No. Medieval Armies didn't look like Highschool Theatre Productions
Rage Fueled Rant on "Historical Accuracy"
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There’s a take I see again and again when it comes to historical films.
“What are they wearing! They’re in like motorcycle leathers. That’s not what medieval clothing looks like. Medieval clothing was bright, with big colors, and elaborate heraldry. Look at these edge lord filmmakers trying to be cool!”
I saw a thread on exactly this just recently:
Historians and history nerds love this take… its gives them the perfect opportunity to “Well Actually” and feel superior over the plebs who will just accept anything that’s superficially “Dark” and “Gritty” as somehow more authentic.
Except there’s one problem… The rise of “motorcycle leather” medieval clothing in film isn’t driven by audiences its driven by the improvement in film technology.
You can look at “Dark and Gritty” medieval films from the 90s and earlier and audiences were quite happy to accept period accurate clothing in their movies, and filmmakers were quite pleased to give them this accurate clothing.
Indeed it was CHEAPER to outfit your films like this because absolutely every studio, theatre company, and Highschool has entire storage rooms and warehouses full of stock medieval clothing from productions going back to the 40s:
So why are film companies paying 10s of thousands of dollars to get new inaccurate costumes made in a style that never existed, when they have perfectly good accurate costumes sitting in storage?
Is being edgy that important to them?
Why not just use the costumes in storage?
BECAUSE YOU CAN’T USE THEM ANYMORE!
There’s a reason the motorcycle leather style has taken over Medieval films…
And that reason is HD CAMERAS.
Once you can see details of clothing’s textures, and you need the light to land naturally on it… all those technicolor era costumes designed to be drowned in spotlights look fake as can be. Sure the pattern of the color is accurate to the old paintings… but every other element screams “Highschool Theatre!”
So why don’t they make new costumes in that style?
Because the problem goes so much deeper than just a choice of material or optimizing the dye for lighting…
Medieval clothing existed in an era before modern artificial dyes, before modern texture fabrication or even the Cotton Gin, before modern detergents!
Most people in the medieval world owned one, maybe two, outfits if they were wealthy.
It would take days or weeks of an individual weaver’s effort to make the fabric sufficient for an outfit, the tailors might take another week.
CLOTHING WAS A MAJOR INVESTMENT.
For those of you who’ve played Mount & Blade… when you raid a village and make off with the cattle and honey, and cheese, and all their bolts of fabric, and linen… that isn’t a weird videogame-ism the fabric is literally up their with the livestock and high calorie food for stuff that has major resale value.
You can read novels from the 18th and 19th century, or hell even the early 20th, where the poor and destitute are literally Threadbare, their one outfit’s threads have started to give way and their ass is hanging out. And the poor would just go around like that… for months or years until they finally got enough money to Cloth themselves, or more likely, they died.
I recommend Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771) for a humorous treatment of this subject.
If you want to imagine the medieval or even early modern world… just imagine the modern third world if they weren’t receiving the trade, scraps, and charity of wealthier countries.
The average person was buying a new outfit maybe every 5-10 years! And they were wearing that outfit everyday, in all weather, for all work.
Modern Printed T-Shirts don’t maintain their colors after a few dozen washes when you’ve worn them maybe once or twice per wash, and you’re using gentle detergents with built in fabric brighteners. Now imagine doing daily hard agricultural work in those clothes day in, day out, for 5+ years, and the only thing you can clean with is harsh and corrosive lye based soaps.
A medieval or early modern girl would look nice and fresh in her bright colors for maybe a month after getting a new dress… and if someone didn’t propose marriage to her in that time, or she fell in the mud day one and ruined the glamour of the new dress… it’d be a tragedy, her family would resent the wasted investment, would probably beat her, and it’d probably ruin her life and maybe lead to her dying at 30 from syphilis after poverty and lack of prospects forced her into a life of prostitution.
Seriously read an early modern novel. Read Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Richardson’s Clarissa, hell read Austen! Ruin is that close to these people and matters of presentation that potentially (literally) fatal.
So what did Medieval Armies look like?
If a stupendously wealthy man endeavored Crassus-like to raise and equip an entirely fresh army out of his personal fortune… It’d maybe look like the Narnia army… for the first few months.
