Extras: 5 MOVIES WITH HISTORICALLY ACCURATE COSTUMES

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by Aveline MacQuoid on January 22, 2021

in Extras

5 Movies With Historically Accurate Costumes
That Made Critics Take Notice

Filmmakers taking on the re-telling of historical events rely on hours of in-depth research to produce a film with unwavering historical accuracy from the moment the movie title flashes across the screen to the second the credits roll.

Leather Stay from the 1700s. Courtesy of Samson Historical.

Film buffs and average-Joe audience members agree that historical accuracy is vital to creating a story that doesn’t misrepresent actual events — or deceive the popcorn-munching audience members who are already absorbing information like a sponge. Without doing their due diligence, filmmakers can find themselves misleading people’s perceptions of day-to-day life characteristic of particular historical periods. Unlike history books or scholarly articles, movies tend to attract a huge audience, making them a readily-accessible resource for audiences of varying education levels.

Many viewers may not look up the inaccuracies of a movie after watching one, so ensuring that you’re presenting the right information from start-to-finish will prevent viewers from accepting inaccuracies as indisputable realities.

Can amateur historical reenactors replicate the same historical accuracy?

In short, no. Without a blockbuster budget and intensive coaching for actors, your odds of matching the historical accuracy are slim to none (see list below). No matter how much research is conducted or how intense the craving for knowledge, no one can be 100% accurate for the simple reason that we weren’t there to experience historical events in person.

The Tricorn or Tricorne hat was very popular with military and civilian men during the 1700's.
Photo courtesy of Samson Historical.

However, it can help to invest in historically accurate props and costumes in your reenactments. For example, suppose you’re creating a film or taking part in one that takes place in colonial-era America. In that case, it can be useful to invest in costume pieces like a colonial hat and Puritan style dresses with petticoats. The simple act of equipping your costume designers with historically accurate details and clothing pieces can automatically increase the likelihood of producing a virtually flawless representation of the period.

Many films have accomplished the feat of clothing their actors in impressively detailed and authentic costume pieces. Taking note of these examples can guide you in creating a similarly genuine recreation of history.

Emma

Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne is no stranger to creating clothes for Jane Austen adaptations, having begun her career in costume design with the 1995 adaptation of Persuasion.  However, her years of experience with the era are showcased in full in the 2020 adaptation Emma.

Rouleaux trim on a costume by Alexandra Byrne for EMMA. © Focus Features and Universal.

With archival pieces of clothing from the Regency era available for consulting, Byrne was able to pull together incredible pieces that harmonized with the colorful aesthetic of the film while remaining true to the most minute details. With costumes featuring Rouleaux trim and whitework embroidery, the costume team created entire wardrobes of dresses and suits that were pleasing to look at while retaining historical accuracy that genuinely represented the Regency era’s clothing style.

Les Misérables

The sheer number of costumes that costume designer Paco Delgado had to create for Les Misérables alone validates the Oscar nomination he received for Best Costume Design. However, despite the extensive wardrobe he needed to produce, Delgado and his team never sacrificed any essential details.

Paco Delgado's costumes for Hugh Jackman in LES MISÉRABLES. © Universal.

Clothing played an irreplaceable role in the film’s historical accuracy, as the wardrobe stylings signaled the characters’ rank in society. However, Delgado also kept in mind the symbolism of each character’s wardrobe colors, ensuring that every scene remained eye-catching and full of rich detail, which was essential for keeping audience members entertained for an almost three-hour-long film.

A Personal History of David Copperfield

This film goes against the grain of Victorian-era costume design. While most movies set in that particular time are characterized by dark, muted color schemes, costume designer Suzie Harman chose bright, beautiful colors for the costumes, perfectly depicting a society responsible for the conception of the nation’s first synthetic dyes.

Suzie Harman's costumes on the poster of A Personal History of David Copperfield.

While the film does pair Victorian patterns and textures unusually, this creative liberty for the sake of the film’s aesthetic doesn’t misrepresent the period’s traditional dress to a fault. With accurate clothing silhouettes and fabrics, A Personal History of David Copperfield presents a delightful interpretation of Victorian-era clothing.

Harriet

This biographical covering Harriet Tubman’s harrowing journey pays laser-focused attention to the tiniest details in its costume design. Paul Tazewell and his team of designers dedicated countless hours to ensuring the clothing silhouettes indicated societal rank.

Paul Tazewell's costumes for HARRIET. © 2019 Focus Features.

As Harriet Tubman claims her newfound title as a freedwoman, her skirt silhouette widens, revealing more layers, as was the fashion for the period for women of higher social standing. This unwavering attention to detail garnered widespread praise and pulled together the historical accuracy of the film.

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever transports its audience to 17th-century Amsterdam, also known as Amsterdam’s Golden Age. Designer Michael O’Connor is known for his lavish costumes and has worked on numerous period films, including Jane Eyre and The Duchess.

TULIP FEVER's costumes by Michael O’Connor. © 2017 Paramount Pictures.

This film is yet another addition to his experience in rich costume design. His collaboration with prominent designers who worked in Original Practice at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre led to the film’s fine, handworked linen pieces and an overabundance of handcrafted detail and widely-varied ruffs, extremely accurate to the time.

The bottom line

In making a movie set in historical times, it’s no longer possible to overlook the details that make a film historically accurate. Audiences and film critics do notice every piece of clothing and every prop on set. In most cases, these film buffs will gauge a film’s authenticity based on the directors’ and producers’ historical knowledge.

For those in pursuit of raving reviews for your historical recreations, focusing on the costume design details can make all the difference in achieving an accurate historical depiction.

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