SNARK WEEK: What Year Is It Anyway?

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Frock Flicks is an empire built on what annoys us when we watch historical costume movies and TV shows, and one thing that drives me batty is flicks that explicitly state they take place in a certain year, but the costumes don’t match up with that year. Sure, the mainstream average viewer won’t notice that a fashionable lady wouldn’t be wearing bustles in the 1890s, but I sure as hell do! If a movie says it’s set in the 1890s, then the bustle is passé. Related, if a show’s story moves through a significant time, the costumes should change accordingly. A little girl who grows up won’t be wearing the same style of clothes her mother wore.

A lot of frock flicks state the year they’re set with a title card, and when I see one, I’m immediately on alert to nitpick the costumes. Are they accurate for that exact year? Because you don’t need to state the year unless there’s some intricate plot going on that relates to the year or that year is historically significant, as in a biopic or true story. The audience can tell a production is set in the past through the visuals alone, if they’re done well.

If a flick must use them, I prefer title cards that are romantically vague — then the story and costumes aren’t as solidly nailed down to a specific year. Such as:

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Pride and Prejudice (1940) is set in “Old England”! How charming.

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

So the costumes could be anything not totally modern! Cool.

The Black Swan (1942)

The Black Swan (1942) is set in “the Spanish Main” — who the heck knows when that is?

Sure, this works for the Spanish Main, why not?

But it doesn’t have to be all that wild…

The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Age of Innocence (1993) gives a nice, round decade. For a fictional story, you don’t need anything more (& they could have left this off).

1993 The Age of Innocence

Knowing the exact year these stunning costumes date from isn’t relevant. They’re fantastic, & they fit the story.

It’s when title cards say one thing and the movie or series shows something else in costume that I have a problem. Such as:

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) is a fictional story with zero need for a specific date.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The costumes are totally 1940s.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The hair is totally 1940s.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Why say it’s set in 1886 when it looks like this???

Frenchman's Creek (1998)

Frenchman’s Creek (1998) is a fictional story set in 1688, presumably referring to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which honestly doesn’t figure much into the story so it feels like a stretch).

Frenchman's Creek (1989)

But if it’s set in 1688, why is an extra in the back wearing a distinctly 1690s gown and cap???

From Hell (2001)

From Hell (2001) is supposedly about Jack the Ripper, whose last victim was killed in 1888, so including the year makes this flick legit, right?

From Hell (2001)

But the costumes are a sad, low-budget attempt at Victorian with added fishnet & modern hair. The whore on the far right in burgundy looks decent though!

Sometimes, the title card / costume mismatch is a result of an “artistic vision”…

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is supposedly set in the year the book was written.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

But the costumes are mostly bustle-era, from about a decade earlier.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Stunning, gorgeous costumes! They just don’t match the stated year the story takes place in.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Late 1880s perhaps?

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

A fantasy riff on 1870s? Again, gorgeous, but not 1897.

Or a title card just throws out a year that relates to a random date within the story — and the costumes don’t match. C’mon, when is this supposed to be set?

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (2010)

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (2010) starts with a confusing title card — the quote is nice (although not totally necessary after a few minutes into the show), but it’s the date could make you wonder.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Because the costumes in the whole series look far more 1810s than 1820s.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

And if you know anything about Anne Lister’s life, the events of this miniseries take place over several decades.

But there’s no progression of time shown through the costumes from the start of the series to the end — which should be in the 1830s & which has a very different fashion.

And yeah, I don’t expect much historical accuracy from 1980s music videos, but again, don’t throw out a title card and expect me to play along, no matter how much I like the song!

The music video for “Karma Chameleon” is supposedly set in 1870.

SUPPOSEDLY.

“I’m a man without conviction / I’m a man who doesn’t know…”

It’s not just title cards that confuse the timeline. Frock flicks based on true events can muck it up if they don’t show the right costume for the specific year their stories happened.

The HBO biopic Elizabeth I (2005) starts in 1579, and part two opens in 1589 and continues until Queen Elizabeth I’s death in 1603. But almost all the costumes are in the 1560s to 1570s style of English gowns with only a couple in the distinctive 1590s wheel-farthingale style, and none in between. There’s little to no progression in fashion shown on the most fashionable woman in the land.

Elizabeth I (2005)

She wears this early in the series, so 1570s.

Elizabeth I (2005)

And she wears this through the second half, including for her death scene in 1603. No change!

Now you may be giving that a pass because, hey, it’s Helen Mirren in gorgeous costumes designed by Mike O’Neill! Fine, then let’s pick on a more shitty movie, like Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008). Supposedly the most expensive Slovak and Czech film ever made, it tells the story of Erzsébet Bathory who lived from 1560 to 1614. The costumes are all over the place, time-wise.

As a child, she’s dressed in 1630s:

Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008)

As an adult in the 1590s, at one point she wears something somewhat accurate for the period:

Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008)

But then around 1600, she’s wearing a 1540s gown:

Bathory: Countess of Blood (2008)

I’m not even going to discuss all the WTFrock costumes, because you get the idea.

Making films about real people and real events does raise the bar a little bit. Yeah, yeah, I know, these aren’t documentaries, but if it’s supposed to be about Real Person X who lived during Year Z, they should be wearing costumes from Year Z not any old time you want. They don’t have to look identical to the Real Person, just give the general period trappings around them a semblance of the historical period, m’kay?

Such as Becoming Jane (2007), about beloved author Jane Austen, ostensibly set in 1795. That’s an odd transitional period in fashion, so I get that it could be difficult to costume accurately. But it’s not rocket science either.

