In keeping with my impeccable record for writing thinkpieces on pop culture just a little bit after the time everyone was talking about it, I have some thoughts on The Queen’s Gambit, which I’ve decided to mash up with some responses to Bridgerton and also The Great. While this is somewhat about historic period costume design, be warned that it will spill over into matters of theme and storytelling. This new generation of period drama is better characterised as historic fantasy. The makers are open about ‘accuracy’ or ‘authenticity’ not figuring as goals. I like this, because it allows television to move towards an approach to period that has always been standard business for theatre – embracing storytelling over mimicry.
How stage and screen productions establish period through costume design depends a great deal on the whim of the Director and Production designer, but there are some conventional ground rules that operate, related to medium and genre. With few exceptions it has been decades since stage work has tried to imitate a period by replicating costumes in detail. Stage functions much more like a storybook than a photograph; it illustrates through indicating shapes and mood, and an appreciation of line and texture, rather than trying to conjure a window into another time. For example, look at this sumptuous image from Kate Gaul’s NIDA production of Orlando last year. The absurd Archduke pays court to a Lady Orlando in her 18th Century manifestation, and the costumes tell us about their personalities, status and, yes, also period by sketching in the broad shapes from the time, while also showing us that we are being told a fanciful tale, and ensuring that the fabrics pop under the theatre lights.
On stage I tend to find that if a play was written to be set at the time the playwright was writing it, it tends to adapt pretty well to other periods, probably because the author was simply intending it to be ‘now’. When a playwright specifically sets a play in a different period, however, changing that period is less likely to be effective, likely because the playwright had a solid reason to give it that particular period context.
There is simply no point in the theatre of pretending we are looking at the real thing. It would be not only pointless but counterproductive to seek accuracy in details of fastenings or fabric composition, when what matters is that your actors can get in and out of their costumes quickly, that the audience can distinguish one character from another, and that the lights pick up strong colours and highlights against the backdrop.
Film, by contrast, can linger over a button or a collar stud, and how clothing ensembles were put together, layered and held in place can matter enormously. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are seeing something ‘authentic’ in period depictions. Just as a photograph may record a moment, but can’t show you behind something, or how someone moves around a space, there is only so much that research can contribute to the representation of a past time. Filmmakers also have to consider what will draw viewers into a story, versus what risks pulling them out of it. The Director of the 2008 Keira Knightly vehicle The Duchess, which used spectacularly well-researched costuming, spoke in interview about their decision not to attempt to recreate 18th Century makeup, because the white leaden pancake would make it hard for an audience to relate to the people behind it. I honestly don’t mind everyone having lovely skin and teeth, and looking like they smell great, because I don’t want to be preoccupied while watching with whether or not a snog would always taste like compost.
However (and the line here will vary from person to person), there are times when I believe filmmakers get lazy, flippant, or arrogant and assume they know how some aspect of dress worked, instead of consulting the people who have done the research (exhibit A: corsetry). Relatedly, there are times when they fail to trust their audience’s ability to lose themselves in an unfamiliar world, or assume their audience will be ignorant of the coding that existed in the fashions of previous centuries (exhibit B: hairstyling). I believe it’s possible to see the difference between this and a lively, rule-bending creativity.
Broadly speaking, hair becomes a problem when the designers aren’t aware, or assume the audience isn’t, of what signals were sent by certain styles in their time. This most often translates into a refusal to believe that a woman can be the romantic heroine if she doesn’t have cascading locks pouring down over her shoulders. The trouble is that until the 1930s hair that was down or hanging loose was an indication that a girl was not yet ‘out’. That meant that she wasn’t available for men to court, and was regarded by society as a little girl. Once she came out, the hemlines went down and the hair went up. This means that the modern styling that signals ‘attractive woman’ within the context of the period she is meant to be living in would have signalled ‘child’.
This image from Bridgerton is illustrates perfectly my personal quirks when it comes to critiquing period styling. The girl on the right (a minor character) is absurdly dressed, but I kind of love it. The outrageous hair is so clearly a made-up thing, and the uncomfortable positioning of the bodice/skirt bisection might just be because she has small boobs. What they’ve done to Penelope (on the left), however, is a disgrace. They’ve flattened out the whole line of her front with that butterfly arrangement, giving her no décolletage, and most of her hair is hanging loose down her back. Early in the series Penelope has a conversation with her mother in which she expresses willingness to not come out for another year, and her mother swiftly quashes the idea. So why are they now taking her to balls dressed as if she is not out? Such a cruel waste of her magnificent bosom.
They did the same to the wretched Daphne, probably thinking they were adding to her innocence by giving her little girl hair, but instead making her beau look a bit like a child molester. And the very idea that a married Duchess would host a ball with her hair down!
The utter misunderstanding of Empire line, starting off the whole thing with some stupid stuff about corsets and tight lacing (honestly, there hasn’t been a decade in the past five hundred years that cared less about a small waist than the one in which this is supposedly set), not understanding lead times on dresses, or how many ballgowns a young woman would have, or whether anyone would really care that their amazing dressmaker wasn’t actually French, or how a cravat holds a starched collar together, creeping Americanisms (using momentarily to mean ‘in a moment’ instead of ‘for a moment’, dessert instead of pudding), calling Anthony “Viscount Bridgerton” when it’s made clear his surname is Bridgerton, which means his title would be anything other than that (i.e. it would be Anthony Bridgerton, Viscount Chesterfield) and a particular pet peeve of mine – women giving birth on their backs, all made it hard for me to enjoy the forgivable whimsy (thrilling fabrics, feasts and garden landscaping).
