History Portrayed through Costume Design.

History Portrayed through Costume Design.

One of my favorite things about watching a film or television series set in a historical period has to be the costumes.  I love seeing the fashion of a particular era represented on screen.  

Let’s face it though- some films just do it better than others.  I’m sure we all have our favorites, and here are just a few of mine.  

I’d love to hear what films you all enjoy watching for the costume designs.  Leave me your comments and we can discuss what films really nailed this important aspect of recreating a period.

There are so many film costumes worthy of discussion, but today I will just focus on a couple.   I could go on forever, but I’ll save those for another post!

The Tudors

The Tudors

It might go without saying that Showtime series, The Tudors, truly captured this style of dress that spanned the reign the of Henry VIII of England.  Tudor fashion evolved in England throughout a period of almost 100 years.

Tudor fashion is best personified by Henry VIII (1485-1505) and his many wives, so it is a crucial element of the show to accurately portray this. As you will see, the show took some liberties with the costumes in order to make the time period come alive to modern audiences.

The Tudors 
The doublet was a standard feature of men’s clothing during this time.  Women tended to wear form-fitting gowns that flared out from the hips.  These basic styles evolved throughout this period due to changes in fashion tastes and influences from other countries.

The series really captures the free-spending ways of Henry VII through the brighter, gaudier fashions he favored and that were popularized during his reign.  The king was no stranger to garments heavily encrusted with jewels!

The Tudors

"In my research, I was always looking for historical scenes which would seem quite contemporary even though people were in costume. We didn’t want another Royal Shakespeare company or ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ kind of thing — all these English actors in period costumes with elaborate and totally contrived mannerisms. We wanted them to be and sound real and think real."  -Michael Hirst, Series Creator and Writer

Although men of this era wore longer hair and codpieces, the producers unanimously ruled them out.  This decision was reach in order to make the series more relatable to a modern audience.

The Tudors

Joan Bergin, costume designer for The Tudors, has explained how her goal was to reinterpret the costumes of the 16th century for the modern audience.

The thinking behind the costumes was to present a deconstructed Tudor that the clothes wouldn’t be purist and odd for a contemporary audience"

She says "I wanted the clothes to say to a modern audience: ‘how sexy’ or ‘how magnificent or whatever – not to be strange. So that meant taking the Tudor garments and adding touches that allow you to relate to them in a modern way’.

The Tudors

A feature that I find fascinating about the show is how the costumes evolve for each character.  

Bergin explains this role of costumes in more detail:

"What I’ve enjoyed most is that the series is very character driven which means I can develop each character through the clothes they wear. So if you’re watching it week after week, you should be able to tell how the character has developed from the way they look – have they gone up or down in the social pecking order. Anne Boyeln is the most dramatic example. By the end of the series she’s pretty stunning!"

Meek’s Cutoff

Meek

Meek’s Cuttoff is a film by Kelly Reichardt that came out earlier this year about the Oregon Trail.  Michelle Williams stars in this film as a woman who travels the Oregon Trail in the group guided by Stephen Meek.

Meek

The film explores the harsh reality of the Oregon Trail, following the group as they eventually become lost and are forced to rely on a Native American to lead them to safety.  

With the possibility of death looming around every corner and water becoming extremely scarce, trust begins to diminish within the group and tensions rise.

Meek

What really stood out to about this film were the beautiful wide shots of the vast plains. The washed out colors accentuate the bright fabrics of the dresses worn by the women in the group.  

Although life along the Oregon trail is portrayed as bleak, harsh, and almost hopeless, there is an overall sense of beauty in the way the everything is captured.

Meek

Michelle Williams has mentioned in interviews how the best thing about starring in Meek’s Cutoff was the hand-stitched costumes.  She admitted that she loved getting fitted for her costumes because they were made to fit her exactly.“

She has praised the film’s costumes saying, "The wonderful part was the costumes. All hand-stitched by two women, who did everything including the bonnets. Even doubles of our dresses. They stitched us into them, cut us out, then re-sewed us into them."

Let me know what movies or televisions you admire for the costume design!  I’m thinking about revisiting England through a different period in our next discussion.  Pride and Prejudice, anyone?

Pride and Prejudice
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20 comments

  1. Briony

    I concur with those who thought The Tudors costuming was as laughable as the most egregious examples of ‘period’ costumes during the Studio days of Hollywood. Wearing a doublet without sleeves? Oh please! Hair down and no shimmy? Only for Doll Tearsheet! And btw, Henry VII (the 8th’s daddy) was a notorious skinflint. The historical misinformation and absolute fiction in the series was both pathetic and hilariously funny. For real Tudor costuming or at least a pretty accurate representation, Elizabeth and Elizabeth, The Golden Age aren’t bad.

    1. Susan

      I have to disagree with you, especially since “Elizabeth” was supposed to be “Elizabethan”. The costuming was just as weird in those movies as it was on the HBO show.

  2. Melody Tomaszewicz

    I absolutely agree that the Tudors left MUCH to be desired. In several scenes Anne Boleyn also isn’t wearing a chemise. What–the Queen of England can’t afford underwear? Ridiculous!

