Did peopole really dress like that in the year 1774? PRIME-TIME HISTORY
AS we thumb through old yearbooks, we cackle at the clothes we once thought were stylish. Did we really, we wonder, wear bobby socks and crinolines, skin-tight jeans and miniskirts? Yes, we did.Skip to next paragraph
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When we reminisce, we mentally clothe ourselves in present fashions. Otherwise, we wouldn't cackle over yearbooks.
Our inclination to laugh at ourselves or our familiars when we see them in the get-ups of earlier eras poses a crucial problem for motion picture or television producers.
In their case the ``familiars'' are actors we've come to know in a variety of roles, actors we pay money to see on the screen. Since ``word of mouth'' sells films, producers do not want audience members to tell their friends: ``Wow, did So-and-So look weird dressed up like Thomas Jefferson!''
In 1924 just such a situation occurred after Paramount Pictures released ``Monsieur Beaucaire.'' Audiences paid to see Rudolph Valentino's Latin Lover image. When they saw him wearing satin breeches, a white marceled wig and a heart-shaped beauty mark on his cheek, they felt cheated. The film flopped.
This example demonstrates that when we, as audiences, imaginatively project ourselves into other eras, we still carry with us a host of assumptions from the era in which we live. We seem to want costumes, hairdos, and makeup, as well as settings and locales, to spark our imaginations, maybe even educate us a bit - but without jeopardizing our assumptions.
Which suggests that while people may deplore one kind of inaccuracy in entertainment presentations of history, they are perfectly comfortable with another kind. If they are going to see a contemporary movie about Cleopatra, they want to see a glamorous, femme fatale actress, someone like Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, or Theda Bara. They do not care that the historical Cleopatra, while unquestionably a remarkable woman, was no raving beauty.
``People in each age create a style that is the acceptable and comfortable aesthetic for their day,'' writes Edward Maeder in the catalog for an exhibit titled ``Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film.'' ``Accordingly,'' he continues, ``when we try to re-create historical costumes, a problem arises. Our vision is so influenced by contemporary style that we cannot be objective, and the result is always an interpretation.''
Renie Conley costumed more than 100 ``slaves'' for the 1963 film version of ``Cleopatra.'' To create the illusion of nudity and slender bodies, she used jeweled bikinis with sheer handloomed fabric layered over them in soft earth colors. The draping and the colors of the fabrics softly wrapped around the women's bodies captured the look of an earlier century, while the designs themselves - shaped into caftans and togas - adapted to the fuller figure favored by the 1960s aesthetic.
Similarly, in the 1938 movie ``Marie Antoinette,'' costume designer Adrian based Norma Shearer's costumes on paintings of the queen and on historical records of the period. But in the 1930s, bare shoulders were considered attractive. And so the gown shown here was cut - anti-historically - to display the actress's shoulders.
The bodice was also lengthened rather unnaturally to compensate for the actress's concern that she was too high-waisted. This made the period side hoops seem even wider. The shape of the skirts at Louis XVI's court tended to be more boxlike.
If costumes reflect the aesthetic of the era in which they are designed, this is even more the case in the personal area of facial makeup.
In 1963 there was a trend toward more conspicuous eyes. So Cleopatra makeup designers incorporated the historical Egyptian fashion of brows and eyes thickly outlined in black, with heavily shadowed lids and sockets.
But the historical Egyptian use of bright color on the lips was ignored. Elizabeth Taylor's lips were painted in the 1960s' subdued hues. Claudette Colbert's makeup for the 1934 version of Cleopatra adhered to 1930s tastes.
Makeup design tends to be less historical than costume design does. That's because makeup is much more personal, a much more important ingredient in the image of the star who sells the film. ``Monsieur Beaucaire'' audiences undoubtedly found Valentino's beauty mark more repellent than his satin breeches.