However if we took a realistic scenario where veteran bannermen are being called up and they’re calling up their knights and men-at-arms, who are dusting off their armour and outfits that might be family heirlooms, and have maybe sat in a corner for years or decades, and had a hard war and campaign before that… the vast majority of those bright expressive heraldry and colors are going to be faded as hell.
The wealthy bannermen might afford to have their outfits re-dyed or might get an entirely new tabard to go over their armour, or might buy new for a promising son they’re hoping to set up in society during this campaign.
But the vast vast majority are going to be sporting a colour pallet no dissimilar to the modern Faux-Medieval look, where the bright colors and fabrics have faded til you can just tell they were maybe once bright.
Kings and high lords obviously will sport the bright colors, and the fact they literally shine compared to the lesser nobles and commoners will be a massive flex and have a major psychological effect…
But after a campaign? after weeks or months in the field? After invading France like Henry, or waging a crusade?
Those new outfits are going to show their wear. Sure they’ll have squires and pages to wash their outfits and polish their armour… but they aren’t redying them. They aren’t reforging the armour or going over it with steel wool and bar keeper’s friend.
By the time Henry the 5th reaches Agincourt he wouldn’t have looked anything like this:
The heraldry would be showing loosening threads or patches where his squire resewed the lions, the colours would be faded by months of mud, rain, sweat, and hard washing to get it clean again, the armour, even if freshly polished, wouldn’t be shining consistently but have built up scratches, patina, and hardened grime… Seriously ask a motorcycle owner who’s done any off-roading how bloody hard it is to keep metal looking like that!
And motorcycles are made of modern stainless steels and aluminum alloys that are chemically treated and coated to resist rust grime and wear… medieval armour is just straight regularly tarnishing steel that came from a blacksmith.
And motorcycle owners have garages full of power washers, WD-40, Barkeeper’s friend, steel wool… A medieval squire had a cloth and some low-grade oils. If you wanted to actually strip the rust and grime and get it to shine again you had to have a blacksmith tumble the armour in a barrel with sand for hours on end… obviously not something you’re going to do that often, and not something most poorer soldiers could afford. and it still wouldn’t look like new at the end.
And remember motorcyclists only bike a couple times a week and generally in good weather. If you’re in an army on the march, you are wearing most of your kit, less maybe the heaviest items if you have a servant to carry it… basically everywhere, in all weather, everyday.
If you show someone dressed like Lawrence Olivier at the end of a campaign, in a supposedly realistic war film, with all those bright colours and gleaming metal… in 1080p HD. ya its going to strike audiences as incredibly film-Breakingly unrealistic… because it would be INCREDIBLY FILM-BREAKINGLY UNREALISTC.
Because guess what, though no medieval tailor would ever dye an article of clothing muted tan or brown or black… that’s certainly what the colors would start to look like after years of wear, months on campaign, and no washing machine or modern detergent with fabric brighteners to get it to our standards of clean or renew the colors.
So why don’t filmmakers just do the job right, make costumes correctly, then age them?
A good film grade costume that will standup to having an HD camera looking at it in closeup will costs maybe 500-$1000 dollars, or even $2000-5000 if you start incorporating really complex elements that have to look real …like armour.
The average film will need maybe 50-100 of these… and vastly more if you’re doing a big epic battle movie that might need hundreds of people in an individual shot.
This is generally doable for smaller productions however, because the studios will retain the costumes as assets for some percentage of the cost, and lease them out to future productions for vastly less than what they’d cost new.
Sure you’ll probably want something specific for your main cast if you’re a big production, but the side characters and extras and stuff… its very easy to reuse assets.
Now lets imagine you buy new armour, tabards, dresses for the female characters… and you do what seems obvious to get it in condition.
You fill a barrel with muddy water, dump it all in. Throw it in the industrial washing machine without detergent, then take it out, and do it again 30 times occasionally adding beer and egg matter to the muddy water, until all that bright color is faded… Then you take the armour pelt it with rocks to get all the little dings and bumps that build up on it, take a broadsword or crowbar and smack it up a few time to simulate use… awkwardly hammer out any parts that caved in, them hose it down with mud and grime, and salt… leave it out a week to rust… and then go it with some steel wool a rag and what you think is a period accurate polish derived from beef tallow and bacon grease….
