Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Friday, January 22, 2021

My Beef with the Bridgerton Costumes

Yes, of course I watched Bridgerton

I had lots of opinions but generally I enjoyed it. Similar to my thoughts on The Great, I liked the idea of just embracing that this was a fantasy version of history. It was full of inaccuracies but its goal is to be fun and escapist. 

It was funny for me to see what kinds of inaccuracies I liked or didn't mind, and which ones infuriated me. Diverse cast? Great. Costumes made with bright, modern colors and embroidery that could only be done by machine? Ridiculous, but sort of fun. 

A scene when someone is being tight-laced into a corset? 

I watched several costume reviews on YouTube and my favorite comment about this scene was an exhausted fashion historian saying "I ain't got no time for corset bullshit" and I FELT that. (The same reviewer has a great video about corset myths if you want the full picture). There is a lot wrong with the scene but the basic thing is why would she try so hard to get a small waist in an era when dresses completely obscure the waist??

Well, actually that brings me to my second problem with the costumes. Why did Lady Featherington have a totally different silhouette than everyone else? Different neckline and tighter on the waist? I get that she is supposed to be "tacky" but the fabrics are already accomplishing that. Why give her distinctly different dresses than EVERYONE else? 

But perhaps my BIGGEST annoyance was the fact that QUEEN CHARLOTTE dressed in fashions that were at least 40 year old. She and her ladies-in-waiting were back in the 1770s while everyone else was generally in 1813 (except Lady Featherington who was just floating off into space by herself). 

This is a weird period movie trope of having older, rich women wear things decades out of style. Not a few years behind. DECADES. Not a women who doesn't have the resources to stay up on the latest styles. A woman with RESOURCES. In this case THE RICHEST LADY IN THE COUNTRY aka THE QUEEN.

Like the corset thing, this one hits harder because it isn't just a fun, fresh idea that the production team wanted to experiment with. It is actually a dumb pattern that has been cropping up in period movies made in the 21st century. Here are some other examples:  

Cranford takes place in the early 1840s. Above is Lady Ludlow, who lives in a gigantic estate and is the richest person in the whole story. She dresses like it is the 1790s, with her hair from even earlier. 

This is Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 2005 Pride & Prejudice. Not only the highest status person in the story but arguably in all of Jane Austen. The movie is set in the 1790s, but she dresses more like the 1760s or 1770s. 

It is also worth noting that, while she is not as rich, the movie makes a similar silhouette choice for Mrs. Bennett. 

I haven't seen Sanditon, but based on the promo images, it is clear it has this same problem. 

Everyone here is in the Regency period, except the lady on the right who is stuck in the Rococo. 

These movies are all basically inventing this mythology that, in the past, the older and richer you were, the more stubborn you were about changing fashions. And not a little stubborn. Like, 30-50 years stubborn. This is simply not true. There have been some historical eras when styles changed radically in a short period of time, and some women (and men) did lag behind. But really we are talking a single decade behind at most, and even then a wealthy woman wouldn't be literally wearing her same old clothes. What happened instead was usually some kind of hybrid-- she would have her dressmaker stick with some older elements that she was more comfortable with, but also include newer elements that kept up with the times as much as possible. Frock Flicks has a great recap of one of these "hybrid" eras which includes Queen Charlotte (and debunks the idea she didn't update her fashion). 

Now, to be fair, Bridgerton used this nonsense choice to put Queen C in some gorgeous gowns and fabulous wigs, so I'm not claiming she didn't look good. 

But even when these older gowns are fab, it makes the production seem cheap to me. It automatically feels like some community theater show which simply didn't have enough options in their costume stock from the right period, and so makes it up. Same problem with Lady Featherington. Her styles seem vaguely 1960s to me, so it's like the time I was in the ensemble of a community theater production of My Fair Lady and was wearing a 1970s dress for the big ball scene. I wasn't the lead and it was the best they had on hand. But I suspect "this the best we could do" wasn't the vibe Bridgerton was aiming for. 

In summary, I made this Venn diagram: 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

I have a problem with skirts in The Queen's Gambit

Looks like I've taken a six month break from blogging, but we are still living with covid restrictions, the world is really stressful, and I'm watching period shows again. So here we are!

I recently watched The Queen's Gambit and agreed with the general consensus that it was excellent and the costumes were gorgeous. I also love a female character is was smart and also interested in clothes. Too often those are treated as mutually exclusive things. BUT there was one particular costume choice that I had a BIG problem with: LONG FULL SKIRTS IN 1966.

Beth wears this dress at two chess tournaments in 1966: Las Vegas and Mexico City. So we see a lot of it from many angles. The skirt is fluffy and full, and she wears a crinoline under it to make it even fuller. 

