Outlaw Chic: Costume in Robin Hood Films
by Eleanor M. Farrell
Robin Hood, if he existed, would likely have lived during the 14th century, but most of the celluloid versions of the outlaw's adventures are set during the time of King Richard the Lionheart -- late 12th century. The legendary nature of Robin's adventures have inevitably lent a fantasy element to portrayals, so even when the costuming tends toward historicity, there is always a touch of fun.
Inspiration can be found in a a treasure trove of video versions, from the silent films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (who seems to have managed to play ALL of the swashbuckling heroes during his film career) to the 1993 Mel Brooks send-up of earlier films (particularly Kevin Costner's effort), Robin Hood, Men in Tights, with Cary Elwes making good use of attitude learned from The Princess Bride, not to mention his accent.... In between these are the best: the classic Errol Flynn 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, Richard Lester's melancholy Robin and Marian (1976), and the 1983-5 British television series, Robin of Sherwood. And perhaps the worst: 1991 "dueling outlaw" portrayals by Patrick Bergin (Robin Hood, Fox television) and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (the aforementioned Costner vehicle).
Flynn's Robin Hood certainly sets the standard for both adventurous derring-do and costuming, with jaunty feathered caps, forest green tunics, and gracefully draping gowns for the heroine. Later Marians have worn more practical outfits, as well as taking up archery with a vengeance. Episodes of the 1950s television series starring Richard Greene can be found on video; one compilation, Robin Hood's Greatest Adventures, shows Marian besting all of the outlaws save Robin to enter and win an archery contest. Tights abound in both of these recreations, ironically more historical than the bullet bras worn beneath medieval gowns; Men in Tights and Time Bandits (1981, with a brief appearance of Robin, portrayed by John Cleese) poke fun at these costume traditions.
For historical grittiness and mythic feel, however, nothing surpasses Robin of Sherwood, which boasts two intertwined incarnations of our hero, played by Michael Praed and Jason Connery. The hardships of living in Sherwood Forest are superbly shown in this series, which features a small group of outlaws (not whole treehouse villages as seen in some of the films) who are forced to change camps regularly to avoid discovery. Some of the later episodes are set in winter, emphasizing the harsh realities of medieval life, outcast or castle-dweller. The costuming is quietly impressive: the outlaws' clothing blends in with the forest and uses hides and sturdy cloth, while scenes involving the nobility show some of the quality of fabric and decoration available in this period without anachronistic glitzification. The Sheriff of Nottingham is shown to be a clotheshorse: "More trim!" he demands after examining one new robe.
The costuming for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is probably the only reason to watch this lame extravaganza. The outlaws are garbed pretty much as expected (with the exception of Robin's muffler), practical, muted, and sans tights. The Sheriff of Nottingham's studded black leather tunic is a stand-out (and I swear I've seen this in at least three later films, including one of the 1992 Columbus epics!!), and his sartorial spendor is matched by Marian's gorgeous gowns. The rival Fox TV movie, on the other hand, is so darkly filmed (evidently intentionally) it's hard to tell exactly what anyone is wearing. This is unfortunate as the script is dreadful enough to warrant some distraction.
Looking more for a sense of the ridiculous? In The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood (1984), George Segal's outlaw disguises himself as what appears to be a Victorian Cockney bag lady to bring his challenge to Prince John's court. The comedy is generally pretty lame, although Janet Suzman has fun playing Queen Eleanor as sooo much brighter than her bickering sons. Disney Studio unaccountably decided to REALLLY set its 1973 animated version in the forest, using animals to portray the characters: Robin and Marian are foxes, the Sheriff a wolf, etc. (Although I recreated the Disney fox for the 1992 Baycon masquerade, I don't recommend fur suits for everyday use.)
Outlaw, noble, cleric, peasant, knight or Saracen, the variety in Robin Hood's world is sure to provide attractive and comfortable costume choices to suit everyone.
Carnes, Mark C., ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Fraser, George MacDonald, The Hollywood History of the World. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Harty, Kevin, The Reel Middle Ages: Films about Medieval Europe. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999.
Maeder, Edward, Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987.
Richards, Jeffrey, Swordsmen of the Screen from Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.
Turner, David, Robin of the Movies. Kingswinford, England: Yeoman Press, 1989.
Robin Hood Project web site
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood
Robin of Sherwood Webring
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