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We watch a ton of historical costume movies and TV here in FrockLandia, but we usually steer clear of reviewing documentaries. Because, with a few exceptions like those with our beloved Lucy Worsley, documentaries that feature reenactments of historical periods can have really atrociously terrible costumes. No matter how accurate the history is, those shitty costumes are super distracting when you’re like us.
But it’s Snark Week, so this is the time to indulge in the genre! Many history documentaries will get around a lack of decent costuming by using long shots, shadows, and soft focus to obscure that the actors are just wearing the cheapest rentals or Halloween-quality medieval gowns or 18th-century pirate coats. But the documentaries shown here dared to put actors in broad daylight or under full lights. Or I was so offended I screencapped it anyway and lightened up the image because, dayum, that’s some snark-worthy crap out there.
We Know It’s Low Budget, But Really
Not every documentary has the backing of PBS or the BBC. Plenty of them skate by on a few bucks and whichever three professors were free to talk that day.
If it weren’t made in Italy, I’d swear this truly awful The Middle Ages: Castles Under Siege (2017) was filmed at an SCA event 20-30 years ago.
Witches: A Century of Murder (2015) is one of the few documentaries that has shitty costumes but also has rather good, well-researched and well-presented history. So maybe don’t always judge a book by its cover? Just mostly?
Yeah, I’m still judging. Witches: A Century of Murder (2015)
From the few comments I found online about The Divided Union: The Story of the American Civil War (1987), this one DID use Civil War reenactors, and it totally shows! Watch on Amazon Prime, and find your friends!
This Russian production OBVIOUSLY is riffing on the big Hollywood movie of the same name, but Titanic (2011) has cheap effects and costumes from the Russian equivalent of Wal-Mart.
WTF Period Is This Even?
The talking heads in the show may be discussing events in a particular year, but the guy rustling up clothes for the actors doesn’t know that.
The Sultan and the Saint (2016) is an interesting documentary about Francis of Assisi and Sultan Al-Kamil. But the costumes have little to do with the 13th century.
There are approximately 538,521 documentaries on this topic, and I’m pretty sure Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001) doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The super random dress on wife #6 there isn’t helping.
However, you gotta see what Catherine of Aragon wears, because it’s truly, uh, unique. Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001)
A documentary titled World’s Most Evil (2001) with an episode on “Bloody Mary” is already suspect. This image that’s supposed to be Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary Tudor (walking in front of a shipping container?) doesn’t help.
Yes, Mary Tudor wears ye olde button-down blouse and skirt for prayer. World’s Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)
The Folklorist (2012) — Where shitty lace goes to die.
Mysteries at the Museum (2017) deserves a special place in hell for consistently pumping out bad historical recreations in every episode. I know they’re buying up all those “Victorian / Jane Austen / Renaissance / Steampunk / Lolita / Gothic / Wedding” dresses on eBay.
Mysteries at the Museum (2017) makes a go at King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden — I guess if you squint it works.
And Mysteries at the Museum (2017) gives Theodosia Burr (Aaron Burr’s daughter) a silly prom dress instead of anything remotely 1810s.
Not a Hairpin to Be Found
The Great Bobby Pin Shortage is felt keenly on these low-budget productions.
There are so many things wrong with Inside the Tower of London: Crimes, Conspiracies, and Confessions (2001). So I’m limiting it to this lame-ass presentation of Lady Jane Grey, who they apparently plucked from the admin pool 5 minutes earlier.
This Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013) documentary is almost violently against putting anyone’s hair up. EVER.
Despite having historical evidence IN THE SHOW to the contrary. HELLO!!! Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)
Amy Robsart is a pathetic enough figure in history, what with being ignored by her husband Robert Dudley and dying tragically. Don’t give her a sad modern hairstyle too. Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)
A new Elizabeth I (2017) documentary, but the same old problems! No hairpins! I’m also not impressed by these dresses — the fabrics aren’t all that period and the fit sucks.
What’s with the braids? Elizabeth I (2017)
If the hair isn’t hanging free, then they’re wearing the cheapest, plasticky, inaccurately colored, inaccurately shaped wigs possible.
I will stop fretting once that face-eating wig eats your face. Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014)
Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014) — Yes, all the wigs in this documentary are that bad.
The content of this PBS documentary, The Mystery of Matter: The Search for the Elements (2015), is excellent, and they clearly had a budget to splurge on a quality lace-front wig. But 1) they didn’t need to because they didn’t have them in the 18th century and seeing a hard line of the wig front was something of a status symbol for men, and 2) it shouldn’t be shiny white, that look came from powder. *sigh*
Another case of don’t judge the documentary by the costumes. The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017) is a fascinating look at early American history, but it’s topped by the absolute shittiest of wigs and lowest of low-budget costumes imaginable.
Let’s sing the song of our terribly be-wigged people! The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017)
I LITERALLY DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS ON HER HEAD, BUT IT WOULD MAKE ME DRINK TOO. The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017)
Competition for the World’s Worst French Hood
So many to choose from! Which sucks the most from these amazingly bad contenders?
This is just a standard shitty French hood, but it gets a special mention because The Sultan and the Saint (2016) is set in the 13th century, a solid 200 years before this headgear is appropriate.
Hiss, cobra head! Inside the Tower of London: Crimes, Conspiracies, and Confessions (2001)
What is this even? Looks more like a backwards baseball cap covered in brocade and flipped up, with a scarf tied around it. Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)
I’d cry too, if I was wearing a visor with a stuffed sock across my head. World’s Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)
YOU WIN. SHIT-TASTIC ON TOAST WITH GLITTER AND YOUR HAIR HANGING DOWN. World’s Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)
A Potpourri of Bullshit
Something for everyone!
The king flaunts his biker boots in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001).
You knew there would be back-lacing 18th-century gowns lurking around in Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014), right?
This is supposed to be Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, who Mysteries at the Museum (2014) discussed in relation to the famous terracotta army he commissioned. He’s less noted for his 209 BCE zippers.