Historical Beauty Update

"And needless to say, [John Smith] was a short, portly brown-head [left] — Not the golden-haired Adonis we see before us in the movie [right]."

In a nutshell, this is the tendency to make Historical Domain Characters look much better in movies/comics than they actually did (or are reported to have been by the sources of their time), and/or to fit their looks to the standard of the culture the work is made for.

Even when sources state that someone was attractive, this was of course according to the standards of their contemporaries. Certain characteristics, such as clear skin, shiny hair and a certain evenness of the face are universally liked, as they show health. The assessment of all the rest (body type, skin color, facial features) though, varies with the vogue of the time and place. While some of the clothing people used to wear is seen as Gorgeous Period Dress, other fashion and hairstyle choices were also not exactly in line with current tastes.

A visual version of Woolseyism. A historical figure regarded as attractive by contemporaries is depicted as attractive according to modern standards, preventing his/her good looks from becoming Informed Attractiveness.

Medieval Morons is as unrealistic as The Beautiful Elite, but the population of former times certainly lacked the comforts of modern technology and therefore, unless stated otherwise, it is safe to assume that the "hero" of one's story carried the marks of a harsh life without proper medicine and full of dangers and hard physical labour; and no toothpaste either - though it was only the advent of (cane) sugar that really led to bad teeth en masse.note 

One would think the advent of photography might curb this practice, but in the end we all just love looking at attractive people too much to let little things like actual history keep us from imagining them as gorgeous. This trope is of course one of the oldest ones there is. When no one knows how the historical person really looked like, all bets are off.

There are several reasons for this trope. Actors and Actresses are in a profession where good looks are an asset and they preselect for that, rather like how Athletes are in better shape than the norm, lawyers and politicians are better at public speaking etc etc. So they group playing the part is already containing a higher portion of good looking people.

Moreover, actors take a lot better care of their appearance and have a whole staff dedicated 24/7 to making them look good and sprucing up their looks. This is far more than even the most self conscious dandy would have and certainly greater than the time and effort than what an average non-actor (which is what most of the real life individual they are portraying would be) would be able to or willing to spend.

Compare Historical Hero Upgrade, Beauty Equals Goodness, Adaptational Attractiveness, Hollywood Homely, and Hotter and Sexier.


