Film Costume Review – recreating World War II fashions in film

I have a weakness for films set during World War II, especially if they are about civilian life during the war. I wrote my book Forties Fashion to clarify the differences in national styles during the war, because women in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin all had very different wartime experiences and wardrobes, but those differences often aren’t apparent in films that recreate the period. Although, some films do a better job than others.

One of my favourite costume designers of 1940s films is Anna B. Sheppard. Her Polish background has given her insight into wartime continental fashion. She became so proficient at the job that she got into a bit of a rut doing 1940s films including: Band of Brothers (2001), Schindler’s List (1993), and The Pianist (2002), all of which are extremelly well done, as well as Inglorious Basterds (2009), which I didn’t see but assume the costuming is equally as good.

Another of my favourite costumers who did several films that took place in the 1940s is Shirley Russell. Her work included: Yanks (1979), Hope and Glory (1987), and Enigma (2001). Costumer Sandy Powell often takes on historically set films, including several that were set partially during the war, including Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and The End of the Affair (1999).

Also worthy of seeing are: Swing Shift (1984) Joe Tompkins costumer; A League of Their Own (1992) Cynthia Flint costumer (but don’t look too closely at the extras); The Land Girls (1998) Shuna Harwood costumer; Rosenstrasse (2003) Ursula Eggert costumer; Valkyrie (2008) Joanna Johnston costumer; Charlotte Grey (2001) Janty Yates costumer; Radio Days (1987), Jeffrey Kurland costumer (a bit uneven but mostly very good); Bon Voyage (2003) Catherine Terrier costumer; and Black Book (2006) Yan Tax costumer (although there are a couple of dresses and one pair of shoes I really don’t like, otherwise the costuming is well done.)

The British television series Fortunes of War (1987) and Foyle’s War (2002-2009) are both great series for their stories but not always the best when it comes to civilian costuming for the period. (Added April 15, 2013 – I just rewatched 4 of the Foyle’s War, and I have to say I was too hasty in my judgment – the costuming is very well done. There are a few small errors here and there, but the costumer did an excellent job on what must have been a shoestring budget.) However, outweighing any indiscretion by any film made in the last thirty years are the slew of war films aimed at the postwar veteran audience such as: From Here to Eternity (1953), Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora Tora Tora (1970). These films rarely even attempted period costuming and have aged badly because of their lack of attention to recreating the period. Unless you want to see them for the war campaigns, they are generally not worth watching.

Added August 22/11: Just discovered another worthy film – ‘Cristabel’ – a 1988 television movie about the true story of an English woman, married to a German lawyer, who lived in Germany for the duration. The costuming was done by Anushia Nieradzik.

9 thoughts on “Film Costume Review – recreating World War II fashions in film

  1. I watched Battle of Britain just recently, it had always stuck in my mind since I was a teeneager as being one of several late 60s films about historical periods that made absolutely no concessions to period costume, hair, or general styling at all. But the thing that really really stuck out was the b&w PLASTIC DOORBELL! 🙂

  2. Well, my netflix queue just grew much longer. Thanks fr pointing out ones that did a good job of recreating the era. I recently tried to watch Tora, Tora, Tora and was so distracted by the costuming that I finally just gave up!

  3. Pingback: Swing Shift (1984) | Old Old Films

  4. Hi:

    I’m a fan both of your book and of Foyle’s War and was wondering what you had noticed about their civilian costumes, because I know much less than you do about the topic! Are there instances where the costumes don’t fit the period? Or do the characters (Sam in particular) have too many changes of clothing, given the rationing of the day.

    I’ve actually consulted your book while watching episodes of Foyle’s War, just to see what kind of fabric might have been used in some of the dresses (crepe, in one instance!) and to learn exactly which styles the show is depicting. I think that the 1940s (and late 1930s) was one of the most flattering periods for women’s clothing. Your book is an amazing commentary about that; much appreciated!


    • Thanks Emma for your kind comments!
      Its been a while since I have seen the series so I don’t remember specifics, although I recall the last few episodes had a lot of late 40s dresses (1947+) being used for what was the summer of 1945. The costumer got the feeling correctly, it was the specifics that were sometimes lacking, especially with extras – likely due to money and time which are always in short supply during a period film production schedule, especially for extras. For example, I recall seeing too many pairs of peep toe shoes which were not being made during the war under cc41 rules. It means that the shoes were probably American made, or postwar. I know that’s a little thing, but there were several little things like that. Sometimes the details were great, especially on the principal actors – I recall Sam wearing a necklace made from buttons to a dance – that was a nice touch!

  5. Don’t know if you can help but I’m interested in Christopher Foyles double breasted coat. Can you say what material/type it is. I take part in many 1940s re-enacting gatherings and I would like to represent him from time to time.


    • I don’t know for sure but would assume its wool, there weren’t any other materials used for overcoats at that time, other than cotton for raincoats.

  6. Hi Jonathan,

    Firstly I would just like to thank you, your book Forties Fashion has been of great help in aiding me to write my dissertation. I am now analysing British TV & films costumes replicating the 1940s period, and wondered a) why is it so important for these films & TV programmes costume departments to correctly represent the era? b) how can film & TV make sure they are my accurate when portraying the era?


    • Hi Lauren;

      Thank-you for your kind words about my book.

      I believe the best historically-set film and television programs are those that successfully suspend disbelief – and proper period costuming is a big part of that process. Costumes are as much a part of history as the other props and settings, but while sites like IMDB will list in their ‘goofs’ section that a certain type of automobile or telephone was incorrect in a scene, they regularly ignore errors in costuming unless they are spectacularly noticeable. For example, apparently some extras wear wristwatches in the film Spartacus – a film set in ancient Rome! However, not all costuming errors are that noticeable. Some of the worst mistakes are little ones made in films set in recent periods. Its definitely easier for the costumer to take on an era that fewer people are familiar with and nobody will see it who remembers the era first hand.

      There are also some who feel the costumer should have the right to be creative and make the clothes as they wish for the period. That’s fine for something like a musical comedy but I prefer my history as authentic as possible when the period is essential to the storyline. I think this is best illustrated by wartime theme movies. The ones that have aged the best are the ones that were either shot during the war, or have faithfully recreated the period. The worst are the films that came out of the 1960s and while they use authentic planes and tanks and guns, and even the uniforms are usually correct, the civilian dress and hairstyles are directly from the era the film was shot in – Eva Braun in a beehive… The distraction is too much to enjoy the film.

      Fortunately, there are plenty of very good costume designers who, with the right budget and time lead, can recreate history. I think their work stands out in some of the films I listed here. I know the biggest problem for filmakers is a lack of budget and time which means the costumers are work overtime in the talent department to do the best they can.

      Hope that helps.

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