Original, Revival, or Costume?

'Superman Returns'

Superman Returns, Brandon Routh costume

You’d think it would be easy to recognize a true costume when you see one, like our famous friend here. However, in the world of historical dress/costuming it’s not so clear-cut. And when you’re in the process of learning the basics, it’s even more frustrating.

Sure, you can find just about anything online, but its mere presence is irrelevant to the accuracy of the information tacked onto it. When I make a mistake and mess up my knowledge base it’s my problem. When I pass that mistake along it becomes a problem for a lot of other people. And I don’t like that. So how on earth can one figure it out?

Sometimes you get lucky and the item at hand is so well known that it can’t be foisted off as anything other than a costume.

Rose's gown in 'Titanic'.

Rose’s gown in ‘Titanic’.

Other times it’s just so fanciful that it has to be from a film.

'Spartacus'

‘Spartacus’

And then there are times when the costume is so well done that only the fact of a color photograph gives it away…unless it’s on a mannequin. Then it gets a lot harder.

1912, Les Modes (Paris) Tailored suit for the afternoon by Linker & Co. & Kate Winslet as Rose in Titanic Costume design by Deborah L. Scott

1912, Les Modes (Paris) Tailored suit for the afternoon by Linker & Co. & Kate Winslet as Rose in Titanic Costume design by Deborah L. Scott

ca. 1810-1820, metmuseum.orgMy prior debacle was a great lesson. I’d found it on Pinterest (my new motto – viewer beware) labeled “ca. 1810-1820, metmuseum.org.” Unusual Regency-era gown? Nope – designed and created in 1967. A reader kindly pointed out my error and I deleted the image from my Pinterest Regency board. It’s still making the rounds as a Regency original, though. Now that I know a bit more about the clothing of that era it’s fairly easy to see that it’s not Regency. But as a relative newbie, I still get caught out.

I’ve even been fooled by undergarments, for heaven’s sake.

Petticoat for under Mina's Red Bustle Dress in Dracula

Petticoat for under Mina’s Red Bustle Dress in Dracula

Here are some of the “mistaken identities” making the rounds, with their incorrect identities included, in case they’re tempting you to err as I did.

This one is very popular…

'Regency-era gown'.

‘Regency-era gown’.

1910 Edwardian gown designed for Madame De Bittencourt for a fancy dress Regency ball

1910 Edwardian gown designed for Madame De Bittencourt for a fancy dress Regency ball

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Regency styles seem especially rife with confusion. An empire waist does not a Regency dress make. The early 1910’s saw a revival of Regency style and quite a few of them sneak through as originals to the untrained eye (including mine).

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This gown is not from 1870 – the first clue is its Natural Form – and not an extant Victorian garment. It’s the silk gown worn by “Countess Olenska” (Michelle Pfeiffer) in ‘The Age of Innocence’. 1993.

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"White off-the-shoulder evening gown - circa 1860s"

“White off-the-shoulder evening gown – circa 1860s”

Movie costume, 'Il Gattopardo'

Movie costume, ‘Il Gattopardo’

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Modern-made 1850s style purple silk dress - worn by Maggie Smith in 'Washington Square'.

Modern-made 1850s style purple silk dress – worn by Maggie Smith in ‘Washington Square’.

WASHINGTON SQUARE, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, 1997, (c) Buena Vista

WASHINGTON SQUARE, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, 1997, (c) Buena Vista

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This one is seen in a great many places as ‘Regency gown with open robe of warp printed silk. Late 1790s or early 1800s’. In actuality, it’s a costume from the film “Immortal Beloved” – a re-creation of a style from approx 1795 -1800. (source: Tirelli Costume.)

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Those are the ones I see the most often. But so many more await to trip the unsuspecting novice. Oh, dear. Hover over the image to see its real identity.

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And I must confess, every so often there is a film costume that manages to melt its way into my heart and I don’t care whether it’s absolutely, or even mildly, period-correct or not. I love it and I want one. (And Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane, too.)