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Examples using real people

    Media in General / Common Persons 
  • Calamity Jane was often mistaken for a man, and not just because she often wore men's clothing. However, she's been played by Doris Day. Deadwood goes part of the way toward averting this, and even has Jane tell an anecdote about being mistaken for a man, but Robin Weigert is still far more attractive than the real thing.
  • Cleopatra VII: Cleopatra was subject to this even in her own day. The legend of her beauty comes partially from Octavian's propaganda that Marc Antony had been bewitched by her. Over the years, Cleopatra is typically portrayed as each generation's version of their ideal beauty. She's sometimes even given a Race Lift, despite the fact that she was of Macedonian descent. However, portraits of her give her a noticeably large nose; there is even an oft-repeated famous quip about what a long nose Cleo had. Plutarch describes her as not particularly attractive, but with a beautiful voice and charming personality. Cicero also downplays her appearance, though he is a biased source.
  • Maximilien Robespierre, though this definitely influenced by the sympathies of the artist or casting director. Portraits during his rise to power show him as quite attractive, while he gets less attractive during his downfall. When he's given the Historical Villain Upgrade, he's often shown as quite ugly. In the interest of making its point, the Sandman chapter titled "Thermidor" makes him appear decidedly overweight as well.
  • Saint-Just. Unfortunately, people tend to take Saint-Just's physical appearance (long-haired, young, fairly attractive, gold hoop earrings) and extrapolate his personality off of it. This makes him him into something of a hippie. Or, of course, they might exaggerate the original and also make him a gay Communist pedophile with rage issues.
  • Jane Austen.
    • For a recent edition of one of her books, one of the very few existing pictures finally made it to its traditional place over the back cover blurb. The picture is a pencil drawing, showing her with a somewhat critical/thoughtful expression and a cap, which was usually out-of-doors daywear in her period. On the "improved" one, she's barely recognizable, has the standard perfectly smooth face and no cap.
    • In Becoming Jane, she is portrayed by, of all people, Anne Hathaway.
    • Inverted in Old Harry's Game, though this could simply be because she's in Hell.
  • Mary, Queen of Scots - at least, if her early portraits are to be believed, was quite beautiful when she first entered Scotland, but most depictions of her that are even halfway sympathetic portray her as still being pretty up until her execution, when in real life she had started to wear a wig and no doubt suffered from the lead-based makeup popular at the time.
  • Elizabeth I of England is often portrayed by beautiful actresses, though in her youth she was praised as being unconventionally beautiful.
  • Anne Boleyn also tends to get some judicious upgrading. While the famous reports of her gigantic mole and extra finger are now considered mostly disreputable, more reliable contemporary descriptions suggest that she was, at best, a mildly attractive woman with striking eyes. Her powerful personality seems to have been the real attraction.
  • Abraham Lincoln is generally treated with a variation of this. Though it is well-known from photographs what he looked like (i.e. ugly), and he self-deprecated his own looksnote , he lived before sound recording. Because he was wise and solemn and had gravitas, he is almost always portrayed as having a deep, reassuring voice. Contemporary accounts, however, report that his voice was unusually high-pitched and sharp. His poor looks and voice are hardly ever used in media deceptions outside of the rare documentary and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
  • Typically inverted with, Richard III, who probably looked something like this, but due to revisionist, partisan historians, we typically remember him as a deformed and ugly man.
    • Inverted with Richard III by William Shakespeare where the handsome Richard was turned into a palsied, foul hunchback. But Shakespeare was writing the play for the royalty descended from those who defeated Richard. In the 1995 movie (where he's played by Ian McKellen) he also is made to look a great deal like Adolf Hitler, not surprising as the film in set in the 1930s and the House of York is shown quite consciously modeling itself on the National Front (British Nazi sympathizers in the '30s).
