Fashion in film: the trendiness of period costume

Period clothing has undergone a revived interest through dramas like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Little Women (2019), but nothing has permeated fashion trends quite like Bridgerton which took Netflix by storm the minute it dropped. Everyone knows about its costumes, and the ‘Bridgerton’ style has since become a trend. However, the fashion isn’t typical Regency attire, even though the show focuses on the scandals of London in the 1810s; so why is it so popular?

Bridgerton’s costume designer Ellen Mirojnick said that imagination was central to her vision, ‘adding a modern element to the period silhouette’. She infuses screens with glitter and bright, eye-catching colours that seem a world away from the more muted tones of Austen’s era; the costumes even took inspiration from Chanel runway fashion. This modernisation removes the barrier between the fashions of the past and the present, albeit confusing what actual Regency attire is. For instance, corsets have seen a spike in popularity in the last few years, largely owing to the influence of Bridgerton, but these are usually not Regency transitional stays. Bridgerton also features a tight lacing corset scene which entirely contradicts the fluidity of the empire dress, but fuels the corset trend in conjunction with modern body standards. These historical inaccuracies and confusions make the Bridgerton costumes more applicable to trends than other period pieces, as the fashion can continue being adapted to modern styles by the viewers.

The 2019 adaptation of Little Women also takes certain creative liberties towards historical fashion. Like with Bridgerton, we see interesting styles and nonconformities of costume that, whilst appealing for the viewer, are not a reflection of the time period they’re supposed to represent. These deviations call into question Little Women’s Oscar for Best Costume Design, although that depends on whether you think period costumes should reflect the narrative or environment more. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, chose to represent the character of each March sister, on whom the film focuses, through their colour palette: Jo’s red and indigo palette reflects her energy and vibrancy, Amy’s pastel and rich tones reflect her bold personality, Beth’s pink and brown represent her ties to home, and Meg’s green and lavender create an air of romanticism. Meg’s aesthetic also drew from pre-Raphaelite paintings to enhance this. Arguably, these creative liberties enliven the film and give the characters individual styles that appeal to modern fashion trends, but they detract from historical reality. Costume is central to these dramas, so if it’s adapted to modern tastes, how much of the original time period is lost?

Little Women (2019), even though it wasn’t marketed in the same fictional way as Bridgerton, seems to be in a fashion world of its own, as it betrays the 1860s fashion that its characters should have been wearing. Durran justifies this by arguing that the independence and nonconformity of the March sisters is reflected in the absence of certain pieces, like hoop skirts (which I personally couldn’t see becoming a modern trend). However, hoop skirts were worn by every woman in the 1860s, and were actually seen as a feminist invention at the time, so it makes little sense why the sisters should forego them. Greta Gerwig also chose not to include bonnets in the film, her reason being ‘I just don’t like ‘em’ — even though bonnets were a staple item of attire. Jo, the most independent character, is seen wearing men’s shirts and trousers as a reflection of modern feminist trends, but she almost certainly would have been ridiculed for this in reality. The 1993 Little Women’s costumes, designed by Colleen Atwood, were noticeably more accurate, including dresses subjected to wear and tear and featuring the correct 1860s silhouette, with bonnets! But this version is less fashionable by modern standards, because of its rigid accuracy. A more recent example of accurate period costume is Emma (2020); designer Alexandra Byrne pays homage to the reality of Regency fashion in a way that Bridgerton chooses not to, with various feathered headpieces and bonnets, and ringleted hair. Muslin dresses in muted colours are also frequently worn by the characters. Even though Byrne reflects the importance of storytelling through fashion by exaggerating certain Regency trends, most of the costumes are unlikely to be absorbed into trendy fashion culture, since they’re rooted in the past.

Does this mean that it’s more important to see modern fashion reflected in period dramas, so that the past lives on in current trends? Or is the very notion of trendiness, central to our culture at the moment, at odds with historical accuracy? Either way, it’s likely we’ll see even more creative liberties taken to period costumes in the coming years.


Featured image: Pexels with license

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