From George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the battlefields of the Civil War, Vietnam and World War II, Wide Awake Films is constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance our creative work with historical accuracy, and believe us, that kind of initiative can take us in some pretty interesting directions!
Thankfully, there is always a starting point of looking through our in-house library and on the Internet for vintage photographs, period illustrations and other historical references, but we also know that’s it’s important to cast a wide inspiration net because you never know where a good idea might come from to create the most authentic backdrop, set or costume possible. We always first look to the historical documentation itself. Too often, filmmakers believe they can heighten history with their own narrative twist, when in most instances a little digging reveals that the actual history is far more compelling. When it comes to creating a historical re-enactment for a specific time period, there are a number of considerations that can help elevate the look from a simple costume to a historically accurate re-enactment ensemble.
The first differentiator begins with the person in the clothing. Whether a principal or an extra, the visual record of the era you’re trying to recreate should be your guide. If casting for an industrial scene in the early part of the 20th Century, study pictures from the era and know the history. European immigration was especially at a peak at the time. The faces and body styles should reflect this. And don’t forget the personal hygiene habits of the era you’re recreating. A daily shower or bath is still a fairly modern luxury.
Next, it’s important to create the right silhouette. For the ladies, that means having the proper foundation garments (petticoats, stays and corsets) under the clothing to create the right form and drape. Fabrics, trim and textiles chosen for the clothing should rely on choices that include quilting cotton, handkerchief linen and quality silk. Modern fabrics, especially when not used in large enough quantity, cannot produce the right historical profile and the clothes will lack the necessary presence. Even something as basic as seam lines can throw off the historical accuracy of a look. Seam lines that are placed on the shoulder are a dead giveaway for a modern costume.
For the men, in any recreation pre-1960’s, it’s the hat that makes the silhouette. Spend your money on getting the right headgear and the rest of the re-creation costume will fall into place. Also, look to the tailoring of the time. For example, if your actor is thin, then accent it with close-fitting clothing versus putting them into oversized baggy duds.
Historical re-enactments are not only about getting the clothing right but also the hair, accessories, facial hair and probably most important, the attitude of the era. Even with all the right clothing you can’t fake character and swagger. Another thing that’s hard to fake is clothing that has the age, character and wear and tear that can only be earned over time, creating an outfit that not only looks like you’ve worn it out but also possibly died in it, too.
And, most importantly, always have experts on set. We always involve people with decades of study and interest in the material culture, household goods and history of the time we’re trying to depict. Our true secret is hiring the best re-enactors of the history we’re portraying. These are the people that come on set ready to shoot with thousands of dollars of their own equipment and a brain full of knowledge about their historic era. Wide Awake is really lucky to have some amazing folks in this regard who like to come out and “play” with us on our historic recreations!
Recommendations for Adding Legitimacy to a Re-enactment Costume
- Work, exercise and sleep in it so it looks like it’s yours
- Use sandpaper on the elbows, knees and cuffs to give the stress points a worn-in look
- If called for, stain your outfit with mud, oil, dirt, grease or tea
- Leave clothes out in the sun to fade the color – this can take months
- Replicate the hairstyles and facial hair of the time period
- Avoid wearing cosmetic make up, fingernail polish, non-period wrist watches, modern glasses, etc.
- Leave your cell phone at home
Check out these before and after shots showing how we aged and distressed a World War II uniform for an episode we directed for National Geographic TV, Day Under Fire: Saipan:
One of our favorite reenactments is one we did we did with a wardrobe budget of $100 and about a weeks’ notice. We created a Negro Leagues Baseball dugout (circa 1940s) in honor of the All Star Game held in 2013 in Kansas City. To read more about our baseball re-enactment, click here.