Evaluation of costume sources: Historical Costume accuracy

September 25, 2009

Evaluation of Costume Sources

The history of costume prior to the 18th century is a subject that is difficult to research due to the fact that there are very few primary sources (garments) that have survived.  Therefore, to understand the cut or silhouette, fabrication, and medthod of wearing a garment, costume historians must consult sources from the arts and the culture.  These sources include:  art work including paintings, sculptures,  frescos, crafts including pottery and tapestry, wall decorations, burial sites, fashion illustrations and fashion dolls, religious illustrations, and, of course, photographs in the 19th century.

Costume historians are limited by the conventions imposed by the artists who created the work and their cultural ethics, by the ravages of time that might have distort the images, and the limitations of the media itself.

The student needs to always consider the context in which the source was initiated and the context in which the garment was worn.  Clothing is a part of our culture and can tell much about the society in which it was worn.  Students would do well to question the sources, and make determinations based on as many facts as they can gather.  In studying the history of costume, you will become aware that all of the information the viewer might want to know is not  viewed on the surface.  The artist generally is communicating the “on the street” garment, not what is worn under the garment.  The artist generally does not concern him/herself with closures, with the typical fit, with the fabrication, with the occasion of wearing any specialty garments for the general culture.    Those questions take more research and would probably be good topics for your research paper.

  • Consider the following illustrations.  Costume can be controlled by the cannons and conventions that are strong in any particular culture, such as the Egyptian systematic method of drawing people.  They used very precise proportions and well as the same manner in depicting people in two-dimensional images:  side view of head and legs, front view of torso.  Sometimes this drawing convention does not give an accurate view of the clothing.  Compare the Egyptian slide to a fashion illustration dated circa 1840 where the fashion trend cannons of the day were to illustrate tiny waists and hands and very sloping shoulders.  In terms of the reality of the body, both are not realistic, yet as costume historians we need to gain an appreciation of the cannons of the culture we are studying and an image of what the garments might have looked like on the actual people.
  • The skill of the artist may be a factor.  Consider the carved images of the various Venue statues.  There is just a hint of decoration in the image, but if the skill of the artist was greater we would have more clues to the garments.  What is on the head of the Venus of Willendorf?  Is that curly hair? A net?  Basketry material?  What does the Kostenki Venus wear around the back?  Is that a sportsbra?  What marks are on the stomach and arms of the Venus of Hohle Fels?Do those marks represent clothing of some sort?  All of these statutes were found in cold climates.
  • Often the conventions in which the garments were drawn were unlike the conventions in which the garment was worn.  In the following slide a 19th century artist, with Victorian conventions of not displaying nudity, illustrated the costume of the Egyptians, who often bared their upper torsos in their attire.  Because nudity was against the norm of 19th century conventions, the 19th artist did not correctly portray the manner in which the Egyptian costume was worn. The student, therefore, must consider the conventions of the artist when studying the garments.
  • When a work of art is completed, there is no certainty it will withstand the rigors of time, elements, or various kinds of destruction.  Consider the following partial fresco from ancient Crete, almost 3500 years ago.  How can we determine the shape of the clothing areas that are missing?  Research can give the costume historian a good idea, but it is no longer a primary source.  The statues of the Greeks are Romans are seen today in while marble and we tend to forget that the garments on these statues had color at one point.  The fashion illustrations of the 19th century were often watercolors and the colors have now lost their intensity.
  • Many cultures were given to having preferred media for their decorative art forms.  The contemporary costume historian, in part, must rely on mosaics to study many of the costumes of the Byzantines, pottery to study many Greek costumes, wall reliefs to study costumes of the Assyrians and Incas.  These media do not relate accuracy in the details of the garment or textiles used.  See the following:  tapestry and Greek pottery

Note that several hundred years later, tapestries became highly popular due to a combination of increased artist skill and improved technology.  In these tapestries the garments area easier to analyze.

However, it is still a mystery as to how these 15th century men kept their stockings as tight as they are depicted.  What is reality?

The piece of Greek pottery below give an indication of an ionic chiton being draped on a female.  The suggestion of sheer fabric for the female is conveyed

The following 12th century statues show a very long and lean figure for both men and women.  We need to consider that the statues were also used as architecture decoration, so the reality of the costume might not be accurate.