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22 thoughts on “Original, Revival, or Costume?

  1. Excellent post! Back in the 1980s, when I was in grad school, there were two different costume unions in L.A. Members of the “Costume Designers” union could use research and/or their imaginations to draw/design/create original costumes, but members of the “Costumers” Union could only copy existing garments or reproduce period illustrations as costumes (they did not have to use exactly similar fabrics.) Show Biz being Show Biz, “Costumers” often had to adjust their source materials to the currently fashionable/sexy body shape, but there are probably many period movie costumes that are more or less accurate period reproductions. When you consider that movie costumes are often made in multiples, so that there will always be one in pristine condition in case retakes are needed, there are bound to be a lot of confusing garments out there. The cannibalization of damaged vintage garments for period trims is also common, so that a 20th c. costume may (confusingly) have really old elements. And Western Costume used to have racks of 18th c. men’s clothing made by hand from real antique fabrics — possibly for Rudolph Valentino’s film Monsieur Beaucaire (silent, 1924.) They looked and felt “real” (and old) 60 years later.

    • Thanks for the compliment and the excellent information! I saw Monsieur Beaucaire eons ago, but can’t recall the costuming. (I was into silent films, the actors more than the costuming, and wanted to see what the hubbub about “Rudy” was all about.) But I do have a faint recollection of hearing about occasional squabbles between the costumer’s unions. I didn’t know about the cannibalization (is that a real word?) of extant garments until Titanic came out and was initially horrified at the thought of dismembering antique garments. I still think it’s a shame, but also appreciate the effort to produce historically accurate costumes. Now I’ll have to watch Monsieur Beaucaire again, but from a costumer’s perspective this time. 🙂

    • I love their work – and if all costumers for the film industry held themselves to their standards there’d be a lot fewer “Gone with the Wind” fiascoes. (My apologies to GWTW fans, but every time I see those costumes I cringe.)

  2. Such a great article. Gosh I love that Il Gattopardo dress, though. Major swoon. The movie costumes do make it difficult for research, but I must credit them for sparking and interest in history for so many people.

    Caroline

    • Thanks! I’m not such a big fan of the “Civil War” era styles, but I agree – that dress is fabulous. The designer managed to create something that’s definitely feminine without going overboard into mountains of wedding cake frou-frou. I almost embarrassed to admit it, but it was the 2005 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” that got me interested in Jane Austen and the Regency era in general. If a film production can do that, it does indeed deserve credit…particularly if they get it right.

  3. I didn’t realise that amazing suit that Rose wears when boarding the Titanic was based off an actual garment. You have made my day. Thanks for such a great article.

    • Glad you liked it! I’d seen the two photos separately and was delighted when I found a side-by-side. I especially like being able to see the difference in the bodies from 1912 to now; slightly different proportions make a lot of difference when you’re wearing stripes like that. 🙂

  4. That 1967 dress is the one that gets my goat when I see it in regency boards on pinterest. Plastic, sure that’s regency original 😉 I try to only pin extant garments and include the museum name & item number so that others can check if the link is hinky. 99% of the time only re-pin when I’ve checked the museum description or go back & double check later on for that 1%.

    Some movie costumes are made with a high quality and care for the period they’re working with so it’s no suprise they’re a trick for the unwary .

    • I know!!!! I am so embarrassed I fell for it! Worse yet, I done a fair amount of research into Regency dress by that time. It threw me for a loop, because so many things looked off, but I assumed I was the novice and ran with it…right into a wall. Psychological bruise still healing.

      I’ll definitely be on the lookout for accurate citations, attributions and museum identifiers. Thanks!

  5. This is all so true and so necessary to keep pointing out. I keep running into that Tirelli costume from Immortal Beloved a lot myself… It bothers me the most simply because I somehow managed to discover the Tirelli site before I discovered museum sites etc., so in my personal chronology, it’s always been clear it’s a costume. 😛
    That last Neo-Regency is probably the best mis-label I’ve seen to this day – I can see how that one could fool even someone more experienced, it retains all the original lines as far as I can see. The others are usually even a wrong shape at nearly first sight.

