Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Historical movie costumes - and other illusions

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.


  1. Good post. So, does this mean that 99% of the time, efforts at authenticity are somewhat foiled already by assumptions and predetermined desired set by costumers, directors, and actors?

    The only thing I can think of that break rules about period attire in historical films is Master and Commander (2003). I suspect a lot of the accuracy there came from Peter Weir going "okay, I got a reputation already, I'm not going to do many films anymore, so I'll do it the way I want, accurately - and my guide to that sits right in my hand: O'Brian". From commentaries on the film, the impression I got was that this film wouldn't have expended budget on what is astoundingly accurate FOR A HOLLYWOOD FILM in terms of costume, props, and sets (I suspect we will never see better than that). The production budget was estimated to have come out to about $150 million in the end, and the film made $212 in box office world wide. Now, production doesn't include marketing costs, and while the film probably made some okay money in merchandising DVDs (2003-4 was still a time when home video sales made up a notable portion of a film's profits) - so best case scenario is that they broke even, worst case is they lost money. This is also a contributing factor to not having a sequel to this (more than likely).

    This post reminds me of an article written by Robert C. Ritchie and his times consulting for pirate films and documentaries (primarily in the 1990s) and those frustrations. Basic message, hired consultants often don't get listened to. The article is called “Living with Pirates,” and it's in the journal "Rethinking History" vol. 13, no. 3 (September 2009): 411–418.

    The life of a historical consultant is not close to being like how Alan Alda presented it in the film "Sweet Liberty" where played a historian consulting for a Revolutionary War film.

    1. Sorry to disappoint you, David, but I know folks who consulted on "Master and Commander" and, while they tried to make it authentic, little stuff did creep in. As I recall, Captain Aubrey is always shown wearing a uniform coat with boots and breeches. Actual officers of the time wore old coats or even jackets, with trousers and shoes for daily wear, reserving the more formal uniform for ceremonial use and, surprisingly, battle. Before another friend was engaged, they'd already fabricated their cannon and, he tells me, they were the wrong kind - too old a model for the Napoleonic Era. And, since I've read all of the Aubrey-Maturin series several times, I was deeply disappointed at how the film interpreted the series - entirely missing the humor, humanity and eccentricities of the characters.

    2. This is why I had "astoundingly accurate FOR A HOLLYWOOD FILM" in my comment. I thought putting things in caps would emphasize that I was contextualizing my comment in terms of Hollywood, which is not geared to accuracy and definitely geared towards entertaining. How the two seldom intersect...Of course they'll get small things wrong, bound to happen with them since, in the end, there's that guy over there saying "Let's get this film made already! Time is money!" But you have to give them credit for getting a lot of things they worked on right. It's not like the pirate films set in the early eighteenth century that feature mixed material culture from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

      Also, I apparently deleted my last comment responding to this by accident, don't know how I managed that, so this is the second attempt at responding.

    3. Ah, I see, David. It was late when I read that so, in spite of the the all-caps, I missed the irony. Yes, and the costume designers in Hollywood who succeed only do so because they, too, adopt the philosophy that each movie is a job of work and they just need to get it done on time and on budget - forget authenticity if it conflicts with that goal. More importantly, though, they need to please the director and producers, not the historians.

  2. It doesn't help that they know in advance what they want, but they wait until the day before (or, in one case, the day OF) to ask for information. Plus even when they do promise to pay you, they fail to deliver.

    If I ever get asked for advice by a production company for information again I am going to tell them 'No thank you, but feel free to use my website.' (Actually, the last company tried to come back to the well after impressing upon me the NEED to get information together for them in a day - and then not using large parts of it and failing to pay me the promised pittance for it. So when they asked again (after profusely apologizing for not paying me), I told them I wasn't interested. No more production companies for me, thanks.)

  3. Because I keep hearing stories like yours, I'm really quite glad that I've never had to go through what you paid consultants face. Oh, the stories I've heard from friends who worked on Mel Gibson's "The Patriot," and on "Last of the Mohicans," especially. My non-historian friends all cluck at my complaints and say, "Oh come on David! It's just a movie!" But movies are where most people today get their ideas about history. But then, these same friends who are doctors, policemen, pilots and the like sometimes come to me with complaints about how their specialities are portrayed on screen. I imagine that in Hollywood, technical consultants are about as popular on the set as screen writers.

  4. Cabin boy age 19-20?? That was my first clue. Try age 9-12. Why doesn't the British "costumer" know that the best historical costumers are in England (no offense, Dave)? Why would that go to American sources for info they can easily get in London (unless he didn't know that)?