Horrible History Costume: Movie Armour
Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:
• We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.
• That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.
• However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.
• And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.
Body armour So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ with depictions of body armour? Where to start? There are so many historically themed films and TV shows where the costume designers clearly have been allowed or encouraged to let their imaginations loose when it comes to armour. Look at an image of Russel Crowe from the film ‘Gladiator’ (right). While the overall impression is great, armourers, experts and connoisseurs of Roman history will note some weirdness going on. The highly decorated lorica musculata (‘muscle cuirass’) looks the part for an upper-class, wealthy Roman general. Even the pteruges (‘feathers’ or ‘wings’) protecting the upper arms and waist are fine even if a bit wider than most ancient depictions, and only in a single layer where more than one was often the norm (see below). However, both the sculpted versions and the 4th century BC original pictured below reveal that the large articulated plates at the shoulder  are wholly inaccurate. In this instance the costume designers have taken a perfectly good representation of a musculata and added the shoulder plates from the archetypal Roman soldier’s (not officer’s) lorica segmentata , something for which we have, as yet, no evidence historically or archeologically.
Yet, this ‘Frankenstein’ armour is plausible. The film is set in the late 2nd century AD, so we have evidence that both types of cuirasses existed. What is more, General Maximus would have had the social standing, power and prestige, and be wealthy enough to have had bespoke armour made. Few people would have been in a position to tell me him ‘no’. Besides, the design would have functioned incredibly well since all that has been done is replacing the banded torso plates of lorica segmentata with the two-piece back and breast plates of a musculata. So, although not historically correct, Maximus’ armour is plausible. What cannot be forgiven, however, are the wrist guards.
Wrist guards Romans wearing wrist guards is a classic and persistent nonsense in film and on TV. In the screenshot (right) from the HBO series ‘Rome’ (2005) both Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd are prominently wearing wrist guards. There is, however, no contemporary pictorial evidence for these things, nor indeed has there been any archaeological find identified as 'wrist guards' whether such items were made of cloth, leather or metal (assuming something had indeed survived the intervening 2,000 years). These irritatingly inappropriate costume accessories were introduced, it is believed, in the early years of film-making to disguise the inconvenient fact that most actors wore wrist watches but when removed this meant their tan lines were immediately obvious. It appears the simplest solution by costumiers was to disguise the untanned skin with some form of wrist covering. Thus, the wholly inaccurate ‘wrist guard’ was born. Yet, despite there being no evidence for them and the repeated guidance offered to costume designers by history experts, these ‘things’ continue to feature in Roman period dramas.
Leather armour Costume designers and makers frequently default to using leather as a relatively cheap and easy material to create a character’s body protection. In a fantasy setting like ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Witcher’ it matters little - little that is until one considers leather armour’s questionable protective qualities. What is bothersome is the studded leather ‘fetish gear’ that all too often ends up adorning a character in a historical piece. Pictured above is Australian actor Travis Fimmel playing the semi-mythical Ragnar Lothbrok in the TV series ‘Vikings’ (2013-2020). What he is wearing is typical of the costume armours created for shows of this genre. There are elements with historical precedent, but this garment of ring mail sewn onto a thin leather cuirass, complete with rivetted patches, is just odd. Why not equip our hero with a ¾ length, sleeved, mail byrnie? There are several possible reasons why film-makers might not:
• As shown right, a shirt of mail is made of thousands of metal rings, typically iron, joined so that each individual ring is linked to at least four others. Surviving examples exhibit rings of a solid ‘washer’ type punched from a sheet of metal or made from wire whose open ends were either welded or rivetted together. To make a shirt, four open-ended rings are linked to a closed ring (either welded or rivetted shut) before they too are closed with rivets. Rows of additional rings are added using the same technique to produce a full shirt of mail. But to produce an accurate mail shirt is both labour intensive and time consuming, and ‘time is money’.
• If each mail shirt is made from metal, then with the labour and time factors thrown in, production becomes expensive. The cost might be acceptable for one or two shirts to be used in close-ups or by the lead actors only, but prohibitive if hundreds of shirts are needed.
• Accurate mail shirts are heavy and actors unfamiliar with the weight will tire quicker, possibly risk of injury, and their performance may be adversely affected.
To overcome these problems, for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Wētā Workshop made realistic looking lighter weight PVC mail for both the lead actors and for the hundreds of extras that appeared throughout the films. Much cheaper than metal, PVC pipe was cut into rings, assembled by hand into a semblance of armour, and then electroplated. A total of 82.9 million links were manufactured from 7 miles of PVC pipe. Notably, metal mail shirts were also used, albeit sparingly because of their weight, for close-up filming where the appearance of plastic rings was distinguishable.
To be fair to the leatherworkers on ‘Vikings’, they did create some brilliantly intricate designs to clothe the different actors and actresses throughout its six seasons. What a shame, though that all their skill and hard work to portray ‘real’ or lifelike Vikings is just fantasy. For those pointing out that ‘Vikings’ was not a historically accurate production, you are quite correct. Yet, this type of fantastical leatherwork, once made, has a tendency to be recycled into other shows including documentaries, and it is in the latter where one ought to expect better production standards. Even so, leather was used as armour.
Cuir bouilli Meaning ‘boiled leather’ in French, cuir bouilli was a common material used for various purposes in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. It was leather that had been treated to became toughened and rigid, as well as able to hold moulded decoration. It was the usual material for the robust carrying-cases that were made for important pieces of metalwork, instruments such as astrolabes, personal sets of cutlery, books, pens and the like.
