Should Designers Mess With Historical Costume?


We’ve gotten some feedback from some of our readers, especially those who work as costume designers, that we’re ignoring the fact that costume designers aren’t necessarily the ones who make decisions on whether or not to go with historical accuracy in costumes, and that their job is to tweak/adapt/create rather than reproduce. Commenter Allisa probably summed this up best when she wrote,

While every point you made is quite true, I must defend my fellow costume designers (myself included).

Firstly, not all costume decisions are left up to us. Producers (most often), directors & actors can take an odd view of how history “looked” and they make most decisions on what they feel will sell (I’m sure that doesn’t come as much of a shock). Rarely, if ever, is what is accurate important to those above the line (BBC seems to be a larger exception to that).

To that end, we are not costume reproducers -like those of you in the SCA and other reenactment clubs who labour beautifully over accuracy!- we are costume DESIGNERS, so we are hired to take what was and rework that to fit the aesthetic of the current day, the aesthetic of the people who are in charge, the aesthetic of the actors and actresses and roll it all up into one happy little ball. Sometimes the public notices our great discrepancies, most people however, do not. And, if we do it right, it’s best when the audience doesn’t even care.

So, let’s talk about this!

Who Makes the Decisions?

One thing we try to be very careful about around here (although we may slip up occasionally) is not to assume that the costume designer is calling all the shots about the overall costume design. The director sets the vision for any film/television production and is the person who works with lead individuals to decide what the film is trying to achieve — scriptwriters, costume designers, set designers, etc. And, of course, we’ve all heard the stories of producers and studios getting involved in the vision and either proactively, or during filming, influencing how a production is shaped. So costume designers are not all on their own in an ivory tower, doing exactly what and how they want.

Our post on Dangerous Beauty provides a great example of this. Director Marshall Herskovitz didn’t like the historically accurate designs for the courtesans, so he negotiated with costume designer Gabriella Pescucci to create something sexier and more fantastical that worked for his vision of the film:

Gabriella [Gabriella Pescucci, costume designer] and I debated extensively about the costumes. When I first saw the designs for the courtesan’s outfits, they were utterly boring and unsexy. In fact, they looked just liked the wives’ outfits, but in red instead of black. They were heavy wool dresses that came up to here [the neck]. I thought back to all these paintings from the Renaissance with half-naked courtesans in Grecian dresses. So, I said to Gabriella, “what about the Grecian dresses?” and she said, “Oh, no, those are mythological; they didn’t exist; the women never wore them in public.” Eventually, I had to force her to create a hybrid between what was in the paintings and what they actually would have worn. What she came up with was not historically accurate but was brilliant and beautiful. — Marshall Herskovitz, Directing Dangerous Beauty.

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

Dangerous Beauty‘s courtesan costumes were a compromise between the film’s director and costume designer.

We try to acknowledge this fact by talking about “the filmmakers” when we talk about decisions in costume design. We usually don’t know who was involved in making the decisions, and we need to be careful not to say who decided on what.

Again, looking at Dangerous Beauty, most people who know Renaissance fashion history think of that movie as shlock. But, as I wrote in my post,

[The] costumes… were designed by Gabriella Pescucci, an Italian designer known for The Name of the Rose, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Age of Innocence, Van Helsing, and Showtime’s The Borgias. So, clearly she’s got a big resume, and she knows her stuff. Just think of the gorgeousness and historical accuracy of The Age of Innocence, and you know we’re not dealing with a hack here.

1993 The Age of Innocence

Gorgeous and historically accurate costumes designed by Gabriella Pescucci for The Age of Innocence.

Should Historical Films Aim for Accuracy in Costume?

Some readers have taken our posts (particularly those from Snark Week) about X Things Movies Screw Up About Historical Costume (examples here and here and here) as meaning that we expect all historically-set movies to feature accurate costumes. Actually, that’s not the case!

What we’re trying to do in posts like those is to point out what’s incorrect for the edification and entertainment of our readers. I think all of us here at Frock Flicks will defend filmmakers’ right to tweak historical costume until the cows come home! And if you listen to our podcasts, you’ll hear some very nuanced discussions of this about specific films. However, your average movie viewer doesn’t know much about history, let alone the specifics of clothing. For those who enjoy history and/or historical costume, or want to learn more, we’re simply pointing out the deviations and mistakes. Hell, this blog and podcast would be hard to do without them!

