I’m not talking the thousand dollar (plus) frocks that actors wear during the Oscar ceremonies. I’m talking about historical (or pseudo-historical period pieces). There are a full range of historical movies from the earliest eras of humankind up to World War or gangster films. All of these take a fair amount of research and knowledge on the costume designer’s part to recreate the era and the feel of the time. Sometimes the director and cinematographer may want a particular atmosphere, so costumes might be brighter or subdued in color range. They might be conservative or very outre in appearance depending on that movie’s theme. A costume designer might take some leeway depending on the depth of their research, what is know about a particular period, and what the director wants (which of course can hugely frustrate the sensibilities of the costume designer).
Now I’m not a costume historian, as in I don’t have a degree of any sort in this. However I have a keen interest in historical costume with some 50 books at home. I also love period piece films and will go partly for the historicity of the movie and of course for the costumes. I can usually pinpoint a century, or a decade if in the 20th century, by the clothing alone, if not the story. It gets sketchier the earlier we go but I can still pretty much tell a Roman and Greek era film and know what should be right.
One of my big pet peeves is that should a movie make an attempt at being historically accurate in clothing, that they tend to veer wildly the more important the character, especially if the character is a woman. The earlier the film, the more likely this will be. Here are a few examples of really sad costuming in movies and TV series. Gladiator. You would think with their big movie budget and names they could have tried a bit harder and really how many women were in that film? But in fact both the crazy emperor Commodus played by Joaquin Phoenix and the love interest and only woman in the film with any major part, Lucilla tend to have some iffy contrivances. Plunging necklines and tightly wrapped robes appeared. Some of the helmets for the men became pretty fantastical and veer from what would have been worn for actual combat as opposed to ceremonial helms.
More recently I watched the HBO series Rome. The lot of the average Roman is a gritty existence. It’s mostly about common men but there are the “nobler” groups and their political machinations as well. Though I’m somewhat dubious of the manly armbraces that Vorenus and Pullo wear all the time (as they’re not going to stop more than a light nick with a knife) the men’s clothing seems okay. I’m not very interested in military outfits but given that armies like the Roman legions would have supplied some uniform, they might have asked for the weapons back but let the men keep the basic tunic. People wouldn’t have had many changes of clothing and would have worn their tunics to shreds so it’s likely that the guys left the army with the basic tunic. The show seems to have got right the robes, as well as those of citizens and senate, and who would wear the large red or white togas.
There are many major female characters in this show and the one that probably wears the most historically accurate garments is Lucius Vorenus’s wife Niobe, who must hide her earlier adultery. Her garments are the basic chiton, peplos or stola. All clothing of these early eras still followed rectangular construction. Why? Because everything was woven on looms by hand and was expensive and time-consuming to make. A person would construct their garment, never wasting even an inch. Every scrap was used and before sewing techniques and inventions developed, rectangles were easiest.
I’m more up on women’s clothing and though it’s fuzzier when it comes to Roman I can tell you that almost everything the conniving, amoral Atia wears is pseudo Roman to downright fantasy. Plunging necklines and clinging items bound and wrapped in all sorts of ways defies anything but modern convention. Let’s not even go into the fabric, which would be most commonly woven wool and linen. Cotton and silk would have been rare, imported and expensive in that era so it’s possible the richest people and the emperor would have some pieces of this. I’m more willing to allow leeway in textiles as long as they look right.
Rome tried with the men’s clothing, mostly. It tried with the background and peasant/lower classes but once it go to opulence the centuries flew by. When we followed Mark Antony in Egypt, oh my god. I could not believe the stupidly bizarre take on Egyptian clothing and wigs. What were they thinking? The stuff was ludicrous. Interestingly enough, we’re more likely to see authenticity in later period pieces because when you get to Baroque and Roccoco, the women’s clothing couldn’t have been more extravagant. Still, there are good and bad shows.
Brotherhood of the Wolf, which came out in 2001 took place in the 18th century and had very good costuming. The storyline was equally well done and it’s worth watching. There are a few costume weirdnesses here with the unkempt village folk/cult followers that kind of resemble crazed, Mad Max biker guys and I question that but am willing to accept some of it. But most of the main costuming, including the women’s, was appropriate to the period and well done.
I was going to get into the new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand but I’ll just do that as a review of the first couple of episodes. As for costuming in period movies, it would be nice if directors (and costume departments) could decide to do a piece without dressing every woman like a modern vixen. And in fact, with Roman and Greek clothing, the natural drape of a peplos could have a very low neckline and an open side right up to the waist to boot. There are few movies that would get an A+ in costuming. I’d give Gladiator a B+, Rome a B- and Brotherhood of the Wolf an A.