Costume designers have the power to transport viewers through time, and some almost seem to be time travelers themselves. Here are 30 historically accurate films and shows that flew us back to the past.
Downton Abbey (2010)
Our favorite family would never disappoint us, and their work in the clothing department is no exception. In particular, season 1 delivered some of the most period-appropriate pieces we've ever seen on TV.
With a focus on generational differences between Violet, Cora, and the Crawley girls, every outfit reflected a new generation and attitude to fashion in the 1910s - 20s. The costume department's details on the servants' liveries with the Grantham crest helped immerse us even more deeply into the world.
Some historical films are such standouts in costuming that they reach new captivation heights; Emma is one of those films. From the first frame of the film, it is clear the costume department took no liberties in depicting every distinct character, their social standing, wealth, attitude and regard for society.
Petticoats, boned corsets, and bare bottoms under skirts, Emma nails regency-era dress and behavior. The titular character spends the entire story caring about what others think, which shows in her style. She also comes from incredible wealth, and her outfits are more grandiose than others, like Harriet, who tries to copy her.
Unlike some other entries on our list, Jackie has an advantage in resources. With thousands of pictures of the First Lady, the costume department was not short on inspiration. The 2016 film is considered one of the best costume-designed films for its use of accurate textures and perfect replication of famous outfits.
The pink suit we all know from the fateful day in the 60s is perfect; down to the buttons, color, and even the splatters of blood are precise. Madelain Fontaine, the costume designer, told the NYT, "We hand-dyed the fabric until we found the exact shade of pink." Dedication to detail always pays off, and it received an Oscar nom.
James Cameron’s Titanic is one of the most famous films ever; it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it. The 1997 romance turned disaster film is immortal in many parts due to its convincing prop and costume design. The film took away the Oscar for Best Costume Design, and deservingly so.
From evening dresses to class distinctions through fashion, as well as 1912 appropriate corsets, jewelry, hats, and Rose’s French-influenced outfits (as she had just returned to the UK from France). The only aspect of styling that we will fault is the 90s-looking makeup, but that’s for another list.
The Crown (2016-2023)
While The Crown also had abundant means to source inspiration from or downright copy, the hit Netflix TV series wowed audiences with a different portrayal of the British royal family. Every character is thoughtfully considered, and the distinction between Margaret's and Elizabeth's fashion creates pressure.
It is not their accuracy at recreating costumes that makes The Crown stand out for us; it is the costume designers' ability to depict Elizabeth's internal struggle through fashion. In the beginning, to demonstrate her insecurity, she touts fake glamour that slowly turns to pastels and simplicity when she accepts her own rule.
Les Misérables (2012)
The musical turned movie-musical spans 1815 to 1832 in a divided France. Characters correctly portray their social and economic class, and the colors they wear also define their allegiances; to the revolution or to the King (accurate to the time). Even Fantine goes from blue factory worker to crimson on the streets of Paris.
During a period with a ginormous gap between the wealthy and poor, Les Mis’ designers knew how to separate classes while maintaining historical accuracy. Adult Cosette’s huge sleeves and silhouette were very trendy. The needier Eponine has elements of Cosette’s look but with less pronounced curves and more disheveled.
Phantom Thread (2017)
While the fashion in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is accurate to 1954, it is not just the exactness of the period that makes the film's costumes unique. Reynolds Woodcock, the so-called genius designer, creates sweeping dresses representing remnants of pre-War England; his supposed greatness is in the past.
The Film Experience said, "[the clothes] aren't bold or innovative. They are the product of a rigid mind." Reynolds is so determined on perfection that he doesn't realize the dresses are dull. This reflects British fashion houses in the 50s that couldn't keep up with the rapid progress by the French (mainly Chanel and Dior).
The Queen's Gambit (2020)
For a fictional story, The Queen’s Gambit nailed historical fashion. As time evolves from the 50s to the 60s, so does Beth. The chess champion replaces her skirts with pants and lets her short hair grow for long 60s locks. As Beth becomes more worldly, so does her fashion, and she embraces French styles and luxury.
