According to the YouTube algorithm, there are two types of women. If you’re normal, you’ll be greeted with beauty influencers, make up artists, and skincare hobbyists when you visit the front page. But if YouTube identifies you as a not-like-other-girls girl then there is only one other thing you could possibly be interested in: historical costume enthusiasts reviewing the historical accuracy of the outfits in period drama.
See, if you don’t love makeup, then you must love pedantry. Unlike those makeup girls, your brain has a Sherlock gland designed for heightened detail-noticing and knowing what the Regency era was. Unlike those makeup girls, you care about history and facts and stuff. The kinds of things those other girls don’t.
Critiques of historical accuracy in period drama have long existed, and there is no shortage of the errant blog post pitting history against style for whatever Showtime original series you fancy. The Anti-White Queen blog was devoted to ripping historical inaccuracies in Peak TV dramas like The Borgias and The Tudors, and the owner managed to write thousands upon thousands of words on single episodes of shows despite being in undergrad. (For the record, The Borgias is better than Borgia: Faith & Fear.)
On the blogosphere, these analyses were labors of love and formalism that saw a dozen comments on a good day. But since the Russification of LiveJournal and the explosion of vlogging and the increasingly popular video essay format, the genre regularly sees independent creators garner hundreds of thousands on a single criticism—an unimaginable increase from blogging days.
Criticism has become the main entertainment of the day. Outside of traditional critical formats like culture magazines, newspaper columns, and pretentious dinner parties, the citizen critic has faced an astonishing rise. Amateur enthusiasts across all fields—filmmaking, music production, and, of course, historical costuming—have taken to playing expert.
The democracy and accessibility to knowledge provided by the internet should not be mistaken for expertise. Parroting a few paragraphs from a single popular history book on Marie Antoinette’s favorite modiste before nitpicking frames of a Disney cartoon is quite possibly the only form of criticism lower than the IMDb forums. Obviously spreading knowledge is good—we say knowledge is power for a reason!—but knowledge poorly ascertained can’t be used, and especially cannot be taught.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough to watch videos titled “Why The Costumes of Little Women did NOT deserve an Oscar”, “Dress Historian Analyzes ‘Historical’ Film Costumes 😳”, or “Rating Disney Princess Dresses on Historical Accuracy (Part One)”, you probably recognize the tropes. Young woman in vintage costume (bonus points for hand-made recreation of a historical garment) stares into the camera and explicates why this exact shade of blue wasn’t available in England until 1740, that actually the stitching they used on the gown in this fantasy setting that doesn’t replicate a moment in human time was not done by hand, and that all the characters in this movie are wearing stays but the corset was very good actually.*
Formulaic videos aside, they aren’t particularly engaging. The hosts rarely give production teams the benefit of the doubt, rendering a judgment harsher than Anubis for movies that might’ve been on a budget or time constraint. This is especially grating when hosts assess hand-animated movies. That’s right, if you don’t draw every frill and fold in a robe à la française in thousands of hand-drawn (!!!) frames, it’s to the guillotine with you, underpaid Disney animator. This is the kind of firm intellectual rigor that we expect from YouTube critics.
One of the most popular creators of this content, Karolina Zebrowska, is self-admittedly not a historical fashion expert, simply a hobbyist. Freshman Mina Le is a vintage fashion enthusiast, but not a scholar. Several fashion and women’s interest magazines have picked up their own resident historical costume critic, often with dubious training or dubious taste.
Zebrowska, despite creating these types of videos, has some of the strongest critiques of them. In a video entitled “Everything Wrong With Those “Historically Accurate Disney Princesses” Videos – RANT” she picks out how often these videos as produced by content farms are inaccurate. From misidentifying stays as corsets, to confusing Georgian the time period with Georgia the US state, to using fanart in lieu of fashion plates.
And though the few professional historians among them tend to be more forgiving to costume designers on tight schedules and budgets, it is difficult to tell who even is a historian. The “fashion expert” Glamour uses in their videos misidentified an 18th century set of stays as a corset. Some poor intern at TheTalko did exactly zero research for a video that now has over 2 million views (this is the source of the Georgia-Georgian confusion). Another Glamour expert only uses Spanish and English sources when analyzing a character based in Germany. If these are the sanctioned experts, it’s no wonder that pedantic hobbyists feel the need to make competing videos.
