Catherine Called Birdy

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Catherine Called Birdy (2022) is an adaptation of a much-beloved Young Adult novel. Set in the 13th century (the book specifies it’s 1290 Lincolnshire), it tells the story of Catherine, nicknamed Birdy (Bella Ramsey: Becoming Elizabeth, Game of Thrones), who is a spunky and thoughtful 14-year-old girl living with her well-to-do family in a small village in England. Her ne’er-do-well father (Andrew Scott) wants to marry her off, and Birdy is just plain not ready; meanwhile her mother (Billie Piper) is pregnant after having lost multiple babies. Catherine has to navigate all of this while trying to stay true to herself, and I was impressed that they managed to keep the film vaguely medieval (nobody does anything TOO anachronistic) and resolve the story in a way that remains true to Birdy but also the period. Overall, I highly recommend it for a sweet story, although I wouldn’t go into it hoping for historically accurate costumes.

The costumes were designed by Julian Day (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Rebecca, Robin Hood, In the Heart of the Sea), and he purposefully played with the designs:

“As a kid, I remember watching Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and that is the least frumpy, least dour. I know it’s a spectacle, but it was bright, it was brash, it was fantastic. So my recollection of medieval is completely different. I think there’s this perception that everyone was perpetually covered in mud and dirt. But when I met Lena Dunham, looking at the dialogue and the focus of the film, I thought why would I want to do something that looks dour and boring? Why not do something that’s going to appeal to a modern generation?

So in some ways I wanted it to look like Coachella, or Glastonbury, or something that was fun and interesting and was appealing to a broad spectrum of the audience. But when you look at Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons and all of these Japanese designers, for instance, they’re still using these same shapes. So when anybody asks, ‘why does it look so contemporary?,’ in reality it’s all based on medieval shapes. The silhouettes are exactly the same. I stuck authentically to the same silhouette and I used colors that were authentic to the period, but I gave it a sparkle, a spice, and something that people could understand” (Costume Designers Guild 892).

Which I’m glad to read, because I don’t know a lot about medieval dress, but I spent the whole film thinking, “Wait, that can’t be period, right?” So I’m pinging Sarah for her commentary — she hasn’t watched the film, but she can at least weigh in on what she sees here!

Sarah: Oh, god, they want it to look like Glastonbury and Coachella? I’m bracing for impact.

Let’s start with a quick run-down on actual dress of the period for comparison:

 

13th-Century English Dress

According to A Medieval Noblewoman’s Guide to Dressing Up,

“There were three main pieces: a tunic, surcoat, and mantle. The tunic, basically a long plain shirt, was worn by both men and women. A woman’s tunic was longer than a man’s and had slightly narrower sleeves… On top of the tunic both men and women wore a surcoat, which was shorter and looser than the tunic and added an additional layer of warmth. Surcoats were often lined with fur and could be made with or without sleeves. On top of that, people wore a mantle, which was like a cloak or a cape. Older women wore veils and wimples that completely covered their hair and necks both indoors and outdoors. Married women would also cover their hair with veils and young girls wore their hair loose and uncovered.”

Jeanne de Bourgogne and Jean de Vignay, 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we’ve got a surcoat with long hanging sleeves and a veil | Jeanne de Bourgogne and Jean de Vignay, 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons.

Illuminations from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1240-1250.

Various loose tunics with fitted sleeves and tied belts | Illuminations from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1240-1250.

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean le Meung, Detail of a miniature of Delilah cutting Samson's hair, Roman de la Rose, France, c. 1380, British Library

Delilah cuts Samson’s hair. She’s got a short-sleeved surcoat with hanging tippets (the long faux-sleeve hanging behind her elbow); he’s got a shorter tunic with buttons on the forearms | Guillaume de Lorris and Jean le Meung, Detail of a miniature of Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, Roman de la Rose, France, c. 1380, British Library

Codex Manesse, 1305-1340

Loose tunics with square necks. Everyone’s got long, curled hair, although the woman also has a hat or crown with a barbette under her chin | Codex Manesse, 1305-1340

Manesse Codex, c. 1300-1340.

Her surcoat is sleeveless and very full; he’s got a cloak and hat with ties | Manesse Codex, c. 1300-1340.

