Lily Absinthe Takes A Look At The Wild Wild West

Growing up, “The Wild Wild West” was one of my favorite television shows, combining elements of science fiction and horror and set in the American West of the 1870s (mostly). What wasn’t there to like? 🙂

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Just for a little variety, today we take a look at some of the costuming for the 1960s era television series “The Wild Wild West” which aired from 1965 to 1969. Considered by many to be the first “steampunk” television series (the actual term “steampunk” wouldn’t be invented until years later), it was set in the early 1870s and was about two US Secret Service agents, James West and Artemus Gordon, who would undertake various missions to defend the United States against all manner of villains. Essentially, the series was intended as a sort of “James Bond on horseback,” attempting to capitalize on the early 60s craze for spy movies while at the same time attempting to breathe new life into the Western, which has been losing ground in popularity during this time.

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James West, played by Robert Conrad, was the suave man of action, using a combination of brains, boldness, fists, and various concealed gadgets, to out-fight and out-wit various criminals and their schemes. Supporting West was Artemus Gordon, played by Ross Martin. Just as suave, Gordon was a master of disguise, worked undercover supporting West. The show was an immediate hit and was popular in the ratings- it was only cancelled in response to Congressional investigations over alleged excess violence on television.

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Production still from the first episode “Night of the Inferno.”

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Badge of the United States Secret Service, 1875 – 1890

Besides the usual sorts of plots found in Westerns of the 1950s and 60s were those involving elements of the science fiction genre and horror. In particular, many episodes saw all manner of fantastical devices being used similar to those found in Jules Verne’s stories or similar. Also, on occasion, elements from the horror genre were also incorporated making for some interesting plots. “The Wild Wild West” definitely up-ended the Western genre, taking it in new directions.

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Turning to costuming, it’s a truism that costuming often reflects more about when the production was made as opposed to the period it’s depicting and “The Wild Wild West” was no exception. Initially the series was filmed in black and white for the first season and then in color for the later three seasons and this affected the costume choices. For the first season, James West wore the 1960s version of late 19th Century formal wear:

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James West and just one of a vast array of hidden items.

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Essentially, these were adaptations of modern suit coats, made to look “old-timey”- nothing really remarkable here. However, when the series was filmed in color starting with the Second Season, some major changes were made in James West’s costumes. First, because of the shift to color, costume colors changed to accommodate this and colors became very bright and saturated (it was also a marketing move made on behalf of the color television manufacturers to promote color TV sales by using bright colors that seemingly jumped out at the viewer). Second, the style and cut of West’s outfits were changed to emphasize Robert Conrad’s physicality while at the same time drawing attention away from the fact that he was small, only standing about 5″ 8″.

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With the series going to color, there was an explosion of color in the costume wardrobe.

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In terms of style, the emphasis was now on bolero jackets and tight, narrow pants (sometimes too tight as they would often split during action sequences). Strangely enough, in almost every episode, West always managed to lose his shirt- I can’t imagine why that would have happened… 🙂

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As can be seen from the above, West wore a variety of outfits in seemingly every color of the rainbow, taking advantage of the newly developed color television technology. Below is one of West’s main outfits that he wore in the Third Season. Often termed the “travelling suit,” it consisted of a corduroy jacket and pants made of some sort of smooth material (it’s hard to tell from the pictures) and was inspired by Spanish/Mexican bolero jacket:

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Back in the 1960s (and extending until today), wardrobe used in productions was recycled/reused/modified for a multitude of productions and were often not maintained in the best of condition. Fortunately for us, the “travelling outfit” still survives today and is in a private collection:

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The above picture is from an auction website. I don’t believe it’s the same as the one pictured directly below.

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Another view of the jacket although it’s questionable that it’s the same as the one above. Often several sets of the same outfit were made, especially when there were action sequences and the need for stunt doubles.

 

Although not pictured with the outfit above, black leather chaps were usually worn with the outfit. Below is the only picture I could find:

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The bolero jacket/tight pants capitalized on Robert Conrad’s physicality and was certainly a hit with viewers. However, the tight pants often led to problems (aka “wardrobe malfunctions”) with the pants ripping at inopportune moments, especially during action sequences. Below is one that somehow got missed by the editors and actually aired:

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While the “Wild Wild West” made no pretence of historical accuracy, it does represent an interesting melding of modern fashion with period influences to create costumes that advance the storylines and help define the characters.

6 thoughts on “Lily Absinthe Takes A Look At The Wild Wild West

  1. Wonderful! I was only talking about this a few days ago to a young pal who never even realised that the Will Smith film wasn’t an original idea! I used to LOVE Wild Wild West. [Fab. I don’t remember ever seeing that crotch shot though, I say!]

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    • This crotch shot actually made it past the editors AND the network censors. Apparently it was a running joke about the number of pants that would wind up being split during the filming of an episode. Unfortunately, the Will Smith version was a disaster on a number of levels and pretty much killed the franchise.

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    • I’m planning on getting the DVDs and doing some screen captures on the women’s outfits. Believe it or not, some of the dresses are vintage although heavily modified.

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