There is an ongoing discussion about historically accurate Costume Design onscreen and what audience taste is for history. It is VERY interesting to reflect on having just finished doing the French Court for television after creating 18th century Scotland for Season One.
There is a reason that until just very recently there were not a lot of period pieces on television, with the exceptions of very small and contained BBC Dramas. It is an enormous endeavour and something that American studios and networks had no real experience with.
Hollywood is a town driven by fear. Fear of risk, ultimately. And doing giant period pieces is most definitely a risk.
Somehow, and I would love to know how, the period door was opened by Rome, (famously a complete production nightmare) followed by The Tudors, The Borgias and then nailed open by Game Of Thrones.
It is a logistical nightmare that television is just not set up to do.
First of all, there is just the time element. Look at it this way, making an hour long tv drama, is like making half of a movie once every week to ten days. It is GRUELING. Even with a contemporary setting, it is an experience of full on adrenaline pumping maniacal running from the tsunami of getting it done in time. In a contemporary setting, often a hospital or a courtroom, you rarely have more than 50 extras at a time, and even if you do, they bring their own clothes! Each one shows up with three choices and your team chooses the best option.
Period dramas often have scenes with hundreds of extras at a time, none of whom can bring different options for period clothing, in your palette, consistent in both construction and quality, week after week, month after month.The rental houses don’t have them either. They have some, but not hundreds and hundreds, designed for your show. They MIGHT have enough for a 2 hr movie, but not enough for a 13-20 hour television show.
Secondly, Hollywood is not only fear based, it is deaf. One might assume that studio and networks understand HOW shows are made and what challenges are faced in producing them. They do not. Oh, how they do not. The producers directly on the show usually do not know how a costume department works. Not even in the most general sense. Maybe a producer, usually male, is married to a costume designer, usually female, and if that is the case you have a bit more of a chance. She has a chance to talk to him into the wee hours about the challenges.
So you have to figure out how to MAKE hundreds and hundreds of costumes. This is something television is completely unprepared for. It is just not part of the system. Everything in TV is done at the last minute on incredibly tight time budgets. While you are shooting one episode, you are simultaneously prepping the next episodes.
Are there stunt doubles, riding doubles, does someone spill wine on their costume, is there something torn, how many extras shooting how far away from dressing rooms, we need 50 costumers for how many days???? It is a logistical nightmare, and every costume has to be made. In a drama there is a lot of stunt work, blood and wine spilling, so costumes have to be made in multiples of three, it is staggering how much has to be done.
Every episode, episode after episode, year after year.
You as the costume designer, now have to get the money, and even more importantly, the time to create hundreds and hundreds of costumes, NOT INCLUDING the costumes for the principal cast, which will have to be of a better quality. (Even principal costumes are purchased on a contemporary show) There is NO WAY the most expensive tv show on air, could afford to dress hundreds of extras in the kind of quality you would dress principals, it would be millions of dollars.
You not only need all the fabric, hundreds of thousands of buttons and trims, but you need the people to make all of those costumes and the infrastructure to make it all. You need to dye and age the costumes so they will look authentic. You need the shoes and gloves, hats, all the period accessories and you have to make it ALL. It is just a massive undertaking.
It is an undertaking that once proposed, will be met by those who are handing out time and money, with complete disbelief. “just go rent it all”. And there you are back at the beginning. But let’s say they do believe you, you still need the time, money, crew and the sheer organization to essentially, build your own costume house. This is just not going to happen 9 times out of 10, and the costume department has to make it up however they can, cobbling things together as they go. It will be complete headache that is going to last for years.
Better to make a contemporary show.
Or, you find another way around the mountain.
Maybe in a focus group, some 18 year old boys said, “History is boring”, “Their clothes look funny”, maybe some 40 year olds said it. It only takes a few to strike fear in the heart of a studio. To be fair, we are talking about millions and millions of dollars that are going down the drain if there are no butts in the seats or on the couch. And the bottom line is that Transformers or the latest super hero movie, is going to put waaaaay more butts in the seats than the latest rendition of Jane Austen. For no reason, perhaps than more 18 year olds go to the movies than 50 year olds. In the end, the film business is indeed, a business.
So you have now added that fear of financial disaster to the logistical nightmare.
“What if you make it look more modern? Make them look like us? Change the weird hair and makeup first of all, and can’t you do something to make the clothes look more like something our audience would wear??”
You have to be willing to fight tooth and nail against that, and be willing to risk your job to do that. Not likely most Designers are going down that path. It is actually the way we make our living and pay our mortages and bills with. How many walk away from employment for a creative principle, so that they can embark on a near impossible and incredibly costly endeavor. One they may have never done before, and can’t actually prove is doable.
So you end up making history look modern. Everyone is in leather, or the latest runway fashion is tweaked into an interpretation of history. Eventually it becomes the norm, and then becomes a source of creative pride for directors and producers, who put out brave statements to the press about how incredibly creative and innovatively they are choosing to interpret history.
It becomes a paradigm shift. The choice to make something that is historically accurate become a radical creative decision.
At it’s heart is a tangled ball of reasons. Money, time, logistics, public opinion, which is the original thread? Hard to tell at the end of the day.
I understand that shift better on the other side of 18th century Paris. It was a staggering undertaking, one only made possible by being the costume designer married to the executive producer. And a singularly confident executive producer who has enough self confidence to trust his own choice of costume designer, production designer, etc. One who has the faith to take the gamble that you are right about what you THINK you might be able to pull off.
There were definitely days, when I wished my executive producer might have had a little less confidence and belief in our ability, so that I could just take back my theory and go to the mall.
But we did it. We pulled it off.
I am not going to reveal how until the show airs. But it is a fascinating process. Maybe we will call this Part 1 of a multi part series.