In the second episode of season four of AMC’s hit series Hell on Wheels, the main character’s favorite piece of clothing resurfaces: Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is reunited with his omnipresent leather vest, lost last season when he was kidnapped by rough riders and held captive in a Mormon camp by his old nemesis, the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl).
“That leather vest has traveled with us through three seasons,” recalls costume designer Carol Case. “On again and off again, lost and then found again. We’ve finally finessed Bohannon’s rock star costume to a practical look for him. It’s become like a uniform now. He can do anything in it.”
Since 2011, Hell on Wheels has continued to expose the true-to-life greed, corruption, deception and life-and-death struggles involved in the late 1800s construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific, which crossed the plains and connected the east and west coasts for travel and commerce.
Adding to the overpowering realism, this show is possibly the filthiest Western TV series ever made. Even in season four, when the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming, is actually being “cleaned up” by the newly appointed provisional governor, life there is still a veritable mud fest.
The costume designer admits that the essential touches on the characters’ costumes are mud, dirt, dust and grime. “Cullen is always covered from head to toe in mud. But he would look good no matter what,” says Case. And the costume team doesn’t have to make fake mud. “There is so much mud on the set that it’s terrifying,” Case admits about their river valley location in Alberta, around 35 miles outside of Calgary, Canada.
In between seasons, Case and her team do clean the clothes. Somewhat. “A lot of our break down is painted on, but it still takes a while for the clothes to get that wonderful patina from the mud bog days. It’s always a joke at the start of every season. I never think the clothes look right until we let the mud do its job as much as we can.”
Even the female characters struggle to stay a step ahead of the muck and mire. “Women would still be wearing crinolines in this time. But just walking down the streets of Cheyenne is impossible without getting the dresses dirty,” says Case, who adapted the costumes of the prairie women, keeping the bell-shaped silhouette of the Victorian era. “We changed the undergarments so they’re less cumbersome so the women can actually pick up their skirts and maneuver. Lots of women in the West were forced to work in fields, and they couldn’t possibly have done that in crinolines.”
The town’s whores — ahem, working girls — are also down and dirty. But they do make an effort to look appealing. “These girls didn’t live very long, and their lives were absolutely horrible. They didn’t clean their dresses, so we broke them down quite a bit,” Case explains. “I decided to do evening gowns with lots of low-cut necklines, even during the day. The juxtaposition is pretty amazing. Proper women would never wear low necklines.”
Expect a new look this season for one former prostitute. Eva (Robin McLeavy), the Indian captive who was tattooed on her chin by the tribe, has given up her baby. And even though the baby’s freeman father will return, she’ll look flashier when she forms a partnership of sorts with saloon owner Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke).
The whores also stand in sharp contrast to Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) a young female reporter from New York who wears simple, elegant, cosmopolitan clothing. The prostitutes’ slutty chic is also worlds away from the wealthy hotel proprietress, Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdel).
“I go to Toronto for my fabric-buying trip to create my Hell on Wheels closets,” explains Case. “I found a variety of silks for her. It’s become our department’s treat after endless cottons to work with beautiful silks. Some of her gowns, particularly the bright copper one she’s worn, have a Western flavor with fringe on the bodice. Victorian women wore a lot of decoration on their dresses.”
It’s worth noting that Bohannon’s new Mormon wife, Naomi Hatch (Mackenzie Porter), the mother of his child, seems to bring out the softer side of him, reflected in his clothing. When the new family leaves the Mormon camp, Bohannon wears gray tone-on-tone separates and a slouchy knit jacket (made from modern fabric) that brings to mind Armani’s early 1970’s menswear.
But Bohannon’s softness probably won’t last long. He’ll be back to his leather-vested uniform quickly. And back in the mud.