Normally we don’t cover fantasy films here on Frock Flicks, largely because the “fantasy” element in costuming goes so far in the opposite direction from history that it is basically impossible to compare the two (i.e. Why we haven’t talked about Game of Thrones in any depth, so stop pestering us about it). However, every so often there is a film that is definitely a fantasy but is grounded in a particular time and place that either is historical or is closely based off of a historical period. One such film is The Princess Bride (1987).
Adapted from William Goldman’s “abridged” novel, The Princess Bride tells the epic love story between the most beautiful woman in the world and her “poor, but perfect” farm boy. The film does a pretty good job of getting the main plot points, but the book… Oh, just read it. If nothing else, it will make the entire dueling scene atop the Cliffs of Insanity between Inigo and Westley make sense. That, alone, is a pretty good reason to read it.
And yes. It is a kissing book.
For those three of you who haven’t seen the film…
It takes place in the country of Florin, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a prototypical 15th-century European country. There are parallels to be drawn between Florin and its rival country across the channel, Guilder, with that of England and France during the period of inter-kingdom conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War, but one shouldn’t get hung up on the details. This is a fairy tale, after all. That said, there are no fairy godmothers (though there is a crotchety Miracle Man that sort of fits that role) and the only magic is True Love, which does, indeed, conquer all — even death. Even the terrifying Fire Swamp and its R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size) inhabitants are improbable, but not necessarily unrealistic. The evil in The Princess Bride is not cast in black magic, but in all-too-real human desires for power and domination.
Costume designer Phyllis Dalton, whose screen credits include Lawrence of Arabia (1962) , Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1990) among a host of other extremely well-known and beloved historical films, took her cue from this slightly skewed realism and remained fairly faithful to the silhouette of the mid-15th-century fashion popular in France and England.
The first glimpse we have of the heroine Buttercup (Robin Wright) after she has been plucked from peasant obscurity to become the fiancée of the scheming Prince Humperdinck (a nice, sardonic twist on the rags-to-riches trope), she is in a flowing red houppelande. Her hair is down, but she is wearing a pearled cap (at least until she’s kidnapped and manages to lose it in the fray). We can debate until the cows come home as to how historically accurate having her hair down would be for a woman of her age/station — IIRC, she’s 18 when she goes to Florin City to marry Humperdinck, but allegedly a virgin, so the standard rule of young girls and unmarried young women of upper classes wearing one’s hair down can apply.
Not to digress, but I’m 99.9% sure that Buttercup’s red houppe was worn by Amy Poehler in the 2013 Parks & Recreation episode “Recall Vote.”
Buttercup wears a few different high-waisted gowns that evoke a more Italianate feeling, such as her wedding gown, but then switches it up in the middle of the film with a fitted kirtle and tippets. The kirtle was a hold-over from the previous century that continued in various permutations right up until the first decades of the 16th century, so it’s plausibly placed within the loosely defined 15th-century-ish period of the film.
So what of the menswear? Setting aside the roguish characters of Inigo Montoya, Fezzick, and Vizzini who all wear pretty generic tunics and trousers with knee high boots, and the all-black pirate ensemble Westley spends most of the film wearing, that leaves us with the two bad guys, Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Rugen (played by a disturbingly attractive Christopher Guest).
Like Buttercup’s costumes, both Humperdinck and Rugen’s outfits mostly adhere to the 1430s-1440s. Both wear knee-length houppelandes and knee-high boots. Historically, of course, the boots would only be worn for outdoor activities, but given that they are “men of action,” I’ll let it go this time. Also, both never wear appropriate headgear of any sort (unless it’s Humperdinck’s massive crown), but again, so very few films ever get this detail remotely correct that I’ve stopped giving a damn about it.
All told, the historical reference points are solid and fairly straight-forward, adhering to a definitive location (Western Europe) and time (mid-15th century). There are fantasy embellishments, but they are relatively innocuous and mainly serve to remind us that this is a fairy tale, after all. And honestly, The Princess Bride gets far more right than it gets wrong in terms of costuming, which makes it stand apart from other historical films.
So, kick back with a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and…
What do you think about the costumes in The Princess Bride?