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.