Film Review: The Patriot

by Kyrsten Comoglio

If you are going to see The Patriot just for the costumes, I would say to not do so. I went to see The Patriot because I like stories about the Revolutionary War (one of the most underfilmed wars in Hollywood) and looked forward to seeing 18th century costumes designed by Deborah Scott. The period of the 1770s through the 1790s is one of my favorite costume eras. The fabrics are beautiful, whether they are Indian printed muslims or shot silk taffeta. The cut is flattering to many people, with its tiny waist and voluminous skirts. Unfortunately, I felt that Deborah Scott's women's costumes did not light any fireworks under my inspiration.

The Patriot In historical costume design, I like one of two things to happen (or both if possible). Either I like the costumes to be historically accurate to a fault, or I like really beautiful outfits that make one dream. An example of the latter might be Orlando with its over-the-top (but utterly right for such an outlandish tale), gorgeous costumes. While there were a few stunners in The Patriot, generally I only remember what seemed out of place. When one first sees the character of Charlotte, in the middle of the afternoon, she is wearing basically a green silk damask copy of that famous copy of the Marquise de Pompadour from 25 years earlier: open front with a stomacher covered with little ribbons (an echelle), engageantes, large paniers, and a sacque-back. This was the main sort of thing that bothered me: there were lots of sacque or robe a l'Francaise dresses and open fronts with stomachers. The closed front was much more fashionable by the 1770s and sacque-back gowns were only worn for formal evenings by that time as well. The fabrics were nice, but not incredibly yummy in colors or pattern (especially pattern), unlike the real period dresses I have seen. In addition to that, the Americans of the period copied the Dutch and the English manner of dress much more than the French. Overall, many of the costumes would have fit better into the middle rather than the end of the 18th century.

The PatriotThere were also a few dresses that were interesting, but seemed a little odd. One is a solid blue dress, but with print trim. Of course, this could have been done, but most of the 18th century dresses I have seen use the opposite combination (print dress with solid trim). Luckily, however, there is only one truly awful costume: twice we see Charlotte in basically her underwear, walking around town. She has on a lovely chemise, but on top of it is a contrasting piped corset -- like top with weird HUGE 17th century-ish tabs forming a peplum. If anyone has ever seen anything like this, please let me know. When she appeared on the screen in that, I think I said somethingoutloud such as WHAT IN THE WORLD IS SHE WEARING? It was that bizarre-looking.

There are a few lovely outfits, though. The young love interest twice wears a wedgewood blue and white patterned short jacket and plain skirt, simple but memorable and very flattering. One dress looked delicious, if not entirely correct for 1770s America (it would have been better as a robe al'Anglaise rather than robe a l'Francaise): Silk taffeta with thick stripes of blue, mauve, and fawn, closed bodice with matching skirt, open overskirt, and self-fabric ruching all down the front. Very cute hat, too. In fact, the hats overall are superb. Flat straw bonnets with sweet ribbon trims (very flattering to all the characters) and great varieties on the tricorne for the men.

Patriot costume sketchThe men's costumes on the whole are much better. The militia were farmers and the like, so the clothes they wore were simpler fabrics and trimmings, but still the elegant fashionable cut of the time. I thought Mel Gibson looked especially dashing in his outfits throughout the movie: wide shirt, elegant long vests, wool or plain low pile velvet in dark jewel toned simple frock coats, pants with narrow legs, and great over-the-knee boots. He and all the other men looked completely at home, even in their cocked hats with simple ribbon trim and nice cocardes.

Patriot costume sketchGeneral Cornwallis wears the most superb painted banyan, or "at home" robe, I have ever seen. All the military uniforms looked fabulous and well detailed (if a little clean for being in the countryside during a war). The Green Dragoon Colonel Tavington's uniform with its tall bearskin hat is inspiring. The best uniform belonged to, of course, the French Major who also has the best line in the film: "If I am going to die, let me die well dressed!" However, I did see mention on a website of reenactors who played soldiers in the film that some of the uniforms were changed to make them stand out better. Their website has great photos from the filming. So, remember to do your homework if you are going to make a Revolutionary War uniform.

I also really liked the children's costumes. They were like miniature adult outfits, but simpler in cut and fabrics. The oldest daughter of Gibson's character wears one striped pink cotton dress, with horizontal cut sleeves and a tiny lace ruffle at the neckline, that is adorable. I also like the little brown straight cut jackets the two youngest boys wear (almost like a 19th century informal suit jacket).

Deborah Scott did a fabulous job on Titanic, and while the military and men's costumes and all the hats in The Patriot were wonderful, I felt that the women's costumes didn't have the same level of detail and originality that the Titanic costumes had. If you are hungering for late 18th century costumes you might want to rent Barry Lyndon or The Madness of King George instead. I still remember many of the costumes from these older films while, even though I saw it only 2 weeks ago, I can only remember a few of the women's costumes from The Patriot.

If you want to go to The Patriot to see tall-masted ships, or a couple of decent battles, or even Heath Ledger running around, by all means go. If you are only going to see the costumes, wait and rent it on video.

Republished with permission; article originally published in The Costumer's Scribe, the monthly newsletter for the Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild.

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