The Costumer's Manifesto: 18th Century Costume Flicks
18th Century Costume Flicks
"I love them all!
Oh why can't I have three heads?!"Amadeus
Several films which have employed fairly accurate 18th Century costume in them have come out, mainly in the past30 years, and some of them are available on Video & DVD. While all of these films have some flawsfrom a historians point of view, it should be remembered that these films were notdesigned as museum pieces, and yet they still do offer an invaluable extra dimension tothe study of period costume.
All photos property of thefilm companies who made the films. Pictures for viewing purposes only
1776 the musical is pretty tepid costume-wise, with some really sloppy bits in places. As a musical however, it is first rate, despite the seemingly improbable subject matter: The Continental Congress' passing of the Declaration of Independence in the Summer of 1776.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen includes both late 18th Century and wild fantasy costumes. There is also a whole "Persian" sequence with a harem as depicted in 18th Century European costume books. Charming for both kids and adults, it's blend of realism and fantasy make it watchable again and again.
The Affair of the Necklace is based on the machinations of the aristocratic con-artist Countess Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, in 1780's France. Alas, rather than celebrate this woman as one of the great bad girls of history, the script makes stultifying attempts to turn her into a tragic soap opera heroine, which even Hilary Swank cannot save from seeming a limp goody two shoes. Rent it on DVD however since it has a good costume "extra" on the disk, and is visually gorgeous.
File:Www.netImage-904740-6323385 (Baroque Dance)
File:MwbhImagesAmadeus.jpgThe film Amadeus, while weak in its costuming of dress extras, brings to life a great number of fashions and hairstyles from the 1780s which are hard to visualize from historical references, for example, colored hair powder is sometimes mentioned, but is rarely shown in contemporary portraiture. The strong plot and script, loosely based on the stage play by Peter Schaffer, excellent casting, and strong directorial choices won it an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Amadeus Screensavers at
Amazing Grace The story of the opposition to the slave trade in late 18th - early 19th century English Political circles.
The Aristocrats is a tedious TV show on the amazingly interesting lives of the real Lennox sisters. An absolute must see for the detailed costumes, interiors, etc. but oddly unengaging, for such fascinating subject matter.
Barry Lyndonwallows in reproduction "Gainsboroughs" complete with the sort of half-powdered hair popular in the 1780's in England. The plot is tedious, but one can't really be bored because the costumes are so egregiously lavish they keep one excited.
Beaumarchais, The Scoundrel is an amusing French language biopic with elements of whipped-cream-light sex farce, played in whipped cream white, pastel and off white costumes. (occasionally a person wanders in wearing a strong color to make a point) While everyone looks too clean for 18th century Paris (even the grotty street people are mostly beige and pearl gray) the whole film has a light witty feel appropriate for the subject: The life of the author of The Marriage of Figaro.
The Beggar's Opera Laurence Olivier starred in it, Peter Brooke directed it, and it was faithfully based on the still popular 18th century Operetta by John Gay, but it tanked most miserably and so is terribly hard to find even now.
The Brotherhood of the Wolf: How do you get a long, highly symbolic, French subtitled "art" film on the corruption of the Pre-Revolutionary government and church in France to appeal to millions of American teenagers? Add lots of sex, attractive actors of both genders, improbable Asian martial arts action sequences, and gothic horror. Weirdly it works, on both levels, and most of the costumes (with the exception of the Ren-faire gypsy "biker" gang group) are actually pretty plausible. Great fun if you don't mind mixing your genres.
Casanova (2005) Is an amusing, if slight, romantic comedy, with some very plausible, yummy costumes & filming locations decorating a highly improbable (but cute) plot. Stars Heath Ledger as a remarkably straight-man Casanova, and Jeremy Irons as an unusually comic Grand Inquisitor, his would-be nemesis.