 

Costumes in Catherine Called Birdy

According to director Lena Dunham,

“So much of the time, when you see Medieval, it’s drab brown because that’s how those images have aged to us. They had a very playful relationship to colour, fabrics were being imported, and it was an incredible era for fashion. We wanted it to feel stylised without being a caricature, and I love that he was able to capture certain things. In modern times, Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) would be wearing the cute coordinated top and skirt and Birdy would be wearing Converse, cargo pants or whatever (Lena Dunham: ‘It was like we were all getting PhDs in Medieval history’).”

Birdy’s “relatable” wardrobe consists of:

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Printed cotton or linen tunics in what looks like reasonable colors and patterns.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

This tunic, on the other hand, seems like it’s tie-dyed? Which seems weird. Sarah: I actually like the shape of this one. It’s not overly fitted, which is more of a 14th-century thing. The 13th century is probably about as boring as it gets for Medieval Europe; it’s very unisex and one-size-fits-all.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Her tunics look like a good cut without princess seams or darts.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

At one point she decides to play the proper lady, and she gets this be-grommetted and potentially-unnecessary-lacing green dress. She also manages to get the front of her hair up in Princess Leia braided buns, although the back is still down. Sarah: Definitely unnecessary, and not historical lacing on the sleeves, but the side lacing is at least in keeping with the development of the sideless surcoat during this same era. Though not with metal grommets…

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Sometimes the colors and patterns seem TOO MUCH, like this, which makes me think of a Russian sarafan. Also, braided headnecklace? Sarah: I don’t mind the circlet, which is what it is (and could have been a whole lot worse), but wtf is going on with the patterns of this dress??? Did Spoonflower have a sale for “ye olde timey” fabric?

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

I liked the concept of this open surcoat. Sarah: I’ll allow it, even if the fabric reads very 1990s southwest theme couch upholstery…

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Sarah: I like the under dress a lot. Good color, good shape for the late 13th century. I wouldn’t snark this if I saw it at a reenactment.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

This fur-lined coat was… interesting. Part of me wants to discount textiles like this as being too Eastern European, but sadly I don’t know enough to judge. Sarah: Yeah, in fact, I’m pretty sure I know the Etsy seller that sells these types of Afghani coats, which are totally gorgeous but not at all something someone in 1290s England would wear. 

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

I liked that garments like this were clearly made using rectangular construction. On the other hand, what’s with the rag hat and braid? Sarah: This is likely vintage folkwear from an Eastern European country, but I don’t know enough to be more specific. Looks cool, though.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

This ensemble is supposed to capture Birdy at a moment when she’s feeling free, and it works perfectly in terms of design. On the other hand, it seems TOO loose and boho for the period. Sarah: Ah, now we are just using salwar as tunics! Cool, cool, cool.  

Birdy’s mom is supposed to be very nouveau-riche. According to Andrew Scott,

“[She] is doing her own chic Louis Vuitton thing because they’re [mom & dad] the equivalent of an upper-middle-class family in a suburb desperate to show off their wealth” (Catherine Called Birdy is Prime Video’s Upcoming Coming-of-Age Film Set in Medieval England).

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Some of her outfits I REALLY liked. Layers — surcoats over tunics! Veils! Sarah: YES, LAYERS. LAYERS ARE GOOD.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

At first glance I had a similar reaction this, until I noticed the forearm grommets.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

She’s very pregnant here, but that doesn’t excuse this pink ruffled nightmare of a surcoat. Sarah: WHAT THE ACTUAL F-WORD.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

I mean, her hair is up and she’s wearing a veil? Which no one ever does in medieval films! Sarah: I guess the bar is really low for us, isn’t it?

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

I leave it to Sarah to decide if that floral is weird or not. Sarah: Floral is definitely weird, but overall, doesn’t look nearly as jarring as that ruffled fabric surcoat up above. 

Morwenna, Birdy’s nurse, had what looked like the most historically accurate wardrobe of anyone:

 

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A post shared by julian Day (@palecriminal)

^^ Veils and wimples oh my! ^^

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Except in some scenes, she had too much eye makeup on.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

AND WHY DOES SHE HAVE BANGS THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Sophie Okonedo as Ethelfritha Rose Splinter of Devon is supposed to be woo-woo and nutty; her wardrobe was the most anachronistic.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Weird beaded neck at her wedding (later she’s shown wearing burnout velvet underneath). Sarah: Very cool collar. Not at all historically accurate, but very very cool.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Her just-woke-up robe is pretty!

Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo, is definitely eyecatching. Director Dunham said, “Andrew Scott’s character is in the equivalent of Gucci on Gucci on Gucci” (Lena Dunham: ‘It was like we were all getting PhDs in Medieval history’); while Scott himself said, “Lord Rollo would be wearing Gucci now if he could. He [Lord Rollo] likes to spend money, he’s interested in art. He’s just one of those straight men” (Catherine Called Birdy is Prime Video’s Upcoming Coming-of-Age Film Set in Medieval England). Scott elaborated,

“Julian Day, our costume designer, really wanted to make them feel modern, and that’s the way I wanted it, too. I wanted the father to have a sort of louche feel about him, to even have a slightly androgynous vibe. That’s why he wore a lot of jewelry and a lot of silk, rather than in the book, where, again, he’s a much more brutal, beer-swilling, armor-wearing guy. I wanted to break out of what could potentially, on film, just look like a gender stereotype, and make him a little bit more nuanced” (Andrew Scott Is Happy to Follow a Woman’s Lead).

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Lord Rollo spends a LOT of time in this dressing gown, which is a great cut, but the print seems super early-20th century? Sarah: Yeah, that’s a weird fabric choice. Looks like a modern banyan.

2022 Catherine Called Birdy
2022 Catherine Called Birdy

I felt like Rollo was WAY TOO BARE-CHESTED for daytime, louche or not. Sarah: Um … Gross.

Uncle George was decently dressed:

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Although yet more metal grommets. Sarah: FINE. METAL GROMMETS. WHATEVER. *tosses hands in the air*

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Sarah: The eff is he doing with that sword??? And what does this movie have against finishing any hems???

Russell Brand has a bit part as a wealthy man:

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Seems reasonable! And hey, he’s wearing a hat!

One of Birdy’s suitors had what looked like the most accurately-cut surcoat:

2022 Catherine Called Birdy

Or maybe I’ve just seen this at too many SCA events? Sarah: No fucking comment.

 

 

What did you think of Catherine Called Birdy and it’s costumes?

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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.

32 Responses

  1. susan

    “Upper middle class”? Some of those fabrics and trims (the accurate and inaccurate both) seem way too luxurious and tricky to make for the time for merely upper middle class.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      What middle class there was lived in towns and were Master Craftsmen. I assume Birdie’s family is minor gentry, and herhaps struggling to maintain that position. Or alternatively, and more interestingly, they’re jumped up yeoman like the early Pastons determined to be accepted as gentry.

      Reply
  2. florenceandtheai

    I’m excited! I loved the book (fueled my fascination for all things vaguely “medieval-ish” or Renaissance). When it was first previewed earlier this year I mentioned it was nice seeing hair up. I got dragged for not recognizing Jacobean interiors. Still not sure how those are related. Either way, thanks for the overview! It’s added to my list.

    Reply
  3. Saraquill

    I’m glad it’s not a complete train wreck hair and costume wise. Still avoiding the movie as I love the book too much, found the trailer off putting, and I don’t trust Lena Dunham.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Looks like fun, although I don’t trust Dunham either, and Andrew Scott is sporting the least medieval hair ever–worse than a mullet, even worse than the future Henry VIII in whatever that Philippa Fucking Gregory Starz spawn was. Some of the surcoats are pretty good, though. I enjoy 13th-century dress because if you just added jeans and running shoes, it would look like the present-day west coast.

      Reply
  4. Susan

    I’m on the fence about the movie. I wasn’t impressed with the trailer and I LOVED THE BOOK. I might stream it if I’m sick or wait for the DVD. it is not going, in if you watch Jill Bearup, in the JUST STAB ME NOW category.

    Reply
  5. Theresa Chedoen

    Ten minutes in, perky little Birdy complains about having to learn how to spin on a drop spindle, thus letting us know that she’s too cool to bother learning “girl stuff.” Never mind that spindle spinning involves math and engineering, not to mention spindles are heavy and make a dandy weapon in a pinch. That’s where they lost me. I turned it off.

    Reply
    • Guest

      Girls are allowed to not want to do traditional female arts, and they are allowed to feel it unfair that they’re expected to do it just because of their gender.
      I keep seeing this complaint about young female characters (especially when they’re GNC girls) who don’t enjoy embroidery, sewing, weaving etc etc.

      Girls, even fictional girls, are allowed to dislike activities. Especially activities they did not choose for themselves.

      -Someone who loves sewing and embroidery

      Reply
      • Roxana

        Birdie can certainly dislike textile work but she should do it and do it well because it wasn’t a casual passtime but a vital economic activity. And she certainly wouldn’t be learning it this late.

