Barry Lyndon

Weekend Roundtable: Favourite Historical Costume Dramas

Perhaps no film genre is more reliable year-end awards bait than the historical costume drama. We have a couple in theaters right now, the serious-minded bio-pic Mary Queen of Scots and the dark comedy The Favourite. Our Roundtable this week looks at some other good examples.

David Krauss

When I think of historical costume dramas, a few films spring to mind. The most outlandish would have to be the 1963 version of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts… errr, I mean, Elizabeth Taylor. The Oscar-winning costumes by Vittorio Nino Novarese cling to the curvy figure of La Liz like a second skin. Enormous headdresses, plunging necklines, and lavish capes make each creation in this bloated Roman epic more eye-popping than the last. At times, the costumes are far more interesting than the movie.

Also in the bursting bodice category is 1984’s Amadeus, which earned Theodor Pistek an Oscar for his lavish 18th Century designs. The ornate, corseted gowns with wide skirts and garish hats perfectly reflect the opulence and ribald atmosphere of the Austrian court in the 1700s. Even the men are decked out in puffy shirts, floral vests, lacy scarves, and silk jackets in an array of pastel colors. Mozart’s music eclipses the costumes, but Milos Forman’s Best Picture winner is a sensory feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

Another favorite of mine in this category is The Adventures of Robin Hood, which would have won a Best Costume Design Oscar if one existed at the time. (The award didn’t debut until 1946, eight years after the movie’s release.) No man today would be caught dead in the bright green velvet shirt, cape, and tights that Errol Flynn dons in this classic swashbuckler, but he cuts quite a dashing figure. His leading lady, Olivia de Havilland, doesn’t show an iota of skin, but looks very exotic and alluring in her purple, maroon, cyan, and yellow form-fitting gowns, all meticulously designed to showcase the picture’s true star – three-strip Technicolor.

I’m also dazzled by the Oscar-winning costumes in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, designed by Gabriella Pescucci, who perfectly recreates the sophisticated look of the aristocratic smart set in turn-of-the-20th-Century New York. Michelle Pfeiffer and especially Winona Ryder radiate glamour in this faithful, absorbing, and altogether beautiful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel.

Jason Gorber

Barry Lyndon, hands down. It’s not only one of the most beautiful films ever made (shot with a lens designed for spy satellites that allowed for candlelit scenes impossible on celluloid in any other way), but Stanley Kubrick’s decision to modulate the pace of action with the rhythms of courtly life is the best excuse for ponderous pace in cinematic history. The film has love, duels, conniving and more, yet the bleak, jet-black comedy that fuels many of Kubrick’s works elevates it to truly transcendent heights.

M. Enois Duarte

As a fan of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, I’ve enjoyed the many adaptations of Jane Eyre, but one of my favorite versions is Robert Stevenson’s 1943 production starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. Stevenson collaborated on the script with screen legend John Houseman and novelist Aldous Huxley, but as much as the performances and writing are absolutely top-notch, the film’s real beauty comes from its lush, distinguished photography of George Barnes. The cinematographer brilliantly tells the story with a moody, Gothic atmosphere that feels just as expressive and poignant as it is spooky and melancholic. The dazzling camerawork bathes the stage design with overwhelming, tenebrous shadows, which are symbolic of Jane’s feelings of oppression and spiritual imprisonment. Seventy years later, Stevenson’s film remains an astounding visual feat, which later adaptations have tried to imitate and aspire to.

Brian Hoss

Right at this moment, I’m caught up revisiting all of my favorite Westerns and some new ones to boot, but I’ll go a little bit further back and more ornate with Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, and everyone from the film’s converging factions looks great.

I’d also like to put in a word for A&E’s Horatio Hornblower films and their Georgian-era navy.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

I really enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula more than I thought I would. While Keanu Reeves’ range is a bit limited (and he didn’t get to say “Whoa” once in this entire film), his stiff formality and dry delivery work well enough for his character, the Victorian-era solicitor Jonathan Harker. Fortunately, he has help in the acting department from Winona Ryder, who turns in a solid performance as both Harker’s and Dracula’s love interest, and Anthony Hopkins, who embodies Dracula’s arch enemy Professor Van Helsing with aplomb. But it’s Gary Oldman’s Dracula that steals the show, and costume designer Eiko Ishioka helps him steal it.

With no previous costume design experience, Ishioka was inspired – but not limited – by Victorian-era fashions in her costume design. With elements of Eastern and Western clothing spanning the centuries of Dracula’s life, Ishioka’s unique designs earned a Best Costume Oscar for her work on the film. From Dracula’s red sinewy armor to his elegant formal gray suit, felt top hat and blue pince-nez glasses, to his flowing red robes, Ashioka’s costumes – and Oldman’s intense performance – helped to create a unique and unforgettable vision of this iconic character.

Years after seeing the film, I read Bram Stoker’s book and was surprised to find that Coppola’s interpretation was actually quite faithful to the source material. But as the story unfolded, I found myself envisioning the characters in the costumes they wore in the film. That’s a strong testament to the enduring brilliance of the costume designer’s vision.

Josh Zyber

I mentioned this in a Roundtable last year and didn’t expect to bring it up again so soon, but Sally Potter’s Orlando definitely qualifies for this category. Based on a Virginia Woolf novel, Tilda Swinton stars as a 16th Century nobleman (yes, man) who, quite simply, never dies. The reason for his immortality is never explicitly explained, nor is a gender switch later in life. Swinton is delightful as a very ambiguous, androgynous character, and the centuries-spanning story provides plenty of opportunity for elaborate costuming, for which the film was Oscar nominated (ultimately losing to The Age of Innocence).

Competing in the category that same year (and also directed by a woman) was Jane Campion’s art house sensation The Piano, which I have to toss an honorable mention.

Your Turn

Do you have any favorites from this genre? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. I’m still waiting for a good home video edition of WATERLOO (1970), with Christopher Plummer as Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon.

    It features the most famous dance in history, the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball:'s_ball, held the night before the big battle. Everyone was there.

    Regency era films are always good for costumes: see any Jane Austen or Ridley Scott’s THE DUELLISTS for the French equivalent.

  2. Csm101

    It’s no surprise that two of my favs were mentioned, Amadeus and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Another one that comes to mind that I really wish would get a bluray release is Quills. I also really enjoy 2002’s The Count of Montecristo.

  3. Charles Contreras

    To me nothing beats the grand scale that is The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. The hard work and attention to detail speaks volumes for this cinematic masterpiece that still holds up today.

  4. Tom McCullough

    Philip Haas directed what I thought was an excellent period film released in 1995: ANGELS AND INSECTS – there was a dance/ball scene with stunning costumes – I’ve never forgotten it – unfortunately, it seems the movie has fallen off the edge of the Earth where it ends on the west coast – I search for signs of it a couple of times every year to no avail – I need to see it one more time before I leave for the next life…or whatever

  5. photogdave

    As a fan of the O’Brian novels I have to give high marks to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
    I saw the film before reading any of the novels and absolutely loved it. In fact, it inspired me to take a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
    Now having read the novels I really appreciate what an amazing job Peter Weir and everyone involved did to bring these stories to the screen, maintaining the spirit and atmosphere O’Brian established. Russell Crowe is the perfect Aubrey and while Paul Bettany may be a little too handsome for Doctor Maturin, he does a fine job of portraying some of his mannerisms.

  6. Bolo

    It’s been some time since I’ve watched it, but I remember ‘Russian Ark’ being an amazing cinematic experience and the costume pageantry was top notch.

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