And what do you know! It all looks perfect at the end! Your hack to age these fabrics and metals by 5 years of medieval life perfectly works… you didn’t destroy the fabrics because the costume company used a polyester blend that fell apart… you didn’t accidentally wreck the armour with one of the blows, or find out the metallurgist used a bizarre alloy blend that rusted to an unsightly orangy-green…My young director you turned out to be an ungodly natural in the art of textile transformation and pulled it off perfectly…
So you show your producer and he screams at you:
“What the hell did you just do to 100s of thousands of dollars in costumes?!”
If you checked those costumes out of a studio warehouse, do you think the studio rep is going to sign off so you can get your deposit back when you try to return them?
So ya there’s a reason this isn’t happening.
Until some brave costume designer comes up with a reliable way to artificially age authentic medieval clothing close to what it would be on the battlefield or after years of wear… Most productions are going to be stuck with the faux medieval look lest they try to be authentic and have the shining medieval outfits come up looking like Narnia.
The importance of Textile History for Worldbuilding
I can imagine some committed contrarian will still try to contest the Lawrence Olivier look is more authentic, or realistic… No its not.
The state of the clothing is far more telling of the world and world-building than whether or not a character’s in world’s fashion choices make sense.
Throughout the medieval world thousands of lords and kingdoms wore thousands of patterns and styles… but none of them escaped the material reality of just how the literal fabric and metal materials around them behaved.
If you think “Fabric brighteners” or “detergent” is arch nit-picking… then you should probably know that thousands of soldiers have died due to fabric brighteners… just in the past 10 years.
Modern military uniforms are dyed with Multispectrum camouflage. They are treated so that the camouflage pattern that makes them hard to spot on the visual spectrum is replicated on the IR spectrum. If you looked at a regular green t-shirt against a treeline it’d blend in, but if you looked at it under IR the t-shirt shape would jump out immediately… Multispectrum doesn’t do that, the same camo pattern that blends in to the naked eye is replicated and nearly as hard to spot under IR… or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen.
In the vast majority of cases however soldiers come home from an exercise covered in mud and grime and just want to get to sleep… so they throw their fatigues in the wash, pour in their usual detergent and head to bed…
A year or two later when they or the next soldier to use their uniform, or the foreign volunteer in Ukraine who bought that uniform from a surplus store goes into combat… the Multispectrum camo doesn’t work, and instead of being nigh invisible to IR equipped drones… they glow like Mr. Burns on a midnight stroll.
The Multispectrum dye might be hard to spot under IR… but years of detergent based fabric brighteners certainly aren’t.
And that’s the thing these textile manufacturing questions effect the world people are living in quite dramatically. And they tell a viewing audience so much about that world.
I recently watch the Netflix remake of all’s Quiet on the Western Front.
It’s an extraordinary film and its opening might be one of the most powerful sequences in the history of film.
The opening of all’s Quiet on the Western Front follows the logistical reassignment of a jacket.
Now, The sequence end’s with a teenage volunteer, the protagonist, in the German army receiving the jacket… he notices a name is on the tag, so he draws this to the quartermaster’s attention: It must have gotten mixed in… it already belongs to someone.
The quartermaster reassures him “Yes. It was probably too small for the fellow. Happens all the time.”
Then the recruit grabs the jacket and moves onto the fitting room…
But before that we watch the jacket being sewn and corrected in a factory with hundreds of seamstresses, but before that we watch it being washed with hundreds of others in reddish pool, but before that we watch the dirty jackets being brought on traincar, but before that we watch them being gathered up in bundles and carried to the traincar, but before that we watch them being picked off the bodies of fallen soldiers as the bodies are buried in mass graves and covered in lye to prevent the rats from eating them, as the boots are likewise piled up as if a scene from the Holocaust…
But before that we watch terrified “original” (or is he just previous?) owner of the jacket, Heinrich, a frightened boy no older than the protagonist, be ordered over the top as we watch him struggle before burying his entrenching shovel in a Frenchman’s neck.
