Costumes in historical media: how much do they matter?

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

Does costume matter in historical media? Quite possibly, but you can get too hung up on the details. Last week the Telegraph made this very point when it queried the wardrobe of the BBC’s War and Peace six-parter.

War and Peace cast

Outfits are perhaps one of the most important parts of any historical drama. Certainly more important than the scenery, they ground the story by convincing you that the characters themselves accept the truth of the situation they are in.

Witcher Soldiers

No-one in their right minds would dress like this today. The fact that a character in the film/game/show/whatever is, and is acting like it’s totally normal, reinforces the historical setting.

We don’t even need to push it that far. Most people are a bit rusty when it comes to the history of clothing. They won’t know which exact dyes, fabrics and fashions were popular at each particular setting. And it’s likely that media studios count on this in order to cut corners.

On the other hand, could also push this idea to it’s logical conclusion, and argue that costume can convince us to accept a counter-factual story, when we know that the reality would be different.

300 Soldiers Outfits

I have previously blogged about how the Spartans of ‘300’ would, in reality, have worn much more armour. In Frank Miller’s original comic book, the boys in red were full-frontal naked – in reflection of the way Greeks depicted their heroes. The tiny brown thongs were likely introduced to get the film past modern movie censors.

One of the more pertinent points made by the Telegraph was that historical media often reflects the era it was produced, as much as the time it is set. This might be through production values, design, or fashion. I swear mullets have ruined several films for me…

robin-hood-prince-of-thieves-mullet

The experts are always going to be frustrated by costumes in historical media. This is because they will notice tiny details that are all wrong. And there will always be tiny details.

That said, if anyone else tries to dress Victorian ladies in purple KKK robes, I am going to be very upset.

A Quiet Word With: B4-XVI’s @ceciliaazcarate

This week I had a chat with the talented CECILIA AZCARATE, the woman behind the B4-XVI tumblr, which aims to ‘highlight an invisible conversation between hip hop and art before the 16th century’.

@ceciliaazcarateHistory Mine: What was the moment of inspiration for this account?

CECILIA AZCARATE: Virgin and Child Enthroned with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Morata Master (Spanish, Aragonese, late 15th century). The painting inspired the project, I saw it at the Met Museum. I saw the hat on the floor and on the guy to the right, that look like supreme hats, and after that started collecting other similarities.

Virgin and Child Enthroned

HM: What is your favourite comparison?

CA: I really like the Van Eyck ATL Twins one cause the Van Eyck is so famous and they are so unique and it’s funny to give it a new meaning.

HM: It could be argued you’re saying that rappers have a medieval attitude. How would you respond to that?

CA: I would argue that rappers have the most swag now a days, just like the people in those paintings. They were painted to be remembered. It was a time where creating an image was super time consuming so it meant a lot that those people got their image painted they were super important and some of them changed the world.

I’m also using a lot of masterpieces like Van Eyck, Fra Angelico the most important painters in europe in that time. So I see it more as a tribute to the artists to compare them to such masterpieces. I think it goes both directions.

Hugo van der Goes Vs Wiz Khalifa
Left: Detail from The Adoration of the Magi. Hugo van der Goes. Netherlandish. Late 15th century / Right: Wiz Khalifa

HM: On the other hand, do you think historical figures behaved more like rappers?

CA: I think they just had swag and power and money, and that is where the similarities come from.

HM: Which historical figure would fit in best with the modern rap game?

CA: Louis XVI and Henry VIII and all of them were so decadent they would have thrown mad parties and invited everyone.

Left: Henry VIII by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1550 / Right: Rick Ross.
Left: Henry VIII by the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1550 / Right: Rick Ross.

Imagine if Louis XVI was alive, of course Kanye would be playing in Versailles.

Now go and check out CECILIA’s sick tumblr! And if you like the idea of hip hop history, you might also enjoy our interview with Epic Rap Battles of History’s Nice Peter.