Unrelated to history, Beth dresses like her frame of mind while maintaining period styles and patterns. When she suffers from substance abuse, she dresses like the colors of her pill. And when she is ready to dominate the chess scene, she wears black and white in lines like a chessboard.
You may be surprised to see this film featured on our list; army uniforms don’t require much creativity. However, Dunkirk creates anonymity through uniforms. It is disorientating to tell a soldier from a soldier. In a big pool of soldiers desperate to return home, the characters we follow feel small and expendable.
In fact, the uniformity of the army uniforms makes them so terrifying. The difficulty in differentiating between friend and enemy creates unease. Everyone looks too much like each other, albeit with a few details. But make no mistake, the costume designers designed these uniforms accurately.
Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)
The 2018 film Mary, Queen of Scots saw Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan go head-to-head for the British throne. Not only did the flick amaze audiences, but the clever detailing of the costumes did too. The designers used known silhouettes and structures in combination with modern materials like denim and leather.
Definitely not perfect, but a very clever combination of accuracy and modernization for a new audience. The film, however, does lose a few points of credit for Mary’s wearing of different earrings on both sides. This creative decision couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t win them all.
Marvellous Mrs. Maisel (2017)
When the Marvellous Mrs. Maisel landed on our TV screens, fashion history lovers could not get enough of Midge’s eccentric and bold style. Not only are her outfits 50s housewife appropriate, but they are also detailed down to custom-designed underwear. Rachel Brosnahan even wears corsets to achieve Midge’s restrictiveness.
The costumes are as accurate as they are because they are modeled after the silhouettes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, iconic 50s fashion girls. When Midge performs stand-up, she always wears a slim-fitting black or dark dress with a bright lip, as inspired by the great late Joan Rivers.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
In 2006, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette stunned audiences with its girly approach to a notorious Queen known for her lavishness and overindulgence. With hundreds of different costumes and seventy dresses for Marie alone, the designers spared no expense when creating a closet befit for a spoiled Queen.
From the opening scenes, Marie's transition from modest Austrian styles to exorbitant French tastes shows the designers' dedication to the film. In the late 18th Century, pinks were representative of youth, so Marie begins the movie in bright pink, and we gradually see her grow up through her shift to earthier tones.
While the BBC TV series hasn’t reached enough audiences outside the UK, it’s worth recognizing the excellence achieved by designers for the 1830s story that follows the early reign of Queen Victoria. A total commitment to hoop skirts, early 19th-century corsets, and hairstyles painted an accurate portrait of these years.
It’s as if the silhouettes used in the show are ripped off a painting, with pillowy shoulders, tiny waists, enormous skirts, and scooped necklines. The designers absolutely understood the task at hand. While not fashion-related, Victoria’s actress wore blue contacts to fully commit to the Queen’s look.
The Young Victoria (2009)
The TV series isn’t the only Victoria piece to nail the 1830s; the Emily Blunt-led film from 2009 also knew how to deliver. Not only did the film win an Oscar for Costume Design, the designers used colors to mature Victoria. As she confronts difficulties and bears children, her palette deepens from its previous soft tones.
Sandy Powell, the lead designer, found that creating outfits for a younger Victoria was fitting for the 1830s, as it was a period where dressing like a doll was fashionable. As the Queen of the most powerful nation on the planet then, Victoria had access to the most playful and girly prints imaginable.
Anna Karenina (2012)
The first of three Keira Knightley films to appear on our list, but no less mesmerizing. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina may have been delivered more theatrically than it is described in his grim book. Still, its costumes utterly befitted the overly indulgent lifestyle of the Russian aristocracy in the 1870s.
While some could argue there are dress silhouettes inspired by 1950s fashion, costume designer Jaqueline Durran said this was completely intentional, as they wanted to bring glamour to a period of exuberance and extravagance. Only the peasants present in the film are 100% accurate to the time.
The second Keira film, directed by Joe Wright, takes place 140 years in the future and follows a young but tragic love story in the grips of WWII. With nurse outfits, army uniforms, and the discrepancy between dressing with money and without it, Jaqueline Durran’s costume designs portray the era with preciseness.
