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Art Matters is the podcast that brings together popular culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.

Costumes are one of the most important elements of a film, helping to give a sense of the time and place. The fashions worn by characters can set the tone for a movie and that's why the role of the costume designer is key. When we hear the term 'period film', we often think of stories set long ago – perhaps something by Jane Austen or Dickens – but this label can apply to films from any historical period, including the recent past. The challenge of the costume designer is to capture the essence of the time period in a way that helps immerse viewers in the setting. We will look at three period films that take different approaches to costume design and see how art has informed the stylistic choices in each.

Still of Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in 'Elizabeth' (1998)

Still of Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in 'Elizabeth' (1998)

'For the eighteenth century, you can look at paintings. If you're doing [an] Elizabethan [film] you're solely relying on paintings because not [many garments] survive from that time period,' says Raissa Bretaña, fashion historian, lecturer and presenter for the Glamour Magazine video series Would They Wear That?. 'If you're doing nineteenth century, you will be looking at extant garments and, once you're working into the twentieth century, photographs.'

Farm Girl at Her Toilet, Lacing Her Corset

Farm Girl at Her Toilet, Lacing Her Corset

Eugène Modeste Edmond Lepoittevin (1806–1870)

The Bowes Museum

Paintings, illustrations and advertisements also offer insight into the proper undergarments across periods. A nineteenth-century painting on the Art UK website titled Farm Girl at her Toilet, Lacing Her Corset is an example of a genre painting that offers insight into the dressing process. It shows a young lady dressing in a cluttered barn. Interestingly, the scene originally included a cockerel standing near the foot of the bed, which the artist later painted out. Cockerels can symbolise lust, and its inclusion would have added a different context to the painting. While it may not be the original intent of these images, genre paintings along this theme can inform costume designers about the practical side of dressing a character.

Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons is an example of a film that was very historically accurate in its costuming and James Acheson won an Academy Award for his efforts.

Still of Glenn Close as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in 'Dangerous Liaisons' (1988)

Still of Glenn Close as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in 'Dangerous Liaisons' (1988)

Several dresses Glenn Close wears in the film appear to be inspired by a painting of Madame de Pompadour, including a peach gown that appears to recreate a dress in a painting by François Boucher.

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour 1759

François Boucher (1703–1770)

The Wallace Collection

You can see the similarities in the bows running down the stomacher and other trimmings along the sleeves and hems. Madame de Pompadour was quite the socialite and fashionista in the French court, so it makes sense that she might serve as inspiration for Close's character, who has similar traits.

'This is definitely a film that prioritises authenticity and we see that at the very opening of the film. They start with a scene of her character getting dressed and this is a common trope in period film because it helps to set the scene – it helps to give the audience a clue into the world that these characters live in,' says Raissa.


Turning to the 2020 version of Emma based on Jane Austen's novel of the same name, the costume designer takes an accurate, but flexible approach to Regency era costuming. The overall look of the film is filled with pastels and sugary tones, which ties well into the superficial world of the title character. The fashions help drive this vibrant aesthetic as much as the set design.

'A couple of Emma's costumes, particularly, can be directly traced back to extant garments in UK museum collections, and that really lends an air of authenticity to the film,' says Raissa.

One of the garments Raissa is referring to can be found in the V&A collection and dates to around 1810. Having extant examples to work from certainly helps to create authentic designs, but that doesn't mean that costume designers aren't also consulting paintings and illustrations for inspiration as well.

'Whereas you look at an extant garment to understand the proportion, and the fit, and the textiles and the manner of embellishment, you can't get information about styling,' says Raissa. 'That's where you have to go to either paintings or fashion plates.'

The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms

The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms 1818

Rolinda Sharples (1793–1838)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Several Jane Austen stories include a scene with a tense exchange between the romantic leads at a dance. A painting by Rolinda Sharples titled The Cloak-Room, Clifton Assembly Rooms offers an example of what some of these events would have looked like and the fashions of the attendees. You'll notice the women in the painting are wearing short-sleeved gowns with long gloves – details as seemingly small as sleeve length can reveal more about the setting than one might initially think.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady

Portrait of an Unknown Lady c.1780–1820

unknown artist

English Heritage, Brodsworth Hall

'During the nineteenth century, there were specific rules of dress and this is what we call 'time of day dressing'. There are garments that are appropriate for the morning, the afternoon and the evening, and this is largely dictated by the sleeve length and the height of the neckline,' says Raissa. 'Short-sleeved dresses were really reserved for evening wear. It's interesting because in watching Emma, you see her wearing short-sleeved dresses at all times of day throughout the film, and it's something that contemporary audiences don't pick up on because they're not accustomed to those social mores.'

While the garments are historically accurate in Emma, the costume designer plays with the rules of dress to suit the needs of the film. Conscious choices like this might be made to align with contemporary tastes, highlight certain characters, accommodate the aesthetic vision of the director or any number of other factors. In an era of film remakes, sometimes these costume choices are some of the elements that help distinguish a film from its predecessors.

Anna Karenina

Jacqueline Durran was the costume designer for the 2012 version of Anna Karenina, and her interesting approach to the fashions of nineteenth-century Russia earned her an Academy Award for costume design.

Still of Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in 'Anna Karenina' (2012)

Still of Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in 'Anna Karenina' (2012)

'[Durran] worked very creatively to capture the essence of a time period without being trapped by the minutiae of it,' says Raissa. 'In the beginning of the film you see that it is set in imperial Russia, 1874, so there's no confusion. It's not up to the costumes to set the scene... and that frees the costume designer to be more creative, more fluid with their design because it's not up to them to maintain the essence of this world. Famously, what Jacqueline Durran did for this film is she combined this Victorian silhouette with that of the mid-twentieth century.'

To see examples of the Victorian style Durran drew from, we can look at a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir titled La Parisienne, which was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

La Parisienne

La Parisienne 1874

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Renoir's mother was a seamstress and his father was a tailor, and his exposure to garment construction comes across in his deft execution of the dress. The skirt has a large bustle to the back, and the shade of blue he uses was a popular colour shown in the fashion magazines of the period.

c.1874, silk & fur, French


c.1874, silk & fur, French

The Met Museum has a dress in their collection made in the same year as Renoir's painting which is a similar style and colour. These each resemble an indigo ensemble Keira Knightley wears in her role as Anna Karenina, but the costume designer updates the look with twentieth-century flair, drawing on the silhouette for Dior's new look.

'Because fashion history is so closely tied to social history and the history of design and aesthetics, you really have to be a well-rounded scholar to understand the context in which these clothes exist,' says Raissa.

So much of our visual understanding of history comes from art. It's how we know the way historical figures and places looked, how people used items in context, and so much more. It's no wonder that art history can also play an important role in costume design.

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