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The Authenticity of Western Costume Design

Hollywood Looks From the History Books

One of the most powerful aspects of films is the characters. Whether you love them, hate them, or love to hate them, moviegoers build a strong connection with the personalities portrayed on screen. A character’s wardrobe plays a significant role in how much of a connection audiences develop with every hero, damsel, and villain. Well-executed costume design brings the characters to life, helps show the evolution of not just individuals but generations, and distinguishes class and geographical location in an unspoken manner. In historical films, the costume design is very much its own character—representing an era, down to every detail. But, just how accurate are the elaborate wardrobes from your favorite films?

THE LOOK: BOWED DAYWEAR ENSEMBLE

IN OLD CALIFORNIA (1942)
BINNIE BARNES AS LACEY MILLER
IN OLD CALIFORNIA
(1942)

 

FILM’S TIME PERIOD: CRINOLINE ERA—EARLY 1850s

Lacey Miller stops the crowd when she walks down the street in a stunning tailored look. The pleated dome-shaped skirt resembles the daywear silhouette popular during the early crinoline period, but the skirt lacks volume in comparison. The high-low pagoda sleeves with lace undersleeves match the emerging style of the decade perfectly. Signature adornments of the time, the contrast cord trim, bows, fringe, and coordinating parasol add touches of authenticity to the elaborate ensemble. And while there’s a lot the look got right, there’s also a lot it got wrong. Necklines were high in 1850s daywear, and the ruffled sweetheart neckline better resembles a style popular during the decade the film was in production—the early 1940s. Instead of the dropped shoulder silhouette of the early crinoline era, the bodice features pointed shoulders more closely related to the style of the 1880s. And to top it all off, women of the time mostly wore decorative bonnets rather than a hat like Lacey’s.

 

THE LOOK: FLORAL EVENING GOWN

DEBBIE REYNOLDS AS LILITH PRESCOTT HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962)
DEBBIE REYNOLDS AS LILITH PRESCOTT
HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962)

 

FILM’S TIME PERIOD: CRINOLINE ERA—1851

When Lilith Prescott takes the stage in a stunning gown, the audience can’t take their eyes off her. During the early crinoline era, eveningwear and daywear were like—well…night and day. With eveningwear, everything was grander, and Lilith’s gown represented the era flawlessly. In the 1850s, a caged underskirt made from whalebone created a stiff dome-shaped skirt, much like Lilith’s, and the intricate flounces mirrored a popular trend of the era. The gown’s dropped shoulders, off-the-shoulder encoeur neckline, and short puffed sleeves stay true to the age. Finished with delicate pleated fabric along the skirt’s flounces and plunging neckline, this one-of-a-kind dress accurately plays the part.

 

THE LOOK: 3-PIECE DAYWEAR ENSEMBLE

CLAIRE TREVOR AS MARY MCCLOUD DARK COMMAND (1940)
CLAIRE TREVOR AS MARY MCCLOUD
DARK COMMAND (1940)

 

FILM’S TIME PERIOD: CRINOLINE ERA— EARLY 1860s

With a Rolodex of ensembles throughout the film, Mary McCloud’s 3-piece look showcased the emerging trends of the 1860s. As the crinoline era progressed, women’s daywear options expanded, and separates rose to popularity. Mary’s perfectly put-together ensemble effortlessly portrays the fashion of the time. Wearing a popular style during the era, Mary’s shirt keeps intact elements of the garibaldi shirt—loose fit, full sleeves gathered at the cuff, and a delicate lace collar. The jacket’s open front design, wide cascading sleeves, and intricate embroidery resemble the era’s Zouave jacket, which drew inspiration from the French army. Puffy and side-pleated, Mary’s full skirt highlights the dramatic pyramid-shaped skirt silhouette of the 1860s and the cameo brooch proves this look is accurate down to the details.

 

THE LOOK: YELLOW BROCADE DRESS

MAUREEN O’HARA AS KATIE MCLINTOCK
MCLINTOCK! (1963)

 

FILM’S TIME PERIOD: THE GILDED AGE—1890s

Moving on to a new fashion era, Katie McLintock brings us into the Gilded Age. Much like a characteristic of the period, there’s an emphasis on Katie’s cinched waist. True to the decade, the dress’ skirt features a gored construction and a bell-shaped silhouette that hugs the hips. While this portrayal of the era’s womenswear features mostly accurate elements, some of the aspects of Katie’s dress don’t fit the occasion. The dress’ luxurious brocade fabric, short puffy sleeves, and ruffled scoop neckline favored eveningwear rather than when Katie wore it, which was during the day.