  3. Sara Scopp

    I work in costuming and greatly enjoyed this article. I’d like to present an OPPOSITE example to historical film costuming: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA with Claudette Colbert. OMG. Cleopatra wears glittered pumps (because she wasn’t very tall). The Roman women in the party scene are wearing modern evening dress and shoes. Well, modern for 1935 (?). It’s a case where modern gowns were deconstructed to be Roman. I showed this film to a class and we were in stitches from the myriad of anachronisms. HOWEVER, the following year we did the play Epic Proportion about a mad director (based on CBD) and we based our costumes on the Cleopatra film. It was great fun, and I had the chance at a lifelong ambition: to design 1930s evening gowns!

    1. Ute Rogge

      The “Cleopatra ” starring Elizabeth Taylor was filmed in 1963. https://www.google.com/search?q=cleopatra+with+elizabeth+taylor&safe=off&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=xddGU7DOMJDlyAHCnoC4DA&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=922

      Maybe you’re thinking of Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934. https://www.google.com/search?q=Claudette+Colbert+as+Cleopatra,+1934&safe=off&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=AdlGU926IbLlyAGrkYHwBw&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=922

      Regards, Ute

  4. Victoria

    I love all century costumes, but, now watching “Boardwalk Empire” The 20’s are my favorite…I wish the hats were back and the clothes, I love the colors…so vivid, not as today when it seems, they have been toned down a bit…

    PS Can’t make up my mind! Love the 40’s too…

  5. Margo Steley

    The movie version of Pride and Prejudice pictured above is only second best for costumes compared to the 1995 BBC TV series of P&P that starred Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. I have a special interest in costumes and agree with Sharon that The Tudors left something to be desired, although I believe that young unmarried women were allowed to wear their hair down

  6. Anne

    The recent “Live from the Met” Metropolitan Opera production of the opera “Anna Bolena” by Donizetti had the most stunning Tudor costumes. They were designed by costume designer and former director of theater design at Shakespeare’s Globe theater, Jenny Tiramani.

    The following is a review from Vogue, http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/vogues-first-look-anna-netrebko-takes-center-stage-in-anna-bolena-at-the-metropolitan-opera/

    To master the accuracy of the sixteenth-century petticoats, gowns, double-sleeves, and men’s britches, Tiramani pieced together a “jigsaw” of references, starting with portraits of the English Court by Hans Holbein the Younger, and moving on to tapestries, wills detailing the deceased’s most prized garments, as well as relics—including a perfect model of a shoe—from Henry VIII’s sunken flagship, the Mary Rose. “We kept the character of Anna in more of the French style that she seemed to bring to the English court,” said Tiramani, in between acts at a rehearsal this week. “There really is only one acknowledged portrait of her—in the National Portrait Gallery in London—and it shows her in a French hood, which is the shape we’ve used to separate her from the court.” The result of Tiramani’s careful eye are costumes that are both stunning and believable: a mix of specially made fabrics, black-dyed silk, and intricate hooks, as rarefied and authentic as Netrebko herself.”

  7. Sharon

    I was appalled at The Tudors costumes. For one thing, everyone during this time would have worn a chemise under their clothing. And women always wore their hair up. To see a Henry’s sister, a royal princess, wearing a dress that was falling off her shoulders, without a chemise and with her hair loose—-it made her like a prostitute. That really was distracting for me while watching the shows. It is possible to make authentic costumes for historical pieces. If you’re doing a historical story, why not costume accordingly? The men’s clothing was much more accurate than the women’s.

  8. Jane

    For me I have two movies that I consider to be pure costuming porn, A Man for All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Dangerous Beauty. Man is a stunning movie visually and content wise. Dangerous Beauty isn’t bad content wise but gorgeous in its clothing.

  9. Maggie

    My favorite costuming consistently is in all the Masterpiece Theater productions. I watch it as many times as the episodes appear in the week, because it takes that much to intake the story, the costumes and the decor of the time. Also love the costuming and decor of “Last Of The Summer Wine.”

  10. nicki

    LOVE IT.

    What else can I say but you made me now to go to the Library
    to find fashion books of historical Times .
    Tanks for the Inspiration!
    With regards, Nicki.

  11. marianne criswell

    “The Changling”…1920’s Los Angeles…Captured the era with authenticity. Great costumes and a good film.

  12. Debbie

    I really enjoy watching movies which show different period costumes. It’s always interesting to see how seams were sewn when there was no stretchy material to accommodate the curves and bulges of the body.

    And how colors and shapes were used to accent the design on the body.

    Thanks for this delightful article. Very interesting.

    Debbie…(O:
    >

  13. carolineboucher

    hi
    i love the clothes karin larrson the wife of carl larrson from sweden wore in sundborn sweden
    theswedish clothes designer gudrun sjoden has replicated some of them in her new christmas catalogue .
    id love to get patterns for these sort of designs
    havebt seen any in film yet
    just my thoughts
    kind regrds caroline

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