Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When Does Historical Accuracy Matter?

I realize my post on the Outlander dress, and, in extension, authenticity in film costume as a whole may seem like fence-straddling.

I said I didn't think that the dress was an accurate representative of 18th century gownage.

I also said I thought that was ok and that the gown was beautiful.

What?  For most of my reenacting friends, authenticity is paramount.  Why bother doing anything, at all, if one can't do it right?

But just like creating accurate historical clothing, context is everything.  And I don't know if it's the crisp fall air fostering a "back to school" feeling or what, but in considering that context, I found myself practically writing a paper.

For those of us in educational pursuits, authenticity matters.  A lot.  This is because of our claims--we are claiming a position of authority and are representing the past as a vehicle for learning.  Reenactors claim a certain expertise in historical knowledge and most reenacting organizations claim that education is a primary goal.

Entertainment does not do this.  The concept of edutainement attempts to walk both sides of the line, and whether it's effective at either is another topic entirely.  Pure entertainment, however--and I'm considering anything, from highbrow to low, that doesn't claim education as a goal to be "pure" entertainment--doesn't wed itself to accuracy.  Instead, it aims to engage and entertain a contemporary audience and, in its best forms, to illustrate or comment on the "big questions" of humankind.

Throughout film history, costumes do a more accurate job commenting on aesthetic values of the time more than they do representing the past.  Outlander's costume designer, Terry Desbach, noted this in her comment to American Duchess' discussion of "the dress":


"Doing a period piece for television or film is especially challenging. There is much pressure placed on designers to make history “contemporary”. I am not even sure I understand the logic behind that premise. It defies the definition of history...
Any kind of structure that enlarges the hips, from panniers to bum rolls, were going to be an issue in an age [today] where ["ideal"]women’s hips are non existent. Fichus were also going to be a hill to climb as they cover the cleavage."
Glancing back over a century of 18th century costume in film, the goal of engaging a contemporary audience is quite apparent:


Orphans of the Storm, 1921


Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939

The Howards of Virginia, 1940






 The Scarlet Coat, 1955

Revolution, 1985

The Patriot, 2000



It's amazing how the "18th century" looks very different depending on the lens it's viewed through.  The aesthetic changes to speak to each audience.

While visuals--costume, hair and makeup, sets--are easy examples to use, storyline, character development, social mores, and cultural mannerisms are just as prone to re-honing for the purpose of engaging the audience.  Good entertainment is not always made of pure, unedited historical facts (though when it is--it's very good!).  In creating historically based characters, gaps exist that writers must fill--hopefully narrowing the gap with careful research, but likely extrapolating or even inventing in order to create a rounded character.  Same for plots--we may accept that gaps exist in the historical record, but audiences don't like holes in their storylines.

But doesn't accuracy still matter?  Instead of showing example of inaccurate portrayal in film as social commentary or fulfilling audience expectations, shouldn't I be arguing that it's just wrong and should be stopped or at least laughing at the inaccuracies?  

Well, no.  (Except the truly laughable.  Like 1955's hilarious boob-centered silhouette--I think Elizabeth Taylor wore that dress to the Oscars...)

I do acknowledge the inherent risk in presenting inaccuracies to the viewing public--people absorb, often not even consciously, what they see and hear and begin to build a picture of what is right based on those potentially inaccurate depictions.  Plenty of people have inaccurate understandings of plenty of historical contexts due in no small part to inaccurate film depictions.  (Corsets are torture and everyone wore white powdered wigs...right?)  But these people sought to be entertained by film, not educated.  If they sought education, they would look beyond film--and judging by the masses I encounter at many reenactment events, they do.  

Beyond entertainment alone, film is art, not pedantic academic research.  So is novel-writing.  They seek to do more than educate; they seek to edify, illuminate, and comment on the human condition, on the commonalities of life across cultures.  A "good movie" speaks to us.  A "good book" sticks with us and crops up from time to time to offer commentary as we live our lives or face difficult questions.  The goal was never complete authenticity, because the goal was to create something new.  Art is creation, not reproduction, and thereby not bound to the same rules as education is.

And to say that ALL creative work must adhere to a certain set of standards--the absolute highest stitch counting, hand-sewn, documentable standards--is to make a value judgment that I'm not prepared to make.  It says that authenticity matters MORE than aesthetic, MORE than literature, MORE than anything.  In film, novels, any form of fictionalized historical representation, I'm not prepared to believe that. Do I think some works could have done a better job striking a balance?  Of course.  Do I think some reenactors could do a better job situating their flawless material culture in a larger picture--a "narrative" if you will--to assist in audience understanding?  Yes.  (And plenty of reenactors could do a better job on authentic representation, too--myself included on some counts.  Working on it.  We all are.)