    • So true. It just takes time to build up the knowledge base to know what to look for.

      I think sometimes these garments are pinned by generic lovers of any style they consider as being romantic or swoon-worthy, regardless of the era, and they get into the Pinterest pipeline. Nothing wrong with that – they’re just coming from a completely different perspective.

      I try to follow only those pinners who appear to know their historical stuff, but it’s every-costumer-for-him/herself out there. And I’m sure these won’t be the last mistakes I make, which is why I’m so thankful when they are pointed out to me.

  6. Sometimes the movie costumes ARE fairly historically correct–and that’s when it gets really hard to decipher. Except for when the period is so early that any original garment would show obvious signs of wear and fading. BTW, the pale gray/silver gown in your “1910s masquerading as Regency” collage is actually an early Italian Renaissance style (1490s) from the Drew Barrymore movie “Ever After”. It’s actually quite good for that period as a masquerade fancy dress (although it’s not the period purported in the film). The Sleepy Hollow striped gown also has historical references to 1780-1790. I try to correct Pinterest attributions when I come across glaringly incorrect ones that I know the correct information to, at least when I post them to my own boards.

    • Good to know! the 1490’s are waaay out of my league…I’m still grappling with the late 1700’s and the 1800’s. Sigh. The longest description I found was something along the lines of “a mash-up of Regency with Renaissance details made for the movies.” Since it was for a film, I assumed it was just another case of creative costuming. My bad. Thanks for pointing it out.

      I’d understood that the Sleepy Hollow striped gown did indeed have attributes from than time period, but that liberties were taken with the design due to the visual effect the dress was to make in that last scene. I’ll look into the period detail specifics and tease out the accurate from the not so accurate.

      It’s been reproduced by dressmaking fans in a zillion different interpretations, but I like the original. I’ll look into the period detail specifics and tease out the accurate from the not so accurate. I might try a variation myself one day. 😉

  7. I think it’s well worth mentioning though that while, Rose’s garments in “Titanic” weren’t true period pieces, many of her gowns and accessories were pieced together from vintage scraps and period jewelry and lace. This is pretty well known from even when the movie first hit the big screen.

    • That’s right – a Very Well Known Person in the antique clothing business once told me that the wardrobe mistresses and costumers for “Titanic” literally scoured the country looking for extant period garments, bought up anything in decent condition and used whatever parts they could. As a result, extant pieces from that era became very scarce…nearly impossible to find.

      I understand the same thing happened for the production of “Downton Abbey”. I recall hearing one the head wardrobe mistress speaking about one of Lady Mary’s Edwardian gowns being made from the front an extant garment and the costumers recreating the back.

  8. I squealed (I am very much a novice), because the first blue dress- “regency era gown” I looked at it, and was like, nah, if you’d have said it was from right before WWI I’d believe it, and then I scrolled down! What can I say, I love this period :DD

    I often love movie costumes more than extant dresses, sigh 😉

    • I know what you mean – the best costumes come from producers/directors/designers for film, and sometimes the actors themselves, when attention to accurate detail in every aspect is forefront. Excellent reproductions come at a price. When Tirelli Costumi did the clothing for “Age of Innocence” they reproduced extant garments – a very time-consuming process, but the results are outstanding. (Too bad Michelle Pfeiffer is “somewhat” more petite than I *rolls eyes*…just love the Countess Olenska gowns.)

      And kudos for catching the Regency Revival! Nice job. 🙂

    • Thanks for the great link! I’ve seen a lot of his fabulous work in films before I started paying attention to costume. It’s just so hard to know these days – and going through the work from the Tirelli Costumi Atelier I’ve found a few more that have tricked me. Time for more editing over on Pinterest. And a follow-up blog. 🙂

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