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.

Sherlock: history and fan service

It’s been more than a few weeks since the Sherlock Christmas special came out, but we would be remiss if we failed to mention it at all. As such, consider this your [SPOILERS] warning for ‘The Abominable Bride’.

I, like many of you, am a fan of the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock series. It successfully reinvents a very Victorian concept for the modern era; updating the stories, without losing the essence of what makes them unique.

However, the series has also done more than any other to respond to fan feedback. Fans have been wondering for ages what would happen if you sent Sherlock back in time. The show runners were only too happy to oblige.

Sherlock Carriage

However, they also had to square the concept with the cast, and ground it in some sort of reality. As a result, the entire episode takes place inside modern Sherlock’s ‘Mind Palace’. This led to a particularly convoluted plot. At one point, modern Sherlock is thinking about Victorian Sherlock, who is thinking about modern Sherlock…

In fact, the entire episode tries to tap into modern feminist debate. At one point, Gatiss’s character, Mycroft (with the appropriate girth), makes an oblique reference to a great adversary who should win, because they are right. And this turns out to be the women’s rights movement. Alright, but do they need to dress up in purple KKK robes and murder people? It was about here that I stopped following the plot. Probably because it was getting out-of-hand ridiculous.

Sherlock KKK

‘The Abominable Bride’ failed because it tried too hard to please everyone. However, more and more films, games and TV shows are being made which seem more at home in the pages of Tumblr than in serious history books. The upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a good example, and others, such as Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter, or Cowboys and Aliens, I have already touched on. They go beyond mere counter-factual history, to sheer joyous silliness. And for that, we can forgive them.

Things we did to history in 2015

So, another year on, and more of our past lovingly screwed with. It’s time for our annual rundown of the 12 things you most enjoyed reading about this year.

#12 Swords in films

Even in sci-fi, we cannot get away from the fact that swords are popular in Hollywood. Too popular. On the battlefields of medieval Europe the sword was a bit of a niche weapon. So why is it so popular now? I dig a little deeper!

highlander swords

#11 Men and Gods; why Greek myths rock!

I ain’t saying that Greek myths are the best stories. It’s just that, in many cases, they are. I sat down with a mixed bag of DVDs and some popcorn, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I want Henry Cavill to be the next Bond.

immortals-battle

#10 Time Team vs Restoration Man

When it comes to historical documentary programming, you can’t escape the fact that Channel 4 can put out a belter. With suspense, drama, and (occasionally) utter catastrophe, both Time Team and Restoration Man follow this trend. But which is better?

Time Team Vs Restoration Man

#9 A quiet word with New Byzantine designer Andrew Gould

Over in the US, there is a fantastic architectural design studio called New Byzantine. They are doing really cool things to revive colonial architecture, and give the States some style. I interview designer Andrew Gould.

otranto house
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

#8 Five actors who can’t keep away from history

If you watch historical TV shows, films, and the like, you may have noticed that a few faces keep cropping up. I went through a top five regulars to look out for, and the kind of things you can catch them in.

The-Duchess

#7 Classical swag

Sometimes I just see something awesome that I have to share with you. This was one of those occasions. Red figure converse anyone?

Ancient Greek Converse

#6 Why horned helmets are the best thing to have never happened to the Vikings

Were it not for the horned helmets, Vikings would probably be best known for their love of looting monasteries. But somewhere along the line (looking at you, Wagner), someone thought they weren’t interesting enough and added some extra details. Now they are best known for something that wasn’t true.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

#5 Why Blackbeard was never the big bad

Blackbeard was a pirate captain, but he lived in an era when the best pirate captains had seats in the house of lords. I look at some better candidates for top villain of the seas. And come to the conclusion that, whoever they were, they were probably Welsh.

Blackbeard

#4 What’s wrong with Wolf Hall?

This was the year that Wolf Hall came to our screens. It was big, it was bold, it wasn’t very bright. But that’s what you get when you film by ambient candlelight. It was a good series, but there were a couple of things that need to be straightened out before we get another one.

Wolf Hall
That classic blank face we saw so much of.