Casanova (Fellini 1970's) is a hard to find film with lots of fun costume moments in it's amazingly long tedious plot. No matter how bored you get however, don't stop watching until you see the decadent nobleman dressed as a preying mantis entertain his bewigged French and Spanish dinner guests with a mini opera where he hunts and pounces on a nubile golden fly boy.
There is also a made for TV swashbuckler Casanova with Richard Chamberlain from the late 1970's that is mildly amusing, and mainly well costumed within a low budget.
has much, much better costuming than the similarly themed , but has a pitifully weak script, that gives Catherine no character development in the entire 2 hours. This has lots of good actors in it, mostly struggling with a plot that goes nowhere, and a "climax" that isn't.
Loosely based on the 18th Century romantic comedy of the same name. This production is a bit slow and odd at times, but the uniformly excellent cast in a convoluted plot full of twists and absurdities would still make this film quite watchable even without the magnificent costuming. Nigel Hawthorne does an exceptionally fine turn as an elderly but amorous nobleman, and Joan Collins proves she can do more than sex queens, while playing a pretentious eccentric rich old aunt with a bizarre affected accent.
Clarissa Made for TV movie of one of the longest, most depressing episilatory novels of the 18th Century, this production is considerably enlivened with high production values (particularly costumes), and good acting.At long last available on DVD...The plot shares certain similarities with Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and it is probable that it was an influence upon the author of that later work.
, set in very early 18th Century America is meticulously accurate, and consequently a costume bore, since dress in Puritan New England was utilitarian to the point of tedium. The film, on the other hand is quite intense and as good of an interpretation of the Arthur Miller play as can be imagined.
Dangerous LiaisonsWhat rock did you just crawl out from that you didn't know this was one of the greatest costume flicks of all time? NEVER miss the opening credits, since they contain scenes of the two leads, a French nobleman and noblewoman being dressed for the day by their army of servants. In addition to costumes that look like they escaped from museums (while still perfectly delineating character) the writing, directing and acting are marvelous too. This film is based on the Christopher Hampton play Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Les Liaisons Dangereuses costumes at UAF
Dantonis probably the most period-accurate designed film set in the French Revolutionary era ever made. Sets and costumes are all based on the paintings of J. L. David during this part of his career, and David is even a minor character in the film.
a Biopic of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a notable British political hostess and fashion icon of the 1770s-80s who had a moderately scandalous life, with a few fairly obvious parallels to Princess Diana's life. Soapy, but well acted by all, and a definite costume treat.
Farinelli, on the world of early 18th Century Opera castrati is visually beautiful, but it's soap-opera melodramatic plot suffers in comparison with Anne Rice's book Cry to Heaven, which seems to have inspired it. Farinelli was a real person by the by.
a middle part of the CS Forester series of Horatio Hornblower novels was made into a color Gregory Peck movie in the 1950's. This film is actually set past the 18th Century in the early 19th Century portion of the novels. It has been known for years for the detailed accuracy of the uniforms, although it is far less stringent about the women's dress.
This A&E series of 4 two hour Horatio Hornblower films (later expanded by another 2 set in the early 1800s, to be followed soon by two more, set presumably a little later) covers the first Forester novel Mr Midshipman Hornblower which spans 1792-1796. The costume designer John Mollo (The Duelists, Nicholas and Alexandra, Star Wars) is justly famed for his detailed research, particularly on uniforms, and not a shoe buckle is "off". The films are full of action, period detail, and yummy actors in tight pants.
Gulliver's Travels, another made for TV movie now out on video, is lengthy, and at times, tedious, but should not be missed by any costume junkie. In addition to lots of splendid early 18th Century dress, many of the "lands" Gulliver travels to are costumed in the way that 18th Century European illustrators drew clothing of other cultures and times. Money was apparently no object, and the whole "madness as sanity" theme which begins as a tiresome plot device, ends up with a decent payoff by the script's end.
plot centers around the romance between Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France, and Maria Cosway, wife of the painter, in pre-revolutionary Paris, but the real payoff is with the slow revelation of the bitter twisted relations created in the Jefferson/Skelton/Hemmings family by the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
John AdamsBrilliant Made for TV miniseries on John and Abagail Adams and their influence on American Revolutionary politics.