The waltz performed with a closed ballroom hold happened for the first time in England at a ball held by the Prince Regent in 1616. Does it matter that they dance it supposedly in the London season of 2013? Probably not, but what a missed opportunity. If research can tell us the exact year that it happened, on the crest of a wave of scandal, what a shame to let it be a mere anachronism when it could have been a feature.
The Great also makes design choices to add embellishments, some historic, some purely imaginative, but in this case I love them. The times they put Emperor Peter in leather pants and rockstar coats they were signalling how he saw himself. At other times the care in construction is scrupulous. The series of tiny darts that made the Queen’s bodice sit precisely across her back, the modest headscarf that Mariel wears in exactly the Russian style visible in paintings of this period, and the joke about the ladies of the court not knowing how to wear the wigs they have brought in from Paris – all so deliberate and such vivid worldbuilding. The mix of knowing factual detail with truncating years or amalgamating characters in order to drive the story is very Shakespearean in its approach.
Of course, period setting doesn’t end with big skirts. The 1960s never looked as good as it does in The Queen’s Gambit, except in the fine brushstrokes of the inside of Mary Quant’s head, but the sharp costuming worked with the painterly framing of scenes to make the entirety an artwork. There was marvellous attention to detail in the way Kentucky was still hanging on to the 50s, and Paris was stretching towards the 70s. The biggest fantasy element here, however, was built into the story itself. Kate Manne, (world’s leading expert on how men are coddled), wrote about how she disliked The Queen’s Gambit, calling it “moral pornography” because it allowed people who want to believe sexism is not an issue when a woman is truly talented to indulge in a fictional world where Beth is supported instead of hobbled. The truth is most certainly that, were there a Beth, she would have been blocked at every step by hostility or direct refusal to let her enter the channels that lead to championship. There probably have been Beths along the way, we’ve just never heard of them, because their teachers wouldn’t let them join the chess club, or they weren’t allowed to go to a tournament because they had to mind a little brother. (If you think this is fanciful, in Dublin in 2004 a friend of mine tried to sign up to her university cycling club and was told by the boys behind the desk that it was full.)
But. My personal belief is that there is value in seeing aspirational models of decency, and also (oddly enough) of seeing stories about women who can be awful without losing everything. The man who is dreadful but his woman loves him anyway and his friends stick by him is an extremely common template for a film or series. I think women deserve to see models of this as much as men do. This is a fantasy of not getting grief for stupid, trivial stuff like being a girl. Also a fantasy of not always being your best self, but finding that your crew still has your back. This, to my mind, is a healthy model for those of us who are perpetually anxious that we’re not proving ourselves to be worthy. Sometimes we suck. Sometimes we don’t fit in. Sometimes we don’t value the people around us enough. Maybe that doesn’t mean that we must be cast as the villain and shunned. Maybe someone will give us a break.
In all these productions the creators are choosing when to draw on the available research and when to make a design choice based instead on what they think an image will communicate to their audience. The decision process regarding what inaccuracies to allow is much present in my mind at this time, as I have just completed the manuscript of a YA historical novel with a large cast of characters, and I have made innumerable historically informed choices. Some I know are wrong, but I don’t mind because it’s what I want for the story (for example, I wanted a girl from the Silk Road to be in the story, though in reality her family of traders would have travelled as far as Constantinople then sold their silks to seafaring traders, who would have brought them the rest of the way to Italy, where the book is set). Other things I will be distraught if it turns out I got them wrong (I’ve been careful to only mention food and plants that would have been available at the time. I’m not at all confident about whether the music and dance styles I mention would have been established enough to have reached Tuscany, but I’ve done my best). What makes the difference? Like Kate Manne’s criticism of The Queen’s Gambit, someone will inevitably dislike the conscious decision I made to behave as if skilled trade guilds and family businesses operated without sexism, and to pretend that Renaissance society didn’t include racism and homophobia. But I want teenagers who are in interracial relationships, or who are themselves children of interracial relationships, or who are gay or bisexual to have the chance to experience a story that doesn’t ask them to confront and tackle those prejudices every time they read stories of history or love. No one discourages any of my characters from attraction to whomever captures their fancy, nor from pursuing whatever kind of work excites and satisfies them, and that is a conscious piece of ahistoricism on my part, with the aim of crafting a satisfying imaginative place for my readers to visit. If children are experiencing discrimination in their daily lives, I don’t believe they should be obliged to process that in their fiction, unless they seek it out.
In essence, I adore any period setting that looks like it was crafted with love. I think you can tell when the production design has a passion for the period it is working within, and when the director or designers think of the past dismissively or contemptuously.
All this is a lengthy preamble by way of introducing the series being broadcast on Eastside Radio at present, in which Sylvia Rosenblum has been interviewing me about the many possible approaches to representing period costuming on stage and screen. We’ve called it “Staging the Look”, and we’re exploring the different ways that productions tell you when the piece is set through the costumes. I’ve been trying to tease out how conveying information to the audience about the characters, and how they fit within the period setting, is a different consideration from what might be historically ‘true’. Episodes are going to air every second Wednesday, the ones that have already aired can be played back at any time via the Eastside website, and when they are all up they will be bundled together and released as a podcast series. Please go to Sylvia’s Eastside Radio program page for links to our series.