SNARK WEEK: Costumes in History Documentaries Are the Worst


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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.

The Middle Ages: Castles Under Siege (2017)

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)

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?

Witches: A Century of Murder (2015)

Yeah, I’m still judging. Witches: A Century of Murder (2015)

The Divided Union: The Story of the American Civil War (1987)

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!

Titanic (2011)

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)

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.

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001)

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.

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001)

However, you gotta see what Catherine of Aragon wears, because it’s truly, uh, unique. Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001)

World's Most Evil: Bloody Mary (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.

World's Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)

Yes, Mary Tudor wears ye olde button-down blouse and skirt for prayer. World’s Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)

The Folklorist (2012)

The Folklorist (2012) — Where shitty lace goes to die.

Mysteries at the Museum (2017)

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)

Mysteries at the Museum (2017) makes a go at King Gustav Adolphus of Sweden — I guess if you squint it works.

Mysteries at the Museum (2017)

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.

Inside the Tower of London: Crimes, Conspiracies, and Confessions (2001)

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.

Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)

This Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013) documentary is almost violently against putting anyone’s hair up. EVER.

Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)

Despite having historical evidence IN THE SHOW to the contrary. HELLO!!!  Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)

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)

Elizabeth I (2017)

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.

Elizabeth I (2017)

What’s with the braids? Elizabeth I (2017)


Shitty Wigs

If the hair isn’t hanging free, then they’re wearing the cheapest, plasticky, inaccurately colored, inaccurately shaped wigs possible.

Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014)

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)

Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014) — Yes, all the wigs in this documentary are that bad.

The Mystery of Matter: The Search for the Elements (2015)

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*

The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017)

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.

The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017)

Let’s sing the song of our terribly be-wigged people! The Secrets of Spanish Florida: A Secrets of the Dead Special (2017)

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?

The Sultan and the Saint (2016)

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.

Inside the Tower of London: Crimes, Conspiracies, and Confessions (2001)

Hiss, cobra head! Inside the Tower of London: Crimes, Conspiracies, and Confessions (2001)

Elizabeth: Killer Queen (2013)

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)

World's Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)

I’d cry too, if I was wearing a visor with a stuffed sock across my head. World’s Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)

World's Most Evil: Bloody Mary (2001)



A Potpourri of Bullshit

Something for everyone!

Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001)

The king flaunts his biker boots in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (2001).

Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014)

You knew there would be back-lacing 18th-century gowns lurking around in Women Who Made History: Catherine the Great (2014), right?

Mysteries at the Museum (2014)

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.



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51 Responses

  1. MoHub

    At last! The post I’ve been waiting for! And it hits just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a great effort. Mysteries at the Museum alone could generate a year’s worth of snark.

  2. Liesl

    I always imagine that there is one costume designer out there who dresses all of these documentaries. I think that designer’s give-a-shit is broken.

  3. MoHub

    What really gets me is that commercials with period setting often do a better job of authenticity than full-length programming. I still fondly remember the turn-of-the-20th-century setups in the old Virginia Slims ads.

  4. bshaurette

    So many things to be annoyed with here, but the only thing that makes me irrationally angry are the visible hoop rings! It’s so easy to not do that. Just throw on an underskirt! Augh! The humanity!!1!

  5. Susan Pola Staples

    Why do they remind me of bad Renfaire Costumes? The reenactor Civil War looks to be the best. Possibly bc they used reenactors.

  6. Adina

    The hood that parr wears in henry 8 is actually one of the weird sheer veil ones from wolf hall. I saw that when I watched it, and it bothered the crap outta me.

  7. picasso Manu

    It’s pouring outside and almost night at 4 pm, but you had me with poor Catherine flower nipples dress… And the Emperor VERY new clothes was the cherry on the snark cake!

      • Curdle

        And they’re not in quite the right place to be like, ehem, anatomically correct flower nipples..! Not that it would be better if they were…but…

  8. Nzie

    Oh wow. I thought Salem screwed up the 17th century, but at least it was deliberately off. This witch show… like, the ridiculous costumes we made up in my family to do a little thanksgiving play about the pilgrims were more accurate. And our pilgrim bonnets were paper.

    Also, Saint and Sultan, really??? OMG wow. STAHP.

  9. angharad

    The zipper made me laugh at the end. Thanks for cheering me up today!