I think the key thing we do champion, however, is this: Go ahead and tweak the historical costume. Dress everyone in neoprene and fairy wings. But do it WELL.

Angels & Insects went crazy with the insect theme in the costumes -- to fabulous effect.

Angels & Insects went crazy with the insect theme in the costumes — to fabulous effect.

In other words, have a vision that goes beyond, “We need to sex things up!” or “We can’t just show them in what they really wore, that’s unoriginal!” or “Most of the audience doesn’t care!” or “We don’t want to be boring/stuffy BBC/Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory!” Have a vision! WHY is Queen Elizabeth I wearing a scuba-diving suit? Go big or go home! Commit to your vision and see it executed as fabulously as you can!

Vanity Fair (2004)

Vanity Fair (2004) pumped up the Indian aspect of Regency costume to highlight the connection between Britain and India in this era.

Imagine watching your favorite rom-com: Katherine Heigl and George Clooney are high-powered lawyers on opposite sides of a dog custody case. They hate each other but realize that dogs are actually aliens, and they have to work together to save the earth from certain destruction in 24 hours, and they’re falling in love! They’re in court, bickering! They’re running around New York, defusing bombs! And they’re doing it all wearing pants with only one leg! Why? Well the filmmakers didn’t want to be boring and stuffy, and they thought more bare skin would sex things up!

Your new favorite romantic comedy.

Your new favorite romantic comedy.

That’s what seeing historical costume tweaked/reinterpreted BADLY feels like to us. Stop it. You’re giving us an eye twitch.

Important side note: The argument that “We put the historical characters into modern (1950s to present) haute couture to show you that these people were the crème de la crème of their society!” has been done. To death. Please, try to pick a new vision. I’m looking at you, Elizabeth: the Golden Age and Anna Karenina (2012).

2012 Anna Karenina


What About Budgets?!

Patricia points out,

We costumers with little to no budget, depend on the Casa collection and coupons for many of our stage costumes. We do the best we can with what we can afford. Many audiences don’t know the difference. Where would you suggest I find better fabrics that don’t cost a fortune to costume a cast of 40?

Good point, Patricia. Many film, TV, and theater productions are indeed made on limited budgets. The currently-in-production TV series Versailles is notable for spending 12% of its budget on set decoration and costumes. Many, many productions have to make do with a much smaller percentage, and a very tight number of dollars (or euros or pounds or whatever).

Again, this comes back to my point above: Studios and producers set the budgets. It’s up to them to decide whether or not it’s important to spend money on costumes. I think we here at Frock Flicks would argue that they SHOULD, but I doubt Stacey Snider, CEO of DreamWorks Studios, is currently reading this and taking copious notes.

So what do you do if you have a limited budget? You do the best you can! You decide where to get the most bang for your buck. Should you save money using cheap fabrics? Rent costumes? Put everyone in toga bedsheets? That’s up to you to decide! Personally, I’d say you either come up with some kind of “vision” that allows for a cheaper implementation (reset Richard III in the 1930s, because you can rent 1930s costumes cheaper than Renaissance), or try to evoke the period without going full bore (like Queen Margot did relatively successfully. Okay, yes, they probably still had a pretty big budget).

Richard III (1995)

Richard III (1995) goes 1930s.

The Audience Doesn’t Care

Okay, so we may be a niche audience. We fully admit this. We are history nerds who geek out on the minor specifics of historical costume. You put the actors in 3″ heels, but only 1″ were worn in the period? We probably notice. And yes, we are probably 1% of your viewers. So, ignore us if you want to! You’re always going to have critics, right? You’re never going to make everyone happy.

Or consider this. Most people who watch a historically-set movie or TV show do so because they are, on some level, interested in history. Maybe they like ye-oldey-timey things. Maybe they once read Wuthering Heights and think that old-fashioned dresses are pretty. Maybe they read really good reviews of your movie/TV series, and while they normally don’t go in for that sort of thing, they’re making an exception this time.

Most of these viewers would probably prefer some sense of history and/or attractive and/or interesting costumes. Sure, you can ditch those who would like a sense of the history if you want to, and just aim at those who want attractive and/or interesting. But I think you’re doing a disservice if you put Queen Elizabeth I in that scuba-diving suit without a good reason why. Because part of QEI’s life was wearing specific clothes. That’s how she experienced the world. That’s what the past looked like. And those of us who have some level of interest in history would like to see that on screen, to whatever degree your budget allows.

