Golden Age Hollywood Costuming

So I am enjoying the 1937 Prince and the Pauper - not fond of the twins, Errol Flynn is decorative as always, but sweet jumping jesus the tudor costuming on the men of the court is spot on accurate. I have checked out a fair amount of period portraiture for costuming projects, and the upper level courtiers could have just stepped out of a portrait gallery. Many of the womens costumes are just as accurate, though the commoner costuming is catch as catch can.

I have both the 1937 and 1952 versions of “Prisoner of Zenda”. You would think the color version would have the better costumes, but the 1937 Zenda costumes are amazing even in b&w. The 19th century uniforms are properly ornate and gorgeous, while the later ones look comic-book simple. I guess the modern '50s minimalist look even went into period movie costumes, with a few notable exceptions like “The King and I”.

Interesting topic: I wonder if modern dies are much more vivid that what would have been available in Tudor times. Quite a bit of clothing has survived from past eras-but I imagine that they would be greatly faded-as the natural dyes faded over the centuries. Like “The Adventures of Robin Hood”-would 12th century England have vivid green dyes as shown in the film?

My guess is that they would, at least originally, since natural fibers absorb and retain dyes much better than any synthetic ones. I was watching a BBC documentary the other day, and they spent some time comparing the way tapestries looked when they were new and they way they look today. Five hundred years ago, they would have been brilliant.

The problems start when you try to wash period fabrics. They begin to fade almost immediately, so the colors of clothing would soon be more muted than when they were new. An example of this is the summer service uniforms of the US Army in the early 19th century. They were invariably white cotton, since they were washed frequently (every regiment had laundresses) and would have faded unevenly if dyed. The blue uniform jackets they wore under arms were wool and were simply brushed, aired out, and dabbed with lemon juice if they needed to be cleaned.

This is so interesting to me! Colors of clothing do fade over the years, so a historically bright shade in a movie would appear garish today.

(Not clothing, but I read historic houses when originally painted were much brighter, and faded over the years. Ancient Roman and Greek statues were not just left plain white marble, but were painted.)

While aniline dyes are more vivid, you can still get some amazingly intense colors using nonaniline dyes, I can remember getting some hot pink and lime green linen using natural herbal dyes - though how long they would stay intense in normal laundering I didn’t really determine. This is turmeric, which is also about the same that saffron would turn out at a fraction of the cost. As you can see, it is a rather nice sunflowery sort of color and it is fairly color fast as well. Somewhere I have a stola I made of turmeric dyed silk that has maintained fairly well and it is about 25 years old.

Although I will point out with respect to Robin Hood Will Scarlet the traveling bard did not get his name from wearing bright red clothing, scarlet was also the name of a type of fabric. Here is a picture with a range of greens, I would call these fairly subdued, personally though the colors are reasonably saturated. First year woad does that sort of dark mossy green when mordanted with vinegar and iron. That would probably be the typical Anglo-Saxon peasant fabric dye - woad was one of the more common herb based dyes in England of the day. Another really common one would be onion skin and iron yellow though you can get an interesting range of colors from green through yellow with onion. My favorite comes out that antique gold sort of yellow.

Scottish tartan (the fabric) is another interesting example: originally, you could identify someone from a particular part of the country since the available natural dyes varied from region to region. The whole “clan tartan” thing is something that originated in Victorian times and was facilitated by the invention of artificial dyes. From what I’ve read, the colors in traditional tartan were fewer and more muted, bordering on pastel, partly because the great kilt doubled as clothing and bedding and got a good deal more wear.

Something else you have to consider is that the nobility could afford to replace their clothing regularly, before colors faded. In fact, they were probably seldom washed; I mean, Elizabeth I had more than 3,000 dresses in her wardrobe when she died! They often favored retiring a garment after it had been worn a few times, since ostentacious displays of rich fabrics were a sign of one’s wealth.

Commoners, on the other hand, obviously had no such choice, and would dye things at home by boiling nettles, onion skins, chestnut shells, etc. The colors wouldn’t stay bright for long.