• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Questionable Aesthetics – Should we confine the poof for the truth?

ByTilly Bankes

Sep 26, 2023
portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a grey wig and red coat."Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) by Barbara Krafft (1764–1825), 1819" by Royal Opera House Covent Garden is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

As a fanatic, opinions over actors’ costumes become customary. However, there’s one opinion that burrows underneath lengths of taffeta – this matter of opinion is historical accuracy. 

It’s the fact stopping Thomas Shelby from wearing Supreme and one that has affected many TV series and films. For example: Bridgerton (2020), Little Women (2019) and Amadeus (1984).

In Bridgerton, the opening scene presents a young woman in a tight corset. This enviable silhouette disregards the high empire waistlines of the period. Instead, it promotes flattering aesthetics more relatable to the current trends. This demonstration consequently begs the question: could it be that not all period dramas wish to be historically accurate? Or as critics might speculate, is it all just ‘lazy’ work?

The 1980s wasn’t known for its period dramas, so the costumes were integral in flipping the ‘boring’ or ‘conservative’ stereotype. At the forefront of this movement was Amadeus, a major success in a subversive vision of glamorized couture which evidently inspired other filmmakers to follow in the idealized footsteps. Films were promptly produced like Dangerous Liaisons (1988), A Room with a View (1985) and Out of Africa (1985).

Set in 1780, Vienna, Amadeus tells the story of jealousy between Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his rival, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). In a nutshell, Salieri’s resentment towards Mozart’s talent drives Salieri to push Mozart to the very extremities of his gift. Based on a fictional iteration of Mozart’s life from the play of the same name, this was never meant to represent a historically accurate account of Mozart and Salieri. 

For the film, Czech Designer/Painter, Theodor Pišteǩ, studied in Austria for a year, gaining enough experience to represent an atmosphere of Rococo architecture and craftsmanship through colours and fabrics exhibited in the Austrian draperies. This effort, however, was overlooked as critics – hungry for exact shades and tones – who complained that the costumes were sickly infusions of ‘pastel colours’ instead of young and fun, as the film instead wished to represent its protagonist by. 

For many historical critics, the fact that Mozart’s wife, Constanze, wears a ‘Victorian corset’ rather than a robust stay is “shameful”. Critics disregard that the slim and tall Actress, Meg Tilly – cast to play Constanze – suddenly broke her leg before shooting. Elizabeth Berridge, who filled in, occupied a fuller chest and smaller height. Obviously, stylistic alterations were needed and historical accuracy was just not practical. Alternatively, the seamless exchange should be praised for contributing to the outgoing and affectionate character of Constanze.

Silhouette is a major “concern” in this film. Eighteenth-century men and women weren’t famous for extravagant daily motion so efficiency and flexibility were never a concern for their tailors

However, the actors weren’t of the period. As a conductor, Abraham’s performance necessitated an abundance of physical movement. When raising and thrashing his shoulders about, if his costume were to include historical seams, they would have torn excessively after the first few takes. Essentially, this is an unsustainable way to work so ease and looseness had to be incorporated. This would evidently subtract from the historical silhouette but would provide instead an immersive show of vigour and excitement in Salieri’s true passion. 

But the most common of all arguments remains – the ‘Cream Puff hairdos’.

Google eighteenth-century fashion and you’ll find heads gracefully adorned with “wild haggis”. Whilst Pišteǩ believed a headdress depicted “the most important thing”, the historically accurate oversized wigs scaling to one or more feet high, made walking for actors undoubtedly difficult.

Instead, more synthetic but lighter wigs were utilized to prevent the actors being put at risk.

I believe that critics must realise that when producing an $18,000,000 film, the all-encompassing question a designer must face is – who is the audience? As much as I am sure Pišteǩ would have loved to dive deep into eighteenth-century tailoring, what makes people watch period dramas is the pretty aesthetics and if the beauty of the costumes is sure to be compromised by the historical accuracy, I don’t blame anyone for romanticising a shade of pink or a coil of plastic “wild Haggis” hair.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) by Barbara Krafft (1764–1825), 1819” by Royal Opera House Covent Gardenis licensed under CC BY 2.0.