Saturday, July 23, 2022

Fashion history can save the world

As promised, here's a preview of what I'm writing on The Charrette this week. And bonus, it actually had a little to do with fashion! (Mostly fashion history). 

Do you like the Bridgerton series on Netflix? Is Bridgerton historically accurate? I have some serious opinions on the costumes, and I'm not holding back. This is a paid article, but I'm giving you a free preview right here with even more info than what my free subscribers get

If you want to read the whole thing, head over to the article right now


Bonnets, Bridgerton & why we get history wrong

When reality is stranger — and more boring — than fiction.

A few months ago — like any self-respecting, fashion history-loving Jane Austenite — I hate-watched the entire second season of Bridgerton in 48 hours. It was terrible. I will be hate-watching season three.

I’m a bad person to watch historical dramas with because I spend most of the time fact-checking things on my phone and rolling my eyes, but Bridgerton season 2 was particularly bad [emphasis added emphatically].

The costumes looked like cheap prom dresses, and the story felt like an Austen fanfic written by a horse girl who had never seen the inside of a book. But one thing bothered me above all else: Almost every outdoor scene was shot in full sunlight, and all of the actors were giving this sultry look to the camera.

Bridgerton season two actors Benedict playing croquet Daphne Penelope Pen Kate Sharma are all looking into the camera in full sunlight and squinting. Bridgerton's costuming is terrible. The characters need hats and bonnets.

Do you know what would have fixed that? BONNETS AND HATS AND CAPS!

Directors of period dramas usually don’t use these because they aren’t sexy or “accessible” enough and can be hard to film. (But that didn’t stop Ang Lee from using it in his brilliant adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, did it? No.) Nevertheless, everyone — women in particular — always wore some sort of headwear — especially outdoors, so it would protect the delicate skin on their neck and face from the sun. It also kept them cooler since their skin wasn’t in the direct sunlight. Indoors, women would wear linen or cotton caps to keep their hair low maintenance and sometimes even indicate they were off the marriage market.

Regency fashion women in caps and bonnets. Did regency women wear bonnets? Why did women where caps in Jane Austen?

Revisionist history

I’m annoying to watch a period drama with, but it’s not because I’m a pedant or a purist. Okay, so that’s not the only reason. I do enjoy artistic interpretations of historical events. I liked the costume design in the first season of Bridgerton because it had such a clear point of view. However, I think that we view fictionalized events in books, film, and TV as the cold hard truth when it’s only an artistic interpretation. Ultimately, even though we’ve written these kinds of stories for centuries, the speed with which these stories are produced affects how we view ourselves in the present.

I once was talking to someone who mentioned how terrible it was Prince Philip had that affair with the famous ballet dancer Galina Ulanova and how he did Queen Elizabeth dirty by cheating on her. This was a storyline from Netflix’s The Crown, and they were stunned when I told them this wasn’t factual.

The chances of Prince Philip and Galina Ulanova having had an affair is slim, if at all possible. During her 1950s tour of Europe, she was 46 — eleven years older than Prince Philip. Furthermore, she was notoriously dedicated to her work and constantly meditating, rehearsing and reading about her roles, so she was probably too busy to have a dalliance with anyone, let alone a highly secret one with the husband of a figurehead of state. Although she was rumored to have been married several times over, it was also rumored she ultimately ended up with a woman at the end of her life — so there’s a possibility he may not have been her type anyway.

And this is mostly just a rumor. Of course, it could have been true, but little evidence exists to support it, and rumors spread like wildfire when a lack of real, verifiable information exists.

What was the biggest deterrent, however? She was from a hostile nation. Great Britain had been dealing with intense Soviet espionage since the 1930s, and Ulanova refused to even disembark her boat until she got the green light from Moscow — she made her allegiances clear before setting foot on English soil. British intelligence agencies would have been ALL over an affair between a possible Soviet spy and the spouse of a figurehead of state.

To some extent, we all take these nicely packaged narratives we see in pop culture as fact. We only have so much energy to dedicate to learning and remembering facts, and it’s easier when it’s served up in the form of an HBO miniseries. Although it’s fun to rewrite history for TV or a film by exaggerating juicy rumors, creating new characters or reorganizing a timeline, we risk losing touch with reality, ourselves and our future.

Doomed to Repeat the Past

We all know the adage that those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, but what of those who think they know the past? We live in an age filled with Twitter content, pop historians, news publications, and Wikipedia, all confidently asserting correctness on any given historical subject. We flock towards it, especially if it supports a narrative that confirms our worldview. Ultimately, it affects how we view politics, each other, and our future.

We prefer our watered-down, revised history for a few reasons:

#1 It makes things simple to understand.

If you take it at face value, revisionist history is salient and fascinating. Still, if you put even the tiniest bit extra effort into fact-checking, following up on timelines, archived news articles and read — dare I say — actual books, you’ll find context which adds complications making a story a lot harder to tell in one 50-minute episode. One of the most frustrating problems this poses to the modern viewer is that it makes it impossible to tell who the real heroes and villains are.

People love stories with a clear thesis with a beginning, middle and resolution, but life is messy, and history is complicated. No one’s life has a thesis or a “moral to the story.” Unless you are one of the blessed few who seem to turn everything they touch into gold (in which case, thank you for reading my Substack, Dolly Parton), most of us are just bumbling through life.


Soon after this section, I put up a paywall, but I'll give you a sneak peek as to what's behind it. I talk about four different reasons we believe in revisionist history and give the reality of the matter. Here's what we cover...

#1 It makes things simple to understand.

Revisionist history makes it easy to figure out who the heroes and villains are. Real history shows us how complicated people (including us) are.

#2 It makes us feel virtuous.

Revisionist history makes us feel righteous and good. Real history reveals that we are, indeed, as stupid and wicked as people in the past... or maybe they are just as smart as we are.

#3 It’s WAY more interesting than the truth.

Revisionist history makes it seem like there was intrigue and adventure at every turn. Real history is mostly just working-class people keeping fires going, chopping wood and avoiding dysentery.

#4 It makes make us feel safe.

Revisionist history makes us feel like we have control over our future and nothing bad will ever happen. Real history hits us with the existential truth that sometimes freak accidents just happen.

I talk about Bridgerton, The Crown and Under the Banner of Heaven too. You can read the whole thing here. And just because you are an old follower of my blog from my blogger days, here's a 50% off discount for a paid subscription. ;)

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