Monday, September 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Costume Designers for Screens Both Big and Small

I have enormous respect for what you do.

What you do is art.  Really.  Taking characters and plots and representing them in clothing is, in truth, creating wearable art and I applaud you for that.  You have technical understanding that is far beyond what I can even imagine.  Perhaps more than any other visual element of the screen, you capture characters and provide a visual touchstone for viewers.


Costume designers of historical and historically-inspired film and television: Please stop claiming that what you're doing is research-based or "authentic" if it's really not.

It's ok.  Your job is to create costumes, not museum reproductions.  Your work is for film and television, for entertainment, not for living history museums and reenactors and other educational outlets.

I admit, this is the piece that set me off:

but even more than the costume itself, the interview from and the claim that the piece "is based on lots and lots of research. We looked at a million pictures."

Outlander isn't intended to be a historically pristine piece of work--the premise alone veers it toward historical fantasy, and a lot of people are enjoying it for that.  And that's great.

But to give an interview discussing all the research you did--the "million" images you had pinned to your wall...well, I'm forced to ask...did you look at them?  I mean, really look?  Long enough to realize that no sleeves in 18th century gowns ever looked like they were ripped off of a gauze fairy dress (aside from, perhaps, "fancy dress" which is something very different from a wedding dress)?  Long enough to see that visible boning channels are rarely seen in 18th century outer garments, even though many do include boning?  Long enough to see how that boning is incorporated and what purpose it serves?  Long enough to understand how stomachers are typically constructed?  To see that, actually, sequins *could* have been used?

Apparently not.

And that's fine.  Really.  It's fine if you took inspiration from historical images and then said, "I'm not creating a reproduction here, I'm creating a costume."  Fine choice.  And I'd say that this costume does exactly what you wanted--it exudes a kind of roughspun opulence and I imagine that's precisely the aesthetic your viewership is enjoying in the show.

What's not fine is claiming a position of authority and discussing your "research" as though it yielded an example of correct 18th century clothing like this:

One example out of hundreds--as a comparison point.  This seems similar to the style the costume gown presented above appears to represent, which is why I chose it.

It did not.

It yielded a beautiful costume, a gown with elements of 17th century (the off-shoulder silhouette--I wonder if you encountered the fairly common portraits of individuals in older costume and attributed it to the wrong era?), 18th century (the embroidery, the "stomacher" and "open robe" effect), and Renaissance fantasy (those sleeves are truly beautiful!).

Here's the thing.  I don't make art.  I make researched clothing items for educational purposes.  I am, self-confessed here, boring.  But I don't claim that what I do is anything other than a handcraft, a historical presentation, and, on a good day, preserving a lifeway.  I don't claim that I'm making art.  So, maybe, let's each claim and be proud of what we do?  Leave historical representation to the anal retentive among us and stop making a claim that the art you produce is authentic recreation?

Unless you want to pursue historical authenticity.  Then please, dive in.  The waters are deep and, somehow, full of rabbit holes (when did rabbits learn to swim?).  The rewards are often evasive, as those who understand the effort you made to nail a few details are fewer than those who appreciate a beautiful costume.  And you have to give up some elements of creativity while embracing others--making glitter-thread out of mica is going to have to go by the wayside in favor of perfecting your spaced backstitch.  But I swear--it's fun.  It truly is.  And greatly rewarding in its own way.

I'm not going to claim that complete historical authenticity is the right path for every costume or every costumer.  That's not my place, nor do I truly believe it.  However, if you claim authenticity, produce it.  And if you don't produce it, don't claim it.


Annabelle said...

Yeeees. I'm already sick of seeing this dress all over costuming sites knowing that whoever designed it is basically lying about the research they did (or in this case, didn't do). It takes all of an hour of searching museum websites for extant gowns and 18th century art to realize a gown like this is total fantasy (not to mention the materials themselves are being used in a weird and completely unauthentic combination). I absolutely love movie costumes "inspired" by a certain time period, especially if the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, like Marie Antoinette. But tv/movie costume designers should be aware that there's a small portion of the population who are going to catch them out on their claims of authenticity and it's rather discrediting to be found out as either lazy or willfully ignorant. I hope more historical costumers start speaking out about this.

