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  • Writer's pictureMonty Wolfe

The Intentional Inauthenticity of Period Costumes in Hollywood Films

While the mechanisms of cinema reach forward for advancements and innovations, where story and spectacle are concerned, there has always been a nostalgic drive to peer into the past. From westerns like 1903's The Great Train Robbery to swashbuckling pirate adventures like 1926's The Black Pirate, it is enjoyable to imagine how others lived and how scenarios played out.

Barry Grant in Film Genre: From iconography to Ideology says that genre films “function as ritual and myth”, and an important factor in the ritual and myth-building is costumes. Clothing, make-up, and hairstyles help create the human aspect to period or historical films. Grant goes on to say that genre films are “inevitably about the time they are made, not when they are set”, and it is my assertion that this is a view also indicative in the costumes. Talented artists go through painstaking research and labor to recreate the fashions of the past, but, for the most part, period costuming reflects the era in which it is created more so than the era it is trying to evoke.

Sarah Berry in Screen Style: Fashion and Feminism in 1930’s Hollywood reinforces that idea by saying, “Hollywood’s period costumes usually subordinate historical accuracy for the sake of fashion and visual effects”, but I would argue that ideologically, there is more at play than mere fashion. In Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman, 1916, starring Geraldine Farrar as Joan of Arc, great detail went into the costumes to suggest the look of medieval France and England. In advertising art from the December 1916 issue of Motion Picture News, Farrar as Joan is shown praying while chained at the stake. She wears a laced kirtle with long billowing sleeves, but there is a distinctive early 20th century cut to the titular character’s dress, and her hairstyle looks more middle-American than middle-ages.

In D.W. Griffith’s controversial pro-KKK 1915 film,The Birth of a Nation, a similar approach is taken by the costuming and hair departments. Stills from Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen show a southern belle wearing a typical late 19th Century hoop-skirt but with a characteristically early 20th Century long-waisted bodice, her hair down over her shoulders in the ringlet style popularized by pre-flapper era Hollywood stars such as Mary Pickford, not southern belles of the Civil War era.

It implies the Old South, but uses anachronistic details, making the scene and individuals within that scene aesthetically pleasing to movie audiences during the time of its release. One could argue that early filmmakers were disadvantaged by a lack of resources, but the trend of using artistic license to make period films appealing to modern audience has continued into the modern era.

1960’s westerns were populated by prairie women donning teased hair and heavy eye make-up and 1990’s Edwardian ensembles borrowed hair-styles from then-sitcom star, Jennifer Anniston. It is my assertion that the reasons for these inaccuracies have to do with the intrinsic nature of mainstream motion pictures. According to Marsha Orgeron in Making it in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture, aside from being entertaining, the purpose of motion pictures is to sell a lifestyle, and to do that, I would infer that the audience would need to relate to or be attracted to the characters inhabiting the films.

Through casual observation, I discovered this costuming aberrations. With The Birth of a Nation as my starting point, I focused on women’s costumes from American Civil War films. Looking at iconic mainstream films from several eras, I compared the costumes in the films to actual Civil War clothing and hairstyles and to contemporary fashions from each era.

While the costuming inaccuracies in The Birth of a Nation could be chalked up to the film industry being in its early stages, later films such as Gone with the Wind, 1939, arguably the definitive Civil War film, and Raintree County, 1957, display flagrant artistic license in regards to costumes and hairstyles.

In Gone with the Wind, the famous red dress that Scarlett O’Hara wears when Rhett Butler insists she “look the part,” with its plunging neckline, garish ostrich-feathered shoulder pads and sleek hoopskirt-less form, is practically ripped from the pages of a 1939 fashion magazine.

In Raintree County, Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary violet eyes shimmer with complimentary eye shadow, and a modern bodice design accentuates her chest, creating the bullet-bra look popular during the 1950’s. Compared to actual Civil War fashions, which leaned toward modesty and practicality, the costumes of Gone with the Wind and Raintree County are garish and decadent.

By the time North and South premiered on television in 1985, mores had relaxed enough that some of the costuming might have been considered obscene by the social standards of the actual Civil War era.

While the TV miniseries featured plenty of quintessential hoop skirts, the bountiful cleavage, heavily moussed hair, and near-neon colored fabrics are unmistakably Reagan-era. The costumes are practically indistinguishable from popular prom dresses of the same era...

And actress Kirstie Alley’s eye make-up and hairstyle are strikingly similar to her hair and make-up from her role in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, 1982; two distinct characters separated by 4 centuries and 16 light years.