    • Sharon Kay Penman's revisionist novel The Sunne in Splendour takes this route straight, with a rather bishonen Richard.
  • The Shinsengumi as a whole but especially Okita Souji who tends to be depicted as extremely bishonen (so much that sometimes a female actor depicts him in live action). However contemporary accounts describe him as a tall, dark, and thin man with high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and a "flatfish" face. Most of the Shinsengumi members of whom the photos survived or existed (including Okita, but excepting Hijikata, who was a strikingly handsome man in Real Life) were of relatively ordinary appearance, but the cake probably goes to Hajime Saitou, whose two conflicting portraits show him either plain, or downright ugly
  • Boudica, the British queen who rebelled against Roman rule, was noted for her imposing height and bearing, and, of course, her iconic red hair, but later depictions tend to place her very definitely in Amazonian Beauty territory. A rare exception is the eponymous 2003 British production (known as "Warrior Queen" in the United States), which starred the attractive but believable Alex Kingston.
  • Count Vronsky, the romantic hero of Anna Karenina, is depicted in the text as balding and with a mouthful of rotten teeth. Don't expect either of these characteristics to make it into any dramatization. Bad dental hygiene was commonplace in Russia (and most of Europe) at that time, so contemporary audiences would not have seen any Narm in this depiction of an accomplished seducer.
  • Recently, there was some controversy surrounding the Catholic church's decision to photoshop pictures of Saint Mary Mackillop to make her more "appealing" for merchandising reasons. She went from a "frumpy elderly nun" to a beautiful young woman with piercing dark eyes.
  • Blessed Laura Vicuña used to be represented as a conventionally cute, pale-skinned and very European-looking pre-teen thanks to a famous portrait by an Italian painter, which was even used in her official beatification ceremony; said artist's work was based on a very unreliable and idealised description by Laura's surviving little sister Julia, which was given to him decades after Laura's early death. In The Nineties, one of Laura's biographies had a group photo of a group of schoolgirls that included a Laura who did NOT look like the until-then official portrait; years later, an investigation team confirmed that the real Laura was a dark-skinned pre-teen with Native looks, instead of the white-looking little girl everyone knew.
  • Saint Maria Teresa "Marietta" Goretti was reportedly rather cute, but she was still a country girl who lived a rather hard life and more or less looked like this. A good part of the artwork featuring her tends to make her much prettier. (Fully sealed with by the very cute child actresses Ines Orsini and Martina Pinto playing her.)
  • Jesus Christ is typically portrayed according to the local cultural ideal. Western artists typically portray him as a tall, slender, regal man with high cheekbones, strong jaw, straight nose, soulful blue eyes, wavy long hair and a neatly trimmed beard. It's likely that, as a first-century Middle Eastern Jew, he would have had swarthy skin, dark hair and eyes, short curly hair and a beard, though how attractive he was is never mentioned. The Gospel of Matthew states that Roman soldiers were unable to tell Jesus apart from his disciples, and even his own disciples had difficulty recognizing him after the crucifixion, suggesting that Jesus had an unremarkable appearance. In fact, passages in Isaiah suggest that Jesus was, in actuality, rather unattractive if anything (the reason being so that no one would lust after him). Idealized portrayals include:
    • Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" painting. Like all artists of his time and before, Leonardo usually painted mythical figures as what his patrons envision if for no other reason than practicality;
    • Any number of tall, blond, blue-eyed Jesuses (Jesi?) in any number of stained glass windows in any number of churches;
  • Amelia Earhart's celebrity played on her good looks, which were compared favorably to the handsome Charles Lindbergh. She was also a genuine fashion icon of her day. Because of her reputation, she's always played by beautiful actresses who are far more flawless than she actually was.
  • Inverted with Louis XVI, who is often portrayed as short and squat. While he did have a prounounced belly, his actual height was 6 Feet 3 Inches (French measures) or ca. 193 cm, which was very tall for his time.