2007 Becoming Jane

Instead of “transitional,” this is just half 18th, half 19th century. Photo ©Miramax.

Look how the waistlines go up & down across the row of ladies.

I kind of hate to pick on low-budget films, but as we always say, there’s no fairness in Snark Week. And the script for Wild Nights With Emily (2019) was great, so it’s a real pity they didn’t give more than a passing thought to the costumes. I guess someone knew that Emily Dickinson lived in the 19th century, so anything from that century worked. Most of the story should take place in the 1850s to 1860s, but you can’t tell stuff like this:

Wild Nights With Emily (2019)

*sad trombone*

 

Does it bug you when a frock flick states one year but has costumes from a different year? Share your annoyance in the comments!

 

 

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15 Responses

  1. Gray

    I once worked on a stage production of “A Christmas Carol” that … well you have to get the time line correct. If Scrooge is in his 40s or 50s in the 1840s then in Christmas Past, at Fezziwig’s party he should be in his 20s. That puts it in the 1820s or 18-teens.
    The designer hated the high waisted look of the 18-teens so he put Belle in panniers! (With bells printed on the fabric…ugh!) Let’s see… 1760s…1840s…. Scrooge is 100 and something at the start of the play.

    Reply
  2. mmcquown

    And now there’s Vienna Blood, set in the 1900’s…Mostly, I agree that the costumes should match the stipulated time period. I might make an exception for the 2nd half of the 17th century, when men’s fashions were so god-awful. Pepys in his diary reported that he walked around all day with both his legs in the same leg of his petticoat breeches.

    Reply
  3. Alexander

    Yay, Snark Week!!! I am always fascinated when a title card appears at the start (and sometimes mid-way through) a film. My ‘anachronistic costume radar’ goes into high alert and I find it really hard to focus on the film as a whole, so I totally empathise; I also find the same thing in theatre, where they project the date, but seem to have absolutely no idea on the appropriate fashions for the period. I really don’t know why more research isn’t done at the start of a project. I know that, for myself, I have to be confident in my research and selected sources even before approaching a director with designs or begin drafting an initial pattern!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yup, the title cards make me watch more closely. If they dropped them, I wouldn’t notice. A number of recent movies like ‘Passing’ are clearly set in a not-contemporary time period but no title card says so. The fashion, the sets, the music, all convey a different era. The exact year isn’t important.

      Reply
      • Alexander

        I totally agree, mostly it is entirely unnecessary to state the date and in fact makes it a lot trickier for them to appease nitpickers like me. The Olivier Pride and Prejudice’s statement that it is set in “Old England” does sort of make the wacky crinoline based costumes semi acceptable for this reason. As you say, the exact year is almost entirely unneeded.

        Reply
        • Jessica A

          I’ve only seen the 1940 Pride and Prejudice film once, and that was a long time ago. But, to me, Old England is something I’d expect in a Robin Hood or Ivanhoe flick, not Jane Austen. I mean, 19th Century England ain’t THAT old.

          Reply
          • Jamie J LaMoreaux

            ah, there’s OLD England, then there’s Ye OLDE England. the first is almost now (1700-2021) and the latter is any time before 1700. according to Hollywood that is.

            Reply
  4. MrsC (Maryanne)

    I’d say that the Dorian Gray movie had date cards for exactly the reason that it’s the only clue to when the movie is set. “Let’s imagine, children….”

    Reply
  5. Andrew.

    I think the best indeterminate scene setting title card is the one at the beginning of 1937’s The Prisoner of Zenda:
    “Toward the close of the last century, when History still wore a Rose, and Politics had not yet outgrown the Waltz, a Great Royal Scandal was whispered about in the Anterooms of Europe.”

    Reply
  6. Lily Lotus Rose

    No, it doesn’t bother me about the title card dates not matching up with costumes in the production because I don’t know enough to nitpick in that area. Generally, I’ll come to this site after watching a FrockFlick to see if and how y’all rate the accuracy. So, more than accuracy, I’m turned off by cheap production values – including at the level of costumes. And it’s not so much cheapness; it’s more like, “this looks like NO ONE CARED what this production looked like.” And that’s such a shame because so much goes into theatrical productions-filmed or otherwise–so you know at least someone cared, but many times that care just didn’t translate well to the screen. That said, after visiting this site for a while now, I am able to notice things that I wasn’t before – metal grommets (of course) and more broadly, clothes that look like they were made with sewing machines (for stories where that just wasn’t possible). The one show I keep harping on because even in my non-expert eyes was SO EGREGIOUS and PURPOSEFULLY so was the TNT show Will (2017). Oh God, that one hurt me. It just hurt. I could also tell that Reign was absolutely atrocious regarding accuracy because every dress looked like a Jessica McClintock prom dress from my youth (which several of you have pointed out time and again), but I was so taken up with the other outrageous aspects of the production, that I was kinda won over (?) like, “OF COURSE these are the costumes they would have for THIS show.” That was a very LONG way of saying, “Overall, I’m too ignorant to snark on the costumes, so I get so much pleasure out of y’all doing it for me!!”

    Reply
  7. Nzie

    It is basically a really needless own goal to specify when it’s not needed. But I imagine there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance there–directors want it to be taken seriously as a historical story, but don’t always want to actually live with what that era looks/feels/sounds like. When it’s not an actual historical person, I think keeping it vague makes the most sense.

    Reply

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