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She has the pedigree, with Oscar nominations for Ray and Dreamgirls, and Critics Choice and Costume Designers Guild Awards for her work on The Help.
None of Tarantino’s films — from Reservoir Dogs (1992) to Inglourious Basterds (2009) have garnered a Costume Design Oscar nomination, as the honor is usually reserved for painstakingly perfect period films beloved by the academy. But Django Unchained is a period film, set in the deep south in 1858, just before the Civil War. And the film’s bright palette and combination of Southern peacock finery, lavish gowns with the rock star style of Italian spaghetti westerns may catch the Oscar voters’ eyes — if they can see past the buckets of blood.
Davis stayed true to the period’s silhouette for historical continuity, but was able to play with fabrics and colors to create unique looks for the predominately male cast of disparate characters.
“Basically, it’s a spaghetti western so we had to incorporate 1850’s and 1970’s Italian spaghetti western costumes,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “We wanted to make sure the sexiness was in there, giving all our male leads a little rock star swagger and yet still stay in the period.”
She also used a lot of jewel tones on the men, such as ruby red, wine burgundy and various shades of green. “I really pushed the green button, avocados and emeralds, also a lot of gold, silver, white, cream and even pink. We had a fun time.”
Davis says she has never done so many male characters from so many disparate walks of life. “They are all speaking roles so I had to really make them stand out and make each of them their own character. It was quite a challenge because men’s clothes are pretty basic.”
She admits that without that research into spaghetti westerns, especially Sergio Corbucci’s Django, “I could not have been inspired enough to come up with these characters’ looks.” In the original 1966 Django, Italian actor Franco Nero played a sexy black-clad drifter who drags around a closed coffin, seeking revenge on the man who murdered his wife.
Tarantino’s Django costume stand-outs include a formal frock coat and grey broad-shouldered cape for Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz, the flamboyant German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, and the coat worn by Django (Jamie Foxx), which Davis says was inspired by Little Joe’s (Michael Landon) coat worn in Bonanza.
Leonardo DiCaprio reveled in his heartless peacock character, Calvin Candie, who wore Southern dandy duds, complete with brocade vests, gloves, bow ties, lace kerchiefs and even a magnolia pinned to his jacket collar. His painstaking attention to his attire contrasts sharply with his feral tobacco-stained teeth.
Foxx’s big costume moment comes early in the film, when his character is given money to buy his first suit and he chooses a bright blue Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit with a lace collar. It was a costume that Foxx really loved. “You could barely get him out of that costume,” Davis recalls.”It was crazy and he was so great about wearing it. The suit was scripted in a different way, and I made it more subtle, believe it or not.”
The real southern belle of the film is Calvin’s widowed sister, Lara Lee, played by Laura Cayouette. “Her whole life is probably putting on clothes,. She’s not married anymore, she’s head of the household and her family’s rich,” says Davis. “Her role in this movie is to bring a bit of lace to this very brutal, brutal world. I think she represents the old South. “
“The first time we see her, she has a bit of a Blanche Dubois kind of thing. Her next change, she comes down like Queen Elizabeth, the tiara, with royal colors.”
Some of the other ladies are more scantily clothed, including one female slave who wears a French maid’s costume. “We really wanted that scene to be surreal and we took a lot of liberty there,” says Davis. “But I did some research of burlesque dancers in that era and found photos that proved they actually did wear textured stockings and short skirts.”
Another comfort slave is seen wearing a slinky gold gown. “The furniture in that scene was gold and blonde so I wanted to her to look beautiful and slinky and to blend in, like she was part of the furniture.”
Django’s wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, is the goddess of the film and is portrayed in innocent puff sleeve empire waist frocks — in bright feminine colors — that hide the lash scars on her back.
It was producer Stacey Sher who initially got Davis and Tarantino together. “We really synched,” recalls Davis, adding “Django was the height of having to be so creative and letting myself go and not be afraid. Quentin gives you so much information about the characters and he gave me the Italian spaghetti western films to watch so I could get a feel for it.”
As for all the pesky blood stains on her costumes, Davis shrugs: “I’m not usually an action type girl, but I really enjoyed it.”
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