    Anime & Manga 

    Animated - Film 
  • Pocahontas:
    • John Smith's appearance was changed to suit modern tastes, giving him a leonine mane of blonde hair. The real John Smith had a very out-of-date beard, and who knows what he looked like beneath that thing. As a career soldier and explorer, however, he was probably quite fit.
    • Pocahontas is turned into a Native-American runway model rather than the 12-year old she really was at the time of their meeting. When she visited England, years later, she looked like this.

    Live Action - Film 

    Literature 
  • In the earliest Arthurian legend, Lancelot describes himself as "the ill-made [i.e., ugly] knight." In modern times and possibly because Lancelot is The Ace, we tend to think of him as the ruggedly handsome lancer to Arthur's faithful portrayal as a Bishōnen. T.H. White's The Once and Future King, however, takes it in the opposite direction and makes him almost hideously ape-like.
  • Michael Crichton's novel Timeline nicely plays with this trope in one chapter, in which the inventors of the time-traveling device present film footage of historical events, which they recorded in secret while being there. The first film shows Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in a nasal voice, which he is actually said to have had. The second film shows George Washington crossing the Delaware in the rain, sitting in a corner and wrapped in his mantle, rather than striking the painting's iconic pose.
  • In J.T. Edson's Calamity Jane novels, Calamity Jane is a stacked blonde who dresses in skintight buckskins. This is at odds with photographs of the historical Calamity Jane, who could charitably described as plain.
    • This trope also applies to Edson's version of the outlaw Belle Starr.
  • Played with and discussed in Animorphs "Elfangor's Secret". The kids realize that the guy they're looking for in the middle of the Battle of Agincourt is going to be the guy who looks clean and has good teeth and no sores. They also talk about it after landing on the banks of the Delaware during the Washington crossing the Delaware scene.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Boardwalk Empire is guilty of this with a few historical gangsters (particularly the ones who are young "baby gangsters" when the series is set, in the 1920s). Arnold Rothstein now has fangirls. Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano are being paired up in slash fanfictions. Never mind what kind of fans Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel are attracting.
  • In the third series of Black Adder, there's discussion about this in the episode "Duel and Duality". Baldrick suggests that he and Prince George can trade identities to avoid the The Duke of Wellington's wrath. The Prince brings up the valid point that his portrait hangs on every wall, which is where Blackadder prompts Baldrick to quote his cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody:
    Baldrick: He's heard that all portraits look the same these days, 'cos they're painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.
    Blackadder: Your cousin Bert obviously has a larger vocabulary than you do, Baldrick.
    • Of course, Prince George is arguably an example himself; in real life (and once in the show) he's described as being fat, while in Blackadder he's played by Hugh Laurie, who's anything but.
  • The John Adams miniseries slightly averts this trope. While many of the actors are all very good-looking by today's standards, their characters all eventually fall prey to disadvantages that many people had to deal with in the 18th century, such as lack of dental hygiene, skin care and modern medicine.
  • There is an interesting variation on this trope in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The astronaut wives were generally reasonably attractive women in real life and indeed one or two of them were noted beauties in their time. However, the actresses who play them are far prettier than what the actual women were. This also holds true for the NASA and contractor staff, who were portrayed by much too good looking actors to be believable. On the other hand, check out the crew photos of that time. You will see that many of the astronaut's actors are less handsome than the real guy. The reason for this is simple. The wives were normal middle-class American housewives, with the expected range of looks. The NASA and contractor staff were average nerdy engineers and beaurcrats. The astronauts were young military men, highly physically fit and conditioned, indeed probably more than any human being has ever been before and certainly more than what any actor could reasonably be expected to be,