        Reply
        • Rochelle

          That’s what occurs to me: there’s no way a fourteen-year-old would be only now learning to use a spindle. Any eight-year-old would have already been enlisted to work, like it or no.

          Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          She’s higher status so it’s not vital work for her (her adult role would be lady of the manor, running the house & managing servants; she wouldn’t be a sheep herder’s wife). Spinning is a useful & expected activity for her, yes. But it’s not essential & for her, it would be more of an appropriate feminine pastime.

          Watching the scene, I got the impression this was yet another failed attempt at teaching her traditional female activities that she did not want to learn — again, that’s the point in the story.

          Reply
          • Roxana

            But she’d have to know how to spin, weave and the rest because she’d be expected to supervise the household women and teach the skills to young servants and her own daughters. I’m very much afraid a refusal to learn proper ladylike accomplishments would result in a beating in those days.

            Reply
            • Trystan L. Bass

              And she doesn’t want to do any of that — that’s the whole point. This character does not want to do the expected female tasks. Also, it’s established in the movie that her mother is indulgent, & her father is wishy-washy in how he treats her. The father does smack her around & try to lock her up when she acts out against the idea of an arranged marriage. But he also rescues her from marriage in the end. It’s a fictional story, after all, it’s not a historical documentary.

              Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      It’s silly to suggest a 13th-c. girl would get that kind of introduction to learning to use a drop spindle — she’d be taught to use it spin wool into yarn, because that’s a practical task for women of the period to work at & contribute to their homes. Obviously, the point of the scene was to show that Birdy doesn’t want to do what women of her time, place, & station are supposed to do. Adding your modern reasons to enjoy it wouldn’t make sense. (FWIW, I hated trying drop spindle too. It was annoying as hell, & I say this as someone who’s been sewing since before age 10.)

      Reply
  6. Lily Rose

    I dunno. I really DIDN’T like the movie, in particular the changes to the story. But putting that aside — I still have two issues. One is with your source above that says that young girls “wore their hair loose and uncovered.” I’m sorry, have you EVER tried to comb the long hair of a 5 year old who has been playing outside all day? I realize that it’s a movie trope that these characters can have their long hair floating free all day long without consequences, but real life ain’t like that for most of us. I have waist length (formerly hip length) straight hair, and believe me, it is loose and flowing almost never. I learned to braid my own hair starting about 7 years old so that my mother would not have to comb it out.

    My other problem is that in the 12th century — before spinning wheels — spinning is not really a hobby or even a vocation — it’s a basic life skill. It’s like saying that you don’t like shopping and cooking because they’re coded female. Sure, some people are better at it, make a career of it, etc., and other people never really get good at it (which IIRC was how it was in the book) but it’s not an optional activity for most women and I suspect not a few men. I worked as a docent on a living history farm, and the one thing that was absolutely BURNED into my brain is HOW MUCH TIME it takes to turn sheep into clothing. Everybody has to participate all the time if anybody’s gonna have clothes. Children can learn to spin starting between 5 and 7 years old, and probably have an easier time of it than us adults.

    (And although I can spin on a supported (Navajo or Pueblo) spindle, I have never mastered the drop spindle, it’s a bear.)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      What y’all seem to be forgetting is that Birdy wasn’t a farm worker’s daughter — she’s the daughter of titled landowners. Spinning wool would not be an essential activity for her. It’s an appropriate feminine activity, yes. But not essential to her expected adult life.

      Reply
      • Lily Rose

        I guess to me it depends, some, on just how well off her parents are, and where they are. Some landowners were pretty poor. But yes, Birdy is very unlikely to become a professional spinster in any case! But on the other hand, it’s a basic skill, sort of like how we think about reading or math or even using a dishwasher. Even if your adult life doesn’t require it, or doesn’t require it on a professional level, you’re expected to know how to do it. If her family is indeed wealthy enough to enable her to avoid this basic skill, then she would have servants etc., and need to know how to do it well enough to teach and supervise others. Mainly, I guess, I wanted to point out that spinning (and the related crafts) are essential in that world, much much more common and necessary than we usually quite realize.

        Reply
        • Trystan L. Bass

          If the film had showed her sewing, the argument would fit better that ‘this is a basic life skill’ bec. yes, women at all levels of society knew how to sew to some degree & tended to do so on a regular basis throughout their lives, whether it was for maintenance, profit, or to pass the time. Sewing would be equivalent to how we think of reading, math, or using a dishwasher. But spinning wool is a secondary skill that’s essential to some but not all, like today doing math w/out a calculator, you could say.

