Over the years, we’ve worked on a number of film productions and each one of them has been a unique experience. In contrast to working from our atelier, directly working on a film production offers a set of challenges that can easily overwhelm you unless you’re prepared for them. Below is an account of one such production we worked on. 🙂
Rcently, we had the unique opportunity to provide wardrobe for an independent production, and a Western no less, entitled “What Have I Done?” This was a creative challenge in that we were working with a very small budget and had to outfit six principal characters. Worse, the film was going to be shot over four days at a movie ranch located in what seemed to be literally the middle of nowhere with little in the way of support facilities. Everything we needed, we would have to haul it in ourselves and hope that we didn’t forget anything.
After reviewing the script, doing a complete breakdown of each scenes, and visiting the film site, we quickly set to work on putting together the outfits for the principals. We were fortunate in that we did not have to build all the costumes from nothing; in many cases were able to modify our stock of wardrobe.
However, making dresses was just the beginning. We also had to construct or improvise the proper underpinnings to include corsets and petticoats, construct head pieces, and provide any accessories as needed such as parasols and the like. The construction phase took about three weeks to complete and we were working right up when filming began. Also, in several instances, we were unable to measure the actresses in person and had to rely on their reported measurements. Needles to say, we were a bit uncertain how things would turn out and we were prepared for the worse which meant bringing a portable sewing machine and a full set of accessories with us. Fortunately, in the end everything fit perfectly and it was not an issue. 🙂
However, our work was not complete- there was still the background talent to consider. Working with the production designer and director, we formulated the exact “look” we were hoping to achieve in the way the shots were framed. Of course, first and foremost, the background talent are just that: background, and as such, they are to provide a backdrop for the principal actors. The last thing you want is for someone in the background to stand out in some way and steal focus from the principals and this means that the background talents’ wardrobe must be in neutral colors that blend in with the terrain, in this case a weather-beaten, dirty Western town located in the desert, and that means mostly different shades of brown, green, tan, beige, and the like.
Because of the low budget, no wardrobe could be provided for the background talent. Instead, the production relied on reenactors (or “living historians”) who were ostensibly knowledgeable about wardrobe that was appropriate to the late 1870s and early 1880s and were able to secure wardrobe in the correct colors. We had no role in their selection.
However, in reality this was not always the case. To a great degree we were at the mercy of the background talent even after they had submitted pictures of themselves and their outfits has been approved prior to production commencing. Essentially, the most common problems encountered were: 1) the original outfit was unavailable due to staining or damage due to prior ear and tear; 2) the person who was going to be wearing the garment had gained too much weight since the picture was submitted (it seems improbable given the short length of preproduction time but it happens); or 3) the person didn’t like their outfit and decided to wear something else. Numbers 1 and 2 are somewhat uncontrollable, much like the weather, but number 3 was simply inexcusable.
Things that some background people insisted on bringing to wear and would sneak in: cheap import beaded corsets, frosted wigs with unnatural curls, pastel polyester dresses, dusters with snaps, huge modern “tea hats”, fishnet stockings, everything on the “not” list.
Fortunately, we were prepared for this problem and we brought a stock of separate garments such as shawls, coats, and the like that could be used to cover up or otherwise mitigate the situation. Also, we brought things from our own personal collections and in two instances, we had to construct two outfits.
In extreme cases, the problem was fixed in post production with creative editing. But in spite of these challenges, we were able to overcome every obstacle and deliver a product that remained true to the production design.
Below are a few pictures from the production. We shot both exterior and interior shots at varying times to include the late night and early morning.
Above is a scene that was shot in the saloon at night. The actress in the red dress was supposed to be the “bad girl” and the use of red naturally played it up. This dress is in contrast to what the other principles were wearing and it was done for effect. The red almost vibrates, giving a somewhat larger-than-life quality.
Day scene involving some of the saloon girls. We provided the wardrobe for the middle two actresses.
The hero of the story with the “good girl” who is in love with him and who the hero spurns until it’s too late.
Although I do not normally like to get in from of the camera, I was pressed into service at the last minute to fill out the ranks, to which I graciously acceded. Here I am after I’d been dirtied up a bit with schmutz. 🙂
However, in spite of the various challenges we faced, we came through and supported the production to the utmost. It was certainly a learning experience but we were more than up to the challenge.
As we’re leaving No. 11 today, the movie Tombstone hasn’t been far from our thoughts so in honor of the movie, we thought we’d re-post our take on some of the costuming aspects of the movie, so enjoy!
On a costuming level, the movie Tombstone never fails to excite interest and invariably, the question will arise: “How historically accurate are the costumes?” The short answer is “Somewhat…” Yes, much of the costuming is fairly accurate although one may quibble on the specific details. One of my favorites is the much-maligned Johnny Behan:
Behan’s is wearing a well-tailored sack suit proper for someone in his position. Unlike the usual image of the scruffy frontier marshal or sheriff, Behan was more of a politician and his primary job was collecting enough tax revenue to keep the Cochise County government financially afloat. The actual work of dealing with criminals was tasked to several deputies.
