For many years, I thought I wanted to be a costume designer for films. Thank goodness I finally grew out of that illusion. I’ve known a few costumers and sometimes I advise them. They all feel under-appreciated and seldom able to do their best work, whether because of the egos of the actors, the ignorance of the directors or the fact that their budgets to costume an entire film usually amount to far less than that of catering. Besides, I don’t think I could have made a career just working on historical films – and those are the only ones that interest me.
Costume designers have to work on a very wide variety of projects, from science fiction to Westerns to cop dramas and much else. Specialists in history need not apply. That’s why they sometimes contact folks like me. Money is seldom offered, of course. Make that, “never” as far as my experience goes. They just want to pick your brain. And, because we are mad about our favorite subjects and dream that someday they will be represented authentically on the screen, we pour out the contents of our heads and our hearts. The results are usually less than what we dream of.
Generally, when we are contacted, the costume designer or costumer (there is a difference, I know, but I’ll use the terms interchangeably) will say, “The director wants this film to be absolutely authentic.” I don’t know whether the costumer is sincere but naïve or that is just a cynical come-on to those of us desperate to tell people about things we love. A costume designer once approached me to help research a television pilot set in the Old West just after the Civil War. Once again, I was told, “They want this to be absolutely authentic.” I pulled together in record time a binder full of reference images to show how the people actually looked – everyone from gunfighters to frontier scouts to dance hall girls. The costumer was excited and made the pitch to the producers and director. A week later she came back to me. “Well, they like what you pulled together, but they’ve decided that none of the women can wear any kind of hat or bonnet, the dresses are too frumpy and they want the lead character to look like an 1860s Jim Morrison.
Yeah, whatever. Thank God the pilot failed to find sponsors.
Someone else told me that he had to quit Hollywood after he worked on a big-budgeted Western movie starring some folks you would definitely recognize. My friend actually was an expert in the clothing of the Old West but, when he brought one of the stars his costume, the fellow tried it on and then said the costume wasn’t right. Though shown all the reference photos of cowboys of the 1870s, the star kept on refusing the costume until he finally made it clear, “Look, the ladies want to see my butt. These pants are too loose. Bring me some pants that show off my butt.” I think I would have said something at that point that would have gotten me fired.
The other day, I was contacted by a British costumer about the clothing worn by sailors in the late-18th and early-19th century. It's for a film about privateers in the Caribbean. I should have been tipped off by the initial set of questions:
“I am trying to find comprehensive information about this type of character:
Role: Cabin Boy/ Galley Assistant
Age: 19/ 20
Period: Late 18th/ early 19th century
Ship: British privateer (so legitimate but probably a very rough and informal lifestyle)
Location: Operating in Caribbean waters (so very hot climate)
The information I need to find is:
1. What might this character have worn? Would there have been any type of clothing requirement?
2. What is the minimum amount of clothing a boy might have worn on a typical pirate ship?
3. Would they ever have gone barefoot?
4. Was it acceptable for males of this age to go shirtless in warmer weather, and if so how low would the trousers fall on the waistline? I guess that trousers would have been tied with rope or string - do we know from pictures how high? Would, for example, the belly button have been visible?
5. Do we know if younger males cut their hair or shaved at all?
And so on. I answered his questions to the best of my ability and blind cc’d the message to some friends who really know much more about this subject than I. But looking over the questions now, I should have read between the lines. He’s already decided that a Napoleonic Era British privateer (which he then calls a “pirate ship”) would have a “very rough and informal lifestyle” Based on what? He wants to know the minimum amount of clothing the sailors would wear – so here he’s thinking of how to budget for costumes. He wants to know, even, if the sailors would go barefoot or bare-chested. Here again, I guess he’s trying to save on footwear and, just a hunch, they want to show off the lead actor’s physique. And then he wants to know if younger males cut their hair or shaved at all – so he’s picturing ponytails on the boys and beards on the elders. I sent him some pictures like this one for reference, and emphasized that even privateer sailors would have been conscious of their appearance and, if they didn't know how on entering the service, would be taught to mend and make their own clothing.
But if I ever see the production, I assume that the costumes will look more like this. Sigh.