16th century, 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, costume in cinema, Uncategorized

Early Cinematic Inspiration

The conversation on my movie review of Amadeus sparked an interesting discussion about early inspirations for costuming, and Lylassandra said, “I would LOVE a blog post about which movies (and other experiences) first inspired your love of costuming.” I think the “other experiences” is worth chatting about, but that’s enough to be another post… but sure, I’d love to yammer about early costume movies!

Of course, the first thing I did was go through my movie reviews and some online lists of costume movies to try to remember which ones had an impact on me. I’ll confess right here that I was born in 1974, so I was probably too young to see Amadeus or Dangerous Liaisons when they first came out.

The first thing that came to mind was all of the not-quite-there inspirations, so the beginning of this post might seem a little flimsy, but then I’ll get to the knocked-me-over ones at the end, so stick with it!

For sure, Gone With the Wind was an early one. I remember my mother buying me a VHS boxed set, and I definitely watched it a number of times. I remember LOVING the huge crinoline skirts, but being frustrated by all the short sleeves and weirdly 1890s elements in what should have been the bustle years. And I was too young to think Rhett Butler was terribly attractive (he just seemed kind of greasy), and I thought Ashley was super annoying. So it was always a less than satisfying watch! I will say that I hadn’t watched this for years, when about a year ago our local art deco movie theater showed it. I went to see it and apparently I am now the right age to appreciate Rhett Butler, because HOT DAMN! I was swooning!

I’m sure I didn’t see My Brilliant Career (1979) when it first came out, since I would have been about 5, but I must have seen it when I was relatively young because it is one that has always stuck with me… probably more so for the extremely literate and fascinating main character, but also for her ugly duckling-ness. I remember being fascinated that she COULD go a different route… This is a movie I think too few people have seen. If you at all like strong heroines and complex stories, WATCH THIS.

I definitely watched and rewatched Far and Away (1992) a number of times, mostly because it was a historical romance. I always thought it was cheesy, and I’ve always been irritated by Tom Cruise and loved Nicole Kidman. The costume era wasn’t one that really thrilled me, but again, romance! History! Costumes! Hey, I was just graduating high school…

Other ones I specifically remember are:

  • Orlando (1992) — I think the artiness of it confused me, but I loved the huge white 18th century dress:

  • Age of Innocence (1993) was visually and costume-wise stunning, although the overwhelming theme of restraint made it less-than-perfect to me. I do remember thinking that I could NEVER make a costume as fabulous and complex as the bustle gowns worn in the ball scene.

  • Interview With a Vampire (1994) had some great elements but Tom Cruise was a big wet blanket on the whole thing, and there weren’t enough (grown up) female characters featured for me. I did love Madeleine’s dress:

  • Queen Margot (1994) got a little too rambly and depressing in the second half, and I had done enough renfaire to know that all the slutty no-chemise/partlets and open bodices weren’t correct… but I’ve always loved her redheaded lady-in-waiting’s look (okay, mostly the hair):

  • I definitely remember seeing Little Women (1994) in the theater and loving it — I’ve loved the book since I was a kid, and reread it multiple times — but it’s not really a shiny movie. The highlights were Meg March’s dressed up ballgown, and adult Amy’s bustle dresses:

  • Portrait of a Lady (1996) blew me away costume-wise, but again, a depressing story that I probably wasn’t old enough to really appreciate. I would very much like to take a walk in the rain in a bustle gown along with Isabel Archer and Madame Merle.

So what DID do it for me? What imprinted fundamentally on my consciousness? Hands down, it has to be Merchant/Ivory.

