The Fractal Choices of the Period Setting

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.

Orlando

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.

Bridgerton

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.

The Great

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.

The Queen’s Gambit

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.

3 thoughts on “The Fractal Choices of the Period Setting

  1. Warning: this got long, and full disclosure: I have not seen any of the TV you describe. I have read the first Bridgerton novel. (And I’ve seen all of “The Crown,” unfortunately; most of “Poldark” with mixed feelings; and all of “The Favourite” several times to great enjoyment.)

    This is really complex and thoughtful — and it hits on things I think about a lot.

    Trivially, I think you describe one of my issues with Demelza Poldark’s hair, although it’s clear that it’s also supposed to signal a class/estate issue — she doesn’t have a maid to put up her hair so it’s only styled elaborately when Caroline Penvennen intervenes. I find this interesting just because my students usually can’t understanding that money and class are not the same thing. However, I agree that she’d certainly have put her hair up at home even if not in such an elaborate coif.

    Speaking as a historian, on some level I probably simply have different preferences. Anachronism usually drives me batty and it’s usually at anachronistic detail #3 that I toss a book. (I finished Bridgerton #1 because I was in a waiting room and it was all I had.) E.g., I loved the hyperrealism of “The Lives of Others.” If there had been important things wrong in the costumes and props that would have turned me off immediately. Even the music in the film is correct; at times you can track the temporal location of the plot based on what’s playing in the background at parties. At the same time, apart from the structure / rules of East German society, the story itself is nothing short of fantasy, and some people would say a dangerous one (esp as regards the Stasi). I still show it to students because I think the film says something important about personal relationships in totalitarian, but also in modern, society.

    I think your point about how theatre can’t help but signal its non-reality is important, but for whatever reason (I’m not a theatre studies person) I think there’s some kind of difference between how that works in different media. People frequently think that what they see on TV and film reflects the truth (I spend a lot of time trying to convince students that whatever film about a particular topic is not really historically “accurate”; that accuracy is not usually the point of historical film; and that when it is, the film is usually unsuccessful. I’m feeling a bit pedantic on this topic as I just taught a seven-week “History Goes to the Movies” course.) I’ve had a hard time convincing students that “The Favourite” is inter alia a *parody* of a period drama as opposed to a period drama. This is hard on me as I love these little signals of absurdity (George Knightly’s bath and dressing in the 2020 Emma is another example that delights me).

    But on some level: I can’t accept the notion that Bridgerton #1 is a historical novel. (The author gets the naming conventions right, so it must be the TV people that are gumming it up.) It happens to take place in the Regency period, but that’s about all we can say for the story. If it didn’t take itself so seriously, I’d be willing to consider that it could be a parody of a historical novel. But I read further and further with increasing disbelief that anyone could accept it as a historical fiction at all. Its language is not historical — indeed, it seems to ape Georgette Heyer, who for all her strengths was aping Austen, with not half Heyer’s art; its description of Regency high society is superficial; the family dynamics among the Bridgertons are not credible; the kinds of discussion the characters have amongst each other would never have happened in the early nineteenth century. Daphne Bridgerton repeatedly punches men out (not just punches them, but lays them flat.) It’s hard not to suspect some kind of enhanced anti-feminist project behind books like this with such weird heterosexual utopias — except that the author doesn’t care that much, I suspect. I don’t want to trash Bridgerton for people who enjoy it — just point out that the presence of historical manifestations like costumes doesn’t really make a project a historical one (and I suspect the colorblind casting that I’ve read about in the series explicitly shows this to the audience anyway).

    Other stories don’t signal their ahistoricity as well — I grew increasingly disturbed as “The Crown” wore on. I think the proposal that it should be required to be labeled as drama rather than history is silly, but given its widespread distribution, even apart from one’s contemporary political sympathies, I get why a spectator who knew anything about the history of the period might be concerned. Low point: 4.4 (“The Favourite”), where Carol Thatcher’s real-life timeline is completely destroyed in order to make some point about Thatcher’s internal misogynism and draw parallels to the queen’s relationships with her children. By rights that episode *should* have been about Thatcher’s role in the miners’ strikes. This would not only have fit with a bigger actual historical arc in the series (Aberfan; Winter of Discontent) it would have said something significant about Thatcher’s actual policy as opposed to her personality. I suppose we do live in an age where policy has been reduced to personality but I still found it narratively jarring. I think a collateral effect of this strategy is that acting is reduced from the act of creating a character to mere mimickry (a tendency that is imo killing Meryl Streep’s career legacy — no matter how skilled a mimic she is).

    To some extent it gets down to what we think history is for — you embrace the Renaissance historia magistra vitae view on some level. I don’t have an issue with that, really (I’ll skip the litany of things worthy of reflection in this regard) — except of course that it’s the same technique that let generations of young boys in imperialist countries believe that figures like Columbus and Cortes (e.g.) were explorers rather than genociders. So it seems to me to be inherently political, and while I can’t fully object to that (I think we should drawn political conclusions from history, too) and perhaps less historical in itself. As in the long-term reception and appreciation of the plays of Shakespeare, any “history” in the plays is almost entirely subsumed to our consumption of myth.

    • It’s astute of you to pick that Bridgerton is most certainly a Georgette Heyer knockoff, rather than showing any direct line from Austen. The examples you mention show up how much this topic is an exercise in cherry picking. There is so much material that could fall under the category of ‘historical drama’ that whatever the premise up for discussion there will be instances to be found that illustrate it. I envy you getting to teach a course like that, would you like to share your set list?

      • I’m not sure what a “set list” is, but I’m guessing “list of films”? This time the topic was “modern world history” (to meet a distribution requirement), and we watched “The Searchers,” “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” the Vilsmaier “Stalingrad,” “The Lives of Others,” “Persepolis,” “Hotel Rwanda,” and “The Big Short.” If I do this again I’m going to try to focus it a bit more on a singular topic.

        Totally agree re: cherry-picking. It also occurred to me after I left the comment that there’s a way in which the Regency romance as such has an anti-historical impulse at its core, insofar as the heroine is always a transgressor in a way that an Austen heroine rarely is.

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