If you’re a history buff, then you know that there are few things more annoying than sitting down for a nice, lavish, multi-season period production, only to find that everyone’s wearing clothes from the completely wrong era. Well now, one fashion historian’s taken matters into her own hands and come up with a handy litmus test—at least for works set in the Regency era. The next time you sit down to watch something that takes place more or less between the years of 1811 and 1820, try putting it to Hilary Davidson’s Bill & Ted Test: that is, are the costumes more accurate than those in the Beethoven scene of the seminal 1989 time-travel stoner classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure?
As Davidson explains in an interview with Slate, it all started when she was wrapping up production work for her book Dress in the Age of Jane Austen and watching a lot of movies in the background. One day, while “copy editing [her] index or some tedious, tedious thing,” she put on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And then came the scene where our titular slackers kidnap Ludwig van 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,'” she told the publication. “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.”
The rest, as they say, is history (we’re so sorry). One year later, the Bill & Ted Test Twitter account was born. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (pass), Persuasion (fail), the 2020 version of Emma (hard pass), 2016’s War and Peace (“FAIL—the definitive. The failest of all fails”), Northanger Abbey (“FAIL—on styling”), Peterloo (“PASS. Good stuff—though overly beardy”), and many more have all been put in the hot seat, to varying results. Doctor Who, interestingly enough, failed (based on one episode.)
“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,” Davidson told Slate. “It’s like wearing your gilet [vest] on top of your puffer jacket.”
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2015)
— The Bill and Ted Test (@BillAndTedTest) April 2, 2020
(Hard) PASS pic.twitter.com/Qbv3mZSoEO
— The Bill and Ted Test (@BillAndTedTest) March 28, 2020
Frankenstein (TV, 2004)
FAIL. Very little even conveys it's Regency. pic.twitter.com/FJL8mtqUBb
— The Bill and Ted Test (@BillAndTedTest) April 10, 2020
So what’s the criteria for pass/fail? (The obvious stuff is all about fabric and hair—no polyester and NO HALF-UP HAIR, EVER.) And what is the Regency Era anyway? (Technically 1811 to 1820 in Britain, but Davidson says “it’s about 1795 to about the early 1820s” if you’re more using it as a “capital phrase for the early 19th century.”) But if you really want to get into the nitty gritty (we’re talking the correct apportionment of décolletage and men’s coats not being tightly fit enough), you should definitely check out the full interview on Slate and the threads on Davidson’s Twitter.