Wardrobe Theory—The Anachronistic Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

Games Features Assassin's Creed

I do not have a style guide for you this month. I am too angry to give you suggestions. An important thing happened, and it is taking up all the space in my brain. There was a trailer for a new Assassin’s Creed game, and the main character is wearing a quilted leather jacket.

A lot of things about that trailer are irritating—trains, the writing, that English accent that sounds like it’s really trying to be Northern but can’t quite make it—but that quilted leather jacket makes me furious.

My knowledge of historical costuming is about as much as anyone else who has watched the BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice a bunch of times and has idly thought about how one would construct the costumes from various videogames. But I do know this—Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is set in 1868 and the quality of leather that character wears would be atrociously expensive. On top of that, it’s a frock coat, so it’s a lot of leather. On top of that, it’s fucking quilted, which would likely have to have been hand stitched, if quilting leather was even a thing they did in 1868. The trailer for this game goes out of its way to establish that the character wearing this jacket is working class. That jacket, the least conspicuous jacket a poor assassin could possibly wear, likely would have cost more than his entire family for several generations back.

The most frustrating part of the costuming here isn’t that it’s so easy to figure out what’s so wrong with it, though yes, that’s really annoying. It’s not even that the jacket is incredibly ugly, though yes, it’s fucking hideous. It’s that what people were actually wearing in the Victorian Era was actually a hell of a lot cooler. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is going for an American McGee style of cool, a decidedly early 2000s, From Hell with Johnny Depp, look-how-grim-and-gritty-we-are bombast. It’s a convention that’s tired at this point. We no longer think the kinds of men that wear that many vests are interesting or sexy, let alone remotely dangerous. This was the era of men being able to wear capes in public. This was the era of dandies and boots with spats and Ubisoft chose to just transliterate Aiden Pearce’s costume to Victorian London. He’s even wearing a shitty hat.

It’s generic on top of being inaccurate—Jacob Frye, the main character, wears a waistcoat in an emerald brocade, with a red necktie over a workshort. It’s all more or less fine. Sure, the collar is completely wrong—Victorian collars were much shorter, and usually pressed flat at about a quarter inch—and the pulled threads and stained whites don’t make this outfit look any less expensive, but they’re trying. It’s a bit like the costuming from Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd—completely over the top, not exactly evoking a particular era but vaguely Victorian-ish. Except nothing says, “I STOLE THIS,” with a side helping of “LOOK AT ME,” like that jacket.

asscreed syndicate wardrobe jacob frye.jpg

I’ll be generous and forgive the cut of the coat. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has a long professed love of weird, out of period jackets. It’s a trope now. Men’s jackets in that era would have been cut a bit higher or much lower—the Frock Coat was transitioning out of style in favor of the Morning Coat, with the former being associated mainly with conservative and old people—but okay, whatever. The detailing is also entirely wrong, seemingly modeled after a modern leather biker jacket, which makes sense thematically but is also patently absurd. Here’s a brief history of the modern leather jacket: it was introduced in WWI for military pilots, hence the “Bomber,” but wasn’t practical to make for mass consumption until the late 1920s, where it was largely picked up by people who were enthusiastic about motorcycles. It’s possible to read all the connotations of a modern leather jacket into the monstrosity that Jacob is wearing via our modern eyes—he’s working class, rough around the edges—but those connotations would not have existed when Jacob was alive. The modern leather jacket wasn’t just unfashionable to a Victorian man. It was impossible to produce. In that jacket he sticks out like a sore thumb because that would have had to have been largely hand tailored.

It seems nitpicky but it’s a serious point. If women could identify Jack the Ripper by his unusual, wide brimmed felt hat, then Jacob would be approximately three thousand times easier to identify in that coat. There’s a cliché that Victorian society was repressed and conformist, a cliché that for the most part rings true, but prior to the advanced mechanization of textiles, it was also just much, much harder to get unusual or custom made garments. A coat like that on a working class man feels as wrong as a dog walking on its hind legs. All one would have to do to find Jacob would be to look for the man who looked entirely and totally out of place.

There are analogues to draw between the working class fashions of the 1800s and now—the suspenders, the work boots, the pressed pants, the stiff shirts. You can’t just transplant a 2010s idea of Coolness into the 1860s and expect it to work—and besides, haven’t we all learned by now that there’s nothing sexier than something simple? Jacob is not only wearing as much clothing as possible, he’s wearing as many patterns and textures as he can fit on his body, and the end result makes him look like a pick up artist.

Ubisoft’s mistake with Jacob’s costume isn’t just in its lack of historical accuracy. It’s that they fundamentally don’t understand costume design. Not only would Jacob be too easy to recognize, I have no idea how he could do meaningful acrobatics in a Frock Coat, waistcoat, workshirt, suspenders, pocketwatch, heavy workpants, leather workboots, and a silk tie. It’s not just unfitting for an 1860s working class man—it’s unfitting for a man of any era of Jacob’s occupation.

Yes, it’s a videogame, yes it’s “fun,” or “awesome,” or what have you. But Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that is built around the wonder of being able to travel back in time. My old roommate, Dylan, introduced the game to me by giving me a virtual walking tour of Italy, pointing out landmarks and introducing me to historical figures. When I watch period television or movies, I covet the costumes, the fabrics, the tailoring, the attention to detail in those clothes. It isn’t just the landscape that makes a time period—it’s the people, and how those people are. If you fail to capture that, then what is your game even about, in the end?

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is trying very hard to tell me Jacob is cool via his character design. It wants to tell me that he’s edgy. It wants me to think he’s sexy and all I see is someone trying very, very hard. Jacob is representative of the ultimate failures of Assassin’s Creed as a franchise—inaccurate where it counts to be meticulous, over the top where it means something to be subtle. But above all else, that jacket is ugly. It’s really, really ugly. And I can’t believe he left the house wearing red and green.

Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. As much as she’d like to be called a “fashion expert,” she is more likely a niche fashion enthusiast. She would probably love to talk to you on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.

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