Nothing will ever be as famous as Keira’s iconic green silky dress during the pivotal scene in the middle of the film. Not only is the green tone the epitome of 30s glamour, the form-fitting top half and the flowy bottom was a dream dress for any young woman in pre-War UK. And don’t get us started on the back of the dress.
Colette follows Keira, yet again, playing the 20-year-old French author in 1893 through the end of her marriage at 37 years old in 1910. With many years to cover and a dramatic fashion shift, the designers had a difficult task at hand. This makes it even more impressive how effective their historical execution was.
The film’s costumes were so accurate because some of the pieces were hand-picked out of the era itself. Many of the pieces were authentic vintage and under strict instruction to not be altered. From Collette’s girly and soft silhouettes to more androgynous shapes and tailored looks, every outfit was carefully considered.
The Duchess (2008)
The fourth and final period film starring Keira, but likely the most historically accurate than the first three. The Duchess follows an actual figure with notoriety and a taste for fashion, the designers had a mammoth task to dress Georgiana. The film begins in 1774 with a young Georgiana through to the early 1790s.
In particular, Georgiana’s wedding dress precisely portrays late 18th Century British layers and lavishness. On her wedding night, we see the dress broken down piece by piece, starting with a plain chemise, a corset, a pannier to create shape, a petticoat, and finally, the silk ruffled dress with pleats and jewels.
Okay, hear us out. We’re not saying Bridgerton itself is accurate. Still, there are elements in the hit Netflix series that absolutely deliver in Regency-era fashion. Some pieces go above and beyond many other period pieces on this list. Some characters, particularly Lady Danbury and Kate Sharma, nail the task at hand.
Kate’s color and use of Eastern patterns is the picture of early 19th Century fashion perfection. Danbury usually wears a pelisse, a coat dress with long sleeves, and a front opening to create a cape. We ask that you excuse Daphne and Lady Featherington from this entry; whatever they were wearing was anything but regency.
Saoirse Ronan’s third film to appear on our list is arguably the most simple but effective use of historical fashion styling. Saoirse begins the movie in a small town in Ireland with soft tones and plain dresses; as she slowly builds confidence in NYC, so does her fashion; bolder colors and patterns. And even a swimsuit!
Brooklyn shows that films don’t need to be flashy to be convincing. In fact, by avoiding ostentatious designs, costume Odile Dicks-Mireaux immerses the audience into Eilis’ life and splits between the simplicity of South East Ireland and an intimidating but exciting future in 1950s New York City.
Jane Eyre (2011)
Unlike most period pieces, the 2011 film Jane Eyre is unique for its lack of influence from any succeeding fashion eras; its fashion is purely 1830s. The use of plaids and stripes was prevalent during this period. Extra points for the clear difference between Jane and her wealthier counterpart Blanche.
Costume designer Michael O’Conner, also the designer for The Duchess, told Vanity Fair, “There’s so much information from that time that there’s no excuse not to have [period-accurate costumes].” Director Cary Fukunaga even said, “No one liked the clothing of the 1830s.” At least he accepted the fashion, unlike many other films.
The designers had a difficult task creating multiple outfits from different countries, social standings, and wealth brackets. One character wears a highly accurate kimono, posing as a wealthy Japanese traveler. Another wears a bright green Victorian-era gown as the picture of high-class British fashion.
A French woman wears lace, frills and billowy sleeves in a typical late 19th Century French style. There are also poorer Puritan Germans with similar charcoal silhouettes but dirtied from weeks of travel. A unique concept with global outfits that befitted their period, but sadly, the show was canceled after just one season.
The beloved animated film Anastasia graced the silver screen in 1997, and its early 20th Century aristocratic Russian outfits are surprisingly accurate. Anastasia’s memory of dancing around the Petrograd ballroom in a beautiful dress is based on authentic images of the young Anastasia and her sisters.