#3 The Musketeers and their place in history television

We love the Musketeers. It’s so cheesy. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good. No-one important gets shanked on a whim (curse you GRRM)! Does it deserve a place in historical media though? That’s for you to decide.

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

#2 A reality TV show set #10000BC

A weird one, Channel 5 decided to dabble in the trend for reality TV  survival shows. The premise; a mix of people would be sent to live in a prehistoric camp. Shit went down.

10000BC

#1 A quiet word with @SPQRBlues

The most popular blog this year was our interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the author and artist of the SPQR Blues webcomic. The series has just had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and should eventually be available as an IRL thing. Check it out!

SPQR Vesuvius

@ComedyCentral’s Drunk History: Late to the Party

Some basic housekeeping to get out of the way first: this my 100th post on this blog! Woo! History Mine has been a thing for nearly two years, and while I have occasionally neglected to put in a weekly update, I haven’t gotten bored and jacked it in either. So that’s nice…

Secondly, I was introduced to Drunk History last night.

History, comedy and alcohol seem to be such close bedfellows that this can’t just be coincidence. Take, for example, History Showoff, which takes a bunch of historians and turns them into entertainment. While I haven’t yet attended one, I suspect drinks are in high demand. Probably gin.

Drunk History is another twist on the same idea. This time they got comedians rat-arsed and made them recite history. And it was a goldmine!

Half-remembered history is brilliant. Especially with the sub-title corrections. Can we get more in the way of passive-aggressive subtitles please? I think they’d really enrich our media-consuming experience.

That said, I did actually learn some things from these. Maybe not stuff I’d be willing to repeat as fact, but certainly some details that round out my own understanding of history.

Drunk History hanging

Maybe it’s the fact that history is one of the most inherently human of all fields of study. Ridiculous, stupid, things have happened throughout history. Mainly because our leaders behaved as though they were drunk; ego-maniacally shambling from one crisis to the next, all the while having to deal with the embarrassing limitations of being themselves.

So yes, I would recommend you check it out! This has, however, been going on for a while: Here’s one from 2007. So, I’ve really missed the boat on this one. You probably already knew about it. And for that, I salute you.

#TheLastKingdom, and the return of the Anglo Saxons

The Last Kingdom

I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but recently, Anglo Saxons have started getting popular again. I meant to write this post a couple of weeks ago, when The Last Kingdom had its first outing. It was inevitable that a story written by the man who wrote Sharpe, and produced by the team that made Downton Abbey, would be successful. What was not inevitable, was that it would be made in the first place.

Despite the fact that they were the dominant power in England for half a millennia, Anglo Saxons have largely slipped under the radar of popular culture. They were the bad guys in King Arthur, and they sometimes crop up in Robin Hood stories as a way to differentiate Robin from his Norman overlords.

King Arthur's SaxonsHowever, when you contrast that with the sheer exposure that the Vikings, The Last Kingdom’s other main culture, have enjoyed, there’s no contest. So why not? If history is written by the victors, then Anglo Saxons have no excuse. While the Scandinavian invaders did gain a solid foothold, it didn’t last forever. It was their Norman offspring who finally put paid to the Anglo Saxon reign.

Perhaps it’s because, when the Anglo Saxons came to write their own history, the most exciting bit was the bit involving Vikings. Even their humour was better!

Perhaps it is more important to me because I can relate to the places a lot more. When Uhtred treks off to Oxenford to get a sword made, that’s where I was born! I have lived in Reading(ham). Æthelstan’s body is buried in my home town of Malmesbury. The rest of English History always seems to happen in London, or France. Perhaps this disconnect is similar to what Americans feel with much of the rest of history.

Perhaps it was the Staffordshire Hoard that was responsible for this shift in consciousness. Perhaps it is because Alfred earned the title ‘the Great’, over any other English monarch. Whatever it is, I’m happy for it to keep coming. More Saxons please!

Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Are we cool with portrayals of religion? It feels like we’re not

assassin's creed church

This article will be picking up where my blog about magic left off. Magic is, by its very nature, open ended, open to interpretation, and really kinda fun as a concept. In contrast, religion is just something we have to deal with if we’re going to portray history accurately. The trouble is, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Ben Hur

Back in the golden era of Hollywood, we couldn’t get enough of religion. It was a major feature of films like Ben Hur, or El Cid. Maybe studios weren’t conflicted about showing it. They loved them some piety, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Contrast that with modern films about religion, like Kingdom of Heaven. There’s that classic one-two:

Balian: “I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places; ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.”

