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How accurate are the costumes in TV period dramas?

Posted by Natalie

There are two types of period drama watchers: the pedant and the swooner.

The pedant can’t look at an historically inspired costume without scrutinising its every detail, their remarks – “would that type of embroidery really have been used in 1683?” or, “I’ve never seen that kind of trimming on an 1812 pelisse!” – at the ready.

Swooners, on the other hand, are generally unperturbed by accuracy. They’re happy to bask in the beauty and escapism that costumes can provide, so long as the illusion isn’t shattered. Pedants can bask, too, but only when safe in knowing they’re witnessing historical accuracy.

Whatever your view, period drama costumes are sometimes accurate and comparable to the “real thing”, but sometimes forged. So to better assess this spectrum of authenticity, let’s examine two popular period shows, Outlander and The Crown.

Outlandish design

Outlander is the time-travelling tale that follows Claire Randall, a married combat nurse living in the 1940s who is mysteriously transported back to 1740s Scotland. There she falls for Highland warrior Jamie Fraser.

Of the series’ countless design choices and costumes one particular dress of Claire’s – a brown, silk floral number – could, apart from its pannier skirt, have walked straight out of a 1950s fashion magazine.Its bright and bold floral print, and elegant fitted bodice, champion 20th-century designers Dior and Balenciaga. In this sense, the dress is certainly not something you’d ever see in the 18th century, let alone in the French court – where a section of Outlander’s story takes place. But its similarity to 1950s couture plays an important role: it represents the opulence that Claire is denied in her wartime existence.

This hinting at a post-war future, which the audience knows is around the corner, reflects the show’s designer Terry Dresbach’s intention for the dress: Claire is a “modern” woman who is unafraid to stand out and make her opinions known.

Perhaps the strongest historical parallel is between Claire’s wedding dress and the robe de cour or “grand habit”. This was a dress worn exclusively at court in the 1700s with its stiff-boned bodice that laced up the back (an unusual feature at the time), a skirt with separate train, and lace sleeves. It also featured a very low décolletage, worn off the shoulders in the manner of late 17th century gowns – all of which describes Claire’s wedding dress pretty closely.The robe de cour was a symbol of luxury and status so it’s easy to see why Dresbach was drawn to the design. She teamed this with modern embroidery choices, seen especially in the metallic leaves floating down the front of Claire’s skirt, and a more rounded shape than seen on an original wide and flat 18th-century hoop skirt – at its most extreme, this would barely be wider than the wearer’s body when viewed in profile, but could extend out several feet at either side of the waist.

A final mention goes to Claire’s risqué red French court number. Seeing the open bodice – daring even by modern standards – conjures strong parallels to Anna Therbusch’s 1776 portrait of the Countess von Lichtenau.Therbusch’s sitter bears one breast in a manner provocatively erotic and not infrequently represented in art. Still, the Countess is undoubtedly more covered than Claire – you almost don’t see the nipple at first, whereas Claire’s breasts are hard to miss.

Her red dress may be an example of apparent historical appropriation that, in fact, has a firmer grip on accuracy than was first assumed.

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