What is a period piece? If the term transports your mind to a faraway time with big, puffy dresses and flowery language, then you might be on the right track. We’ll start out by defining what exactly constitutes a period piece, then we’ll dig a little deeper before taking a look at some great examples of period piece films and television shows.

What is a Period Piece

First, let’s define period piece

The "period piece" is just one of many types of stories. Often these "stories set in the past" are done so to present historical subject matter. In other cases, the writer might have another reason — perhaps to create a thematic link between contemporary topics by juxtaposing them with the past.

If there are any other movie types that you could use clarification on, our ultimate guide to genres defines them all.


What is a period piece?

A period piece is a story set in the past rather than a story with a contemporary or futuristic setting. A period piece may take place in the recent or distant past. Period piece films set long ago are also sometimes referred to as costume dramas due to the complicated nature of and emphasis placed on historically-accurate clothing.A real-world setting is required for a period piece. A film set in the past on an alien planet, for example, doesn't count. Though a real time and place is required for a film to qualify, historical accuracy is not mandatory. 

Period Piece Characteristics:

  • Set in the recent or distant past
  • May or may not be historically accurate
  • The term ‘costume drama’ applies to distant period pieces

Period Films

Digging deeper in the characteristics

Films set in the distant past tend to be most commonly associated with the period-piece label, but films set in the recent past count as well. Jonah Hill’s 2018 coming of age film, Mid90s, set during the 1990s is a period piece just as Portrait of a Lady on Fire set during the 18th century is. Mid90s made it onto our list of the best coming of age films of all time, see what else made the cut.

Period pieces transport audiences back to a specific time and place. Whether it’s the wild west, Victorian England, the turn of the century, the great depression, or as recently as a decade or two ago, the best period pieces excel at stories in which the setting is crucial to the drama unfolding.

It is worth noting that contemporary films do not become period pieces as they age. The film must be set in the past from the date it is created.

A look at a niche within the period piece genre  •  What counts as a period piece

A period piece can be combined with any other genre. Dramas and romance films are commonly associated with the period-piece moniker. But films of every other genre can also be found underneath the same umbrella. Westerns, comedies, thrillers, action, and horror films can all be period pieces. The period piece as a genre is defined by the setting, not the story.

Examples of Period Piece Movies

Further examples and genres

Period Pieces are often the favorite genre for the Best Production Design Academy Award as they tend to provide the best canvases for production designers to show all that they can do.

Authentic period pieces from distant times tend to attract awards recognition all across the board. Since 2010, 9 of the 11 Best Picture Oscar winners have been period pieces set at some point in the near or distant past.

And, of the 96 films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since 2010, 61 of them fall under the period piece umbrella. Dramas like The King’s Speech, The Artist, and 12 Years a Slave all took home the prestigious prize.

Every best picture winner — count the period pieces  •  What counts as a period piece

Romance is a popular genre amongst distant-past period pieces. Films like The Handmaiden, Ammonite, Far From the Madding Crowd, Pride & Prejudice, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are all costume-drama romances.

Another popular period-piece subgenre is the historical epic. These films center around significant points in history, often have lengthy runtimes, and frequently involve politics and/or warfare to some degree.

Films in this niche include Lawrence of Arabia, Dances With Wolves, Ben-Hur, Red Cliff, Andre Rublev, and The Last of the Mohicans among others.

Period piece examples  •  Historical epics

As mentioned earlier, period pieces can be combined with any genre. There are many great spaghetti western period pieces like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Sergio Corbucci's original Django as well as American westerns like The Searchers, High Noon, and Stagecoach.

There are horror period pieces like The Witch, November, and Dracula. There are action period pieces like Valhalla Rising, 13 Assassins, and Hero.

And, there are countless gangster period pieces like The Godfather, City of God, and many great films from Martin Scorsese’s filmography like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman.

How Scorsese captures authenticity  •  Subscribe on YouTube

There is also a wealth of period drama television in the modern age. Shows like Downton Abbey, The Crown, and The Great have proven that prestige costume dramas can work just as well on the small screen.


What is Narrative?

Now that you know what a period piece is, let’s take a step back and discuss narrative storytelling as a whole. A firm grasp over narrative will make delving into subsequent genres, formats, and styles easier. Learn the definition of narrative, its purpose, and take a look at both literary and film examples.

Up Next: Narrative Explained →
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