Perhaps an equally intriguing question is, "Why do we demand 'authenticity' out of creative fields when doing so merely opens a giant debate of 'how authentic is authentic enough?'"  I think much of the answer lies in the same impulse that drives us to buy the snacky granola bar that claims to be "All Natural" or "Healthy" despite what might be on the nutrition label.  There is an appeal to authenticity that drives us to seek it and drives producers and others to tout the value of their work based on it.  

In "When Fictionalized Fact Matter," author Susan Bordo notes that the allure of authenticity as selling point to an audience that she says has a hard time drawing the line between fact and film-created "texture" already.  She points out that Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, describes authenticity as a high priority for her and fervently defends the "bits" that she fills in to complete stories left incomplete by history alone--yet Bordo questions if this is in truth reflected in the novels themselves.  She notes as well the discrepancy between our interpretation of "high" and "low" representations--critics were quick to jump on the inaccuracies in The Tudors, but for the most part left similar inventions in literary writer Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall alone. This is a dangerous assumption, says Bordo:
Let's not imagine, however, that just because they belong to literature rather than pop culture, they are more historically accurate than the Anne and Cromwell of Thousand Days or The Tudors.
Is the inverse true as well--do film and written word alike seek the "authentic" moniker in order to appear more high-brow, to draw in a more sophisticated audience?  I think so.  But the irony is that the sophistication they seek should be able to tease invention from fact--yet they rely on audience inability to do so in "selling" their authenticity.

As a reference point, consider the openly inauthentic approach of 2006's Marie Antoinette.  Director Sofia Coppola never claimed historical authority, despite the often spot-on visual accuracy the film portrayed via costume design and its filming location in Versailles itself.  Instead, she left open the opportunity for artistically styled inaccuracy.  By not claiming accuracy as a goal, and by being open about the liberties she took with source material, Coppola in many ways absolved herself from criticism of the historical faux-facts and inauthentcities portrayed in the film:
"It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently."
Perhaps if we stop demanding authenticity of a medium that doesn't lend itself to it, fewer creators will claim authenticity that does not exist.

I'm not giving film or art or novels or, back to where we started, historical costuming a free pass, either.  If you're going to present historical fictions of any kind, I rather think they should at least be possible per the historic record, hopefully be highly plausible, and at best be documentable. Inauthenticies should ideally be openly discussed and even recognizable as such. Still, I do think that we need to stop judging art forms on the merits we hold educational forms to, and recognize that their value does not hinge on historical authenticity alone.

That said, it might be best not to watch any 18th century costume dramas with me...unless you like running commentary.


12 comments:

Connie Keller said...

Fascinating post!

I spent so much time ruminating on this issue in my own writing. Much of what I write is set in the past, and I run into these issues all the time. How much can I include and how much can I cut while being accurate and holding the interest of my reader?

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Connie! I know--such a hard line to walk and, frankly, my anal retentiveness has led me away from historical subjects because I can't accept the compromise.

If you haven't, read Bordo's article--I linked it. Excellent and interesting piece!

Annabelle said...

I think both your recent posts have been wonderfully articulate and very thought-provoking and certainly helped lend me a little perspective. Still, it's really hard to give current-day 18thc films "a free pass" when I look back at Dangerous Liaisons made in 1988 and see how gorgeous and at least close-ER to accurate those clothes are...and that was filmed 26 years ago. Just seems like further progress should have been made since then towards authenticity. Beautifully authentic clothing will always, always add more to the atmosphere and give it that "rightness" on film.
And nobody's going to be able to convince me that a gown for nobility, worth a small fortune, was somehow laying around in a brothel hundreds of miles from origin and the enterprising owners amazingly didn't recognize what it was worth and sell it at the first chance for a hefty sum, considering the booming 18thc second-hand/re-tailoring business. Haha, just no. Ok, I'll be forever silent now that I said it. ;)

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Annabelle! I agree that my personal preference will always be the more authentic--and yes, Dangerous Liaisons was a gorgeous film! Of course, one does have an advantage in that regard when making a film about the 18th century French nobility. Tons of correct pieces, all lush and beautiful.

Some of these conversations inevitably remind me of the movie Sweet Liberty and I feel like the Alan Alda character... ;)

Tracey Walker said...

This whole thing is making me feel like Mommy and Daddy are fighting. I love history so much, but I also love pretty much all costume drama, authentic or not and most historical fiction as long as its well written. For me they are just a jumping off point. Historical fiction brings a humanity to historical figures that make me want to know more about the real person.Historical costume dramas make me want to research more about historical clothing. Most of all though, I just enjoy a great story and if the costumes in a movie or tv show add to the enjoyment then they have done their job.

Rowenna said...

Good analogy, Tracey--and I think that those of us voicing frustration at what's "wrong" with various representations of material culture often forget that "jumping off point" element. Humanizing history matters.

Isis said...