    • In real life, NASA was aware of this trope and had publicists "groom" the families and staff for their appearances.
  • The Tudors is undisputed lord and master of this trope, with its parade of pouty-lipped sexpots in Gorgeous Period Dress. In later seasons, when Henry VIII would have been well into fatass modenote , His Fictional Majesty looks just as he did when he met Anne Boleyn, except for the beard. Fortunately, the producers had already stated they had no intention of even inviting realism for tea.
    • Kate Beaton has fun with this.
    • Justified in Henry's case: gaining the weight required or wearing a fat suit large enough to be even close to realistic would have been rather detrimental to Jonathan Rhys Meyers' health.
    • Henry also didn't marry Anne Boleyn until he was nearly 42 in real life. In the series, he is portrayed as being young - twenties and early thirties - until he abruptly ages in the fourth season.
  • Spiritual Successor The Borgias does a bit better averting this: most of the characters, if painted by Renaissance artists, wouldn't look too dissimilar from their real counterparts' portraits. There's a major offense, however, in the case of Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia: regardless of how attractive Irons himself is, he's still tall and slender and with a full head of hair where the real Rodrigo resembled a short, fat, bald bulldog of a man.
  • Merlin has a lot of this trope, probably mostly because it's meant as a kids'/family series.
    • Highly debatable. Since it can't be known if any of these characters even existed at all, we can't be sure what they might have looked like.
    • The legendary Merlin was normally depicted as a shape-shifter with no true, stable form. He usually kept the frail old man's appearance while serving Arthur, but became a handsome youth to seduce maidens and at times isolated himself from humanity entirely by turning into a tree.
  • Semi-aversion: Julius Caesar was a rather striking-looking man in real life and Ciaran Hinds is a reasonably fair fit. That said, very few depictions (Rome included) give him his historically accurate thinning/receding hair in later life.
    • And then, of course, there's your friend and mine Mark Antony. He's been portrayed as everything from drop-dead gorgeous (I'm looking at you, James Purefoy) to a distinctly ugly man with... other attractions.
  • Even the actors aren't immune: Robin Williams himself got this treatment in Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy. In real life, Robin Williams is, shall we say, an acquired taste due to his unique appearance. (Let's just say he didn't need a lot of makeup for the role of Peter Pan in Hook.) However, in this Made-for-TV Movie, he's played by Chris Diamantopoulos, who makes a generically attractive Robin... and is Mr. Fanservice in Real Life.
  • Little House on the Prairie: Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls. Landon was a lot better-looking than the person he portrayed on TV. Ingalls had a Santa Claus beard, but Landon was clean-shaven, even when he spent days or weeks without seeing a razor.
    • There was a miniseries in 2005, in which he was played by Cameron Bancroft, with Hollywood hair and Perma Stubble. And Erin Cottrell played Caroline, a woman raised to believe it was immodest to wear her hair in a way that didn't cover her ears, in sort of a case of Historical Coquettishness Upgrade. Even Jack the dog was better-looking than in the source material.
    • In the books after the move to Silver Lake, Caroline Ingalls does specifically say that a lady doesn't show her ears.
  • In Spartacus: Blood and Sand we are shown that the Third Servile War was fundamentally a conflict between The Beautiful Elite of The Roman Republic and their equally beautiful gladiators and slaves. Even historical figures whose appearances are actually known, such as Gaius Julius Caesar (who was already an attractive man in real life) get major upgrades. The handful of actual ugly characters that appear in the show are almost always minor villains that are sleazy even by the standards of evil on the show, such as pimps and pirates.
  • Hitler: The Rise of Evil: Ernst Hanfstaengl is played by the much more attractive Liev Schreiber.
  • The miniseries Sons Of Liberty does this to Samuel Adams, where he is played by the tall, lithe, and very handsome thirtysomething Ben Barnes. In reality, Sam Adams was a short, shabbily dressed man entering his early fifties by the time the Revolution started.

