There are plenty of people reading this blog who believe it's a fashion history blog. It's a natural mistake, of course. Glancing at the list of label topics, I see that we've tagged 366 of our blog posts with the term "historic dress", and 287 with "fashion", which does appear to be fairly compelling evidence.
But the truth is that as much as Loretta and I like clothes and fashion (which we do, we do), we also like clothing for what it says about our characters. How a person (okay, a character) dresses is often the first indication a reader has about that character's wealth and status. But clothes also broadcast many other things, such as occupation, nationality, and age. Does he fuss over the precise folds of his cravat, demonstrating a need for control? Does wearing a corset beneath her dress make her feel confident and secure, or confined? Does he wear loud colors to match his loud voice, or does she dress provocatively to attract men? Even a character who claims not to care at all about clothes is making a major statement about himself. It's inescapable when building a character: clothes really do matter.
All of which is why I enjoyed this recent TEDx Pacific Palisades talk by Hollywood costume designer Kristin Burke. Turns out that dressing actors and actresses for television and film is pretty much the same as dressing our heroes and heroines. It's all part of the same business of story-telling. "The language of clothing is specific, persuasive, and totally silent," Kristin notes. "Most of the time we don't even realize that we are being influenced by it while it's right in front of our face." Exactly!
Kristin has designed costumes for over forty feature films in addition to music videos, commercials, and television series. You can read more on her blog Frocktalk, whichshe describes as the web's only costume-based movie review site.
Her design work is also currently featured in my greatest guilty-pleasure of the fall, Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is a rollicking, scary, and occasionally quite funny time-travel reboot of Washington Irving's story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Once I was able to turn off my history-nerd-switch (There were no witch-burnings in New York in 1780! That's not the reason for the Boston Tea Party! Ichabod Crane isn't supposed to be a handsome Oxford-educated English spy from the American Revolution!!) and accept that the writers were cheerfully going to jumble history and plunder scary woo-woo stuff from all kinds of improbable sources (Paradise Lost, the Old Testament, Iroquois legends), I've gotten totally hooked. Unlike most series where things blow up, this one has imaginative writing and great characters, including a wonderful, strong female protagonist, plus a romance between lovers separated by time.
The muted palette of Kristin's costumes contribute to the unsettled, forbidding tone of the show, and help create an average small town where a lot of inexplicably bad things are happening. Her separated lovers are dressed in black and dark grey, colors of sadness. To top it off are the excellent nightmare-inducing demons -- not to mention that really scary Headless Horseman. Just in time for Halloween!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.