Isis said...

This! You say Everything I wanted to say. So now I don't have to. :) A costumer have to deal with budget and with the wishes from producers and the director, so there is absolutely no need to claim authencity. Most annoying.

To be fair, I think the main inspiration is a robe de cour, which do have the off the shoulder neckline.

And Claire's sleeves look like the pleated cuffs on a robe de cour, though without any understanding that they are cuffs, not sleeves and how they are constructed. :)Of course, they were only worn at some Courts (not in GB in the 1740's, they wore Mantuas), so it is extremely unlikely that a gown like that would end up in a Scottish village. Still, as you say, it is a costume, after all.

Laura said...

Thankyou so much for writing this - I especially love "However, if you claim authenticity, produce it. And if you don't produce it, don't claim it."

I live in Scotland, and I am an archaeologist with a special interest in textile history and clothing types, especially of the common woman.

The widespread quoting of this deluded woman's insistence that she did *any* research just shows how laughable it is. you missed out the furry waistcoat worn deliberately back to front - so not only fake, inauthentic and totally invented but then worn back to front… and she seriously expects to be believed that she did any research?

I understand her blog has now been heavily edited after she wrote her own backstory using Ms Gabaldon's characters - I found the entire thing disturbing, that she seems unable to understand how copyright works, what plagiarism is, and the meaning of some basic words such as "research", "accurate", "historical", "fiction" and "completely doolally"…

Thanks again - a clear and brilliant blog post.

Rowenna said...

Isis--you may very well be right about the robe de cour reference point. It wasn't on my radar as it is a rather off choice for rural Scotland and I wasn't even considering it! Of course, I also think that robes de cour have reference points in and of themselves to 17th century clothing. The circle goes round and round :)

Annabelle--I agree, I love a good riff on historical costume. Marie Antoinette was such fun to watch--and no one was claiming complete accuracy of designs. It took nothing away from the enjoyment, and even added to it that the director and others on the film openly said "This is a movie, not a documentary. There will be inaccuracies for the sake of art." (Ok, that's paraphrasing, not exactly what they said, lol.)

Laura--what a fascinating area of study! From a history nerd perspective, I do wish the costuming had stuck closer to the documentable to the time and place simply because I'd love to see that time and place "in action" so to speak!

Cassidy said...

I very much agree! I have to admit that I might be a hypocrite (if a designer admitted to making inaccurate costumes I'd probably kick up a fuss), but this designer's insistence that she's very accurate and knows exactly what she's doing is so frustrating. I don't care how many years of sewing experience you have, you can still be wrong, you can have been looking in the wrong places and not know what you're doing 100%.

Laura - Fanfiction isn't plagiarism. She chose the wrong author to make up backstory for - Gabaldon is notoriously overreactive about anybody else using her characters - but it's a very common way for fans to share their enthusiasm for stories and characters, and the vast majority of writers' opinions range from "accepting" to "encouraging". It's copyright/IP infringement in certain situations, but plagiarism is only the theft of direct quotes, not characters or ideas.

Rowenna said...

Yes, Cassidy--and I think that being able to admit you don't know it all is in fact the mark of someone who *does* know what she's doing. It's when you're a novice in a field that you feel like some cursory study makes you an exoert.

I will say--from a purely academic sense--plagiarism can be committed if one claims ideas as one's own instead of attributing them to the originator (so, not just quotes but paraphrasing without attribution or outright "stealing" ideas without credit), However, in fanfic, I imagine this is seldom what's being contended given that no one is claiming they "invented" these characters or worlds. Credit to the original authors seems to be implied, lol!