Poldark and Fable III: for the Love of Redcoats

This week I have mainly been playing Fable III. I am very into RPGs, and this one has the added bonus of being pretty funny. It is set in the mythical realm of Albion, which is currently undergoing its industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a complete fantasy. The bad guys include werewolves, goblins and the undead (though all go by different names). But in other ways, it is a good reflection of the impact that the industrial revolution had.

And there are redcoats!

Redcoat

It was only really this week that I realised I had a thing for the uniform. I probably should’ve seen this coming sooner, considering my outspoken love for Sharpe and Hornblower.

For a bit of context on the choice of colour, read this joke. Armies have been wearing red since the days of ancient Sparta, largely because it stops people worrying about bloodstains. What the British army did differently was to turn it into an item of formal wear. I mean, look at all those buttons! And the collar! And the shako! Should I worry about being obsessed with an item of clothing?

And then Ross Poldark rocked up, looking all dark and brooding.

Poldark Redcoat

I swear I’m only man-crushing a little here. Having never read the books, nor watched the original series, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the series. However, unlike other recent historical dramas, it’s pretty fast-paced, pretty fun, and there is enough bare-knuckle fist fighting to balance out the long gazes. The only downside? The red coat goes to the back of the family wardrobe far too quickly.

Both Fable and Poldark are about an individual building themselves up from practically nothing. But whereas Fable employs a high ratio of fart jokes and chicken costumes, Poldark is taking itself incredibly seriously. For the time being, I’m spending more time on the former. Though it probably has something to do with the fact your character can *wear* the red coat.

Europeans reinvent historical art

There have been a few really interesting galleries on viral sites over the last week or so. It seems that photographers from a number of different European nations have been thinking about novel ways to re-imagine historical art. Since there seems to be a bit of a trend going on, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my favourites here:

First up is Swiss Italian, Christian Tagliavini, whose photos recreate the angular weirdness of Renaissance paintings, but with photo-realism.

Christian Tagliavini’s Renaissance portraits in Berlin

Or there’s French photographer, Léo Caillard, who thought that  some of the worlds greatest classical sculptures could use an update for the modern era.

Léo Caillard’s re-imagined Jesus

And finally, there’s French photographer Sacha Goldberger, who felt that Snow White would’ve been better if she’d had bunny familiars with ruffs.

I’m a sucker for a bunny in a ruff.

Of course, if you like it when people put a historical spin on a modern thing, you might like this interview with retro-cosplayer Janine Spendlove, or this one, with ‘Shakespeare’s Star Wars’ writer Ian Doescher.

Four historical outfit ideas

Hallowe’en is a little over a week away, and for those of you who would like to reference their passion for historical costumes, I thought it would be interesting to throw some ideas out there, for you to use as you see fit. I, myself, will be going to the Egyptology Live Friday event at the Ashmolean as an unspecified early archaeologist. If you can get there, I totally recommend you go too. It’s free, and awesome fun. I wanted to be Carter or Petrie, but I just can’t grow the beard in time *sheds a single tear*.

I won’t be doing any ‘sexy’ female costumes, because as far as I can tell, you just cut stuff off the standard version. Also, as I understand it, the definition of a sexy has changed significantly over the centuries. Bring back ruffs, I say. They could be hot.

First up, Cave Person. For this, go all Macklemore and get yourself a second-hand fur coat. cut the sleeves off, and use them to hide your footwear. Lash it all together with a few old belts; BAM, you are ready to fight dinosaurs… or something.

One Million Years BC poster

Next on the list, Mummy. This is a strong choice for anyone on a budget, or who didn’t prepare anything earlier. Just head into the toilet, put one end of the loo roll between your ankles swivel on the spot. Yes, you could go higher budget and buy gauze bandages, but if you’re going to do that, you’ll just look like someone with no imagination. And considering you’re already looking on a blog for ideas, frankly, you could do better.