  • Most of the time the supportive undergarments are missing and while historians can detect a ruffle at the bottom of a Roman stola, the manner in which it was held up remains a mystery.  We see very tight leg coverings on the men from the Middle Ages, but must question how were they held up and kept so tight.  (They did not have knitting machines.)
  • Artists often had different stereotypes which they played up.  For example, the devotional prayer books in the Byzantine period and medieval times were not supposed to be realistic.  Also the artist, in this case the clergy, was not necessarily a realistic artist so did not pay attention to costume detail.

Often the drawings or paintings were completed to give a sense of spirit to a time period rather than for accuracy of costume.  Many illustrations in story books use this technique (as below).

  • The purpose of the artist should be kept in mind as well.  Often they were depicting an emotional, business, or political concept rather than showing costume detail.  In the following relief it is difficult to see the Byzantine garment as the artist is depicting a mother and child holding each other.  Note the exaggerated long arms to portray the feelings of comfort and love.
  • The purposes of the art piece must be taken into consideration as well.  The following is the back of a deck of cards from the medieval period and we would expect no rich detail.  On the other hand, the prospective bride portrait has rich detail because the bride’s parents are trying to impress the prospective groom with her beauty and their status.  Also consider this illustration of the Spanish infantata (c. 17th C) and ask yourself if she walked around in this garment at all times.  This is a formal portrait and we would expect the garment was used for court occasions.
  • Dating is sometimes a problem since artists often painted the garment first and then would put a head on it years later.  Reynolds, the 18th Century English artist, hated fashion and refused to paint what was fashionable.

Another example of the artist using his/her own style can be seen Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” painted c. 1770.  This 18th century painting of a son of a rich London ironmonger is depicted in 17th century costume.  Gainsborough had long practiced his craft by copying Flemish paintings, so it is not surprising that he borrowed the costume and other styles from the 17th century Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck.

  • Some artists may not adhere to the social norms and conventions or be in the midst of a convention change.  These two portraits were done approximately at the same time and illustrate the difference between formal and informal portraits.  The artists have two different points of view.  The detail on the costume varies as well.

One way in which media can become an outlet for questioning costume accuracy, and role of humans is through movies. Some movies are made to depict the historical time in which a great event occurs. King Arthur, the movie, is about the half-Roman, half- British legendary leader who commands a brave team of knights for the Roman empire. Guinevere, Queen to King Arthur, is known for her most famous love affair with Arthur’s chief knight, Sir Lancelot.
In the movie, Guinevere, Kiera Knightly, is depicted wearing an angelic, long gown with more of a recent style (Picture #1), but later on becomes a strong and brave woman figure fighting to her death for what she believes in (Picture #2). She wears dark leather fighting gear, holds a knife in her right hand, and has tattoos to represent her fearlessness.



In the actual legend of King Arthur, Guinevere was abducted. King Arthur and his knights had to save her from her abductors. As you can see in picture #3, she is wearing a long, angelic white dress or nightgown similar to picture #1. In picture #3 she is in a household or bedroom (Picture #3).


Picture #4 is a painting of Guinevere looking like a damsel in distress, helpless and waiting to be rescued by her knight and shining armor.


Comparing the actual history to the movie, not only were the clothes inaccurate, but the role of women was also inaccurate. Women at this time, I believe, were not allowed to fight. Women were made to stay at home and do the cooking and cleaning while men were to have been the brave and have a muscular type of body. This definitely shows a lot about how our history has evolved as far as the role that women play in today’s society. The women today are strong and powerful just like the men and can basically do whatever men can do if they wanted to.

Picture #1http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?f=/c/a/2004/07/07/DDG987G6M11.DTL&o=1

Picture #2http://www.markadderley.net/arthur/movies/arthurian-movies.html

Picture #3http://www.sir-lancelot.co.uk/Guinevere-Lancelot.htm

Picture #4http://www.illusionsgallery.com/Rescue-of-Guinevere-Hatherell.html

One Response to “Evaluation of costume sources: Historical Costume accuracy”

  1. Liz said

    Actually, women’s roles were established as being that of the damsel in distress in Victorian times, when, in fact, woman could own land, kidnap their own husbands and fight in the days of Arthur, all though, given there still gender roles in that society that limited women but the Victorians over-romantisized it so that young girls and women would have “role models” making them sweet and “docile”… History is pretty fascinating

    You are right though, the costumes in this movie were horribly inaccurate…

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