Joseph Andrews is a bit of a bomb, with really extreme takes on 1770's 1780's dress, but with some nice bits that take place in the Roman spa at Bath. Includes also a ridiculous "Hellfire Club" type Satanic ritual sequence, and lots of Ann Margaret's cleavage. Costumes for this film were built by Jean Hunniset, author of
I haven't yet seen. It is a "family" movie about a North African boy's friendship with a horse and their travels to England.
La Nuit de Varennes is a jewel of a film on the French Revolution, not to be missed by anyone who is interested in this period. It includes , Thomas Paine and Casanova among other's in this "Stagecoach" like plot. Harvey Keitel plays Paine as a sensitive romantic lead in this French film a decade before America figured out he was sexy in Piano. The last part of the film has a special costume moment that should not be missed, when we at last see what important object the mysterious countess has been carrying in a bandbox across France.
The Lady and the Duke is an adaptation of the memoirs of British aristocrat, (and notorious woman), Grace Dalrymple Eliot during the French Revolution. The most talked about feature of this production however has been the design, done by filming the actors in front of blue screens, and putting in backgrounds adapted from 18th Century paintings and engravings. It is very talky about politics in this era (in French with subtitles), so it mainly appeals to film & theatre designers and French Revolution buffs, but not to the Brotherhood of The Wolf crowd.
Much of The Last of the Mohicans, set in mid 18th Century America during the French and Indian War, is rather blandly realistic utilitarian frontier wear; however between the nifty Native American costumes, the uniforms, and the two English girl's gowns, there is costume stuff enough to watch it, even if you aren't partial to it's odd but fun blend of violent war film and torrid romance.
Mohicans Screensavers at
Munchausen (Germany, 1943) clearly inspired Terry Gilliam's film, while being quite different, and yet oddly creepy. The most amazing thing however is the insane sumptuousness of the production and location shooting done in the middle of WWII.
Denis Diderot played by Vincent Perez in various stages of undress. Online photos and the trailer show bright sherbet colored costumes cut to accurate period style, and some very goofy situations.
There are also several more Vincent Perez movies set in this era that are not yet available in NTSC (USA) format, but which are available to European fans:
(Highly recommended by a European fan of my site)
Longitude I haven't seen it yet, but it has Michael Gambon, is full of cool Early Modern techno geek cred, and looks like it has good costumes, so I hope to see it on TV when it repeats:
The Madness of King George, a funny and touching film about the health and family problems of George III, is another late 18th Century English costume fest. Like Tom Jones, however, the story is so engaging one scarcely notices the gorgeous passing costumes.
(full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade Filmed version of the famous 1969 RSC Peter Brook directed production of the play, with Ian Richardson, Glenda Jackson and Patrick Magee.Inmates at an insane asylum in 1808 recreate the events of the French Revolution leading to the 1793 assassination of Revolutionary Marat, while director de Sade and Marat debate politics, ethics and sex questions that have meaning both for their times and ours. Extremely unusual, it is a textbook example of both "Brechtian" style staging and "Theatre of Cruelty" (two theatre styles previously thought to be opposite and mutually exclusive) . Gets more interesting each time you see it.
See also Quills (below)
Marie Antoinette is one of those 1930's movies that MGM spent a fortune on. Adrian designed wonderfully over-the top lavish Hollywoodized Rococo everything for it, and it's historically silly plot still amuses, even while it's soap opera sentimental writing excesses match it's rhinestone excesses. A must see for high camp on a Waterworld level budget.
(2006), the new film by Sofia Coppola is curiously the antithesis of this previous film, and indeed of all films previously treating the life of Marie, by being rigorously anti-sentimental and emotional (though just as spectacular). Occasionally this makes viewing portions of the film quite as dull as life in Versailles really must have been at times. However, unlike the more soap-opera type films including the 1930s Marie Antoinette, and Affair of the Necklace you get the impression this is really what this woman's life was like living in the bubble of Versailles.