    Theatre 

    Video Games 
  • Frederic Francois Chopin in Eternal Sonata. While he may have been handsome in real life, the game designers decided to make him full blown bishonen.
  • Pretty much everyone in Sengoku Basara. We seriously doubt that the real Sanada Yukimura was ever the perpetually shirtless Bishōnen that he is in the games and anime. Then again, everything else in Sengoku Basara is turned Up to Eleven as well.
    • Liu Bei in Dynasty Warriors 6 and 7 is probably the most overt example of this trope coming into effect though, since he didn't rock the Biseinen look until those games.
    • Special note goes to Akechi Mitsuhide. Both Sengoku Basara and Samurai Warriors portrayed him as a Bishōnen (morality is another story), whereas... do you know one of the reasons he supposedly betrayed Oda Nobunaga? Because the latter called him "kumquat head".
  • If there is such a thing as Mythical Beauty Upgrade, it applies to MANY characters from Fate/stay night. Gilgamesh becomes a Red-eyed, blond-haired Bishōnen. Rider ie Medusa becomes a perfect embodiment of a Fetish Fuel Station Attendant. Most changed is probably Saber King Arthur, who manages to do a Gender Flip into a beautiful girl.
    • Actually, King Arthur was Bishōnen in his original depiction, making a beautiful, tomboyish girl version of him rather accurate.
  • A rare villainous version: in Real Life, Cesare Borgia is said to have been disfigured enough by syphilis that he wore a mask in public, but in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, he looks like this. His appearance in the game might be based on this contemporary portrait that is believed to be of Borgia.
  • In Age of Empires III Henry the Navigator is portrayed as a bearded blonde in shining plate, resembling a medieval knight. He was actually much more like this. Might be artistic license, as he was the head of the Order of Christ (The Portuguese Templar branch) so they might have thought he would look knightish. Most probably it was intentional as it would only take a trip to Wikipedia.
    • Henry ("Henrique" in Portuguese) the Navigator was the son of an English princess (Philippa of the House of Lancaster), and contemporary reports portrayed him as a tall, strong, blond-haired and bearded man. Under the orders of his father, King João I of Portugal, he took part of the conquest of Ceuta and fought the Moors in northern Africa, where he was knighted and made a member of the Order of Christ, a chivalry order. The portrait shown above in a link was made years after his death and it is not known if it depicts him correctly or even if it depicts him at all. So, yeah, the game Age of Empires III made no mistake.
  • The trope is in full effect in Hakuōki. Some of the real-life members of the Shinsengumi, such as Hijikata Toshizo, were plenty attractive on their own, while others, like Saito Hajime, were... not. Regardless, in the Visual Novel and the anime series adapted from it, they're all portrayed as gloriously Bishōnen.
  • Shadow Hearts features many historical characters, few of which resemble their real-life counterparts. Most notable would have to be Mata Hari. While a famous beauty, the real life Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was hardly the blue-eyed, blonde-haired bombshell seen in the game. Instead, she was dark-haired with dark eyes, and very modest in the chest department.
  • The Civilization games do this to varying degrees depending on the specific game.