Wolf Hall (2015)

Wolf Hall is trying very hard to be as historically accurate as possible.

Amsfellow traveller notes,

I don’t sweat the inauthenticity of costumes in this movie [Queen Margot], because the costumes are so effective in communicating character. And they’re so beautiful and authentically rich and regal looking!

Also, the 19th-c novel that this movie is based on was already “fan fiction” about the 16th-century — Dumas in 1845 wasn’t trying to write accurate history, but to conjure up a bygone heroic era in French history when people followed their passions and “lived large” in defiance of the rules, when people were willing to kill or die for their desires and ambitions. He wasn’t limited by facts about the actual 16th century, but used that period and those historical figures as a sort of theater for his own ideas about “look how awesome we French used to be, compared with our pallid bureaucratic bourgeois lives now”.

[Which, arguably, is what historical fiction is always doing: DISCUSS]

And I think they are right. But I would also argue that most people reading those Philippa Gregory novels or watching Downton Abbey do so because they are, at least in part, interested in the past. History. How it used to be, back in the day. So while maybe there should be more room to maneuver when you’re working on a historical fiction story, rather than straight history, I would still say that people watching The Tudors knew they could get topless women and simulated sex scenes in any number of venues. I’m thinking they were there for the history.

The Tudors

The Tudors clearly had no such pretensions.

Call me crazy.


About the author



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. athene

    I happen to love costume design in all its crazy glory. My beef is that if you’re going to stray from authentic, own up. Don’t try to justify something that is totally in authentic by gyrating around to say it is. Beauty comes in all forms – accept the flights of fancy, but to quote our favorite HP Dark Wizard with a heart of gold, Severus Snape: Don’t. Lie.

  2. Lindsey

    My favorite example of a historical film that blends history and Design (capital D) is Shakespeare in Love. The script is both solidly based in history in a lot of the details (how the theatre worked in that period, using real figures from history, etc.) but is quite fanciful with the story line and the costumes directly reflect that. Some of dresses are shapes from the 1570s rather than the 1590s and nurse’s hat is definitely medieval, but these are all clear choices made from story purposes and the resulting costumes are PRETTY and consistent and make sense within the world of that particular movie. The same choices wouldn’t work at all in a straight-up biopic of Shakespeare. So so many of the bad costume movies are bad because the strange design choices are distracting rather than supporting the story. I think it’s totally okay not to be accurate if you have a good reason and your resulting choices support the story.

    I will teach my costume students this until the end of my days. May all of our costume movies better for it!

  3. Colleen Crosby

    I have probably seen more incorrect historical costume from watching media than correct historical costume from research, so I sometimes get an idea that something is correct in my head that just isn’t so. Since costuming isn’t my career, I don’t have time to research all the periods.

    I like having your site point out what is and isn’t correct, to give me a starting point in my mind. And I like to know what’s correct, so that I can decide whether I want to attempt to recreate something historical or to recreate something from a movie that I know isn’t historical, but I love!

    • Trystan

      Awww, thanks! Glad to know we’re helping :) And yeah, I like sometimes just doing a movie costume bec. it’s cool, even if it’s not historical — there’s nothing wrong with that too.

  4. kendravanc

    Absolutely! One can like a costume for many reasons, not just whether or not it’s historically accurate. And as we know, historically accurate ISN’T always attractive (see: 1820s).

  5. Christine Redding

    Another great discussion!

    Personally, I not only enjoy the history, I know something about it. I know more of it than of specifics of historical fashion trends, so I care more that the permutations of Henry VIII, for instance, have cast him as lean, mean, and dark J R Meyers, or the middle-aged Henry of Wolf Hall, red-haired, at least, but still very lean Damian Lewis. Henry VIII was a large man in youth, and huge beyond his middle age. It is fundamental to our historical recognition of him. Both these actors are great fun to watch, besides being talented and skilled. But neither comes close to an even slightly historic embodiment of the man! It may not matter so much, what some other historical figures may have looked like, but Henry was so imposing in every sense, it is ridiculous to cast someone so very not Henryesque!

    My point is the same, whether costuming, story or casting: it is no sin to maintain a few historical memories, to keep people aware of where we come from. That the audience “won’t know the difference” is a lame excuse for calling fantasy, history. Some costuming is creatively close enough to be not ridiculous, some… (coughReigncough) is fairyland.

