Clothes that time forgot

Period dramas get their outfits wrong surprisingly often

Some years ago, my boyfriend and I went to the cinema to see a film based in Elizabethan times. It was a good film, but all the way home he was troubled. Much of the music it had used was not Elizabethan at all: "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations was just one example, which, being Elgar, is actually Edwardian (but it's stirring and patriotic-sounding, though not anything to do with Queen and country).

This was nothing. I am frequently peeved that any film set in Elizabethan times seems to show ruffs in white and white alone. Actually, yellow was most popular for ruffs, and you could and would also get them in other colours. The misconception comes from the fact that, for portraits, people tended to dress in more sombre colours; black and white was very common, as it was regarded as classier. Had photography existed back then, we would be able to see that ruffs were anything but just white.

When recreating the past in fashion, we often don't go far enough for fear that no one would believe that people really looked like that. The BBC television series Life on Mars is a good recent example. Some of the detailing was exquisite, but the hairstyles were no where near bad enough. Seventies hair was really bad; you need only look at documentaries from that era to realise. Or, if you're so inclined, buy the hysterical Bad Hair by James Innes-Smith (Bloomsbury), which is replete with examples of real (mostly) Seventies hairstyles.

Jane Austen dramas are very popular at the moment, and you can see the costumiers having a bit of a field day adding detailing to the empire-line dresses. Which some of them did have, but most were spectacularly boring and made largely of cotton; cotton was really taking off then, partly due to new spinning processes, and partly due to Napoleon's embargo on Britain, which cut off our supplies of raw silk. Trousers, on heroes such as Mr Darcy, are always shown as taut, hugging magnificent thighs and tapering tautly to the ankle. Not so. As there was no Lycra in those days, trousers bagged dreadfully around the knees, much as cheap leggings do today.

Films set in the Eighties, as opposed to those actually made in the Eighties, also never tell the full sartorial truth. We were ugly in the Eighties, as the photo graphs many of us have will prove. I have a hideous one that is acid-burned on my memory hard disk, which is of me, aged 18, wearing a wool bouclé pencil skirt, with some sort of shirt tucked in made out of a red-patterned fabric, black baseball boots, red ankle socks and, I'm afraid, very prob ably fishnet tights as well. My hair would have been really big, too, had I not cut it very short because I was trying to emulate Clare Grogan. Such a mon strosity would never be portrayed on film for fear of beggaring belief.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.