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Over the years, Westerns have provided moviegoers with some of the big screen’s most indelible fashion statements, from the dusty poncho and wide-brimmed Stetson of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the ’60s to the natty attire of Doc Holliday — known as much for his sartorial splendor as his sharp shooting — as portrayed in such films as My Darling Clementine (1946), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and Tombstone (1993).
Even if the genre has become an endangered species in recent decades, the mythical tropes of frontier justice and rough-and-tumble action have often allowed costume designers to let their imaginations run wild. This year, two Westerns of decidedly different stripes, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, have provided their costume designers with a rich canvas of looks driven by character and circumstance.
For Netflix’s The Harder They Fall, the game-changing Western set in the 1890s with a cast made up predominantly of Black actors, designer Antoinette Messam took her cue from Samuel, using historic figures such as Nat Love, Rufus Buck and Mary Fields (“Stagecoach Mary”) — many of them former enslaved people — as a jumping-off point for creative license that’s both invigorating and crowd-pleasing.
“Jeymes Samuel was very adamant that these people not appear as they’ve appeared in many movies prior,” says Messam, “which is downtrodden, slavery references, tattered clothes. He wasn’t making a dusty, dirty cowboy movie. I had to take into consideration the levels of aging I did, knowing especially that the Nat Love gang was going to be seen coming out of riding on the plains, and I wanted it to be natural — not dirty, because they weren’t dirty people.”
If the wardrobe changes are striking, with bright, bold colors not normally associated with Westerns, the headgear remains consistent — Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) in her stovepipe hat, which Messam inherited from Erykah Badu’s limning of the role in Samuel’s 51-minute 2013 Western They Die by Dawn, and Trudy Smith, aka “Treacherous Trudy” (Regina King), distinguished by her ever-present bowler.
Buck (Idris Elba), newly sprung from prison, goes from jailhouse stripes to pinstripe suits, determined to reclaim his place as Redwood City’s mayor and savior, even if he rules with an iron fist. In one scene, he sports luxurious matching gray pants and vest, a crisp white dress shirt with studded collars and, as a grand stroke a plush, red velvet jacket.
“I got this swatch of this red, and I knew that Jeymes wanted to see red throughout the movie,” says Messam. “[The jacket] does what we needed it to do, which is saying, ‘I’m back. I’m here. I’m strong.’ “
For Messam, tones of blues and reds evoke energy and vibrancy. And because Redwood City is a mill town not dependent on mail-order garments from Europe, she could take liberties to dye colors to the saturation she wanted. (The final confrontation between Mary and Trudy takes place in a factory amid a flurry of pastel fabrics.)
The film’s most exotic scene occurs as Stagecoach Mary confronts Buck for the first time in his saloon in Redwood City, and she’s greeted by a writhing, sprightly figure who looks like she could have sprung from the Ballets Russes. “It was the most challenging scene,” informs Messam. “[The dancer Aahkilah Cornelius] had the least clothes of anyone in the movie, but she was the most difficult to dress, because it had to hit multiple beats. For practical reasons, she had to be clothed, with body paint and meshing. In Jeymes’ vision, she was naked but just painted blue. Let’s think of her almost like an early burlesque dancer if she had a bit more clothes on and stripped it away to what she’s wearing. I think it’s the one thing that I created from scratch. There were no references. I literally had to dream it up in my head and figure out how to execute it.”
For The Power of the Dog, also from Netflix, we fast-forward from the Victorian era to Prohibition America — Montana in 1925, to be exact. In this tale of sibling rivalry and frustrated longing, designer Kirsty Cameron takes a more subdued, but no less telling, approach to her costumes.
The story, based on a novel by Thomas Savage, centers on the Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), cattlemen and horse trainers whose routine is disrupted by George’s sudden marriage to Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Phil views Rose with disdain, branding her as a gold digger, and expresses contempt for her awkward teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
In terms of wardrobe, Phil seems to work, sleep and eat in his cowboy duds, replete with chaps (leather for summer, woolly for winter) and spurs. George, who manages the books, is all business in suits and bow ties.
“One of my great loves is work wear,” says Cameron, Campion’s fellow Kiwi colleague (the film was shot on their native New Zealand’s South Island). “It’s something that I observe and collect and have a great passion for, both in its textural quality and pragmatic necessity, as well as its timelessness and wear and tear.”
She views her subjects’ clothes as uniforms that both define and veil their true identities. “One of the main prerequisites for the film was to create something for Phil that he could absolutely use as an armor,” she explains, “as protection, as this costume of masculinity, which [masks] his interior angst about who he really is, and his self-hatred.”
The clothes also are nostalgic, reminding Phil of his late mentor, Bronco Henry, who, though we never see him, haunts Phil’s memory throughout the film. In this regard, Cameron didn’t reference other Westerns but looked to Tennessee Williams’ hot-house dramas and the latter-day Cain and Abel story of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for inspiration.
Like Messam, Cameron wasn’t wedded to historical accuracy as much as her instinct. “I mean, of course, you do that research, but it can really hinder you,” she says. “And one of the things that Jane and [producer] Tanya [Seghatchian] did [was] create this amazing reservoir of imagery. They had some researchers in London do a deep, deep dive with photographic references of the American West, from the late 1800s to the 1970s. For me, it was really more about feeling and texture than anything else and about an undercurrent — an emotionality and a tension that’s palpable.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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