I saw Jefferson in Paris (1995) IN Paris, on my very first trip to France. I had been studying abroad in Scotland for a semester, and afterwards I did a whirlwind two weeks in Western Europe with a college friend. We arrived in Paris and relatively early on, wandered down the Champs-Elysees and saw posters for a costume movie, and I was sold. I remember LOVING everything about the French characters, but of course, the film tries (with only limited success) to explore some darker elements, and that limited success dampened things for me a bit. But dear god, the lushness of the costumes — not just great dresses, but great wigs! Hats (shout out to Mela Hoyt-Heydon, who I think made them)! Accessories! Amazing locations! It was an era I didn’t really know or have much chance to encounter, but probably my love of the 18th century dates from this movie. If only the movie had been focused on Maria Cosway, I think I’d die and go to heaven. Greta Scaachi is an amazing actress, and those shots of her in the Opera scene — just, whoa. (That’s a real fantasy of mine, going to the opera in 18th century costume, but of course I’d want everyone to be in 18th century costume!). I also think (looks-wise) that their casting of Marie-Antoinette is probably as close to the real thing as we’ll ever get. And I modeled my first Lumieres character on the small character of Adrienne de Lafayette (bottom picture).

But more than anything, I think Howards End (1992) and, even more, A Room With a View (1985), were the early epitomes of Amazing Costume Movies. Particularly Room — I wanted (and still want) to dive into that world and just stay there. No matter that it’s not really a costume era that makes my toes curl, but it has Travel! Romance! Humor! Tweedy English locations! “Old world” Italian locations! Stiff upper lips! Intimate family scenes! I love so much about both movies as movies — interesting stories, complex characters, etc. But the costumes in particular were SO well done. They weren’t just gorgeous, they were gorgeous AND lived in. I felt like these were real people living real lives in real clothes, they hadn’t just grabbed something off the theater costume shop rack and put it on. The hair. The accessories. The underpinnings. The hats. The veils. I think it’s the casual day wear that gets me even more than the fancy evening stuff. I love seeing Charlotte walking in her suit. Lucy playing badminton in her blouse and skirt. Mom cutting the roses in the wind and being irritated by Charlotte. Cecil reading terrible fiction (is he not the epitome of PONCY?) while Lucy tries to ignore George. Charlotte and Eleanor sitting in the poppies, while Charlotte hints at some past amours in exotic Shropshire. Eleanor striding about Florence, taking no guff. Every time I go to Florence, I have to go to the various piazzas where they shot, especially the fountain where they tried to revive the dead guy.

And now I can’t remember who it was, but I do recall bonding with someone when we agreed that we’d both tried to get our hair to look like the Italian girl who gets kicked out of the carriage:

Howards End is also up there, although not quite as high (no Italy, no happy romantic ending). I adore the country locations in particular — the bluebells, the Howards End house itself. All the same things about the costuming grabs me — how detailed and ornate and yet lived in it all feels. This is an era that I do like more than the pouter pigeon, and Margaret’s engagement party and lunch suit in particular are the ones I love. Again, just a world I would love to dive into.

It’s funny, because Edwardian never was and (probably) never will be a key costume era for me. But seeing these worlds come to life so vividly, and seeing historical costumes that were really clothes, just blew me away.

So, what about you? What were the formative costume movies for you?

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like


  • Reply bandykullan July 16, 2014 at 11:36 am

    For me the film that I’ve always dreamt about recreating costumes from has to be The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) with Jane Seymore as Marguerite, especially the one she wears to the Prince of Wales’ garden party.
    I’ve always loved costume dramas, so it’s hard to remember anyone particular that made just swoon over the costumes, but the first one that led to me actually doing something costume-like was the BBC Pride and Prejudice series. Having watched it enough times with my sister she in the end made my graduation ball dress in the shape of a regency gown. Definitely not historically accurate, it had zippers and all, but back then we both thought it was a perfect replication of that kind of dress. At the graduation ball there is a tradition to wear white, and making a regency gown also made sure that it didn’t look too much like a wedding gown.

