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Costume designer Antoinette Messam doesn’t just dress A-list stars in Hollywood movies. Prior to costuming director Jeymes Samuel’s revisionist Western The Harder They Fall, Messam worked as a stylist and designer in the fashion industry. That experience allowed her to bring a modernized touch to the traditional cowboy silhouette in the film.
Born in Jamaica to a fashion-focused family — her grandfather was a tailor, and her mother was a dressmaker — Messam was always drawn to the magic of costumes in movies. “I always had a love of the escape,” she says of her love for cinema. “I think that’s an immigrant thing, too, you know? I mean, we’re coming to a new land that is not our own and sizing [up] what we could be and who we could be.”
For The Harder They Fall, Messam costume designed a powerhouse cast featuring the likes of Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Zazie Beets and LaKeith Stanfield, all while pulling from direct influences of Western fashions. But unlike the typical Western films of Hollywood past, Samuel’s vision puts Black cowboys — inspired by real figures in history — at the front and center of his story.
“We’re not an accessory, an extension or one person in the movie, we are the movie,” Messam said of the film. “This is a Western that just so happens to have Black people in it.”
Messam spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on the process and challenges behind developing the costumes for the film. “I’m not gonna lie to you, there were days I didn’t know if I could pull it off,” she said of working throughout the height of the pandemic.
Western influence seems to be popping up in modern style these days. How much did you pull from what you were seeing in today’s culture when you were going into the planning for The Harder They Fall?
I did it in the reverse. I started with the research. What did it actually look like back then? And, of course, it was a learning curve because I know what Victorian costumes look like. The dress, the style, the silhouette, which was the base of my movie. But diving deep down into Western cowboy, Oklahoma frontier, Texas, was a new world for me. It’s been modernized, but the base silhouette was there. One of my really big inspirations for style and hats was “Art Comes First,” and they do incredible hats. And [in my research], I’m seeing the same silhouette on Black cowboys in the 1870s, 1890s.
So there is a resurgence, but the resurgence is based on fact. Does that make sense? So, when I designed costumes from scratch, and I was able to — knowing the direction, the style, and the swagger that Jeymes wanted for this film — [I could] twist the original silhouette to help with that. It was seamless. It wasn’t a stretch to find contemporary style or accents to work within the story I was trying to build. It was right there for me [in history].”
What did your research process look like? Did you watch old Westerns or dive into old history books?
“I have a really great library. I love books. I’m still a firm believer that I have to touch the book. And you know, of course, now, I have my phone, and I’m taking pictures as I’m going, but I started just sitting on the ground with books spread around me and just going through everything, Not just Victorian, but also, what is the difference if I pushed a couple of years? So, I needed to narrow down my time period, and the research of the different clothing shapes and styles for men and women was important.
And then, obviously, [I researched] online. I learned so much online. I have links and links of stuff I never even knew about. I assumed I would be swapping out faces [in my mood boards] and using illustrations. I didn’t have to. I was finding that Black people dressed exactly how I wanted them. They were dressed very eloquently, very luxurious. They were wearing the same satin dresses that their white counterparts were. And it was fantastic. It was the most exciting thing ever.”
This movie features such a powerhouse cast of high-profile actors. What was it like collaborating with them?
Jonathan shared a book with me, Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States, and it was fantastic because it had all the characters that were in the movie, little chapters on them and others that I didn’t know about. We collaborated from the ground up with his costume, especially his hero costume that he wore for the entire movie. And it was just really great to play with him, you know, having multiple hats, shapes and styles until we decided on the one we liked. Jeymes had made him a soundtrack, the Nat Love playlist, and we were playing it in the fittings. And it’s really incredible when you have the time with your actors to do that kind of collaboration.
Zazie’s fitting was probably the longest fitting I’ve ever had in my career. She wanted to try on everything, touch everything. It was a new world for her, too, wearing the corset and figuring out which corsets we were going to use and shape. And Regina was epic. That was a masterclass. And I was so enamored by this woman and what she brings to the conversation about character. I mean, even something as simple as not liking to wear hats because they leave a mark, and coming up with a scarf and its backstory — it was something [her character] collected in her travels, and it was silk, so it could blow in the wind.
