Little Women, Big Anachronisms

For Experts in the Art, Fashion, and Material Culture of the Past, Minor Historical Inaccuracies Can Ruin a Perfectly Good Film

Among the well-deserved plaudits for Little Women, one Twitter reviewer from Waterford, Ireland, pulled an Amy and went viral:

It’s not the first time a carelessly-deployed prop has derailed an otherwise picture-perfect historical film or TV series, but while nitpickers once suffered in quiet desperation, they can now Tweet their pettiest pet peeves for all to see. We’re not talking about obvious bloopers like Tony Curtis wearing a Rolex in Spartacus, or a Starbucks cup gracing the set of Game of Thrones, but things most viewers wouldn’t notice—unless, of course, they happen to be experts in the art, fashion, and material culture of the past.

Southern California antiques dealer Philip Chavez is a committed Anglophile who should be the target audience for Merchant Ivory fare like Howard’s End. But he found the film—which won the Oscar for Best Production Design—unwatchable. “The china pattern they used wasn’t made until the 1950s,” he complains. “It immediately took me out of that moment. Of course, I had to lean over and completely ruin the movie for my wife, who was sitting next to me.”

Chavez, who has sourced antiques for Hollywood art directors, finds that it’s not castles and carriages but familiar, everyday objects like dishes, telephones, electrical outlets, and perfume bottles that are the toughest to get right on screen. Motherless Brooklyn, the Edward Norton-directed neo-noir set in the 1950s, is “a beautiful film,” he says. “But there are a couple of scenes where the characters are walking down the street in a derelict part of New York and the mailboxes are 1960s, 1970s aluminum mailboxes that they just wouldn’t have had at the time.”

And in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, “the art direction is so amazing, even down to the advertising on the sides of the buses, but the sequencing of the license plates is completely incorrect,” Chavez notes. “Dealing in antiques, I see old California black plates all the time. The color is right, but they did modern sequencing,” beginning with a number instead of three letters followed by three numbers.

License plate Once Upon A Time In Hollywood car
The license plates are all wrong in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. (Photo: Courtesy Columbia Pictures).
Inaccurate Hair In Movies, Gone Tomorrow

This is the kind of unsolicited commentary that gets you banned from family movie night, but many of us nerds have found like-minded souls in Historians at the Movies (#HATM), a social media gathering that’s like Mystery Science Theater 3000 for period movies. Participants—who’ve included eminent historians like Yale’s Joanne Freeman and Princeton’s Kevin Kruse—pick a film from Netflix then take to Twitter to mock, footnote, or debate the onscreen history in real time. University of Minnesota grad student Jason Herbert launched the weekly happening more than a year ago. Asked to name his personal cinematic Waterloo, the Early Americanist replies: “The Patriot is really bad.”

For fashion historian Hilary Davidson, author of the recent Yale University Press book Dress in the Age of Jane Austen, it’s not anachronistic costumes but inaccurate hairdressing that makes her want to pull her own hair out. She reserves special vitriol for “half-up hair,” an entirely modern style often used as cinematic shorthand for Ye Olden Times. In reality, historical hair was either all the way up (for married women or girls of marriageable age) or all the way down, or “out” in period parlance (for younger girls).

Nevertheless, ahistorical half-up hair appears over and over again in costume dramas, including the BBC’s War & Peace, Mary Shelley, Far From the Madding Crowd, and the much-maligned Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice. In Little Women, “Meg and Jo go to a dance with half-up hair, when that would have been unthinkable,” Davidson says. “The worst is when Meg gets married with her hair ‘out,’ totally missing the significance of maturity and hair going up.” Davidson notes that a major scene in the book involves Jo burning Meg’s hair with hot tongs while giving her fashionable ringlets; in the movie, the tongs burn Meg’s hair but otherwise have “no effect whatsoever” on her straight tresses.

This Movie is Giving Me An Art Attack

Art historians love to spot favorite paintings, sculptures, and tapestries in the backgrounds of scenes, especially in British productions, which are often filmed on location in historic homes. A version of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1785 portrait of Mrs. Musters as Hebe hangs over the staircase of Highclere Castle, better known as Downton Abbey; there’s a copy of Antony Van Dyck’s monumental equestrian portrait of King Charles I in the dining room.

Downton Abbey Charles I panting
This painting is simply all wrong.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

But sometimes a famous work of art—say, Mark Rothko’s Ochre and Red on Red from the Phillips Collection—turns up in a place where it obviously doesn’t belong, like Tony Stark’s living room. Even more conspicuously, a work of art may turn up in a time period where it doesn’t belong. Sash Giles—curator of decorative arts at Chatsworth House, the family seat of the Dukes of Devonshire—spotted a different portrait of Charles I in a scene in the 2005 BBC miniseries The Virgin Queen. The heroine, Queen Elizabeth, died in 1603; Charles was born in 1600. Similarly, in the multiple-Oscar-winning The Madness of King George, set in 1788-89, the camera pans past a statue of Queen Victoria, King George’s granddaughter, who was born in 1819.

The Devil is in the Historical Details

Does it really matter? “Certainly, the devil is often in the detail,” says historian Hannah Greig, who served an adviser on Poldark, The Favourite, Sanditon, and other historical film and television productions. “Working up historical precision in small details as well as in large plot points and overarching story lines can both reveal forgotten aspects of the past as well as keep a viewer hooked in their suspension of disbelief.”

Once you notice an inaccuracy, you can’t un-see it, and you might start questioning what else the filmmakers got wrong. This is more of a risk in, say, a prestige biopic or literary adaptation rather than a summer blockbuster set in a vaguely once-upon-a-time milieu. “My criteria for ruining a movie is you’re trying to portray an exact historical moment in time,” Chavez says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s something like Pirates of the Caribbean, which is just creating a look rather than aiming for historical accuracy.”

Of course, it’s not just historians who nitpick movies relevant to their area of expertise. My husband, an actual rocket scientist, has ruined many a sci-fi flick for me by pointing out that you can’t see laser beams in space, or spacewalk through Neptune’s rings with only a scrap of sheet metal for protection. In a matinee showing of Ad Astra, no one can hear you scream.

Iron Man Mark Rothko painting.
I am Iron Man and apparently I stole this Rothko (Photo: Marvel Studios).

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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