That said, let’s take a look at the central focus of the movie, Wyatt Earp:
This is the iconic Wyatt Earp outfit, one that has been widely imitated over the years by those recreating the Earp persona, usually for reenactments of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Now, as for historical accuracy, the coat itself is wrong. There were no ankle-length frock coats. Anything this long would be some sort of greatcoat. The frock coat of the later 19th Century tended to come down to just above the knee.
OK, so it rates a boo and a hiss…or does it? Bear in mind that this is a movie and a movie’s primary goal it to tell a story. Costuming supports this story-telling process and it’s often subject to conscious design changes in order to increase the dramatic effect. In this case, it’s pretty successful, judging from how much it’s imitated and let’s face it, it does increase the dramatic effect, especially when done in black (both the length and color choice were deliberate choices made the director). The effects of black color, coat length, and pictures of it flapping open in the breeze all suggest a superhero figure. So in the end, it’s all about telling a story.
Now just for a little equal time, here’s the Earps and Doc Holliday off to the OK Corral gunfight in the movie Wyatt Earp:
Compared to the top picture from Tombstone, the look in the above picture from Wyatt Earp is bit more gritty and less heroic (in fact, the actual gunfight scene itself is a bit anticlimactic in the movie). One is not more “correct” than the other, both go for a specific dramatic effect. Whether one is more effective than the other is subjective, in the eye of the viewer (we have our favorite, too).
So Gentle Readers, where does this leave us? Well, it goes to show that one must be mindful of the historically correct while at the same time being mindful that a movie’s objective differs from simply a recitation of historical events in that it also seeks to entertain. As a rule, costume designers go to great lengths to school themselves on what is historically appropriate for the period being depicted and they know exactly where departures are made.
If one thinks that this is a recent development, it is not. A good example of this in an earlier era is from the movie Gone with the Wind which was released in 1939. in which the costuming of the background and supporting characters is historically correct but the costumes for the lead actors were not. In closing, we view movies with an open mind and believe that costuming for film is an art form all itself and we like that.
Today we’re going out on a limb on this one but we feel that it needs to be discussed: over the years, we have often been approached about making garments for film and TV projects and while we readily accept this work, we have also found that creating a garment (or garments) that are within budget, accomplishes the production design or vision, and look good on film can be challenging. So here we go…
One of the guilty pleasures of working with historical fashion is seeing how it’s portrayed in film and television. Almost nothing gives greater pleasure than watching a period piece made by Merchant-Ivory with its lush production values and excellent wardrobing and it’s a real treat to see a particular era in history portrayed correctly. Unfortunately this is a somewhat rare experience and often what passes for “historical costuming” is akin to nails being dragged across a chalkboard.
Now, before we go any further, we just want to clarify that having worked a little in the film business ourselves, we understand the enormous challenges that costume designers undergo in trying to wardrobe a production under often less-than-ideal circumstances. We understand that costuming exists to help propel the story and that liberties can be take at times towards this end BUT at the same time, it does not excuse poor or non-existent research, ignorance, or just sheer laziness.
This is admittedly a subjective thing and what we would consider to be substandard in a certain film or television show might be given a pass by someone else. However, we firmly believe that if one is attempting to draw the viewer into a story set in a specific time and place in the past, it is incumbent on the costume designer to make an effort to support this.
Now, just to put a bit of a scientific spin on this, let’s consider some of the key factors that can make or break the effectiveness of the costuming in a period production. Below is a basic list of what we consider to be some critical areas when we look at a film or television show:
- Is the basic silhouette appropriate for the period?
- Is the style appropriate for the period?
- Are the materials used appropriate for the period?
- Is the actor’s grooming and makeup appropriate for the period?
So you probably now thinking, just what do you mean? Well, let’s start with silhouette. By silhouette, we mean that basic outline of the garment. For example, if we have a production depicting a middle class woman of c. 1885, we’re going to be looking for a bustle, and in particular a “shelf” bustle. Conversely, if we are depicting a middle class woman c. 1897, we’re going to be looking for an A-line skirt and a bodice with some large leg-of-mutton sleeves.
One example where the costume’s dating is contrary to the declared date of the story can be found in the 1992 movie Dracula. The story is allegedly set in 1897 yet the dresses that that Mina wears read c. 1885:
From the above pictures, this dress reads mid-1880s. Perhaps the bustling is a bit muted but it’s still pretty obvious and it’s definitely NOT 1897. While this is certainly not a deal-breaker in the major scheme of things, it’s still irritating.
Next, is the particular style appropriate for the period or more precisely, the particular time and place that is supposedly being depicted in the movie? This is a pretty broad question and volumes of ink (or electrons these days) has been spilt over this one. However, for our purposes, just about any Western made during the 1950s and early 1960s will do- here’s one example worn by the character “Laura” from the 1957 movie Gunfight at the OK Corral:
Laura is supposed to be a “lady gambler” who Wyatt Earp first meets up with in Dodge City. Historically, Wyatt was in Dodge City during the years 1876 – 1879 so a correct dress for Laura would be something involving a bustled dress- probably an evening dress or perhaps a ball gown. So what do we have here? The 1950s version of an evening dress with off-the-shoulder sleeves and a weak attempt at some skirt draping and underneath it, she’s certainly not wearing a corset appropriate to the 1870s.
