“The Son” Costumes: Cate Adair, Photos AMC

 

“Westworld Pilot” Costumes: Trish Summerville, Photos HBO

 

“Westworld Series” Costumes: Ane Crabtree, Photos HBO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern Western

June 2017

By Anna Wyckoff

The cowboy’s distinct silhouette, punctuated by his hat against an expansive blue sky, is universally emblematic and evocative of the American West. The lure of the west as both a geographic and fictional location is hinged on its unique appeal and history. Enmeshed in its iconography are notions of individualism, self-sufficiency, and justice. As a result, the genre has enjoyed a lasting impact since the beginning of film and television. Through the decades, it is as though the other characters of the genre have come into focus. At first sketched loosely, Native Americans and indigenous people were painted with a broad brush. That picture is more refined now, as we look more closely and seek to honor their experience as well.

How the West was Worn

The contemporary research-heavy approach to Costume Design for Westerns is driven by several factors, not least of which is the need to relearn many of the skills that languished while fewer Westerns were being made during the 1980s. In the early days of film, many actors and extras were themselves experienced ranch hands, sometimes hired straight off cattle ranches, and could wear their own clothing.

“There have always been Westerns,” explains Boyd Magers, Western historian and film critic, “but not the proliferation that occurred from the 20s through the 60s. When something falls out of favor we lose the people that made them. We lose the wranglers, the six-up drivers, and the Costume Designers that know how to do it. After that, Westerns were hard to make. When Westerns started to be made again in the 90s you’d had maybe a twenty year stretch where they just weren’t making many.”

Westerns drove the profits of movie and television studios for decades, and provided a steady revenue stream that often sustained them. As Saturday morning serials, many Westerns became the “must see” entertainment for a generation, and early films made Tom Mix, William S. Hart, and Bronco Billy household names. Magers explains, “With the sound era came the singing cowboys, Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers with even flashier clothes than Tom Mix wore.” At the end of World War II, Westerns developed a harder edge and costumes became more realistic.

When televisions began to appear in homes all over America, Westerns were a regular part of network programming. Before Netflix, Gunsmoke was the longest running show on American television. Dozens of other Westerns like Bonanza and Wagon Train remain among the longest running television series in history. During the same period over six hundred European Westerns, the so-called Spaghetti Westerns, were made. But, after years of success, they fell out of favor with audiences. There were a handful productions in the 1980s, but it would not be until millions of viewers tuned in to watch the mini-series Lonesome Dove that audiences would start returning to the genre. Films such as 3:10 to Yuma and The Hateful Eight began to coax back audiences, and now, with television shows like The Son and Westworld, Westerns have been making a steady return.

The Son also Rises

Because CDG Vice President and Costume Designer Cate Adair grew up in England, she had no preconceived notions of what a Western should be, but was drawn to the genre. She even focused her art thesis on the mystery cycle of the Hopi Indians. “It has always been an interest of mine,” she enthuses. “Once I got to L.A. my crews would say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Cate. Nobody’s going to hire an English girl for a Western.’” But recently, Adair was able to channel her fascination into her design for The Son, AMC’s drama based on Philipp Meyer’s novel of the same name starring Pierce Brosnan.

Although the show covers what Adair terms “a dark piece of history,” she was able to embrace the full scope of human culture and experience. The series features Native, Spanish and Mexican characters, as well as American settlers in southern Texas during in the period of Comanche raids in the 1800s through the oil boom of the early 20th century. Where Westerns were once inattentive to the details of Native American clothing and culture, Adair was determined to get it right. To this end, she spent countless hours among the artifacts and records of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center.

Costuming a series that bridges the 19th and 20th centuries meant that in addition to the broad range of characters, Adair also had to design for two distinct periods. “I started with the premise that this is southern Texas. So, I didn’t pull research from Chicago or Boston. A different climate means a different way of life. The great thing for the 1915 portion is that I was able to find amateur photographers’ work that was everyday life, not just portraiture.”