It was just — oh, you’re bringing me back. It’s been a few years. But I mean, I was literally throwing clothes at LaKeith, I had him for an hour on his way to the airport because after COVID, we had to scramble and redo a few of the characters like Cathay (played by Danielle Deadwyler). I didn’t even see her in person the first time — we spoke on the phone, on Zoom. I was in L.A., and she had to go straight from Atlanta to New Mexico to get on a horse. So, my assistant went to meet her, and I was literally simultaneously dressing her via Zoom, which was very new for me. The very first time in 30 years. But we made it happen, and I’m really happy that she looks so organic in her costume. We did have in-person fittings. But to not meet one of your lead actors for the first time in person and have those conversations and touch and see how she moves, [and] doing it through a computer, was really nerve-wracking.
Was it difficult working like that during the pandemic?
I don’t even know how to explain how hard it was from a creative point of view. And then you’re in a city like Santa Fe, [which is] shut down because of the COVID levels, and you only have Walmart and CVS and Ralphs open. Amazon and Santa Fe Opera saved my life. If it couldn’t be shipped in time, I was literally calling them and begging them if we could come and get needles from them and buttons and zippers. I could not get zippers. We bought fabric from them. We rented. It was pretty incredible. I’m not going to lie to you, there were days I didn’t know if I could pull it off.
And then you’re on set, and some COVID officer says, “Six feet apart” with a ruler, and I’m like, “I’ve gotta fix her clothes!”
Thankfully, we had actors like Jonathan Majors. His clothes just became a part of him, and it shows. He knew how to fix his neckerchief the same way every single time. We didn’t have to get in up close to him, but then others who aren’t used to that kind of training, or are so immersed in their lines or the scene, and they’re so used to a costumer coming up and doing finals or fixing things. Those are the ones I now look at, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, look at this. You’re wearing your warm-up gloves on camera. I won’t tell anybody.’
Costumes have the power to really transform the tone of a film and transport the audience to this new reality. Were you always drawn to fashion or costumes in that way — in movies, specifically?
All of the above. I mean, I’m Jamaican, and my grandfather was a tailor, and my mother was a dressmaker. So I’ve always had clothes and fabric around me. Textiles are my first love. I could drive my crew crazy looking for the right fabric. And I love film. When I grew up, my father loved westerns, so that was the first thing that I gravitated to [in The Harder They Fall] is like, oh, I’ve never done a Western, and I actually love Westerns.
So that was exciting. But growing up, I just loved movies. Movies for me at the time were so much about the fashion and the costuming, and not just relegated to high fashion. I loved the layering and the texture. So, I always had a love of the escape. And I didn’t want to be a dressmaker or sew. My grandfather used to get so mad at me because I had no interest in learning how to be a tailor. He’d be so shocked if he could see me now. Full circle. My mother says this all the time: “You were a horrible sewer, and look at you now.”
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Well, I want them first and foremost to have fun with it. You know what I mean? We’ve [experienced] some heavy times, and to be excited about a film again is really great. I mean, obviously, I was excited for this because it was my own, but I was also excited for Dune, as a filmmaker, as an artist, as a costume designer — all of that.
And my Jamaican community is losing their mind over the [The Harder They Fall] soundtrack, too. There’s a sense of pride attached to this project. And then you recognize that the message Jeymes wants you to take away is that we were there. There may have been an erasure, there may have been no mention of us in the history books that you get in schools or in movies that we love, or any of that stuff. But now, this movie says, ‘Hey, we were there.’ I keep hearing, ‘Oh, this is inaccurate history.’ To that, I say, ‘You haven’t checked your history.’ It is very accurate.
I mean, enjoy the hats. Go out and buy a cowboy hat.
The hats were one of my favorite parts.
Yeah, the hats were special. It’d be dark outside, and I could tell you who people were based on their hats. The hats were very distinctive.
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