, , , , , ,

If you google “Braveheart”, among the first couple images that come up are this:

Gibson as Wallace in a great kilt

Mel Gibson as Wallace in a great kilt

and this:

Gibson as Wallace in face paint

Gibson as Wallace in face paint

These images are some of the most immediately recognizable ones from the film. And, sadly, they’re complete crap in terms of historical accuracy.

What Medieval Scots Wore 13th century Scotsmen wore clothing that resembled what most northern and western Europeans wore in that period. Both men and women wore tunics (in Gaelic, a leine), a long, loose-fitting shirt that reached down to about the knee for men and about the ankle for women. A man might have worn an undertunic, while women typically wore a kirtle, a simple underdress like a loose slip; in both cases the undergarment would have extended slightly farther than the overgarment, showing below the hemline and the cuff. Men (and women in some circumstances) also wore ‘braies’, a rather baggy pair of shorts that generally reached to the knees or a bit lower. Men and women might also wear hose, footless leggings to keep the legs warm. (See Update.)

The man on the right is wearing brakes

The man on the right is wearing braies, the one on the left wears hosen

These would typically have been of wool, and in general they would have been plain rather than patterned. For many they would have been undyed, and so would have been shades of off-white to brown. A very simple form of tartan may have existed in medieval Scotland (a very early example survives from the 3rd century AD, making it pre-medieval, but there’s no surviving evidence from the medieval period itself), but if tartan was worn in this period, it would have been a very simple checker pattern created with light and dark brown wool. So the fabric Wallace wears in the first picture is possible, although there is no evidence that such a fabric was actually produced or worn in medieval Scotland. What we think of today as ‘clan tartans’ were an invention of the 18th century; if medieval Scotmen wore any sort of tartan fabric, it would not have signified membership in a particular clan or family.

More importantly, however, kilts did not exist in the Middle Ages, in Scotland or anywhere else in Europe. The earliest kilts, known as ‘belted plaid’ or ‘great kilts’, evolved out of cloaks worn over tunics. In other words, like the toga, the great kilt is a form of outer garment, worn outside to help keep one warm in cold, wet weather. It was not worn into battle; when early modern Scotsmen prepared for combat, they took off the great kilt and charged into the fight wearing just their leine. Also, they did not belt their kilts in anything remotely like the way kilts are worn in the film.

Any halfway knowledgable costume designer working on a film about medieval Scotland would know that kilts aren’t medieval, and if he or she didn’t know, it would be an easy fact to look up. In this case, the costume designer was Charles Knode, a highly experienced costumer (one of his first major jobs was 1979’s Life of Brian). And yet, despite this, a majority of the Celts (both Scots and Irish) in this film are shown wearing tartan great kilts. So, just to make sure we’re clear about what’s wrong with this, imagine a film set during the American War of Independence. All the American rebels are shown dressed in 20th century business suits, and they’ve put the belts of their pants on over the coats of their suits. How in God’s name did an experienced costume designer make such as massive set of errors?

In order to understand films, it’s critical to realize that virtually everything that appears on screen is the result of active choices that someone made. With the exception of goofs like a catching a boom mike in the shot, what you see on the screen is the product of conscious choices. Set designers, set decorators, costume designers, hair and make-up designers, directors, screenwriters, and actors all make decisions about what they are going to put on screen. So at some point Charles Knode made a decision to produce clothing that he almost certainly knew was completely incorrect. Why?

As the author of Threat Quality Press points out, the answer is not history but historicity. The people making the film didn’t want to make an historically accurate film about medieval Scotland; they wanted to make a film that fits people’s ideas of what medieval Scotland looked like. What they wanted was not actual history, but the impression of history. The one thing that most people know about the Scots is that they used to wear kilts. So Charles Knode decided (or perhaps was told by Gibson) to clothe his medieval Scots in kilts. And he did it well enough that most casual viewers will assume that what they are seeing is correct. Those American revolutionaries might be wearing mis-belted 20th century business suits, but they look plausible.

Can I be in your movie, Mr Gibson? I look sort of generically medieval too

Can I be in your movie, Mr Gibson? I look sort of generically medieval too

The Infamous Scottish Mullets But it’s not just the clothing that’s completely wrong. Take another look at that second pic, the close-up of Gibson as Wallace. He’s wearing an unkempt 20th century mullet with a couple braids in it. This is fairly typical of how the Scots and Irish are styled in this film. Some of the men have feathers in their hair. There’s absolutely no evidence that medieval Scotmen wore their hair long (which would probably have struck contemporaries as a very feminine style), nor is there evidence that they braided their hair or tied things into it. And even if they did wear their hair long, they certainly would have combed it. Wallace isn’t wearing a traditional Scottish hairstyle; he’s wearing a late-20th century biker or stoner dude’s hairstyle.

Why? Because it makes him look masculine by contemporary standards, while at the same time conveying both untamed wildness and a premodern primitiveness. It enables male viewers of the film to feel a sense of kinship with Wallace and his band of plucky Scottish rebels. It makes him seem more contemporary and therefore accessible.

As a basic rule of thumb, assume that the hairstyles you see in historical films are wrong; the women are almost always styled to be attractive by modern tastes not to be accurate, and the men are just a little less likely to be styled that way.