Then, the Classical Greek. Purists may prefer a toga, but a historically-accurate toga takes a metric shit-load of material, and is confusing as hell. To do this you will need a sheet, two safety pins, and a belt. Try to avoid fitted sheets, but if you get one, cut the elastic out and straighten out the corners. Fold it in half, put safety  pins roughly where your shoulders will be, then step into it from the open side. The belt will hold everything in place. I have rocked this look myself in my uni days.

Chiton
Myself, as Helen of Troy, with friends.

Word to the wise, it’s October/November, and frankly this outfit offers no protection against the weather. Even with shorts and a vest underneath, this was still DAMN COLD. Take extra scarfs, or a coat, or something. Or just don’t go with this outfit.

Roman / other armoured individual. The crucial part of this costume is metallic duct tape. N00bs will go for tin foil, but this is a mistake. Foil will not stand up to an evening’s wear and tear. Either layer it up by taping it to a top you already own, or fix the tape back-to-back. When you finish, it will just look like a metallic top, so you’ll wanna embellish with additional decorations, heraldry, etc. Consider taking your collander along and decorating the hell out of it ’til it looks like a Roman Gallea. Job’s a good’un.

This outfit will also work for knights and their ilk. Needless to say, taping an entire outfit up can get a bit tiring, so you can mix things up with a colourful tabard. Girls! I fully support the idea of an armoured woman. If anyone asks, you’re Joan of Arc. None of this videogame armoured underwear.

And as far as I’m concerned, costumes get a lot more fabricy from here onwards. If you have any other ideas, or you actually try one of these out, please leave pictures in the comments section below. If you want more ideas about historical outfits (tasteful and tasteless) check out our clothing articles.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Cosplayer and Complete Polymath @JanineSpendlove

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

I have a new favourite person. She’s a high school history teacher turned US Marine/pilot/published author, but that’s not why I approached her. Her name is Janine Spendlove, and she designs historical versions of historical twists on iconic fictional costumes. One of the projects she has been working on is a renaissance-era Justice League of America. For reasons.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

History Mine: How exactly did the idea for the Renaissance Justice League of America occur?

Janine Spendlove: At Dragon*Con 2009 our little group of friends all got together for our traditional Monday night dinner (since it seems we rarely get to see each other during the course of the weekend) and we were discussing all the cool steampunk groups we’d seen. We all liked the concept, but none of us were that into steampunk. My husband, Ron, had been trying to convince us to do a Justice League group for a while, but many of us were not keen on running around in skin tight outfits. So then, and I’m not sure quite how it happened, but Ron ended up jokingly saying “Instead of a steampunk JLA, we should do a Renaissance JLA.” And the idea caught fire.

By the end of the dinner we’d had a ton of people say they wanted to do the group, and claiming their characters (Ron and I immediately jumped on Superman and Wonder Woman, our favourites). By the next year many of the original people who wanted to do the group couldn’t, but over the years some people have added in, and others have left. It’s a really fluid group, and any one is welcome to join us. Honestly the only requirement is that you do a Renaissance version of a DC character costume (villains included) – we want to be as inclusive as possible with this group.

HM: How much research did you do?

JS: I knew next to nothing about historical costuming, so I consulted my friend Maggie at Costumer’s Guide, and she pointed me in the right direction. I narrowed down the era and the country I wanted to go with and then settled on a dress that was fairly historically accurate (I ended up picking an Anne Boleyn dress). From there I printed it out in black and white, and coloured it to get the looks and colours I wanted.

Since we couldn’t see Wonder Woman’s iconic boots, I thought using the overskirt to call back to them would be good, so I went with red, lined with two thick white stripes on the outer skirt. This also minimized how much blue with stars there would be on the under-skirt, since I didn’t want to look like an American Flag. I also wanted to have her bracers, so called back to them by having the sleeves lined in metallic silver.

HM: What are your favourite touches from each of the JLA outfits?

