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...Glancing back over a century of 18th century costume in film, the goal of engaging a contemporary audience is quite apparent:
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."
Orphans of the Storm, 1921
Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939
The Howards of Virginia, 1940
The Scarlet Coat, 1955
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.