This silhouette: a small waist with full skirt that falls well below the knee is very 1950s. It lingered in the early 1960s, but was pretty outdated by 1966. We actually see the dress at Ben Snyder when Beth first visits the store with her mother--in 1963.  Several costumes from the show, including this dress are on display at the Brooklyn Museum right now. The online exhibit dates it to 1960. So by the show's own admission, this dress is 3-6 years old. 

In fashion school, I remember my professor saying "the 1960s were like 100 years," meaning that so many styles and changes in fashion were packed into a very short amount of time. So picking a 1950 dress to portray 1956 might not be so noticeable, but wearing a 1960 dress in 1966 would. It isn't just one dress though. Most of the outfits Beth wears at these two competitions have similar full, long skirts. 

This last one is reallllly long. 

I poked around online to see if any other fashion historians were pointing this out. I found this video which mentions the skirts but is very forgiving. She argues 1) Beth is young and still figuring out her style. She goes through a major style transformation after these tournaments and the costume designer wanted to show a contrast. 2) She is from Kentucky and so she and her peers are a bit behind the times. Ok, so I can handle the first explanation even though I disagree that this is the right choice to portray it. But I have a BIG problem with the "people in Kentucky don't know any better" argument. 

This "Kentucky is still stuck in the 1950s" idea is played out in the scenes of Beth at high school. While most of these take place in 1963, where it was more reasonable to find these full skirts lingering, her classmates wear aggressively stereotypical 1950s clothes. Like, saddle shoes and literal poodle skirts. 

It should be noted that these are the popular girls. The girls who make fun of Beth for shopping in the discount section--which suggests that they are affluent enough to not buy discount and have some sense of what is "in." We would expect them to be the most fashion forward students at the school. And let's be real, Lexington is a city. Not London or Paris, sure, but not exactly rural. It is 1963 and they all look like extras in Grease

Two women at the 1962 Worlds Fair in Seattle

As a fashion historian out in Seattle, I've also heard some version of this from people on the other coast--this idea that the farther you get from New York the farther back in time the fashion goes. No. Let me stop you right there. This line of thinking is ridiculous and condescending and shows a gross misunderstanding of the American fashion system and ready-to-wear industry. Sure, teens in Lexington aren't likely to be on the cutting edge. A few months behind? Sure. But this is the 20th century. They have newspapers, and magazines, and TV. They have seen Jackie Kennedy in her boxy jackets and straight skirts. And if it were true that people in distant corners of America were 2-6 years behind on fashion, my mother would have been the poster child for that. 

In 1966 my mother was a senior at Lustre Christian High School in rural Montana. And by rural I mean rural. Lustre is a farming community about an hour drive outside of Glasgow Montana, which was recently certified as the middle of nowhere. Here are some pics I found in her 1966 yearbook:  

My mom is in the front row, fourth from the left. The girl second from left has a fuller skirt with a tighter waistline, but it is a pleated skirt not a circle skirt. Everyone else has very straight skirts and loose or dropped waistlines. Most of the dresses are homemade and certainly nothing "designer," but still pretty representative of the 1966 silhouette. There were some much shorter mini skirts out in the world at this time, so the just-at-the-knee length is on the conservative side--but they are all still shorter than the skirts that Beth wears!  

This is the senior class (yes, the whole class) singing at graduation. All the girls are wearing matching white dresses which are straight and again, fall right at the knee. And this is a farming community HOURS drive away from anything resembling a city the size of Lexington, Kentucky. 

These were the most fashion forward girls I spotted in the 1966 yearbook but my mom was quick to interject that they were stylish because they were from farther away and lived in the school dorm. Oh were they from Chicago or something? Or exchange students from London? No, they just lived "closer to Wolf Point." Um, Wolf Point is the town that came in 3rd on that list of "middle of nowhere" communities. 

When I asked my mom if she thought Lustre was behind the times in terms of fashion, she sort of scoffed and said "we had the Sears catalog." Which is to say that no, they weren't reading Vogue or up on what was going on in the streets of London or the runways of Paris. But even the most mainstream, middle American source for fashion was still readily available. The way fashion goes from Vogue to Sears isn't about a length of time as much as a translation of a cutting edge looks into something more affordable and sellable (or sewable). The American ready-to-wear industry was very experienced at this quick-translation game because customers all over the country wanted the "latest" styles, just in versions that they could afford or sew themselves. It turns out you can view an entire 1966 Sears Catalog online here, so let's see what kind of fashion images were available to teens from "backwater" places like Kentucky and Montana. 

