      NO, you’re not being picky. I forgot about that. There is no practical reason for lacings in a houppelande.

      Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        For a costume the lacings are actually pretty practical.

        Historically accurate? Nope. But it makes sense if you use modern construction techniques, which was what was done on all of the costumes in this film (princess seams, I’m looking at you).

        Reply
  5. Charity

    The blue gown is also my favorite. I literally gasped when I first saw it. As a child. And then I thought, “If I ever get married (doubt it) I want a wedding dress that looks something like one of these dresses!”

    Still waiting on the getting married thing, mostly because I don’t care; and I’ve cheated emotionally on Buttercup’s gown in my future wedding dreams, but… so pretty.

    Reply
  6. Susan Pola

    The Princess Bride is a favourite of mine. Besides the story, I did note that Humperdinck and Rugen were in houpplandes. So right for the best dress man in 1440-1470. Buttercup’s gowns were gorgeous.

    And who can forget:
    1) My name is Inigo Montoya.You killed my father. Prepare to die.
    2)…As you …wish…
    3) Mostly dead
    4) Have fun storming the castle
    5) You’d make a great Dread Pirate Roberts

    Reply
    • MoHub

      And my favorite, especially since I’m a retired copyeditor: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

      I even have the sweatshirt, which I wear as often as possible.

      Reply
  7. Lynn253

    Don’t feel bad about not recognizing Christopher Guest, I didn’t either. I think it was the 6th finger that threw me off.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I think there’s was such a strong association that Christopher Guest = Nigel Tufnel. It never occurred to me until after “Waiting For Guffman” that he’s a character actor. Of course he’s not stuck in any one “type”!

      Also, Rugen is HOT. Christopher Guest is just a nice looking guy. LOL

      Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Ditto! I skew to the last two decades of the 15th c. but I appreciate a good houppelande. Especially on guys. OH BABY.

      One of these days, I will make Francis a full-length Henry V-style houppe. Whenever I actually get my sewing give-a-fuck back from wherever it fucked off to…

      Reply
  8. LoGirLoo

    I adore Buttercup’s blue dress too. I wish that it showed up more in the movie; I was obsessed with it when I was a teenager.

    Reply
  9. themodernmantuamaker

    GAHHHHH!!!!! One of my most favouritest movies of all time!! I’ve always loved the costumes in this and watching it as an adult (I was 9/10 when it came out) and historical costume person I’ve always appreciated the pretty high level of historicity of it. The blue dress may be my favourite of Buttercup’s but I my favourite piece of hers is actually the least historical (lol) – the blue silk sleeveless robe she wears over her nightgown. I just love the visuals of her sweeping through the castle corridors in it and would love to do the same, haha!

    Count Rugen and Prince Humperdink’s houppes may be my overall favourite costumes of the movie, they are so well done! And love when Humperdink does his little twirls – whee!

    Reply
    • MoHub

      I love the book, but Goldman actually improved on the novel when he wrote the screenplay. I will always take screaming eels over sharks.

      Reply
  10. Maggie

    I was so so excited to see Amy Poehler in the red riding costume. It’s actually a repro, not the original from the movie, as far as I know. When I posted a pic of this on FB, someone identified the person that made the gown for the show. The commenter said “Lauren Matesic Bregman of Castle Corsetry” made the costume. https://www.facebook.com/costumersguide/photos/a.184352868295517.49920.176197025777768/628804533850346/?type=3&theater

    I was really impressed with their version because they did get the detail of the cartridge pleats and all that.

    Enjoyed the post! Thanks!

    Reply
  11. Karen K.

    My FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME. So nice to know that the costumes are mostly historically accurate.

    Reply
  12. Anne-Helen Wickizer

    Thank you so much for this…I am co-hosting a screening of the Princess Bride at my Community College as a board member of the Fashion Club, (the other club is the Martial Arts club) and I get to talk about the costumes and the accuracy of them. I have so much historical crap in my brain, most of it unfiled that I was lost as to where to even start looking. My mind palace is a mess, but, as always, FFs helped me out. You guys rock so hard!!

    Reply

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