  10. Andrew.

    I have to disagree with the shipping container snark. What I see in the photo is a half-timber building with closely-spaced vertical timbers on a masonry base. While not as iconic as half-timbering with diagonal bracing, this form of construction was particularly common in the 15th and 16th Cs in England. (I know. Buildings constructed out of shipping containers have become trendy in architecture circles and so are in the public eye.)

    • Lady Hermina De Pagan

      I’ve been in the SCA for 20 and LARPed before that. I’ve seen better starter garb.

      • Trystan L. Bass

        IDK, I’ve only played in the SCA for 10 years & I’ve seen things just like those recently, plus in photos from the West Kingdom archives. Cradle of Kingdoms, yo ;)

  11. KayHay

    The French Hood section gets an extra-special guffaw. Have they not eyes?! Are there not portraits?! That last one, tho’–incomparable! I swear, high school productions try harder. Also, THE ZIPPER!

    • MoHub

      Even my husband, who is not costume-aware, noticed the third-century BCE zipper.

  12. Adam Lid

    Wow…reminds me of some the cheeseball “documentaries” I had the misfortune to work on. I think I’ll go watch something on aliens or ice road truckers…

  13. Charity


    Oh, I forgot. Only Lucy Worsley did it right. =P

  14. Teresa

    The worst hair story I’ve ever heard about wasn’t even a dramatization. A marine archaeologist, during a lecture about a sunken ship in deep water off the coast of Turkey, told of how a cable network’s producer INSISTED that the female divers be filmed without their neoprene hoods, so that viewers could see their hair drifting in the current. You know how cold it would have been 100 feet down? So this bozo’s hair fetish made their work (the important part, right?) a lot more uncomfortable and possibly more dangerous as well.

  15. Shawna Spiteri

    Sides hurt from laughing! I love that someone merged a Gibson girl ‘do with a 18th C. man’s wig to create that brown monstrosity I’m officially dubbing “Ye Olde Elvis” for Secrets of Spanish Florida. All that’s missing is the sideburns and a peanut butter, bacon & banana sandwich.

  16. themodernmantuamaker

    I just watched the witch one the other day! I guess I really didn’t miss much by mostly not looking at the screen because I was sewing. And wowzers, there are a lot of much bigger gems here than that!

    And I can’t help thinking there’s some kind of comment in here about how people justify bad/inaccurate costuming in non-documentary movies/tv by saying they’re not documentaries – but the documentaries are even worse!

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Spot on — and why it kills me to watch documentaries with historical reenactments. It IS supposed to be accurate! It’s NOT just a movie, just fiction. No artistic license. Ugh.

  17. Kelly

    What is the last wig??? I don’t even understand what they were going for.

    Can I say I always loved the original Drunk History episodes for how much they half assed (quarter assed) the costumes and sets and then just used a really soft focus? Like, how many real documentaries try to hide those failings that way.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      That wig, I can’t even. It still hurts that I had to watch it (& the show was really good re: history, just the reenactment portions blew chunks). Now Drunk History, that’s my jam bec. they know they’re half-assing it with the costumes, it’s there in the title ;)

      • Kelly

        Maybe the character has had a REALLY rough night?

        But seriously how did multiple people involved look at that and go “looks good to me!”

        She would have looked better with her natural hair up, or an Amazon prime wig or something.

  18. Charles Thomas Johnston

    Forgive for a guy for butting in, but I have been looking forward to Snark Week for a while. Yea, keep it up!

  19. Karen K.

    Theodora’s sad prom dress made sorry for that poor actress. And the zipper! That was a really good laugh on a dark and dreary day, thank you!

  20. OcarinaSapph1r3 -24

    Oh, thank God I’ve only seen ‘Witches’ amongst this lot- I would have cried more than laughed, otherwise.
    I’ve legit had a melt-down watching ‘Roman Empire’ on Netflix- not all the actors are bad (I like my boy, Ditch Davey, he made an ok younger Caesar), but ugh it’s like they weren’t even trying- & not in the fun ‘Spartacus’ way of ‘not trying’, either (both seasons starred minor ‘Spartacus’ actors in the main roles, or some passable lookalikes in supporting roles)

  21. Luci

    Brilliant! Surprised Lucy Worsley’s documentaries haven’t yet featured with the costumes that have been fielded on those by the production team! Btw the Henry VIII documentary was 2016 not 2001. The extras with decent kit which you hardly see in it and in the Elizabeth one are reenactors I know :)