Costume dramas like Little Women and Outlander are fun to watch for the actors and the action, but costuming and hairstyles are important in creating the illusion of going back in time. Producers, like Heather Parry, who work on movies or television shows must find talented people to recreate the fashions of a bygone era in a way that is believable to the audiences of today.

Contemporary Images

People who work in costuming, hair and makeup rely heavily on photographs and paintings of people who were alive in that era. Depending upon the era, they spend time examining portraits in museums or collections of photographs in books for evidence of how people dressed, styled their hair and applied makeup. Little Women is set in New England during the American Civil War in the later 1800s, and costume designer, Jacqueline Durran, used paintings of women done in that time period to reflect the style of the characters. For example, the character of Jo March, whom Louisa May Alcott modeled after herself, is portrayed in somewhat masculine clothing to show that she resisted the constrictions women who wanted careers felt at that time. Durran found a painting by American artist, Winslow Homer, to express her vision of Jo. For the more fashionable Amy, Durran drew from the paintings of the French Impressionists. 

Tempered by Literature

Sometimes the look of a character is tied to their description in a work of fiction, such as that of Claire Randall Fraser in Outlander. First introduced in the books by Diana Gabaldon, Claire is repeatedly described as having curly hair. The styles of the time when Outlander is set call for very straight hair that has been treated with pomade and powder to make it easier to manage would be very difficult for someone with curly hair to achieve, and Gabaldon talks a lot about Claire’s unruly hair. The actress who plays Claire, Caitriona Balfe, had to have her hair permed to get the curls that refuse to behave.

Producers, costume and hair stylists who work on period films and TV shows need to study history in order to perform their jobs.