While these stylistic changes are aesthetically appealing, one might wonder why mainstream audiences accept the inaccuracies. Siegfried Kracauer claimed that the “single largest segment of [the audience] is composed of low-level white-collar workers”. While Kracauer was speaking about audience demographics in 1928, I would argue that only the viewing location has changed dramatically, from theaters to homes and personal devices. My assumption would be that today, those low-level white-collar workers would have only a casual knowledge, if any, of historical fashions, the specifics of which are probably primarily attained from popular culture. Barry Grant backs-up this idea with, “in mass-mediated society, we huddle around movie screens instead of campfires for our mythic tales”. Just as pre-Torah Hebrews learned about Moses and Abraham, sitting around the proverbial campfire, today people learn about their histories and legends from movies and television. In other words, modern culture gets its truth, however one decides to define truth, from movies, and to argue discrepancies in motion picture costuming, many people without in-depth knowledge of the subject, would use other movies as their examples.

Ultimately, filmmakers need money to make movies. Not too long after The Birth of a Nation premiered, “a powerful new North American entertainment oligarchy, ultimately controlled by the financial interests of Wall Street, came into view,” according to Mark Cousins in The Story of Film. That oligarchy still exists in one form or another. Movie-making is ultimately about money-making. Filmmakers need financing and financiers need assurances that the films will give them a return on their investments. To please everyone, movies need to appeal to as many people as possible, including low-level white-collar workers. Barry Grant suggests that “genres were little more than bourgeois illusions, conservative propaganda for passive spectators”. It is my belief that historical films are perfect examples of that. They reflect the values of contemporary bourgeois society. If the audience can see themselves reflected in the characters on screen, easier done when their costumes and mannerisms are not so far removed in time, they are more likely to emulate what they see. They are more likely to assimilate the values on screen and purchase the products advertised in conjunction with the films. As Tim Gunning wrote in The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde, cinema can be seen as a “way of presenting a series of views to an audience”. It isn’t presenting facts. It is presenting views.


Berry, Sarah. Screen style: fashion and femininity in 1930s Hollywood. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print. For information about costumes and how they are facilitated

and utilized in period or historical films

Birth of a nation (Motion picture). Griffith Feature Films, 1915. DVD. Web. Stills were

used to examine the costumes, make-up, and hair.

Cousins, Mark. The story of film. London: Pavilion, 2015. Print. For an understanding of how movie-making is a money making venture supported by the capitalist system.

Gone with the wind (Motion Picture). Turner Entertainment Company, 2000. DVD. Web.

Stills were used to examine costumes, make-up, and hair.

Grant, Barry Keith. Film genre: from iconography to ideology. London: Wallflower, 2011. Print. for an understanding of historical films as genre films and of the qualities and

characteristics of genre films.

Grieveson, Lee, and Lee Grieveson. "A Star Is Born." The silent cinema reader. London: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print. For information on the appeal of stars.

Kracauer, Siegfried, and Thomas Y. Levin. The mass ornament: Weimar essays.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 1995. Print. Looking at similarities between what Kracauer observed about movie audiences in 1928 and movie audiences today.

New York, Motion Picture News, Inc. Motion Picture News. Vol. 14. New York: Motion Picture News, Inc., 1916. Print. Advertising for film, Joan the Woman as example of period costuming.

North and South (Television Mini-Series). 1985. DVD. Web. Stills were used to examine

costumes, make-up, and hair.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Oxford History of World Cinema. Pgs. 24, 60, 125, 178: Oxford U Press, 1997. Print. Examples of historical films and their respective dates.

Orgeron, Marsha. "Making It in Hollywood: Clara Bow, Fandom, and Consumer Culture." Cinema Journal 42.Number 4 (Summer 2003): 76-97. Project Muse. Web. For insight about how motion pictures collectively sell the American lifestyle.

Raintree County (Motion Picture). Dir. Edward Dmytryk. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

picture, 1957. DVD. Web. Stills were used to examine costumes, make-up, and hair.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Dir. Nicholas Meyer. Paramount Pictures, 1982. DVD. For make-up and hairstyle comparison of Kirstie Alley's role in this film and North and South.

Taylor, Cora W. Masters and masterpieces of the screen: a comprehensive survey of the motion pictures, from the ear. Pg. 15: P.F. Collier, 1927. Print. Still images from Birth of a Nation showing costumes and hairstyles.

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