JS: This is hard because I really love all aspects of all the costumes. But I’ll name a couple things. For Superman it’s got to be the red striped poofy pants. They make me laugh, and really remind me of Supe’s ‘manties’. For both Batman and Hawkgirl it’s their lovely leather masks – so perfect! The Wonder Twins… their entire costumes crack me up! Jimmy Olsen’s sketch pad so he can draw us is brilliant. Cyclone’s simplicity and focus on her gold logo is perfect, and for my own wonder woman, my favourite part is my lasso!

HM: There isn’t much of a convention culture here in the UK, so could you tell us about it? It seems like you’re changing outfits a lot!

JS: I’m usually at conventions as a writer now, so 99% of the time when I go, it’s to work. Because of my costuming background I do end up judging a lot of costume contests. But, 5-10 years ago there were days at Dragon*Con where I’d wear five different complicated costumes in a day. I honestly don’t know where I got the energy to make all those costumes and change into them and actually get some quality time in them!

Conventions like Dragon*Con have a lot of group meet-ups and it’s a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of as many of them as possible. These days, if I take a costume to a con, it’s usually something to compliment my daughter’s costume, or something subtle (like Disney Bounding). I do always take a big costume to Dragon*Con. Lately it’s been my Thor costume for my Avengers group. SO MUCH FUN!

HM: You based the ‘historically accurate Snow White’ outfit on Claire Hummel‘s cartoon. What was the particular appeal of that outfit for you?

JS: I love Snow White and she’s my favourite Disney princess. I took one look at Claire Hummel’s historical version and was like “I MUST HAVE THIS DRESS, LIKE; YESTERDAY.” It was a very visceral reaction. I loved it! This dress is actually my fourth different Snow White costume, so pretty much if you make awesome Snow White fan art, I’ll probably try to find a way to make a costume of it.

 

HM: How much wardrobe space do you need?

JS: HAH! When I was at my peak (sewing a ton of costumes and wearing 15 different costumes at a con) I had an entire room dedicated to storing my costumes and their accessories (in all fairness, like a third of the costumes were my husband’s since we like to do ‘couples costumes’). Then we moved away from the countryside and our large house to a tiny apartment in the city, and had to get rid of a lot of stuff, so I culled down my costumes. So I’d say that my costumes now fill up an entire hanging closet plus four to five large bins of accessories. And I haven’t even touched shoes…

HM: Could you tell us a bit about your books?

JS: I write all kinds of fiction, military sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and more. But what I’m best known for is my fantasy trilogy; War of the Seasons. It’s about a girl named Story who falls into a world filled with trolls, dwarves, elves, dryads, and really nasty faeries that try to kill her a lot.

My favourite part about writing is the research aspect of it, because whether I’m writing fantasy or non-fiction, I’ve always got to dig into history somewhere. For example, my War of the Seasons trilogy is deeply steeped in Celtic mythology, and that was an absolute blast to research not just the mythology itself, but the time period. My next book series will be based in Norse mythology so I’ve been studying up on Vikings; absolutely thrilling!

HM: How the hell do you fit the time in?

LOL! Well, I have written a blog post about that. The big thing is I prioritize my time. For example, with both my Renn Wonder Woman and Snow White I was in the middle of working on a novel I had to finish. There are only so many hours in the day and there was just no time to do both. So in this case, since no one else could write my books, I hired a friend of mine, Jess, to sew my costumes. She had the time, needed the work, and I knew she’d do an amazing job because I’d seen her other work first hand. Win/win for both of us. There are some costumers out there who turn their nose up at people who don’t sew their own costumes. To that I say I’m very sorry for them and their snobby, cliquey attitude. Costuming should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Thanks very much to Janine for chatting with us. The first book in the War of the Seasons trilogy is available to read for free on Wattpad. You check out Janine’s costumes here and her author website is JanineSpendlove.com. She is on social media as JanineKSpendlove or JanineSpendlove.

If you enjoyed this blog then you might also like some of the other interviews I have done, such as the one I did with the ladies behind Manfeels Park, or my chat with historical Lego modeller James Pegrum.