Correct materials go hand-in-hand with style and even if a style might be correct, it might be made of material(s) that are not appropriate for the period. The classic offender is using polyester or some other cheap synthetic as a substitute for period fabrics and this is really evident with dresses that are supposed to be made from silk. One example of this can be found in the poly-acetate dresses found in the TV miniseries North and South:
Not only are these a travesty in terms of materials, for the most part they bear a faint resemblance to anything remotely having an 1860s style or even silhouette- at best, they’re 1980s era prom dresses and we’ll leave it at that.
Finally, we get to the actor’s grooming- does it support the period being portrayed? This is probably one of the most problematic areas. Below is just one example of Kevin Costner from Dances With Wolves:
What is it? The closest thing we can think of is an overgrown mullet… Just to add to this, the pictures above from North and South are a great example of incorrect hair styles. While they have nothing to do with the historical 1860s, they are a reflection of the 1980s when the series was created, thus proving once again the old adage that film and TV costumes say more about the era in which the production was made than the historical period being portrayed.
And while we’re at it, just one last note: one of the worst offenders are war movies, mostly modern, where the main character does not have a haircut that is appropriate to the military organization of a particular historical period. Often times, the reason for the lapse in authenticity is as simple as the actor refusing to get a proper military haircut (yes, it does happen and if they’re a big enough star, the hair stays on).
Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed this short excursion through the world of costuming for film and TV and while it’s by no means exhaustive, we hope we’ve distilled things down to their basic elements. What we find so amazing is that a good part of the time, it costs as just as much to do something right as to do it wrong and while we appreciate that productions do labor under various constraints, it does show just how short of mark things can fall at times.
P.S. For a detailed view of costuming for film and TV, we highly recommend Frock Flicks.
Recently someone asked me the question: “What did lawmen wear in the Old West?” The easy answer is: “the same clothes that everyone else wore.” OK, I’ll admit that that answer is a bit snarky and it is a legitimate question. Our perceptions of what lawmen wore have been to a great degree shaped by what we’ve seen in film and television with all its inherent inaccuracies.
When considering the question of fashion and lawman, one’s head is filled with images from such iconic movies as Tombstone or from television shows such as Gunsmoke. In reality, “lawmen” in the American West during the late 19th Century took several forms to include town and county sheriffs/marshals, state rangers such as the Texas or Arizona Rangers, and federal marshals. Also, there could be a variety of semi-private “lawmen” such as Pinkerton detectives (who often functioned as a law unto themselves).
Also, it must be noted that for many jurisdictions throughout the American West, the position of “Sheriff” at the country or municipal level was typically an elected one with all its inherent flaws and they had a variety of job duties of which apprehending criminals was only a part. Other duties could include serving warrants and summonses, supervising executions, jailing prisoners, investigating crimes, collecting stray dogs, and collecting taxes. Collecting taxes was one of the most important parts of the job since it was taxes that paid for the sheriff’s deputies and the costs of running the government.
While the popular conception of the Old West lawman is that one of a steely-eyed gunfighter staring down one or several desperados, all intent on murder and mayhem. The reality was that it more about dealing with drunks and generally keeping public order, specially in the newly-formed cow towns such as Wichita and Dodge City.
That said, let’s move to the clothes- here are just a few pictures of real Western lawmen:
Looking at the above pictures, it’s easy to discern that their clothing pretty much mirrored what was generally worn. For the most part, it mostly consisted of trousers, shirt, vest, and a sack coat. In warmer weather, a jacket was not worn and sometimes just the shirt was worn. Allowing for the “dressing up for the camera” effect, it’s still obvious from the more informal portraits that it wasn’t an affected style. In many instances, there was little difference between what a lawman wore and what others wore except for the badge and perhaps more guns.
For anyone desiring to recreate the look of a Western lawman, probably one of the best places to start is with either a sack suit or for something more “out on the trail,” a pair of trousers, shirt, and vest but that’s only a suggestion. There are a lot of original pictures that one can use to base their research on and they can adjust their look depending on what sort of an impression. One thing I do want to note is that except during times when lawmen were in active pursuit of a criminal or otherwise expecting trouble, they were not walking arsenals with multiple pistols and a rifle or shotgun. In town, lawmen frequently simply carried a small caliber pistol in a trouser or coat pocket (often reinforced because of the weapon’s weight).
Finally, it should be noted that as an elected public official, a county or town sheriff or marshal was expected to project an image of respectability (although the definition of “respectable” could be somewhat elastic) and as such, they tended to dress the part. For many, the position was viewed as more of a means to a political career than anything else and they acted accordingly. One good example of this was with Johnny Behan, the Sheriff of Cochise County. For the most part, he was more concerned with collecting taxes and keeping up appearances; for the actual work of enforcing the law, deputies were hired. Pictures of Behan show him dressed in a sack suit, looking like any middle class small town businessman (which he basically was). Like today, image and respectability were important during the Victorian Era and dressing correctly played a key role.
Reality is often pretty dull when compared to what is portrayed in film and television and that especially applied to the lawman of the American West and we hope that you have found this post to be informative. 🙂