I agree with you! Personally I love it the more authentic it is, but a costume drama is there to entertain. And even an extremely well-researched and well-dressed a period piece is, it still have designed costumes. Looking back at Dangerous Liasions it is still one of the best costume movies ever made, but now you can also spot the use of colours that were very popular in the late 1980's. They may very well have been used in the 18th century, but we are all affected of our own time and the designer may very well have been drawn to just those shades because they were all the rage in the fashion of the 80's. And Downton Abbey, which have beautiful costumes, also have a lot of thoughts put in to colour coordinate the costumes, which just wouldn't happen in real life. :)

Then, of course, there is those movies/series that just have bad costumes. I don't mind the knits in Outlander, for example, as I can see the point of having them, even if I know they aren't period. (and over all I feel that Outlander has very good costumes with a clear eye for period silouttes.) as opposed to, say the series Dracula from last year who didn't even bother to try for a period siloutte but went for pure fantasy, which to me just smacked of lazy costuming. In short, i don't mind inaccuracies when I feel that it is a throught through idea behind it.

You probably read it already, but I wrote a bit about it last year: http://isiswardrobe.blogspot.com/2013/11/historically-accurate-or-just-good-and.html

Rowenna said...

Thanks, Isis! I loved your post last year.

And YES--even accurate costumes are informed by current modes. Definitely. I find it fascinating!

kittycalash.com said...

I love how much more contemporary interpretations of historical clothing tell us about the contemporary moment...like the boob-centric costumes of the 1950s.

But this: "Do I think some reenactors could do a better job situating their flawless material culture in a larger picture--a "narrative" if you will--to assist in audience understanding?"

Oh, yes, please. Context and narrative so important in what we do (whether it be costuming or reenacting or something in between).
And it's all about the journey. What we knew to be true in 1978 might not seem as true today, as we look, and look again, either at scant evidence or additional evidence.

Cassidy said...

Late response - sorry, I'm so behind in my reading! I should link this in my post as well.

It says that authenticity matters MORE than aesthetic, MORE than literature, MORE than anything.

I don't think I agree. If someone has an extremely high standard for, say, dialogue, that doesn't necessarily mean that they think it's objectively more important than set design, costume, long-term plotting, characterization, or cinematography - it's just the thing they concentrate on. If a film has great, accurate costuming but everything else is bland, I'm not going to go, "Well, it's a brilliant movie," just because of that. But when I discuss a costume drama, I am probably going to go into the most detail on that.

Such an interesting point re: use of authenticity as a prestige label. I'll have to read the linked article.

Rowenna said...

Good point, Cassidy--I think my point isn't that valuing one is devaluing another, but that insisting that only one is worth pursuing devalues others. That is--to say "authenticity at the expense of story, authenticity at the expense of aesthetic" is a value statement I'm not comfortable forcing on others. I'm fine, of course, making those judgments for myself and my own enjoyment :)

Kitty--definitely. Any approach is going to have areas we have to work harder at, and a potential pitfall of the material-culture-centered reenactor is creating narrative and context.

Cassidy said...

I think I'm just oversensitive because I've seen so much more of the opposite. The stereotype of the reenactor (as opposed to the costumer) forgoing all social skills and tact in order to score points or be condescending to a newcomer/someone less serious, the eyerolls and complaints when pointing out some inaccuracy in a mainstream area - there's this idea out there that people who are into accuracy are all narrow-minded fools. I see a lot of people saying that great accuracy is unimportant or less important, and few-to-no people insisting on accuracy to the detriment of the writing and characterization. Most of the time, there is a way to get at whatever the costumer is trying to say in a period manner; Janie Bryant manages it on Mad Men all the time, with only occasional slips into having a character be a few too many years out of style. And most of the time, the thing being complained about isn't even that vital to what the costume's supposed to do visually/thematically - the complaints I've seen the most about the Outlander wedding dress have been cartridge pleats, exposed boning channels, and the way it fits in the bust. When the overall aesthetic is well-defined and well-thought-out - Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Marie Antoinette - it doesn't seem to attract the same kind and amount of specific nitpicking, because what's being done is recognized. (IMO, Pride & Prejudice wouldn't have if it weren't for the misconceptions about the period, the fact that the last miniseries is so beloved, and the dramatic exaggerations in it.)

When I get down to it, I can't think of anything I've ever watched, or heard of anyone else watching, that had costuming so accurate that it detracted from the film as a whole. In that way, I don't think it's exactly the same as events happening more quickly than they did in reality or people behaving differently than their RL counterparts (those gaps you mentioned) - which I still prefer to be accurate, but those have a much bigger impact on a story.

There are times when pedantry becomes ridiculous, and one person's subject for scrutiny is another person's completely unremarkable prop/set dressing (the "goofs" section on the IMDB page for every WWII movie ...). But the whole conversation around Outlander is starting to feel extremely hypothetical, if you know what I mean?