All the talk both praising or bashing the film for the bits of modern music, MTV cutting, and the lone Converse sneaker, really miss this essential point: it is far more historically realistic than any other telling of the story.
It is also a film which tells the story of Versailles as a kind of machine intended for particular political use, by showing, in detail, how it was used. The costumes (designed by Milena Cannonero who also did Affair of the Necklace) in particular are quite plausible as historical recreations. And yes, I have seen an 18th Century gown in a museum in that Barbie-bubblegum pink, so I'll even "buy" those, though not obviously the Converse, which was there to make a point connecting Marie's world with our own consumer culture, not to be historical.
is set in c. 1785 Switzerland, and has a reasonable amount of realistically reproduced costumes. Because of the dour nature of the subject matter, however they tend to be rather plain so as not to compete with the story.
a biopic of the 18th Century Doctor of that name had mixed reviews and was controversial enough in Europe that it was never released in theatres in the US. However It can be found on video, and is much touted online by fanatical followers of Alan Rickman, it's star. It is a bit strange, with a sad and enigmatic ending, but I found the content as well as the execution of the story quite interesting. The costumes seem mostly plausible and attractive, without being especially exciting on their own.
Not to be confused with either of the nifty PBS versions, or indeed with the book, which it in no way resembles, it nonetheless has some neat moments and some interesting costumes, amidst the mostly soap-opera plot and costuming. The best thing in the film is Morgan Freeman, who manages to come off as both period and dignified amidst a lot of plot silliness.
Much beloved PBS version of the 1990's, which stays accurate to the book's plot (although not it's tone). Suffers a bit from a sort of soap opera feminism, but has largely accurate costumes and period decor.
Moll Flanders1980's British made for TV version with a sharper, funnier script than above, but a lower budget on the design. Highly accurate to both the book and history, it suffers little from it's obvious tech poverty.
was recommended to me by a site user from France. The story concerns a girl who, jilted at the altar, runs away to sea dressed as a boy, and finds herself in adventures over her head. Her lover meantime is in hot pursuit having merely missed the nuptials due to a hangover from his stag party....
George Barbier is one of the most lavish costume spectacles of the 1920's. The women's costumes are filtered through a Art Deco sensibility, but the men's wear is remarkably period.Rudolph Valentino was married to the film's production designer Natasha Rambova in Paris, and the two of them cooked up the idea of a lavish costume flick after seeing a
Barbier designed Casanova play during the honeymoon. Rambova is often mistakenly credited with the costume designs because she supervised the construction of the costumes at Eaves in NYC, and made alterations in them when the demands of the film required it.
Much Ado About Nothing is loosely dressed in late 18th Century style, but without any particular intent of placing it into a period. The whole look is like the play on which it is based, just located in a romantic Italian summer in the long ago and far away mode. A very good romantic film version of one of Shakespeare's more lightweight comedies.
Mutiny on the Bounty (assorted versions)
'Napoleon aka Abel Gance's Napoleon This silent film covers the period of the French Revolution & Directory at length. Antonin Artaud plays Jean Paul Marat, and is murdered in his bath (as usual), Abel Gance plays St. Just, and the memorably eccentric clothing of the Jacobins is reproduced here along with lots of obscure trivia from the era. A must for any French Revolution buff, it has curiously little on screen time for the title character, because this film was conceived as the first of an uncompleted trilogy. Napoleon only gets to his first big battle at the end of the film.
I don't know anything other than that it it set in Canada when Quebec was absorbed by the Brits, and it has some well known actors in it. Images on the site look nifty.'
'is a silent melodrama set during the French Revolution, starring the Gish sisters as two pretty teen orphans, one blind, one not, separated by rioting during the Terror. Their trials of survival, and eventual reunion still form a gripping tale more than 80 years after the film was made, both due to the subtle acting of the sisters, and the unsubtle adventure provided by the nearly "Indiana Jones" speed script full of violence, romance, and terror. Most costumes are actually pretty accurate, a surprising thing for a Hollywood film in this era.