The whole genre, it seems, is rotten. No one wins when the professionals suck and the amateurs are annoying. But these videos have thousands upon thousands of views. The YouTube algorithm loves them. The aforementioned Mina Le was a nobody until her video “Rating Disney Princess Dresses on Historical Accuracy (Part One)” blew up her subscribership by 28000%. One auspicious placement on a YouTube homepage can make an entire career. Seriously, see the number of music videos with comments like “YouTube keeps recommending me this song, and it’s so good!” and check the SocialBlade stats.
This is all to say, I find these videos annoying. I’ll cut the professionalism for a second and say they’re dumb. I wrote hundreds of words to talk about a thing I don’t like, but continue to subject myself to, so I can feel smug and superior to the people who enjoy watching them. As far as YouTube video sub-genres spearheaded by young women, it’s quaint compared to the drama of thrift-flipping, kpop boy bands, or CalArts sketchbooks. But it is the stupidest.
The Internet (capital I this time, for respect!) was a revelation. Unlimited access to the vast annals of human knowledge is a good thing. The problem is when donkeys start leading other donkeys and the lions are too busy lecturing grad students to care. In the case of Glamour and TheTalko, a factual oversight damages the credibility of the professionals involved in the videos, and opens them up to a good dunking in the comments section. For independent content creators, it creates a hierarchy of knowledge that excludes other hobbyists for not being as knowledgeable, talks down to professionals and casual viewers alike, and has none of the charm of a 2008 MySpace page. Imagine if your local Horse Girl never shut up about 16th century stockings. Picture it in your mind’s eye. Die from the pain it causes you.
YouTube is quite possibly the stupidest place online. Hordes of “criticism” that distills down to “thing inaccurate” without serious consideration for the production realities, artistic direction, or relevance to story themes is making the lot of us dumber. For every video saying that the Academy full of experts in their field is wrong and that Little Woman (2019) didn’t deserve its Oscar win because “hem wrong!!! >:(“, some dedicated math enthusiast is trying to solve the cryptic equations behind time travel in Primer. Fan content can be fun and engaging, when it seeks to build upon its source material, not pummels its creators into a fine dust.
Here at the end, I’ll happily admit my distaste for pedantry in nearly all subjects, save for the few I am pedantic about. It’s a defining hypocrisy of mine, but it gives me the fire to write about pointless YouTube trends that convince other people I sound cool, clever, and quick with my wit. But it’s not only the obsession with factual detail at the expense of artistic flourish that’s frustrating. The current criticism ecosphere is becoming deprofessionalize. Movie critics, music critics, the list goes on, are being dumped by their full-time gigs. The vacuum is then filled by these amateurs who don’t need to get paid, but also don’t have serious opinions on their subject matters. Criticism, instead, becomes a game of nitpicks and gotchas, with little or no thought to the themes or messages of the media it contends to criticize. It’s a book report, and a shitty one at that.
* An aside on the corset
The types of people who have huge bugaboos about the painstaked accuracy of dresses in media constrained by budgets and production schedules are also all obsessed with rehabilitating the reputation of the corset. As far back as 1785 have women—and Jean Jacques Rosseau—been decrying the corset as a device akin to torture.
Seriously, these weirdos will tell you women wore corsets because they wanted to! They thought they looked cute! Nevermind that having an impeccably snatched 16 inch waist is not something most people care about sans societal pressure. Not to mention corsets were a labor rights issue! In England and France, shopgirls would get their gigs terminated if their waists weren’t under a certain measurement.
It’s beyond hokey to waste precious air saying “the corset was good actually!” Modern day waist trainers, as popularized by Kim Kardashian, sell the same exactly fantasy of an impossibly skinny waist, and sell the same exact fantasy that the reason you wear painful accoutrements is because you 100% thought of it on your own and are doing it on your own accord despite dozens of people constantly around you who are also doing it. Free will who!
Enjoy this excerpt from What to wear?, written by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in 1873. The lies ladies tell themselves to make fashion seem effortless have not changed much over the past 150 years.