Not cutting edge, but a solid representation of mid-1960s style. And WAY more fashion forward than what Beth wears to her tournaments. 

Now, TO BE FAIR I was surprised to see a few fuller skirts in the Sears catalog. I spotted this green one in the image below and a few more marketed to older women. So I'm not saying that fuller skirts had completely vanished from the planet by 1966. But while the skirts were full, they were much shorter than what Beth wears. Townes acts impressed by how "grown up" Beth looks when he sees her in Las Vegas, but she would have actually looked very dowdy for the time. 

Now I can accept "we took some artistic license with Beth's costumes to show a more dramatic change after her 1966 tournaments" and "we picked these longer skirts because they looked great on the actress and would appeal to the 2020 audience." Fine. Sure. But realistically, a teen girl with her own money and a budding interest in fashion would be picking more updated looks. The "well, she was from Kentucky," argument is just nonsense. If the girls at Lustre Christian High School knew about current fashion trends, the girls in Lexington certainly did too. 

I'm coming for you next, Bridgerton. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Period Shows I Bailed On

As you can see, I have been making my way pretty quickly through the historical movies and tv options on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I'm always craving that new show that I will fall in love with, which means I have taken a chance on some things that ended up not being my jam. Here is a recap:

The English Game

The previews and promo images for this show include women in bustles which made me think I would like it. Also: Old-timey sports fashion! Class conflict! What looks like the same mill where North & South was shot! It is about football (I think the "soccer" kind of football but not 100% sure) but I stupidly was like "maybe there won't be so much of that."

I made it to the first game (match?) and remembered something about sports-focused movies/tv. They aren't just going to talk about the sport and do some sports things briefly. The whole show will hinge on long game scenes in which each play is important and you have to focus because some detail of what happened will shape the characters and their motivations I was just like...

My recommended fix: 

Less sportsball. More bustles. Or maybe change the sport to something women can play while wearing bustles? I guess what I really want is an extended version of the archery scene in Daniel Deronda.


Turn: Washington's Spies

I keep seeing this on the list of historical shows on Netflix (yes, the Netflix algorithm gives me a "historical TV shows" category) and finally I gave it a shot.

Why I thought I might like it:

But here are some things I don't like, which I probably should have guessed would have been part of a story about spies during the American Revolution.

  • Stories about wars and battles 
  • Shows where most of the cast are men and all the main storylines are about men
  • Stories where characters are constantly in tense and dangerous situations

So SHOCKINGLY I didn't enjoy it and gave up. But the biggest insult was that J. J. Field's character had a wig with these awful little white rat-tail braids.

Recommended fix:

Is there a way to make a show with a bunch of military uniforms that isn't like, about a war? Or about the British army but somehow not be super problematic and colonialist? Maybe a show where J. J. Field's character clips off the braids and goes around the country saying nice things to ladies in that Alan Rickman deep voice he has?

Maybe he can talk about muslin


Ok, my bad on the other shows, but this one really should have been up my alley. Dickensian takes a bunch of characters from Charles Dickens books and puts them together for a new story. I mean, I seem like the exact target demographic for that.

I gave this a two-episode try, but finally had to admit that I wasn't enjoying it all and didn't look forward to anything about how it would unfold. The main problem was that it was a prequel to the action of the books where all these characters appear. In the first episode there was this young woman named Amelia whose father had died, and she seemed like she was going to be one of the lead characters. Only near the end of the first episode do we learn her last name: Havisham.

Uh oh

I know that origin stories are hot these days, but it does take some of the suspense out of it. This gal is going to fall in love and it isn't going to go great.

But it will be Goth AF

The same goes for the other leading lady. Her name was less familiar, but some internet searching and I realized she was the future Lady Deadlock from Bleak House. Ah ok. So I now know exactly how her story will play out.

She ends up very happy and fulfilled

The inevitability just seemed to take all the fun out of it. Plus, there wasn't much fun to be had in the first place. The show interpreted "Dickensian" to mean "dark and gritty" without much joy and humor also found in his stories. Watching the rest of the episodes seemed like a slog.

Recommended fix:

Why do a prequel? Why not connect all these characters after the main action of their stories and have them all go in surprising and unexpected directions? You could start where Our Mutual Friend leaves off (the final completed novel) with the enigmatic Mortimer Lightwood walking off into the night. Mortimer spends most of Our Mutual Friend being detached and sardonic, but he is also shown to be compassionate and kindhearted. He is observant, critical of the follies of London society, unmarried, and you can reasonably interpret him as gay or bi. Wouldn't he be an interesting character to follow into a new story?

For the record this is a legitimately good idea.