Saladin: “I wonder if it would not be better if you did.”

Kingdom of Heaven

Films are not alone. In almost every TV series, religion has a minimal role. In the BBC’s Robin Hood, Friar Tuck rarely visited a church, and even less often to commune with God. in HBO’s Rome, religion was just another way for the series to go ‘look how weird everything was back then’. Day-to-day lives seem to be divorced from the spirituality that was almost certainly a much bigger deal.

Similarly, games really haven’t figured out a mechanic for religion. What’s the point of it? Is it just a tag that defines allegiances, like nationality? Or is there something more? Many games do have churches and religious buildings as part of their architecture, but you can’t actually go *into* them. Why would you want to do that?

assassin's creed

Somehow, we’ve really gone off religion. We’re now almost scared of it.

Studios are trying to redress the balance. They’re attempting to build historic worlds where religion plays a suitably active role. But they are taking their sweet time about it.

Does Magic Do Anything For Our Perception Of History

A while back, I wrote this post about vampires and history. This time round, I thought I’d focus on magic. This is, in part, thanks to the new Mr Norrell and Dr Strange TV series, which looks at what would happen if magic was around in the Napoleonic 19th century. It also happens to be the weekend I am *ahem* going to the Harry Potter studio tour. So what better time?

Much like vampires, magic wasn’t actually a thing. At least, as far as I know. In fact, any film, TV series, or game, tends to focus on this, rather than the actual – you know – magic. Merlin is a good example of this; the first season made a big deal of the will-he-won’t-he aspect of whether Merlin would reveal his gift to his best friend Arthur. <SPOILER ALERT> He never does</SPOILER>. For this reason, above anything else, it is a useful proxy for talking about secret societies and emergent religions. Early Arthurian legends focussed on the contrast between paganism and Christianity.
merlin

Then, of course, you’ve got the animal side of things. Monsters are a major part of the magic genre, up there with castles and shiny swords, and they’ve been around for centuries. I have a theory that magical monsters are really a stand-in for extinct European megafauna. But, really, it is just a great way to talk about the wild and dangerous animals that were out there in our historic past.

But perhaps the single most important thing that magic does, is reintroduce mystery. With magic, you’re never going to know all of the things. You, let’s face it, are a muggle. You cannot do magic, and you don’t understand the limitations of the art. When Harry Potter introduced new elements every year, that was allowed, because no-one said it couldn’t. Things do go bump in the night, but with modern knowledge what it is, it’s harder to be afraid of that. With magic, you get All Of That back. And it’s awesome!

Do you like magic? I like magic!

History Reality TV: How Far Would You Get?

24 Hours In The Past

Yesterday I sat down to watch the BBC’s new reality TV show, ’24 Hours In The Past’. The premise follows a dreary pattern you’re likely already familiar with; six near-celebrities are rounded up and put through a bunch of ordeals. They struggle, then admit how fortunate they are to lead the cushy life they do. Audience feel a schadenfreude-based superiority; show gets decent ratings.

So, yes, there is a problem with the format. The focus should, rightly, be on how modern people adapt to historical situations. This is why I still cling to the hope that Rome Sweet Rome (the story of a modern American military force somehow transported back in time) will still be made into a feature film. However, the very act of dropping someone into the situation sets them up to fail.

Perhaps the only positive thing about ’24 Hours…’ is that the contestants were happy to cheat. Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to make the grade, they stole from their ’employers’ and put together crappy work with a veneer of quality.

24 Hours In The Past

And this is A Good Thing. I’d like to think that if I was sent back into the past, I would be able to employ some modern ingenuity to get a leg up. However, the reality would probably fall short of that. I don’t actually really know much about how modern technology works, and there’s a good chance I can’t event speak the language of the period I get sent back to.

If I can’t cut corners like that, I’d like to think I’d be able to cheat the system a little and avoid the long-term consequences.