This focus on the textile/logistical is not only stupendously unique and works to effect a horror, and almost future-shock, at the dehumanizing terror of the first industrial war… but it also asks a provocative question… or at least it leads me to a very provocative question:
Was this the first Holocaust?
The first time civilians were stripped naked, assessed by doctors, switched out to uniforms formerly worn by the dead, and then marched or loaded on box cars, that they could be shot or gassed…. then have their clothes stripped, be dumped in a mass grave, and have their boots shipped off to a new cohort of victims?
Was Hitler’s crime simply doing what the civilized nations of the world… the French Republic, the British Empire, the German Nation… had done to him when he was young?
Before you answer recall Hitler was blind and hospitalized when he learned WW1 was over… he’d been gassed.
Its a very provocative question, and indeed maybe the filmmakers didn’t mean to ask it…but the power of the sequence, the captured reality of industrialized warfare, it does so much that other warfare films just dare not do, this isn’t Saving Private Ryan’s deification of the American war machine and sacrifice narratives… this isn’t a movie the American Legion or the ghost of John McCain would want you watching on Veteran’s day…
And that power comes from its attention to textile reality.
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Back to the Medieval/Fantastical
Another film that likewise uses the material properties of its costumes to great effect is John Booreman’s 1981 fantasy classic Excalibur
The film takes the Fisher king myth and the ethos that health of the land and the health of the king are one and the same… and then applies that logic to the very costumes and materials of the setting.
The same character in the same costume can appear shining and radiant, and almost like a hyperborea meme in one scene or era when the land is thriving… and then appear mud washed, darkened, and blood splattered just a few scenes later
It looks gorgeous and gives you the feel that you’re watching all versions of the king Arthur legend at once and is a real testament to what you can achieve when you take the material limitations (or lack their of) of a setting seriously.
But what if you could achieve “realism” in Medieval costuming?
What would the pinnacle of dynamic costuming look like?
Imagine if some genius director had befriended a mad costume designer and they came up with a reliable way to dynamically and reliably age costumes such that the same set of clothes, the same dress, the same heraldic tabard, the same armour, could be aged and transformed over the course of a film…
Think of the visual storytelling that would open.
You could have an early scene where a teenage girl gets a bright brand new dress and bewitching in the splendor of her un-dimmed colors win the heart of a young boy, or a newly risen army its nights and lords freshly bedecked in newly dyed heraldry, and gleaming freshly forged armour… and a brightly dyed flag waving above the camp.. with only a few salty veterans in dimmed old outfits and dimmed armour suggesting what might come.
Only for the audience to watch as over the course of a campaign the colours are washed away, the bright armour give to rust and grime, as characters are killed on the front and the prize they dreamed of capturing ( a city, a kingdom, Jerusalem?) becomes more and more distant… their brightly coloured tents now become grimy weather battered things, and eventually the flags and banners themselves washed out and tattered…
Our hero finally makes it home only to meet the girl he had fallen in love with only to see the time has been as harsh on her… that even though she is still wearing the same dress the loss of the war and years taken an unrecognizable toll on her as well…
You’d get an oscar for film-making like that! and if you did it fully in Camera, by actually aging the costumes and not cheating by using filters, you’d have an effect where once the bright newly dyed medieval colours shone brighter than anything in the world but as they dim, the un changing woods and skies become bright, and instead the world weary men become the dimmed grey parts of the world…
In the end critics of the faux -medieval dark and gritty motorcycle leather style of modern costume design aren’t wrong… that isn’t what Medievals wore… and it’d be nice if we could get films where the costumes are accurate.
But there’s a very good reason filmmakers are not doing so… and going back to dressing actors in costumes like the 40s that are obviously too clean, to new, and haven’t spend combined months or years on multiple campaigns… that’s not going to look anymore realistic.
I leave you with this, an artifact from another era of brightly coloured costumes, pomp, and glory… that inevitably gave way to muddy, miserable realities: The Napoleonic Wars.
Ary Scheffer’s 1826 “The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812” still has the little elements of brightly coloured Grande Armée glory shining through… but the pitiable realities of the eastern front… the slow press of the white and the darkness have dimmed them almost entirely…
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