Costumes and Authentic Period Clothing
Museum collections are very valuable resources for costumers working on historical films and series.
Since the lockdown began, I have been watching countless historical films and series; Bridgerton, Outlander, The Great, and Emma have all piqued my curiosity. However, the costumes used in period productions always seem to differ somewhat from the clothing I see in museums. I have therefore tried to learn why some costumes diverge so widely from authentic period clothing and how costume designers take inspiration from museum collections.
I spoke with Amélia Desjardins, a McCord Museum conservation technician who has also worked as a dresser for the Outlander series and the film Outlaw King and as a costumer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, to find out how museum collections are useful to costumers.
In the McCord’s costume mounting room, Amélia talked about the key role museum collections play in the costumer’s research. It’s very important to study visual archives, but there are limits to what can be learned from looking at illustrations, photos and paintings. The fact is, many old photographs are black and white and subjects are rarely captured with their back to the camera. For example, continued Amélia, if you are doing a film set during the 19th century and the only photos you have are in black and white, you have no idea what colours were used. While painted portraits have colour, they are not always realistic because the artist is free to alter certain details. It’s a little like today’s Photoshop, explains Amélia. Nonetheless, photos and illustrations remain valuable sources.
WHAT SOURCES CAN COSTUMERS USE?
Articles of clothing preserved in museum vaults are the most reliable source. Direct contact with garments enables the costumer to observe the cut, the construction and sometimes even forgotten sewing techniques. Some details like trimming, fastening systems, signs of wear, and even the sound produced by the garment are very evocative. Images from the Museum’s Dress, Fashion and Textiles collection posted on the Website are extremely precious for costumers.
The McCord Museum has excellent online photographs that offer views of both the front and the back of the garments!
WHY NOT CREATE AN EXACT COPY OF AN AUTHENTIC GARMENT?
Despite the desire for authenticity, costumers who work on period films must occasionally take liberties when designing their version of an original garment. While it is true that budgets, time constraints and artistic imperatives can sometimes influence the look of a film or stage costume, costumers themselves, whose primary aim is to help actors inhabit their roles, will often deliberately choose to alter attributes of an authentic garment.
In addition to clothing the actor, costumes are designed to externalize the character’s personality and reveal certain traits. It’s really amazing to see actors come into the studio and start interacting with their costumes. They play with the zippers and buttons, finger the fabric… It helps them find the character’s mannerisms!
Increasingly easy to access online through Websites and virtual exhibitions, museum collections provide costumers with a wealth of detailed information about a garment. For example, they offer different views of an outfit, close-ups of certain details and illustrate the fabric colours. The only thing missing is the sound!