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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Horrible History Costume: Oddballs

Updated: Feb 18

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.

So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ by costumers in historically themed productions.

Furry Romans You frequently see costumes trimmed with fur in depictions of ancient Roman men and women, particularly on cloaks. Two stills from the film ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (1964) serve as good examples. Top left shows a bearded Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) and general Gaius Livius (Stephen Boyd) both wearing cloaks trimmed with fur, while the second image is of the emperor’s daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren) sporting an elaborate cloak edged with fur which is more Mediæval looking than Roman. In a perfect instance of how inaccuracies and errors in one production influence and are perpetuated in another, the bottom two stills are from Ridley Scott's Academy Award-winning movie ‘Gladiator’ (2000) released some 37 years later. ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ has been recognized by critics as a major inspiration for Scott’s film, which judging by the bottom two stills, is clearly evident. Both the Emperor’s daughter, Lucilla, and the hero, Maximus, wear fur trimmed cloaks in scenes set in the ‘forests of Germania’. However, in the classical world, the wearing of fur was thought the preserve of uncouth barbarians so it is highly unlikely that an emperor’s daughter or high-ranking Roman general would have countenanced the idea.

From all the sources to which we have access, there is no evidence at all for ancient Romans wearing fur other than by certain classes of soldiers [1]. In historical productions set in this period it seems costume designers, perhaps more familiar with later Mediæval representations, use fur or fur trimming because they assume an ancient precedent, but this is a fallacy. Of course, it is equally likely that outfitting decisions are based on the costumes seen in earlier movies, which often bore little relation to historically reality, or the furry costumes themselves are drawn or hired from older wardrobe stock. Either way there has been, and continues to be, a definite cycle of repeated costume errors in film and television productions.

Bodices The buxom wench wearing a bodice that reveals too much cleavage is such a tired trope. Portrayals of this sort completely miss the wearing of a chemise beneath the woman’s stays, bodice or corset. In the screenshot shown right from ‘The Alienist’ (2018), a period drama set in New York in 1896, the actress Dakota Fanning is pictured in her corset, an essential item of Victorian era fashion, but wearing it next to her skin. This scene was clearly an attempt at being risqué or to titillate modern audiences as no respectable woman of the period would have worn her corset without her combinations (underwear) beneath. If nothing else, the undergarments protect the skin from the possibility of chaffing, and they act to absorb perspiration. The latter function is quite significant as it was far easier to wash linen undergarments than the corset itself. Ms Fanning, however, has been dressed in the more recent trend of wearing a corset with nothing beneath. In terms of historical accuracy, this mistake could have been easily rectified, which makes one wonder at the motive behind the decision not to do so.

Hemlines Fashions change so to get the correct style of dress for a historical drama or documentary really depends on two factors: the period being recreated and the social status of the character. In the case of the latter, something as simple as the length of a dress or skirt can be an indicator of a woman’s position in society. The hemline on dresses worn by poorer or working women were generally shorter than the wealthier ladies for simple, practical reasons. A raised hemline kept clothing out of the wet and grime and eased movement when carrying out the woman’s daily chores. For respectable, well-to-do ladies these factors were of less concern. They were unlikely to be performing manual tasks in a dirty environment and yet the risk of expensive material getting wet and muddy while outdoors was ever present. The Victorian solution was the skirt lifter.

Also known as a dress lifter, skirt grip, dress suspender, hem-holder, page or porte-jupe, these were devices for lifting a long skirt to avoid dirt or to facilitate movement. Without one women would have had to use one or both hands to hold up their dress since a dirty skirt was an affront to social decency in Victorian society. As shown above, skirt lifters were typically decorative metal contraptions similar to a pair of tongs. They were suspended from a waist belt by a cord, ribbon, or chain and clamped onto the hem of a dress. The first skirt lifters date from around 1846 but they were most popular in the 1860s-1880s.



1. There is some evidence that velites (singular: veles), a class of light infantry skirmishers in the Roman army of the mid-Republic from 211 to 107 BC, wore wolf pelts attached to their helmets. Likewise, signiferi (‘standard-bearers’) wore different animal pelts to signify they status. The legion’s Aquilifer, who carried the legion’s Aquila (eagle standard), wore a distinctive lion fur cape, while bear skins seem to have been worn by each century’s Signifer (standard-bearer). Other specialist soldiers such as Cornicines (trumpeters) and the Vexillarius, who carried the vexillum (a flag-like banner) wore wolf pelts.

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