Costumes on film and their anachronisms

There’s a brilliant thread on Ask Metafilter at the moment about anachronistic clothes, make-up and styling in period movies. You know the sort of thing I mean. Liz Taylor’s 1963-meets-Ancient-Egypt eyeliner in Cleopatra, for example:

Liz Taylor eye makeup in Cleopatra

Or Steve McQueen’s preppy casual wear in the Great Escape – khakis and a cut-off sweatshirt were apparently standard issue in German POW camps:

Steve McQueen in the Great Escape - preppy outfit
Hair and make-up is usually the prime offender. But don’t get me wrong, I love these kind of images. We all see through the prism of the era we live in. Even fashion revivals are stamped with the distinctive flavour of the decade – people seek out the Biba ’70s does 30s’ clothes not because they are exact copies of 1930s originals, but because have that 70s decadence and drapiness.

It may be impossible to know what Cleopatra was wearing when she clutched that snake to her bosom, but costume designers are entitled to have a good old guess, and make it relevant to contemporary audiences.

For example, how do you picture Tess of the D’Urbervilles? A simple, rustic-looking country lass with straw in her hair perhaps? Beauty parlours were rather thin on the ground in Hardy’s rural Wessex, to be fair. Well here’s what the 1920s thought:

1920s Tess of the D'Urbervilles

And I think this still from Little Women (my favourite sob-inducing Sunday afternoon film) perfectly encapsulates that early 90s shabby chic/Laura Ashley look.

Of course, some people go the other way and become completely obsessive about period detail. When Stanley Kubrick made Barry Lyndon, he not only made his lead actress stay out of the sun for 6 months to develop an 18th century pallor, he also lit much of the film using only candles. He had to use a special lens from NASA to pick up enough light.

Barry Lyndon lit by candlelight - Stanley Kubrick

But even so, if you had to guess from the image below which era this film was made in, wouldn’t you say there’s something a bit, well, 70s about it?

Costumes are always going to require tweaking to fit the age. People did wear some seriously wacky stuff in the past – I can’t believe some of the colours of the Victorian gowns in the V&A. I guess in my head the Victorians live in sepia, whereas in actual fact they were pioneers of neon (sort of).

To finish, here’s an example of the only time a costume in a film has really annoyed me – the gorgeous red dress Shosanna wears at the end of Inglourious Basterds. It keeps appearing in massive close-up, revealing that the centre back is finished with a big freaking INVISIBLE ZIP – in the 1940s! I don’t know why this irritated me so much when the rest of the film is so deliberately anachronistic, but it just really really did. Here’s the dress from the front as I couldn’t find a picture of the offending zip, perhaps proving that this issue didn’t annoy anyone else as much as me.

Have you ever noticed this sort of thing going on?