    Well, okay, I woke up testy…

    I would love to hear what you have to say about Richard Lester’s 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Not history, but historical romance and with much buckling of swash… Or do you swash the buckler?

    • Sarah Lorraine

      “I would love to hear what you have to say about Richard Lester’s 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Not history, but historical romance and with much buckling of swash… Or do you swash the buckler?”

      I can’t speak for my comrades, but I for one LOVE the ’73 Musketeers (and the Four Musketeers). Ignoring Raquel Welch all together, because A) Constance is WEAK, and B) Welch had a different costumer for her wardrobe than the rest of the film, the costumes are straight up stunning. There was really something about the late-60s and early-70s in terms of keeping historical movies authentic as possible with the costuming and set design (though hair and makeup is always another story) and we just don’t see the same mindset as much these days.

      We will podcast The Three Musketeers at some point in the future, but I will say one of my all-time favorite movie costumes is the silk dressing gown M’lady wears while she knife fights D’Artagnan after sexytimes. I love that the train is so impractically long that she has to keep kicking it out of the way as she lunges at him and that it is totally based on this loose gown from the V&A. Also, the Queen’s outfits are superb. And Louis XIV’s outfits. And there’s that purple damask suit that Buckingham wears (I think it’s in the Four Musketeers) that had to have been based on this doublet of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

      So yeah, LOVE it. Except for Raquel Welch, but whatever, she dies, who cares.

  6. Isis

    So true! I don’t mind historical accuracy in movies as long as I feel there is a good reason for it. My favourite example is Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. The costume designer, Marik Vos, wrote a book about her costume design, which is a great read. It is set in the first decade the 20th century and she wanted the silouettes, the colours and the patterns to be right. However, she made the gowns a lot less decorated, optioning for a simplified design that would photgraphed well.

    She also worked hard to use colours that would compliment the action on stage, something that just doesn’t happen in real life. For example, in the scene where Fanny and Alexenader’s father dies their mother is wearing a dressing cool red tones:

    But on the happy last scenes the mother is wearing a warm red one:

    She had a big fight about it with Bergman because by mistake the warm red one hadn’t been test-filmed and Bergman didn’t want to use it and thought they could take the other one. But Vos insisted as she felt the scene would lose something if they used the other one.

    She also managed to make Jarl Kulle a bit plump without any fat suit, just by tailoring:

    • Kendra

      That’s super interesting! See, tweaking historical to suit the story? YES! Changing it for no real reason? NO!

  7. Adam Lid

    Believe it or not, audiences know more than we give them credit for and often times they WILL notice an omission or change. I fully appreciate the need for make changes for the sake of production design and/or advancing the story but sometimes there’s no excuse.

  8. LLC

    An outfit should match the character, place and time agreed upon by the director and the designer. Too many times actors “want to look pretty” when they are playing a gutter-snipe and interfere with the process. I have done shows with 2 actors, 130 actors; 4 to 2000 changes, budgets from 500 to 10,000.
    A budget tells you how to proceed, what compromises to make.
    We once did the MIKADO in “Sailor Moon” concept because at the last minute the Director changed it from a concert version to a full costumed show and we could not afford to rent or make 40 kimonos! The 3 little girls were in Hello Kitty sneakers and backpacks, sailor moon white school outfits, and the men were modern/slightly dated, diplomats, reporters, musician, etc. pulled from stock. It worked and we kept the costs down.
    Do not compromise with the concept once you decide.

  9. Veronica Rossi

    I love period dramas and when I watch them I want to be transported in some way to the past. The past is not always transmitted by the story itself (Love, war, death, etc happens in every momento in history.) but by the costumes and the locations. I always prefer authentic costume than those with a modern flare, like Anna Karenina. I liked the movie but would have loved no to see 1950’s in Anna Karenina or the crazy costumes in Marie Antoinette. I loved the costumes in The Duchess, Wolf Hall, Borgias and Downton Abbey.

  10. DJ V

    As some others have said, I don’t mind historical inaccuracy in period dramas if it’s for a good reason.

    What really bothers me is when the costumes are a mish mash of styles. I wish the film makers would either commit to a wildly creative approach or stick to historically accurate costumes.

    As I write this, I’m specifically thinking of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”, although other films are guilty of the same. While I loved the way Sofia used various devices to make the story more relevant to modern viewers, the costumes being a mix of reproductions of 18th century styles and pure modern fantasy (often in the same scenes) was really grating to me.