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How Accurate Are Historical Costumes Represented in Film?

During the age of Corona, and even prior, we flocked to our couches or theaters to experience the art of film. Especially with historical films, we delve into a world unfamiliar to our own that is created through setting, vernacular, and costuming. But what happens when one’s love for movies conflicts with their love for history as well? Jessica Mason, in her article “Youtuber Breaks Down Five Movies That Nailed Their Historical Costumes,” explores her peak interest in both areas in relation to customers, seamstress, and YouTube Bernadette Banner.

According to Mason, Bernadette Banner has an incredible channel that not only includes her own work with historically accurate clothing, but also breakdowns on historical clothing “gone wrong.” However, more recently she changed her direction and looked instead at five productions that actually provided historically accurate clothing.

The costume design in film is often something minute that we overlook, however, in historical genres, if the costume fails to create the scene of the depicted era, the whole film can fall flat. Mason explains her favorite small detail to be in Emma where lead actress Anya Taylor Joy is just not wearing underpants. Now, for everyone unfamiliar to that time period we can be seemingly uneasy and confused, yet for history nerds like Mason and Banner, the answer is simple: underpants and drawers, at least the kind that we are used to, did not exist yet.

This was not only super exciting for Mason to see, but for Banner as well. Banner was also infatuated with the concept that the women were wearing shifts underneath their corsets and stays. Unbeknownst to me and probably many others, it is actually a very common mistake for movies to show women wearing corsets with nothing under them.

In addition to Emma, Banner also discusses and glorifies other films such as Harriet, Tulip Fever, Gentleman Jack, and finally the Globe’s Production of The Twelfth Night.

Banner starts her video with the disclaimer that there is “no such thing as ‘historical accuracy’ that due to the passing of time, inevitably some crucial bits of information have slipped through the cracks and prevent us from achieving true 100% recreations to actual history.” The main difference between these films and some others that might stray from any form of accuracy simply comes down to the research in relation to silhouette, proportion and fit.

Gentleman Jack reigns as Banner’s favorite in every category of period film with her introductory statement to the film being: “Did I write this entire video solely as an excuse to rave about Gentleman Jack for approximately five minutes? Irrelevant!”. Not only does the costume work for the film include proper threadwork, but they also include real, proper 1830s corded stays with a busk. And this is only in the opening sequence.

While it is impossible to go through the whole video and discuss every single aspect of proper historical costuming, just these first few minutes lets the viewer know they’re in for a flash into the past. Bernadette Banner’s wit and comedic timing adds to her already informative and intriguing videos. And if you’re wondering what one of the worst offenders of the period costuming fiasco is… that trophy belongs to the classic yellow dress of Beauty and the Beast, specifically worn by Emma Watson in the live action remake.

Jessica Mason does finish off by encouraging the reader to check out more of Banner’s videos, which, as a history lover, I would love to explore more. Historical period costuming has continued to become more accurate due in part to movie buffs and film fanatics alike. While not something that we, as audience members, guide our critique towards, maybe it is time for us to fully recognize the costuming set in our historical films in order to truly go back in time, even if only for a few hours.

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