Cuir bouilli has been used since ancient times, especially for shields, in many parts of the world. Leather does not survive long burial, however, so excavated archaeological evidence for it is rare. A few examples of Roman horse armour in cuir bouilli have been discovered and preserved. Typically these are chamfron designed to protect the horse’s forehead, nose and eyes. Likewise, an Irish shield of cuir bouilli with wooden formers, deposited in a peat bog, has survived for some 2,500 years. The technique was commonly used in the Western world for helmets; the pickelhaube, the standard German helmet (a Bavarian version is pictured above right), was not replaced by the stahlhelm (‘steel helmet’) until 1916, in the middle of World War I. As leather does not conduct heat the way metal does, firemen continued to use boiled leather helmets until World War II, and the invention of strong plastics.
In the Mediæval period, cuir bouilli was also used for some body armour, being both much cheaper to manufacture larger pieces suitable for breastplates and much lighter to wear than plate armour . Indeed, the latter was too expensive for most soldiers to afford so its use was largely reserved for the wealthy armoured horsemen or men-at-arms (‘knights’). Unsurprisingly, cuir bouilli was much less effective than iron/steel armour at withstanding direct blows from bladed weapons, hammers, maces, or later gunshot. It could be reinforced against slashing cuts with the addition of metal bands, strips or splints, however. Modern experiments on cuir bouilli armour have shown it can reduce the depth of an arrow wound considerably.
Mail As described above, mail is a type of armour consisting of small metal rings linked together to form a flexible mesh. It was in common military use between the 3rd century BC and the 16th century AD in Europe, and longer in Asia and North Africa. A coat of mail is often referred to as a hauberk, and sometimes a byrnie. Mediæval sources referred to armour of this type simply as mail (maille, maile, male, or other variants). In 1786 Francis Grose's ‘A Treatise on Ancient Armour and Weapons’ introduced the term ‘chainmail’, a term now commonly (but erroneously) used thanks to it being popularised by Sir Walter Scott's 1822 novel ‘The Fortunes of Nigel’.
In some films, knitted mail spray-painted with a metallic paint is still used instead of actual metal to cut down on cost. The small budget film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ is a perfect example where knitted ‘armour’ adorns the actors. More recently, films striving to achieve more costume accuracy often use PVC rings, once again to reduce costs and the armour’s overall weight as mentioned before.
Extra padding Mail armour provided an effective defence against slashing blows from edged weapons and some forms of penetration by thrusting and piercing weapons. A study conducted at the Royal Armouries in Leeds concluded that ‘it is almost impossible to penetrate using any conventional medieval weapon’ . The degree of protection offered by mail to weapons is determined by four factors: the linkage type (riveted, butted, or welded), the material used (iron versus bronze or steel), the weave density (a tighter weave needs a thinner weapon to penetrate), and the ring thickness (generally ranging from 18 to 14 gauge (1.02 to 1.63 mm diameter) wire in most examples). Where mail is not riveted, a thrust from most sharp weapons could penetrate by forcing the rings open. When mail is riveted, however, only a strong well-placed thrust from certain spears, or a thin-bladed or dedicated mail-piercing sword can penetrate it. However, the projectiles from weapons such as war-bows and crossbows can, in nearly all cases, overcome mail.
One of the advantages of mail is its flexibility, but this means that a blow from a poleaxe or halberd, or blunt weapons such as maces and warhammers can often injure the wearer without needing to penetrate the armour. Blunt force trauma can result in serious bruising, painful and debilitating fractures, or potentially fatal concussion if the head is struck. Mail-clad warriors therefore typically wore padded armour, such as gambeson, beneath the hauberk to cushion blows, and separate rigid helms over mail coifs for increased head protection.
Such padding also has the added benefit of preventing or reducing the chance of the metal rings being driven into the wearer’s body. Why then do we often see actors wearing just a mail coif over their head and no additional helmet? A case in point is the example pictured (right) from Netflix’s 2019 movie ‘The King’. Agreed, they are only actors and its make-believe, but there is a very good reason for wearing all these additional heavy, hot and tiring layers of protection - so you don’t die! Imagine the horrendous injuries possible should a weapon strike the man wearing just a mail coif and the rings are driven into that person’s fractured skull. So, if filmmakers want to claim historical accuracy and portray fighting men as they would have dressed for battle, then wearing a padded coif under a mail coif should be a ‘no brainer’.
And finally…This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or, hopefully, some food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, bon appétit.
Bishop, M.C., (2002), ‘Lorica Segmentata Volume I: A Handbook of Articulated Roman Plate Armour’, JRMES Monograph 1, Braemar: The Armatura Press.
1. In Mediæval parlance these would be called ‘pauldrons’.
2. We do not know what the Romans named this type of armour. Lorica segmentata, meaning ‘segmented cuirass’, was first used by scholars in the 16th-century. Dr Mike Bishop points out: ‘Lorica (‘body armour’ or ‘cuirass’) is obvious, but the qualifying epithet has not survived. A reasoned guess has been made at lorica lam(m)inata, based on the use of lamina to describe a sheet of metal’ (Bishop, 2002, 1).
3. A full set of plate armour was made from tempered steel to completely encase the man from head to toe. Despite weighing around 15 kg to 25 kg (33 lb to 55 lb), the weight was distributed across the whole body. Plate armours were articulated allowing the wearer to remain highly agile so they could run, jump, and otherwise move freely (being winched onto a horse is myth!).