Monday, January 18, 2016

After Downton Abbey I Foolishly Expected More From PBS & Mercy Street!

Only the British should be allowed to make costume dramas. The attention to authenticity to the tiniest detail has been a hallmark of Downton Abbey and numerous other British imports since PBS first broadcast the 1970 series The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  Advisors to Downton Abbey monitor the placement of a fork on the dining table. The costumers for Mercy Street could not even manage to place a correct collar on a woman’s dress.

The bodice and skirt should be of the same material & the collar is WRONG!
While it would be foolhardy to expect Hollywood to produce anything resembling authenticity in language, material culture and dress, I had hoped for a bit better from PBS. What is even more disheartening is the accolades in the American media with regard to the alleged authenticity of Mercy Street costumes Vanity Fair and Southern Living, and USA Today

The costumer, Amy Harrell, has convinced herself. PBS, and the uninformed that the costumes are period correct because she located a bolt of 1870’s fabric on eBay and used a couple of CDV’s for inspiration. That is not research. And 1870’s fabric would not have been used in 1862!
Sausage curls/awful dress/ Ugh!
There were also articles stating that Hollywood costume departments were devoid of hoops for the period dresses because of other costume dramas filming concurrently. Hmmm. No thought of contacting a cage maker for living historians to have a few specially made to correct proportions? No thought of spending a couple of extra dollars to have well fitted corsets made for the lead characters? No thought of looking at all of the free excellent museum collections of original garments that could provide guidance for color, cut, fabric, design and fit for a specific year? Furthermore, cage crinolines were not reserved for the wealthy. Women from all walks of life dressed in the fashion of the day, which required a cage.

For me, I couldn’t get beyond the horrendous collars worn by the ladies in the first episode.  Even if this were the best-scripted show on television, I would have been too distracted by the costuming to concentrate.  PBS in particular has a responsibility to the viewing audience to get it right. I’ve already read comments on social media that Civil War re-enactors that do not conduct research but rely on the scholarship of others are getting ideas for new garments based upon what has been depicted on Mercy Street. PBS, in failing to get it right and not caring about authenticity on one of its highly publicized shows does a disservice to history. It is not as if research would have been trying. Just surfing Pinterest would have afforded enough access to original photographs of 1862 to costume the entire series appropriately.
Why not copy the dress n the photo?

I am disappointed. Fortunately, there are seven more episodes of painstakingly researched Downton Abbey left to elevate my spirits and my faith that some still strive for excellence in broadcasting.

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