To HA or not to HA?

Lately, I’ve been tuning into quite a few costume designer’s blogs and podcasts regarding clothing and character development. When it comes to period pieces, there is no doubt costuming plays an extremely important part in how the story is presented (and then how we the viewers interpret the story). Historical costuming tells us in nonverbal ways the age and gender of a character, the time period in which a character exists, his/her culture and socio-economic status, and how he/she fits into the overarching storyline.

In many of these discussions, costume designers touch upon the concept of historical accuracy (shorthanded to HA) and creative license. This is a huge topic that continues to garner wide debate amongst designers, historians, and enthusiasts. Often the dialogue gets rather heated.

Historical Clothing aficionados threw a huge “knit-fit” over the use of these chunky scarves in Sony/Starz’ 2014 production of Outlander stating they were not HA.
Chunky knit mitts + faux fur cowl? Double blasphemy? Maybe not. Look below.
(Image courtesy IMDB.)
Mid 18th century cold weather fashion featuring full gloves (most likely kid leather), fur muff and scarf. While these garments were intended for OUTDOOR wear, the use of woolen mitts and scarves INSIDE an ancient stone castle makes sense to me. Dressing in layers is HA after all. And I am sure the descendants of the 18th century critter dangling about her neck appreciate their modern doppelgängers. Image (c. 1750s) in the collection of The British Museum.
A more historically accurate mitt pattern looks like this. Typically stitched rather than knit.
So the knit pieces are not EXACTLY as they would have been in the mid 18th century. But that’s being pretty “knit-picky” if you ask me. These rustic knits WORK in this production. Not only are they functional, but they capture the look and feel of the visceral and untamed nature of the Scottish Highlands. I think something strictly historically accurate would have felt stiff and out of place. (Image courtesy IMDB).

Another notable influence on interpreting historical costume can be credited to fashion designer Christian Dior and his 20th century notion of “toning down” the silhouette. This began in the 1940s with his Post WWII New Look and continues to impact how we view clothing today.

Christian Dior’s Post War haute couture New Look stylized historical silhouettes creating sleek, clean lines and exaggerated geometric shapes. (Image courtesy Vogue Archives)
Dior’s New Look romanticized the past while looking toward the future (source unknown)

The idea of “toning down” can be found in designer Paul Tazewell’s period costumes for Broadway’s recent smash hit Hamilton. He tells the LA times in a June 2016 interview that “Throughout the whole design process, the smartest thing… to do was simply to “get out of the way,” stripping things down so that [my] work could ‘breathe more.’ Ultimately, I can only finally judge by how I feel about something. It’s an intuitive and emotional response to what I see,” he said. “That’s what I trust.

Paul Tazewell’s 18th century minimized silhouettes for Broadway’s Hamilton. (Image courtesy Joan Marcus)

This statement is significant because for any of us who work in the creative fields (whether it be high profile productions or our own personal studios), it is our intuition and emotional response that makes each of us unique and original. Don’t get me wrong. Any costume designer understands research is important. In fact, research is IMPERATIVE. But research has no meaning without interpretation.

So I wonder- Do all costumes in period pieces ALWAYS have to be HA? Do those of us trying to convey an image of the past ALWAYS need to be dressed in period attire from head to toe? Is there perhaps a time and place where historical accuracy can take a back seat? Is there room for creative license?

Of course! Let’s look at a couple other instances where being completely HA in costuming has had to take a back seat.

Over the years I have had the privilege of working for various clients ranging from television series, film productions, operatic performances, theaters, and museums. I can assure you all of these projects required a very different approach to costuming.

For television and film projects, time is typically the biggest factor affecting historical accuracy. Sometimes designers are given plenty of lead time to complete a project but more often than not, the turn around is just a matter of days. When I was working on a project for NBC/Sony I initially had about 2 months lead time. But costume decisions were not made until two weeks prior to production. My team and I worked around the clock to complete over 100 garments in just 10 days. When this is the case, choices have to be made, details have to be eliminated, and the focus becomes meeting a deadline. No designer/costume department wants to be the reason the production process is delayed because garments are still being stitched together! So while complete HA may have been the initial goal, sometimes production scheduling and other external forces effects the final presentation.

Just one of the costumes I designed in record time for NBC’s The Frontier. Image courtesy IMDB. Lead costume designer- Chrisi Karvonides Dushenko.

In theater and operas, performance demands can affect historical accuracy. A few years ago, I designed a gorgeous hand dyed linen gown for a production of Fingersmith. It was completely authentic from the inside out. But unfortunately, employing authentic front closures, the gown proved to be too time consuming for costume changes, and thus the back of the gown was cut and a hidden zipper was inserted. So again, while the initial costuming goal was complete authenticity, time constraints and external forces required modern accommodations.

Zippers were cut into the back of this authentically made gowns to accommodate quick costume changes at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

With my living history clients, I have found most are willing to make a few modern accommodations for pragmatic reasons. The majority do not mind the modern sewing techniques we use on the interior of our garments. Machine stitching is just as durable as hand stitching and it takes much less time. And less time means less expense and faster delivery of garments. For us, hand stitching is reserved for external details and therefore a nice compromise in authenticity.

So what if you are just making garments for yourself? What if time is not an issue? Then I say go for it! Make your garments as HA as possible! Hand dye them! Hand stitch them! Make them as close to originals as possible! And count yourself fortunate for having the time and ability to do so!

But understand not EVERYONE has the same goals. Not everyone has the same definition of historical authenticity. Not everyone sees the past through the same lens. Clothing, whether modern or historical, has always been- and will always be– a form of personal expression.

About Susan

My interest in historical costume began at a very early age. I knew by age 5 I wanted to be a costume designer. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to turn my passion into a full time business. You can find my costumes onstage in NYC, on the big screen, and in museums around the globe.