I’ve been tumbling historical dresses for so long that it’s gotten to the point that I can’t watch historically-set movies with inaccurate costumes. I have to look at each costume and pick out every little detail they get wrong and eventually I can’t tell you what happened in the story, only what was wrong. A Russian friend of mine says that in Russia little inaccuracies are called “cranberries growing on trees” (or just “cranberries”) because as we know, cranberries grow in a bog, not on trees. It’s a very useful phrase that I’ve found myself using and confusing people with.
Since Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby is at the height of its promotional orgy and I can’t turn on the TV or go to any popular website without being toasted by Leonardo DiCaprio, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the costuming. I’ll just say that I probably wouldn’t last the first ten minutes. I can’t point out every little cranberry because there are so many of them, and it’s not just about the little details they get wrong.
I’ll be honest and say that I loved Moulin Rouge! and its costuming. When you have a crowd of aristocratic French gentlemen in top hats dancing in time together and singing lines from Smells Like Teen Spirit, the fact that Nicole Kidman is wearing a showgirl costume more at home in 1960s Los Vegas rather than fin-de-siécle Paris is really beside the point. It’s one of the few movies where everything is so outlandish that I can forget about the costumes and focus back on the story.
The Great Gatsby is very different. Rather than being Luhrman’s own story and vision, it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. It’s a story that must be understood in terms of his own time and place and reflected as such. One of the things that absolutely drives me insane when seeing “modern takes” on 1920s fashion is making the dresses skin-tight and impossible to do the charleston or lindy-hop in. The flapper dress is a dress made for movement. This is why they often come adorned with fringe and spangles and long streamers of fabric: to emphasize movement while dancing. At the same, time, it’s about so much more than just dancing. The fashion of the 1920s is a complete rejection of the tight, rigid feminine morality of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Rather than being passive, dainty, and demure and hiding themselves away, flappers wanted to be in on the party. More importantly, they saw more to life than finding a husband. When you make a flapper’s dress tight and clingy, you’re taking away what she valued most: her freedom.
This is why getting costuming and details right is important to me as an artist and history geek. It’s not just about understanding how peopled dressed, there’s the question of why people dressed that way. After all, what reflects how you live and what kind of person you are more intimately than your clothes? When details are wrong, the lessons and importance of the past are muddled and softened. The flapper becomes just a pretty dress and not a radical and powerful instrument of social change. The ast is romanticized and we begin to yearn for “the good old days” that never really existed.