SNARK WEEK: Unnecessary Lacing


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It’s not just back-lacing dresses that we have a problem with. We have issues with the really random lacing inserted into clothing in historical costume movies and TV shows. It’s endemic to medieval and renaissance costumes, presumably because people think, since they didn’t have zippers, how else could people get in and out of their clothes? Never mind the fact that functional buttons have been used in clothing since, what?, the 14th century — something else we’ve ranted about, but hey, let’s remind y’all here:

1360, Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Koln

1360, Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Cologne, Germany. Look at this knife-welding bad-ass wearing buttons!

Using pins as a closure was also super-common in the pre-zipper, pre-velcro eras, such as:

1470, The Birth of the Virgin by a Master of Munich

1470, The Birth of the Virgin by a Master of Munich — Pinned-on sleeves were totally a thing in the Middle Ages and renaissance. Pin-making was a huge industry. Google it.

But maybe a costume designer out there (or a director or someone else involved in the production; I’m happy to spread the blame around) is thinking that surely buttons and pins were, if not too far advanced technology, well that’s just too expensive for the stinking, slovenly poor folk running around in muck and mud in ye olden times in their show.

OK then, but that doesn’t mean poor folks would have GIANT FUCKING LACING OPENINGS using metal grommets (which haven’t been invented yet) laced up VERY LOOSELY and using fat, inept, useless laces that would be difficult to tie up modern shoes with. No, this is what folks would look like:

1494, Cutting the Stone by Hieronymus Bosch

1494, Cutting the Stone by Hieronymus Bosch — This old guy is doing so poorly he’s getting his head cut open. Yet his clothes are laced closed tightly using narrow little lacing through handmade eyelets.

1463, The Visitation by a Master in Cologne

1463, The Visitation by a Master in Cologne — On the left is the most you might see a woman’s gown unlaced in public, just a little accidental gap showing her brocade kirtle.

Now, in a few very specific times and places, multiple sections of lacing in a garment were used as a decorative element in fashion. But when you get to decoration, that’s going to be for high-status people. Such as…

1490, Herod's Banquet by Domenico Ghirlandaio

1490, Herod’s Banquet by Domenico Ghirlandaio — You see a lot of decorative sleeve lacing in late 15th- to early 16th-century Italian clothing, along with functional front-lacing gowns. Worn by people who could afford such luxuries.

1505-10, Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza by Bernhard Strigel

1505-10, Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza by Bernhard Strigel — 16th-century clothing of certain Germanic states used decorative sleeve lacing.

1560s, Portrait of a Lady by Jacopo Zucchi

1560s, Portrait of a Lady by Jacopo Zucchi — Laced-on sleeves, a renfaire favorite! But notice how tightly the sleeves fit to her gown. And those appear to be fancy gold buttons attaching the sleeves, not giant shoelaces either.

Lacing as a decorative element was a fairly limited thing, however, most popular in the very late 15th century and in the 16th century. Otherwise, lacing remained functional, such as for underwear.

1660-80 stays at the V&A Museum

1660-80 stays at the V&A Museum — Lookit the tidy, tight lacing in both the front and on the sleeves! So nicely fitted!

Because people, even in the past, weren’t stupid and didn’t want giant gaps in their clothing unless they were so idle rich that they could sit around somewhere, IDK, enjoying the breeze that created.

In case there are any movie-makers out there, let me list the ways to depict laced-up clothing in a historically accurate fashion:

  1. No metal grommets on outerwear before 20th century.
  2. Lace tightly, the goal is to close the garment up.
  3. If there is a gap in the lacing, no skin should show through, only undergarments.
  4. The cord used to lace should be thin and simple, not a chunky shoelace.
  5. Use the least number of lacings needed to actually close up the garment, unless the character is clearly wealthy enough to afford wholly decorative lacing.

Now let’s see how they get it wrong!

Robin Hood (1991)

Robin Hood (1991) — You thought your mullet could distract us from both metal grommets and unnecessary lacing, didn’t you Kevin? HAH.

Robin Hood (2006-9)

The TV series Robin Hood (2006-9) is a hot-bed of unnecessary lacing, in particular, the trope of “in the past, poor people couldn’t afford to sew, they could only lace together random pieces of material with leather strings.”

Robin Hood (2006-9)

Is the lacing for easy access? Robin Hood (2006-9)

Robin Hood (2006-9)

I nearly used up all my red arrows in this one scene. Robin Hood (2006-9)

La Commanderie (2010)

There is just no reason to have laced-on sleeves in a 14th-c. French gown like this. And doing a shitty job of it doesn’t help. La Commanderie (2010)

Black Death (2010)

Black Death (2010) — This lacing doesn’t even make sense.

The Vampire Diaries (2009)

The Vampire Diaries (2009) goes back in time to add multiple random pointless lacings on their garments, apparently.

Pillars of the Earth (2010)

No, Pillars of the Earth (2010), adding cutesy little metal findings doesn’t make this sleeve lacing right.

Pillars of the Earth (2010)

Newp. Not those either. Pillars of the Earth (2010)

World Without End (2012)

Yeah, the sequel, World Without End (2012), didn’t do any better. Why would anyone need a sleeve laced there?

Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011)

So this chick’s dress in Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011) seems OK at first…

Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011)

But WTF? Front lacing, side lacing, AND back lacing?!? Are you fucking kidding me?!? Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011)

Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011)

Apparently, every women in Isenhart: The Hunt Is on for Your Soul (2011) has the same or worse dress.

Die Rache der Wanderhure (2012)

Die Rache der Wanderhure (2012) — Oh c’mon, you’re not even trying here.

Knightfall (2017)

You might think Knightfall (2017) is going for 100% in with modern cold-shoulder gowns, but no, they throw in some random laces into the sleeves for that ye olde-time look.

The White Princess (2017)

The White Princess (2017) indulges in some unnecessary neck lacing.

The White Princess (2017)

Laced sleeves aren’t accurate for this period, plus it kind of looks like an angry mouth. The White Princess (2017)

The White Princess (2017)

Margaret Beaufort as a laced-up leather dominatrix in The White Princess (2017).

La Celestina (1996)

La Celestina (1996) tries for German, but is hanging by a thread.

Henry VIII (2003)

Henry VIII (2003) fails on so many counts, it’s almost unfair to nitpick the sleeve lacing (but remember, there’s no fairness in Snark Week).

Jamestown (2017)

Jamestown (2017) — No, you don’t get points for a shitty attempt at spiral lacing.

Outlander (2014)

Yeah, no, that’s not what a sleeved corset looked like in the 18th century. Outlander (2014)


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20 Responses

  1. Nzie

    It’s so ubiquitous that I feel like without historical costume blogs I would totally think laces were everywhere. But some of this is so outlandishly not of the period. I mean, I get the grommet rage, but it’s an understandable mistake, however wrong. But that Robin Hood pink number??? It makes literally zero sense and looks nothing like any image from that period, and not even most half-assed medieval costumes in movies. facepalm

  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Now, you know why I refer to Costner’s Robin as Robin Hood Dancing With Trees.
    The white poly dress in Henry VIII looks like a failed prom dress.
    I gave Outlander a pass when I first saw Geillis’ corset for the reason Geillis seemed to be trying to belive up to her witchy image and maybe she was trying to be more sexier in a ‘I’m too sexy for my…’ moment. Teehee

      • Susan Pola Staples

        Maybe they were trying for an early Ren Faire costume look? Or to make it easier to switch sleeves without the need of servants. Claire seemed like she was ill at ease with servants. Traipsing after Uncle Lamb was not conducive to servants and the use thereof.

    • Chriseda Howard

      I’m really surprised to see Outlander here, because Terry Dresbach is very proud and open about all of the historical research she’s done for the show, and about why she makes the costume choices that she does.

      • Trystan L. Bass

        Nobody’s perfect! And as Terry said in our interview with her (search the site), they’ll just as often do things for the story / practicality / because they didn’t know better than for historical accuracy.

  3. Kathleen Norvell

    I like to use lacing rings inside the garment edge for eyehole-less and grommet-less lacing. For well-done lacing, I like The Borgias. The women’s clothing is gorgeous and seems to be well-researched.

    I don’t understand how costume designers can do such BAD stuff. Five minutes of research would help.

    As for Pillars of the Earth, I’d forgive Eddie Redmayne a lot, even bad lacing.

  4. Jemima

    Can anyone point to some (any?!) examples where costumers have got it right? Visually I LOVE a bit of lacing when I’m illustrating a costume and I want to make sure I get it right. I know there are some actual historical examples here, but any movie/tv ones would be appreciated too. Thanks!

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Hmmm, that’s a good question! Lacing done right is a lot harder to find in movies/TV bec. it’s SO easy to do wrong. You can search the site here, & off the top of my head, I’d suggest the movie ‘The Witch’ — it’s early 17th-c. & the lower/middling-class costumes are very accurate.

  5. Penny H

    Love this post. The period illustrations are so beautiful, and the screencaps are so hilariously snarkworthy.

    About the second lady from the right in the Herod’s banquet painting with the double row of buttons, what would those little loops connecting them have been?

    Also, if you’re working in the fields or the house or fighting a battle, how do you not get stuck by all the pins? How do you even get dressed if you’re not a rich person with someone to dress you? (Sorry if these are costumely naive questions.)

    • Trystan L. Bass

      1) The little loops would have been a thin cord, same as for the lacing.

      2) Pins don’t stick you when they’re holding your clothes clothes together. I’ve worn pinned-on sleeves & pinned-front bodices all day with no problems. Remember, you’re wearing multiple layers of cloth & the pinned item is 2-4 layers away from your own skin.

      3) There was always a sibling, cousin, other extended family member in the house. Folks lived a lot more communally than we do today :)

  6. Natasha Birt

    As for ‘Front/side/back’ lacings, I thought much the same until I saw a statue in a museum that had them all was 15th century…italian I think, (I couldn’t take pictures) One of the theories I did see was because of pregnancy, to give more flexibility to the garment?

  7. Liza Jane

    As for “unable to afford buttons” — make ‘em out of cloth, ffs! If you have cloth you probably have offcuts when a garment is finished, and what else can you do with them anyway?