-- Believe every review you read that was critical of the plot (yes it is "Gladiator" crossed with "Braveheart" in knickers), but like those films, it is still reasonably entertaining, and has wonderfully reproduced the material culture of the day. Costume highlights include Tom Wilkinson as General Cornwallis having breakfast in his banyan, uniforms out the wazoo, and a meeting of the South Carolina Legislature.
is an amusing romp, with quite a few extremely plausible early 18th Century costumes running through it. It's main delights however are in the wonderfully complicated yet quick moving action-adventure plot, and lots of excellent performances by ordinarily serious dramatic actors who were clearly enjoying the chance to make a not too serious Pirate movie. Most notable is Johnny Depp, who plays a good guy pirate as if he's a bit like Keith Richards on a stoner bend. Expect something deep and serious and you will be disappointed, expect good quality summer popcorn fare, and you will be highly amused.
Plunket and McClaine' has moments, in fact, quite a few. About 1/2 of a good film, and 1/2 of an utter bore, scrambled together without regards consistency of style or pity for the audience. Rent it and fast forward through any bits without either Robert Carlyle as an apothecary turned Highwayman, or Alan Cumming as an omnisexual fop with a heart of gold.
Quills A wonderful film loosely based on a stage play about the fictional relationship between a priest, a laundress, and the Marquis de Sade during the latter's incarceration in the mental asylum at Charenton. Most of the story takes place in the early 19th century, but several main characters are stuck in old clothes of the 1780s because it makes sense in the story that they would have old clothes. Stars Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix. This film and Marat/Sade now have a page of their own:
See also Marat/Sade (above)
Revolution .......yawn.... one funny scene with a hairpin....uniforms.
: Has lots of historical glitches, plus lots of dead-on recreations mixed together, but the primary interest is the complex plot, and interesting characters. A genuinely entertaining film, with or without costumes, it is a must see with costumes added as garnish. Take special note of the iron gray masquerade wigs in the climactic scene--they were made of steel wool!
A film with little to recommend it but a supporting actor's performance in it isRob Roy , an impressive piece of uneven writing, enlivened in spots by the uniformly excellent cast and the splendid fight choreography by William Hobbs. This was the "other" Scottish hero film that came out the same time as Braveheart, but did poorly because 80% of the writing has the highlanders so lofty and noble they are utterly tedious. So are their costumes, which lack Braveheart's weirder edge. All the real fun in the film, both costume wise, and script wise, is had by Tim Roth as the over dressed English villain, wondrously bewigged, and spewing all the script's funny lines. Everyone I know loves this film, watches it over and over, but just fast forwards through all the parts without either Roth or sheep shagging jokes.
made for TV comedy on George IV's marital problems, starring Richard E. Grant. Funny, with wonderfully repulsive versions of 1790's-1820's English dress.Ian Richardson narrates.
The unusual love story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Sally was a black slave who Jefferson acquired as part of his wife's dowry, who incidentally was her younger half sister. Several years after his wife's death Jefferson started an affair with Sally, and continued to live with her through his terms as President and till his death, producing several kids.
Saint-Cyr orThe King's Daughtersappears to be a comedy/drama set around 1700 about the relationships between Louis XIV, his daughters, (schooled in the convent of Saint-Cyr,) and Mme.de Maintenon, their official governess, who eventually was married in secret to the elderly King. I don't know if there is as yet any version of this film subtitled or dubbed into English.
is a complete fantasy riff by Joseph von Sternberg on the theme of Catherine II (aka "The Great") and her rise to power. With Marlene Dietrich in the lead, surreal settings, and lavishly weird costumes, this film has no relationship with historical reality either in costumes or plot, but it is fun filmmaking.
