Those who love history, and I do, usually have an uneasy relationship with how it is treated in movies and television. We long to see the past brought to life on the large or even the small screen. On very rare occasions the visual media have done this extremely well. But more often than not we history lovers are disappointed to see the past manipulated and misrepresented in the name of entertainment. Sometimes, though, the way the “entertainment industry” treats the past is not only annoying, but also puzzling and ultimately ridiculous. When I first saw photos from the new television series Outlander, my initial reaction was a disgusted, “Typical.” My second reaction was, “Huh?” And my third was a very enjoyable chuckle.
Set in Scotland during the turbulent 1740s, the series’ production design seems to have been done by folks who have little knowledge of the historical dress of that time and place beyond what can be gained by visiting a Renaissance Faire or a pub concert by a Scottish folk rock band.
Worse still, the designers religiously follow the ironbound Hollywood rules for creating a proper historical “look,” including my personal favorites:
1. Your hero must always wear boots, even though they were never used during the era and culture in which your film is set, and even when your hero wears a skirt.
2. The hero must avoid wearing any kind of headgear that might distract from his handsome head of hair, even though everyone else around him does. If he absolutely must cover his hair, the headgear has to be rakish, and never mind that it wasn’t worn in your hero’s era.
3. Take every opportunity to use shiny leather for historical clothing because it looks so “period,” and never mind that this kind of "chrome tanned" leather wasn’t invented until 1858.
4. Eliminate as much color as possible, and also white, from the production design of historical films. This makes it look so much more “olde tyme.”
Despite the fact that the historical evidence shows that the Highlanders loved to dress in brightly colored, even garish, plaids, this formulaic approach was followed almost religiously by the designers of Outlander, which is why my first reaction was “Typical.”
What made me say “Huh?” followed by a chuckle was the fact that colors are so suppressed in the Highlanders’ wardrobes that their famous “blue bonnets” appear in murky shades of brown or grey. These are also huge, floppy “Tam o’ Shanter” caps, a style much in favor today, rather than the more modestly-proportioned Highland bonnet of the era.
But were the designers ignorant of the fact that blue knitted caps were the proud emblem of the Jacobite cause? Have they never heard Sir Walter Scott’s rousing lyrics?
England shall many a day, tell of the bloody fray,
When the blue bonnets came over the border.[i]
Perhaps. As I noted in an earlier posting on this blog, costume designers and art directors are usually not historians. It's more likely, though, that entertainment considerations overruled historical authenticity. In many ways, this is similar to how movie makers often rewrite history generally or create new dialogue, plots, characters and endings to classic fiction.
Ultimately though, the director is responsible when an historical film’s production design actually defeats history. John Mollo, the respected and well-published military historian and one of the most knowledgeable costume designers in the business, faced a similar situation when he worked on the film, Charge of the Light Brigade, released in 1968. As he tells it, the dream project of a lifetime quickly turned into a nightmare after the director, Tony Richardson, told him that he was tired of seeing British infantry in historical films dressed in red coats and wanted them to be blue instead. No appeal to history or references to the “thin red line of heroes” made any dent in Richardson’s creative inclinations. Only by taking a veteran production staffer’s advice to do a test film with men in both red and blue coats surrounded by lots of smoke, as on a battlefield, could Mollo convince Richardson that red coats showed up better on screen than blue. For this and no other reason Mollo was allowed to go ahead and use the authentic color.
A. Publicity still from Outlander, on the Starz Network. These and all other Outlander images are from the series’ official website: http://www.starz.com/originals/outlander?gclid=CMmXk-vox8ACFQGPaQodVz0AaA
B. The Scottish “Medieval Rock” band, Saor Patrol. Notice how similar this band's use of floppy, oversized Tam o’Shanter caps and the boots worn with belted plaids is to the costumes of Outlander. http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/display/24969160
C. An incident in the rebellion of 1746, by David Morier, was painted shortly after the battle of Culloden and is considered to be an authentic representation of Highland dress of the era. Image from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Morier
D. The cap shown in this portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart – “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – is made of satin rather than knitted wool, but otherwise its color and shape are correct. Portrait by William Mosman, c. 1750. National Galleries of Scotland: http://www.nationalgalleries.org
E. Early 18th century Highland bonnets excavated in Scotland. Image from the 74th Highland Regiment website: http://www.74thhighlandregiment.com/the_bonnet2.htmlF. Photo from the 1968 film, The Charge of the Light Brigade, from The Guardian website: http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/oct/27/charge-light-brigade-reel-history
[i] Though not an actual song of the 1740s, All the Blue Bonnets are Over the Border does highlight the importance of this cap as a Scottish patriotic symbol. The complete lyrics may be found on Darachweb Celtic Music and Flags: http://www.darachweb.net/SongLyrics/AllTheBlueBonnets.html Youtube has a stirring rendition by the Corries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O8uqAPCf7U