The film's opening follows the Romanovs celebrating 300 years of rule over Russia. Anastasia shares a special moment with her Grandmother, the Dowager Empress, where they both wear a dalmatic, a traditional Russian celebration robe. Rather than a regular ball gown, these inclusions make Anastasia more accurate.
Little Women (1994)
Little Women is a direct adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 book. To clarify, we’re talking exclusively about the 1994 film, not the one released in 2019. In particular, Jo’s writing outfits show her disregard for society without making her look like she’s from another century.
The most accurate aspect of this film is that sisters swap dresses throughout the film. As a poorer family barely staying afloat during Civil War America, the family could not afford individual dresses for each sister. Jo and Beth take turns wearing a casual red-striped dress, and Meg and Amy share a girly blue ball gown.
Mad Men (2007-2015)
Finally, we will talk about excellence in men’s historical fashion. And there is no more outstanding example of historically accurate attire than the AMC TV series Mad Men. Don Draper may have looked like he was wearing conventional-looking outfits, but his suits were shaped in a distinctly 60s cut.
Long jacket sleeves, wider legs, lots of shoulder padding, and neckties with bold diagonal patterns were all uniquely 60s styles our favorite Sterling Cooper partner consistently wore throughout the show. His off-work wear was accurate, with flare-collared polos, stripes, and beige slacks.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
One of the first films to nail historical costume accuracy in film, when Dangerous Liaisons hit screens in 1988, fashion historians couldn’t believe how incredibly similar its outfits were to what was described in 1760s France. From the colors and textures to the shape and jewelry, designers finally did their research.
Based on portraits of French aristocrats and their outfits, the star of the film Glenn Close praised the costume designer, James Acheson, for his extreme attention to detail. When director Stephen Frears focused more on the actors faces than their bodies and feet, James begged Glenn, “Please show the shoes, show the shoes!”
Tulip Fever (2017)
Although not the best film on its own two feet, the fashion in 1630s Amsterdam Tulip Fever is a downright masterpiece in historical accuracy. Many of the pieces were handmade linen with ruffed-necked details galore. For a period known as Amsterdam’s Golden Age, it is certainly reflected in the film’s mesmerizing costumes.
Alicia Vikander’s character has a unique fashion progression. She begins the film covered in traditional Dutch pieces of the time. As she slowly gains freedom from her oppressive husband, she tears away clunky pieces. She finishes the movie with a simple silhouette. Gosh, designers are really contemporary artists.
From simple cotton dresses planted and sewn herself on a plantation to beautifully crafted mid 19th Century gowns, Harriet frames a story of a survivor turned hero. Harriet Tubman is an American warrior for freedom and equality. When they finally decided to adapt her story to screen, the costume designer had a mammoth task ahead.
The colors and shapes costume designer Paul Tazewell used help inform the audience of Harriet’s journey from helpless to running the underground railroad. When Harriet begins working with the American North Army during the Civil War, her uniform makes her look like “a superhuman or Superwoman herself.”
Disney’s 2020 live adaptation of Mulan immersed audiences in color, oriental patterns, and elaborate makeup. Surprisingly enough, despite the vividness of the portrayal, a lot of the costume choices were made accurately by designer Bina Daigeler. Mulan’s purple robe fit, color, and cut is totally historically accurate.
To prepare for creating 1000 different period-accurate costumes, Daigeler embarked on a long journey around China to get inspiration from remnants of the Tang dynasty when Mulan took place. Dagelier said, “The costumes were based on research, from talking to experts to visiting museums, to reference and art books.”
The Piano (1993)
Not only do the restricting and dark-toned outfits worn by Holly Hunter in The Piano paint a picture of her entrapment as a mute woman rejected from regular society, but they are also historically accurate for the period the film takes place. The costume designer sought vintage accessories to make the costumes feel more natural.
Amidst a wild forest with no regard for social standing, Holly’s character dresses in mid 19th Century garb; she is completely put together and still very out of place. Bill Brewer, costume designer and fashion historian, told UNSCA that the costuming in The Piano is “hyper-realistic and deceivingly complex.”