  • Reply Trystan July 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Merchant-Ivory had a huge impact on me as well — for a good decade or so, they were the only game in town if you wanted to see historical costumes on the big screen. And “Room With a View” omg, my college roommates & I wore out a couple VHS tapes of that movie :)

    But my very first costume-movie love was the “Elizabeth R” BBC series (as shown on PBS) back in the ’70s, the one with Glenda Jackson as the queen. That + going to the Blackpoint renfaire as a little girl cemented the 16th century as my one true costume era.

  • Reply Molly July 16, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Despite not being historical, the movie with the most costume impact for me was Lord of the Rings. It came out about the time I started getting interested in Renaissance Faires, and wanted to learn how to make all the pretties. Somehow I got from http://www.alleycatscratch.com/ to a bunch of the early dress diaries, and jumped the ship to historical costuming.

  • Reply Donna July 17, 2014 at 1:10 am

    I’m sitting here reading your blog entry while watching room with a view (inspiration for an upcoming event). It was my first historical costumed drama that as an adult I fell in love with and treasure and pretty much measure all others. I first watched it on tv and loved it so much that it was watched every replay (every 6months back then) until I was able to record it on VHS and then it was played over and over. Made my first “costume” inspired by it (not very good though) Next is age of innocence, inspiring me for my first real attempt at a historical costume (also not very good) but at least this time I made a corset.
    As a girl it was of course gone with the wind and the slipper and the rose – big shiny dresses, what girl can resist.

  • Reply Alisa July 17, 2014 at 6:51 am

    I was born in 1986 and grew up in that glorious phase of the mid-90s when there was that huge boom for literature adaptions and mostly period correct costumes. I discovered them a bit later around 2000/2001, and so I was into Dracula (Winona Ryder’s costumes!), Frankenstein (the Brannagh one), Little Women, all the 90s Jane Austen movies, Age of Innocence, Interview with the Vampire and Sleepy Hollow. Then also Dangerous Liasons and Amadeus.

    What got me into making my own costumes and joining the online communities were Lord of the Rings and Titanic, I think.

    I was 14 when I started collecting all the costume movie DVDs I could get my hands on and I really wasn’t used to the slow pace and the lack of action. The heavy emphasis on the dialogue and the conflicts revolving about personal freedom and restrictive society were so difficult to empathize with when I was young. Merchant Ivory movies were the hardest (and are the only ones I still struggle with, at least a little)…

    If you’d like to go to the opera in costume, you should come to Bayreuth, Germany in a couple of years (enough time to save up ;-) ). We used the opera house several times. While we didn’t have enough costumers to fill the entire thing, we did have enough (between 30 and 50) to fill the central balcony and most of the first level.
    It was declared UNESCO world heritage recently and is currently being restored, so it won’t open again until in a few years. Of course we’re already daydreaming about being present in costume for the premiere.




  • Reply Lindsey July 17, 2014 at 9:36 am

    The movie that sticks out in my mind as one of the first that really got me into costuming was Shakespeare in Love. I eventually got into Victorian/ bustle era and watched Gone with the wind, Little Women, Titanic, Buccaneers, etc etc etc. I eventually planned and had victorian themed/costumed wedding, but it was Shakespeare in Love that started it all.

  • Reply Lylassandra July 25, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Squee! Thank you for this post!

    For me, oddly, all those Disney movies were what first started me wanting to dress up. The first live-action film I remember swooning over was Ever After. I went to my first Renaissance Faire the same year and nothing has ever been the same. LOTR put the nails in the coffin. It’s been blogs like yours and American Duchess that have brought me over to the historical side of the street these last few years.

  • Reply Paula Lusk July 31, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Sorry, subject change. I just got home from a trip last night, AND my book arrived! I have had my nose in it all day. Thank you so much for putting this book together. You are a saint!

  • Reply Susan Q August 1, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Room with a View absolutely lit my fire. The rest of the Big Five are the BBC P&P miniseries P&P, Dangerous Liaisons, Age of Innocence, and Titanic. But you’ve gotten me curious about a couple of films you mention: Portrait of a Lady and My Brilliant Career. I must look into those. Soon!

  • Leave a Reply