So those American revolutionaries in their mis-belted business suits? They’re all wearing high-and-tights.

And Then We Get to the Make-up

Just for some variety, another picture of Gibson as Wallace

Just for some variety, another picture of Gibson as Wallace

Of course the thing that stands out the most is that the men are wearing blue face paint. At this point in my analysis, part of me just wants to bang his head on the table and scream “WTF?” But, because I’m committed to helping you make sense of this historical train-wreck of a film, I will swallow my pain and soldier bravely into the lion’s den.

In case it needs saying, medieval Scotsmen did not wear face paint. The inspiration for this make-up choice probably came from some ideas about the Picts, one of the original, pre-Scottish indigenous peoples of Scotland. There’s a lot to be said about the Picts, but I’m not going to say it here; I’ll save it for The Eagle perhaps. But a very quick digression to the Roman period is necessary.

The Scots aren’t, in origin, Scottish. They’re Irish. They originally came over from Ireland to Dal Riata (western Scotland) in  the 6th and 7th centuries. Central Scotland, especially the highland region, was occupied by a people called the Picts, whose ethnic background is still a matter of some debate; some scholars have seen them as a branch of the Celtic peoples, while others feel they are the indigenous, non-Celtic peoples. The ancient Romans tended to use the term ‘Pict’ to refer to all the peoples north of Hadrian’s Wall, probably lumping together a couple of different ethnic groups and cultures. The term ‘Pict’ seems to have been coined in the 3nd century AD, and it means ‘Painted Ones’, at least assuming that the term means what it means in Latin; it’s possible that it’s a Latinization of their name for themselves, in which case we have no idea what it means.

Exactly why they referred to the Picts this way is unclear. One 1st century AD source says that the people of Briton (almost certainly referring to low-land Britons like the Iceni) painted themselves, but it’s not clear that the author actually knew anything about the group we’re calling the Picts. One or two later sources make reference to the Picts painting or tattooing themselves, but that might be because the term ‘Pict’ suggested a people who did these things. It’s important to understand that the Romans had deep contempt for people who voluntarily tattooed themselves; tattooing was a mark of barbarism and social inferiority, something Romans sometimes did to slaves and criminals. In other words, calling these people ‘Picts’ is essentially calling them ‘Savages’. Maybe it means that the Picts painted or more likely tattooed themselves, but maybe it just means that the Romans thought they were a barbaric people. Remembers that during World Wars I and II, the British liked to call the Germans ‘the Huns’, not because the Germans were of Hunnish descent, but because it connotes savagery.

So maybe the Picts liked to wear war paint, or had elaborate facial tattoos. We can’t prove it, but it’s not a wild historical error to show Roman-era Picts decorated that way. But guess what? We’re not dealing with Roman-era Picts in this film. We’re dealing with 13th century Scotsmen, who are descended from a people who displaced, conquered and completely absorbed the Picts. There is absolutely no evidence for Pictish influence on 13th century Scottish culture. By the 11th century the Picts had been completely assimilated to Scottish culture, and they left only archaeological remains and a few hard-to-understand documents. There is absolutely no historical evidence that 13th century Scotsmen painted their faces. But you know who does paint their faces? These guys:


Yup; American sports fans are pretty well-known for this sort of thing. Mel Gibson has given us 13th century Scots made up like 20th century sports fans. And he did it for the same reason that he gave himself a mullet. It makes his character more appealing and accessible to the target audience. He turned the battle of Stirling Bridge into a sports match and showed you which guys to cheer for by painting their faces like sports fans. So those American revolutionaries with their mis-belted business suits and their high-and-tights? They’re wearing Native American war paint.

And you know what’s even worse? The lead make-up artists for Braveheart, (Peter Frampton, Paul Pattison, and Lois Burwell) won an Oscar for their work on this film. Let’s be charitable to the Academy and propose that they gave the award for all of the blood the make-up team painted on Gibson’s face, or because they were just caught up in the excitement surrounding a high-grossing film, and not because they were too dumb or coked-up to notice that the most visible make-up in the film was a thousand years out of place and on the wrong guys.

In all fairness, that's good blood

In all fairness, that’s good blood

I’m just going to curl up in a fetal ball now and quietly weep.

Update: A friend who read this argued to me that Gibson had almost certainly ordered Charles Knode to dress the Scots in kilts. He said that this is a common problem for costume designers, who often know what clothing would be correct but are then over-ridden by directors for reasons of historicity.

I agree that there is a very strong possibility that this is true (and I even suggest it at one point). However, Knode was the man who got the credit for the costuming, and he got an Oscar nomination (although, in what might be a surprising fit of historical clarity on the Academy’s part, he didn’t win), so I think he deserves his share of the blame on this point. While Gibson made a stinker of a film, it wasn’t entirely his fault; he needed a lot of help. As Halle Berry once said about Catwoman“you don’t win a Razzie without a lot of help from a lot of people…In order to give a really bad performance like I did, you need a lot of bad actors around you.” (By the way, give her speech a look; it’s quite funny. After Braveheart, I needed a good laugh.)

Update: After a comment I received, I did a little more digging and found that 13th and early 14th century hosen were more likely to be footed than footless.