          Reply
          • SmallCatharine

            Lily Rose is correct here, because this movie is set just before the (hand-turned) spinning wheel became universal in Europe – it had definitely arrived in France by 1280, but it would still take decades to become widespread in interconnected places like Lincolnshire.

            All girls had to learn how to spin to be able to determine whether spinning was done well, right up to (future) queens. Legends about Queen Bertha of Swabia, the spinnig queen, were enthousiastically repeated all over Europe. Even for the highest levels of the aristocracy, there was thus considerable pressure to spin.

            Birdy’s family is much lower ranked and poorer – they simply would not be able to afford a daughter who did not spin. Even more so, because they are connected to the wool trade in the books. Before the spinning wheel, a basic wardrobe for a family of 5 or 6 would cost two thousand hours of spinning. (Calculations can be found on Unmitigated Pedantry blog)

            In short, refusing to learn to spin should be treated like refusing to learn to read in a modern setting – i.e. a ridiculous and unacceptable tantrum. Of course, having children tantrum is realistic, but the adult response is not realistic. It should go something like “you enjoy sleeping under a blanket in winter, don’t you? then you like spinning and must do your share of the work”.

            Reply
            • Lily Rose

              Oooh, SmallCatharine, thank you for the pointer to Unmitigated Pedantry! That looks like a fabulous resource!!!

              Reply
  7. Roxana

    13th century dress was shapeless, as you can see from the contemporary images but brightly colored and layered for contrast. A young girl would braid her hair for convenience not just let it flow. If Birdie is old enough to be married she’d probably be wearing a fillet and barb to signal the fact. Marrying their daughter well would be a major preoccupation of her parents.

    Reply
  8. Morgan

    As a millennial who somehow missed the book in my historical fiction canon growing up and hasn’t cared for any of Dunham’s other work… I really enjoyed this. Sure, the boho chic choices were somewhat distracting, but I found the performances of everyone involved to be engaging and quite touching too. Oops?

    Reply
  9. The Scrivener

    I adored this book when I was a kid (had a total crush on Uncle George, too!) but I think I’m going to pass on this adaptation. It looks way too 1970s for me.

    Reply
  10. ScreenFashions

    Oh boy, this movie was a mess. Anyone expecting anything remotely resembling the book will be sorely disappointed. Which sucks because there’s a lot of things that don’t make sense in the movie because they’re properly explained and/or part of a discarded plot from the book. Like the spinning thing. In the book Birdy doesn’t LIKE to spin, but does know HOW to spin.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the anachronistic period bloomers. (Or whatever they called them in the movie.)

    Reply
  11. Rachel

    Ok, but can I at least give the film props for EVERYONE WEARING CHEMISES LIKE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO?? Like, all the other critiques are valid, but OMG it’s so nice to see all of the chemises with Catherine’s costumes!

    Reply
    • Lily Rose

      You know, I think I may have subconsciously accepted the costumes as “pretty good for a movie” ENTIRELY because of the chemises. And it’s true, they wear chemises — and nobody tried to retrofit corsets into the story (or the period)!

      Reply
  12. Bess

    I haven’t read the book, nor seen the film (and probably won’t).

    I just wish we could have a film/TV series which shows a female protagonist showing the “female centric” skill set as a matter of course AND still being independent of mind (within the time frame).

    There are SO MANY women through time who were doing things “outside of” what they were supposedly expected to do/be but ALSO would have done the things that were actually life skills – regardless of status.

    I agree with Trystan that Catherine’s status (daughter of a Lord) is unlikely to have been learning how to spin on a drop spindle. She would have been learning how to do basic sewing and moving on to advanced sewing.

    Later than the 13th century, we have Princess Elizabeth (later QEI) sewing her little baby brother’s shirts when she is around 4 years old. And yet, that young girl, as she grows, has a razor sharp mind, does archery, dancing till everyone else drops, riding, is a strategist, thinker, orator etc etc.

    Just be nice to have a female being strong, amazing, an inspiration without taking her so far out of what she would have experienced in the time setting she would be in.

    Anyhoo… Love Sarah’s comments by the photos. Just brilliant.

    Love the 1970s boho look of Catherine and her mum – they look like time travellers!

    Reply

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