    Webcomics 
  • Subverted - or not, depending on your tastes - by the depiction of Sappho in Amazoness!. Ancient accounts described her as "small and dark", and the comic depicts her as very smallnote , very dark, and as a charming Butch Lesbian.

    Web Original 
  • Parodied in the Funny Or Die video The Sexy Dark Ages, which makes fun of "the genre of softcore historical drama".
    Natalie Zea: I'm just glad that Showtime has the guts to show that, y'know, just because something happened in the past doesn't mean that everybody had to have bad teeth.
    Daniel Sharman: It combines the kind of sexiness of The Tudors, and the kind of steaminess of Camelot with just a hint of the historical eroticism of Rome.
  • Also parodied in The Onion article I Would Have Been Considered Very Attractive In The Middle Ages".

    Western Animation 
  • Libertys Kids did this to, more or less, every historical figure on the show.

    Other 
  • When the ten-dollar bill was upgraded, Alexander Hamilton, despite already being handsome by many measures, was still given a streamlined face lift.
  • This trope is by no means new. Paintings, statues, busts, etc. of royal and rich people were known to improve a person's appearance. One instance where it was especially common was during an arranged marriage. Many times, the betrothed wouldn't see each other until the day of the wedding, especially if there was great distance between them (like the children of two different kingdoms). The only way they would know what their future spouse would look like is through paintings, and artists were known to smooth out pockmarks and add and subtract a few inches.
    • Queen Elizabeth I used this to her advantage to make people think she was young, healthy and attractive even when she had smallpox scars, grew old and lost her hair and wore a wig.
      Baldrick: Well, my cousin Bert Baldrick, Mr. Gainsborough's butler's dogsbody, he says that he's heard that all portraits look the same these days, since they are painted to a romantic ideal, rather than as a true depiction of the idiosyncratic facial qualities of the person in question.
    • This trope didn't work out quite so well when Elizabeth's father Henry VIII was shopping for a fourth wife. The famous painter Holbein did a portrait of Anne, a minor Princess of Cleves, which made the most of what beauty she did possess... but as Henry discovered when they met in person, that wasn't much. Henry had his aide Cromwell beheaded for screwing the situation up so badly. They did marry, but by Anne's own account the marriage was never consummated and she eventually consented to his offer of an amicable divorce. Ironically, this was great for Anne — outside of the lack of attraction, she and Henry got along really well as friends. She was allowed to remain in England for the rest of her (long) life, was good friends with both of her former stepdaughters, and Henry treated her like a sister, giving her expensive gifts and inviting her to all the events at court. AND she didn't get beheaded! Which shows how well she came ahead of the other wives. And cycling back to this page's trope, in the TV series 'The Tudors' she is played by Joss Stone.
  • The Physics building of Chalmers University of Technology (Göteborg, Sweden) is decorated with a dozen sculptures, depicting famous Swedish scientists from Celsius onward. All are shown as idealistically beautiful - except Svante Arrhenius, who was still alive when the building was erected. His statue looks like he actually looked. Reportedly, he was none too pleased with this.
  • Most Ancient Egyptian kings commissioned all their sculptures, tomb reliefs, and burial masks to depict them as youthful, attractive, and healthynote . Hatshepsut even required depictions to make her male. But thanks to mummification, forensic scientists can reconstruct what many of them actually looked like.
    • For example, Ramses II lived to be a very old man (for the time) and was not in perfect health. Tutankhamun had an overbite, a slight cleft palate, and a club foot, and was probably not what we'd call handsome. Hatshepsut was, gasp!!, a woman. Don't expect contemporary artwork to depict them that way.
    • In an inversion Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father who tried unsuccessfully to replace the entire Egyptian religion with a new one, always had himself and his family depicted as pot-bellied androgyns with elongated, weird-looking faces. For years, Egyptologists wondered if it was artistic convention or hereditary deformity, until they identified his mummy and learned that no, he looked pretty average.
    • Also, fairly recent research and examinations have shown that Hatshepsut was probably obese and afflicted with a nasty skin condition toward the end of her reign. Link here: http://www.livescience.com/7336-mummy-reveals-egyptian-queen-fat-balding-bearded.html
    • The bust (not that kind) of Nefertiti was often held to be a depiction of her as stately and beautiful. A documentary showed that this was mostly due to the lighting since the bust was often illuminated for best presentation. Changing the lighting showed a bunch of wrinkles and a more aged looked.
  • One reason why photography wasn't always successful in making people look more realistic is because all mainstream photography was black-and-white until the 1950s, and most of it still was until the 1980s. Black-and-white film is more light-sensitive and requires more artificial lighting in its setup, so people photographed in black-and-white are unnaturally illuminated, tend to appear "angelic", and are thus more physically attractive than they otherwise would be. (Unless, of course, the subject is shot in low-key photography, but that is usually reserved for villains, morally ambiguous characters, or people who are supposed to look unattractive to the viewer.) A second reason is that, at least in the nineteenth century, people getting photographed took the experience a lot more seriously than they do now. Photographers were all trained professionals, possessed a great deal of technical knowledge as well as artistic talent, and were thought of almost as photorealistic portrait painters than simply recorders of events. People always wore their best clothes for photos in those days. Men shaved and women put their hair up, and even the children wore suits. They certainly didn't look like that all the time.

In-Universe examples

    Literature 
  • The Wheel of Time: Nyneve is rather taken aback upon meeting Gaidal Cain, who, unlike his reincarnation partner Birgitte, is quite a bit uglier than the legends say.
  • Soviet Sci-Fi novel Kovrigin’s chronicles ("A girl near a steep", "Девушка у обрыва") by Vadim Shefner. A man remarks how all the depictions of a famous scientist's girlfriend follow that trope (the scientist asked that his name not be honored through memorials and such, so the people resort to honoring her instead).
  • No Woman Born: While waiting for Deirdre's performance, her manager Harris and scientist Maltzer watch a reenactment of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, noting that the actress playing her is far too pretty, and the garb being worn by the women onstage to be too tight for the period.
  • Sixteenthirty Two has someone note Princess Kristina looks nothing like Greta Garbo. To be fair, she's only a child too.
  • Mortal Engines has the horribly disfigured Hester Shaw and the slightly scarred version of her in Professor Pennyroyal's book.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Forever Knight: justified that the vampires look good in their flashbacks, but human Nick gets into this trope before he is turned in the first episode flashback.
  • In It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Frank tells a story of a love triangle from his past featuring people the gang has never met. In the flashback, the new people are played by attractive actors. When the gang meets them in real life, however, they turn out to be quiet average. The gang walks off discussing how no one look anything like they'd been imagining.