Brow Beat

Does Your Favorite Period Drama Pass the Bill & Ted Test?

A fashion historian explains her unusual standard for judging Regency costumes.

A Pride and Prejudice ball scene with Alex Winters' head superimposed on the body of a man in a suit and Keanu Reeves' head superimposed on the body of a woman in a simple white dress. The man and woman dance, holding hands, and all the guests are dressed in Regency formalwear.
Pride & Prejudice is good, but is it also excellent?
Photo illustrations by Slate. Photos by Orion Pictures and Focus Features.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is many things: a time-traveling buddy comedy, an early Keanu Reeves vehicle, and—according to at least one expert—the standard for Regency period costuming on film. Fashion historian Hilary Davidson created the Bill & Ted test after noticing that a scene in which the two slackers kidnap Ludwig van Beethoven features surprisingly well-executed costumes for the era.* On her nascent Twitter account, she gives other Regency movies a pass-fail grade based on how their costumes and styling stack up against that excellent adventure.

Mary Shelley fails to live up to the Bill & Ted standard, thanks to its inaccurate hairdos and out-of-place knitwear, while the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma passes with flying colors. Slate spoke to Davidson by phone to find out more about the test and her pet peeves in period-drama fashion. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: What inspired the Bill & Ted test?

Hilary Davidson: It’s a story in two parts. I spent six years writing a book on Regency fashion, called Dress in the Age of Jane Austen. I have spent a lot of time looking at genuine Regency dress. But I also spent a lot of time in the last year or so doing a lot of tedious production work for the book. I watched a lot of films on the way. I love Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I was watching it in the background as I was copy editing my index or some tedious, tedious thing and just enjoying it. Then, we got to the bit where they kidnap Beethoven.

My eye is so attuned to Regency dress, and anyone who follows my Twitter will know that I get quite opinionated about Regency costume on-screen. I was looking at the background extras, and I suddenly paused it and went, “Hang on a second.” I rewound it a bit and went through it in slow motion and went, “You know what? This is really, really good.” It’s a 1980s teen comedy. You don’t expect a high standard of costuming. After that, I thought, well, that’s it. That’s my benchmark. If the main characters’ costumes in a Regency production aren’t better done than the background extras’ in a 1980s teen comedy, I think you’ve failed in the costume design.

That was last year. This year, I had a whole book tour planned. I was in the United States doing lectures and promotions and all sorts of things. Coronavirus hit when I was in Washington, and I managed to make it out of New York before things got really bad. Now I’m self-isolating in South Wales, which is very lovely, and I’ve been having a whole lot of conversations about Regency costume and the new production of Sanditon, which I’m reviewing for an academic journal. I’ve had a lot of people asking me, “Is this good?” “Is this not good?” Every now and then, I’ll do little threads. I suddenly thought, “You know what? Why don’t I just use the Bill & Ted test?” I set up the Twitter account just for my own amusement.

What are the criteria for authenticity? Is it about the fabric or the styling? I’m curious what exactly is going into these pass-fail grades.

It is about fabric. If you’re using something that’s obviously polyester, satin, like War & Peace, it just looks wrong. I’m finding that it looks like a lot of productions have been inspired by the Empire style rather than the Regency style. But to me, the most obvious thing is the hair. Is the hair up or down? The heroine’s hair in the recent production of Sanditon is down at the back all the time, which is just a fundamental Regency no-no. They did not do that if you were grown up. Even if they have got the hair up, they can do it sort of too tightly or style it wrong or have a kind of a side part.

You can have great costumes—because often a costume isn’t designed specifically for a production, it’s just borrowed from one of the big costume houses—but if you style it wrong … There was an episode of Doctor Who where they put the spencer, which is the short jacket, over the pelisse, which is the long jacket, and that just makes no sense. It’s like wearing your gilet [vest] on top of your puffer jacket. It’s also about how well the britches fit, what kind of decoration they’ve got on the dresses, whether or not the cut’s appropriate for the time of day. Lots of kind of little things that add up.

What time frame exactly is considered the Regency period for your purposes?

The actual, technical Regency period is the time in Britain when the Prince of Wales became effective ruler of the country after his father, King George III, went mad. He became regent in 1811 and continued until he became king in 1820, when his father died. It was actually only nine years, but Regency has become a capital phrase for the early 19th century. In French, it’s often called the first Empire period. I say it’s about 1795 to about the early 1820s. It’s the period of great change when the 18th century becomes the 19th century and they’re working out what they’re doing at that point.

Does it take you out of the viewing experience when you notice something that’s obviously inaccurate in a movie set in that time period?

Yes, it absolutely does. I’ve had a lot of other people share a similar experience. I think it’s important to stress that I’m not advocating absolute historical accuracy for everything. Part of the thing about having these discussions on Twitter is you get other people’s responses. Someone pulled up a really great difference between authenticity and accuracy. If something is authentic to the director’s vision, to the character, to the world, you can often get away with a lot that’s not strictly “accurate,” but it works for the world building.

I’m having a little bit of trouble with whether the production Taboo, starring Tom Hardy from 2017, passes or fails because it’s fantastically styled and the costume does convey this fantastically immersive, authentic Regency style. But actually, when you break it down, it’s not an accurate Regency style. I’m kind of interested in how that works as well, when something that’s not, if we’re being pedantic, “right” can sometimes be more effective than when people add together all of these elements that are “right” and yet they fail in how it’s put together.

What are the worst offenses that you see costume dramas usually commit?

Well, as I say, the half-up hair, that’s the really screamingly obvious one to me. That goes for all costume dramas. They use it for everything from the Middle Ages to the 1940s, for the Renaissance or Poldark in the 18th century or the Victorian period. I feel it’s really a compromise between how our cultural code now says that long hair on a woman is sexy and attractive and that ye olden days’ hair, which is up, signifies dowdy and uncool. I feel like people are trying to find a compromise between “she’s a heroine in the past, so her hair is half up,” but she’s also feisty and modern and attractive.

That, to me, is trying to impose contemporary mores onto history. I’m generalizing madly, but if you had your hair down and you were a mature woman, you were either unmarried and a virgin, you were a prostitute, or you were mad. As soon as I see someone with their hair down, it tells me a lot about the cultural and historical values of the production and what they find interesting. I’ve often been accused of being pedantic about this on Twitter, but it tells me so much about how the whole production understands history.

I think there’s also a real tendency to display too much flesh. Sleeveless gowns or décolletage that’s too big, to show a heroine or the lead actress is attractive, is still very much tied into our modern times. I also feel that people’s clothing on-screen is often too undone. It’s not tight enough, especially men’s coats. They were actually really quite tightly fitting. One of the joys of the recent Emma, which was very, very well costumed, was how closely all the men’s clothing fit.

Are you watching or rewatching all of these films to do the test?

No. I have seen a lot of them, but I’m working from stills. I’m trying to sort of mix it up as well. There’s so many Austen adaptations, but when you look into it, there’s [only] so many films set in Regency. I did a thorough deep dive once I realized that I might need to keep this going. Anything that is about the Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley clan and Frankenstein counts as Regency. Jane Eyre is often costumed in the 1840s, when Charlotte Brontë wrote it, but it’s actually set probably end of the 18th century, early 19th century. Then of course we’ve got films [on] the martial side of the Regency, like Sharpe, Horatio Hornblower, Master and Commander. There are quite a few films about Beethoven out there, which is appropriate, given the nature of the test.

Correction, April 21, 2020: This post originally misspelled Hilary Davidson’s first name.