The late 1930's film of The Scarlet Pimpernel concentrates it's costuming efforts on Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, it's male stars. Both are attired in the extremes of French fashion of the period. Merle Oberon, the heroine, has hit and miss period dress, as was the custom at the time. The script has all the awkward incompleteness of the original novel, but is nonetheless enjoyable due to the wonderful acting of the three leads.
The 1980's Cult favorite made-for-T.V. movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel , makes use of the formal/informal conflict in mens clothing of the 18th Century to underscore the conflict between the two main male characters, and aristocrat and a revolutionary. The aristocrat uses his sartorial splendor in clothing to compete with the revolutionary, and the revolutionary uses his radical dress to insult the aristocracy he is fighting. Contains a memorable piece of fight choreography that has the hero peel and cut off his antagonist's objectionable clothing during the course of the duel. (See this site: ) A costume flick not to be missed, it is the most popular version of the story made, with great writing, acting and design throughout.
Pimpernel Screensavers at
(Stage musical based on this version)
The Scarlet Pimpernel This is the new A&E version of The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Richard E. Grant as Sir Percy Blakeney.The designer clearly has fun through it's 3 two-hour episodes with recreating French Revolutionary dress. The focus of the episodes is on events in France, more than London, and we are treated to numerous scenes with Robespierre not only dressed as he was actually described, but behaving that way too. Dramatically weaker than the 1980's film, it still has worthwhile moments.
while ostensibly being set in 1799, is a richly imagined view of a gothic c. 1780 America. The plot, far from being a horror film (despite lots of lopped off heads and a headless undead antagonist) is pure gothic romance, with comic Tim Burton touches. Among other things the traditional gothic female role is filled by the pale and fainting hero (Johnny Depp).The DVD is filled with hours of fun extras and information.
is an anomaly, a film musical where you want to watch the spoken scenes and fast forward through all the songs. The costumes are good, the actors good, it is just all the tedious songs that needed editing out.
, the opposite of Barry Lyndon, Tom Jones is so fun and funny as a film that one tends to ignore the costuming, which is otherwise a fine sort of mid 18th Century Hogarthian revel. Remarkably true to costume period for a film made in 1963, the film also justly won 4 Oscars including Best Picture, plus the best picture awards that year of BAFTA, Golden Globe, NBR-USA, and NYFCCA. Funny, fast paced and sexy it is a must see.
Tom Jones aka Henry Fielding's Tom Jones A&E Version of the story above. Longer, more soap-opera sentimental, but with lavish production values, and an excellent cast.
Many Versions of this classic Pirate Adventure exist on Video
this film, like The Clandestine Marriage (above), is closely based on a mid-18th Century stage play, and like Marriage, it also is a bit of an awkward fit as a film, but it still has a good deal of charm in the comedy-romance dept. and costume areas. Students of theatre history can also enjoy viewing the contrasts the two films represent in showing the English (Clandestine Marriage) and French (Triumph of Love) methods of representing situational romantic comedy in the same era.
Valmont has the same basic characters and story as Dangerous Liaisons, but is less interesting both as a film and for it's costumes. It is however, interesting how the two designers managed to suggest different worlds:Liaisons is stiff, formal and removed from natural behavior, Valmont has the same sort of soft, sensuous romantic look as Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (another film put into 18th Century Dress). Not surprisingly, Valmont was able (as Liaisons was not) to sell a line of high fashion clothing tie-ins that mimicked the softened psudo-18th Century look of the film's costumes.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses costumes at UAF
Young Catherine, a made for TV film now out on video, is one of those over-the-top Barbara Cartland type romantic melodramas that rewrite history. It's costuming is more sloppy than the film Moll Flanders (which says a lot), but includes some fun bits and pieces, particularly accurate 18th Century Russian and Prussian uniforms. The plot is absurd, and the dialogue high camp, but the wonderful cast sell nearly every line of it. As in Rob Roy, the bad guy (in this case Peter III), gets most of the fun, but in this film the leads get to do scenery chewing and naughty stuff as well.
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