Her drive for realism included asking the extras about their family backgrounds and incorporating their stories into their costumes. When they produced family photos of the period, the images were used to inspire their costumes to create a new level of authenticity. Adair took it a step further by having an assistant shoot photos in black and white. “If in black and white it looked like the research, then we knew we were on the money. I was able to say to my team, ‘Once they pick them up, it cannot be a costume. You have to honestly believe that that person is real.'”

Adair worked with Comanche art historian and artist Juanita Padapony who also helped Philipp Meyer with the book. “She invited me up to Oklahoma, and because she’s so well respected, the Comanche Nation and the museum there opened their doors to us. She helped me piece together what we knew from the traditions and the watercolors and the more ornamented examples of their clothing that were just a bit nascent to our time period. We made everything. The detail required was exhaustive.” To recreate the beading for the Comanche required not just seeds from the region, but a little practical archeology, as they had to relearn the methods used to make them. When baked and hardened, the seeds shattered under modern day jewelry drill bits. After experimentation, they hit upon the solution, which was to burn the holes into them by hand to create the thousands of beads needed for the costumes of a whole tribe.

Working on a show that serves so well as a metaphor for American history as a whole gave Adair a particularly strong mandate for authenticity. “When you’re making something like this it has to really ring true. I think that’s the difference between the old and the new. There were so many shortcuts taken in the past, because the way that people felt about other people was a little bit different. Now it’s really important to us to celebrate all the parts that make up the whole that is our country, to honor them and their experience, even in small ways like this. I think that’s the essence of modernism.”

Once Upon a Time in Westworld

Having two distinct periods in one project was the basis of the HBO series Westworld, which takes the idea of the Western and explodes it into the 21st century. The iconography of the Western itself is the theme of the series in which future vacationers travel to a theme park to experience life in an artificial Wild West environment that is itself a Western brought to life. For the pilot, Costume Designer Trish Summerville had to design the dual worlds and fuse the Western and science fiction elements of the show.

Designing for a story that features a Western within a science fiction story meant Summerville had some play in her portrayal of the Wild West. “I tried to keep things authentic to a degree, changing silhouettes, or the fabrication a bit,” she explains. And it was also exciting because I got to do different worlds.”

Summerville found the trick to portraying the past in the future was all in the aging. “With the gunslingers and the cowboys, that we aged a lot. Ed Harris’ (the Man in Black) costume we left because he’s a “newcomer” just visiting the park. Anyone that was visiting the park, we did slightly less aging, and anyone that was a host in the park, we did more aging. We pulled hats from everywhere, because you have to try on five to ten hats to find the hat that works. I found a hat in a book from early 1900s. It had leather tooling all over it, so I had that made for Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) along with his boots. The hats and boots played a lot into who those characters were, how they presented themselves, and how the actors felt about themselves as that character.”

Summerville juxtaposed the organic, weathered look of the theme park with the cold, inhuman appearance of characters behind the scenes of the futuristic park. The technicians who work on damaged or “killed” android hosts wear sharply defined pieces in shades of red, yellow and white, evoking blood, flesh and bone. “They treat the bodies at times like they’re in a slaughterhouse. So, I made everything out of latex and rubber. The idea was that they would just hose themselves down after each body. Incorporating the deep red of blood makes it scary. And having high boots makes you wonder how deep is the carnage when you have boots that high?”

CD Ane Crabtree caught the ball tossed by Summerville and ran with it when she signed on to design the series. “I love Trish,” she exclaims. “She did such a beautiful job, and at a neck-breaking, pilot’s pace. I think every decision she made was dead-on.”

Taking the project on meant addressing several unique problems, including the secrecy that surrounded the show. With so many plot twists, and such a fascinated fan-base, security was tight. “Beside myself, Jonah and Lisa, only two other people knew how the story-lines connected. I was not allowed to discuss it with my crew.” This meant she had to supervise her crew carefully and she had to have their confidence. “You say, ‘You have to trust me, even if it makes no sense continuity-wise.'”

Another issue was wear and tear on the costumes. “The difference between a pilot and a series for a show like this is there was no more yardage. To recreate established costumes, we had to either weave it, then paint over it, or we had to print it. The ‘hosts’ die every episode and things explode, and shred, and on horseback things get ripped everyday.” Crabtree felt a particular pressure to make everything authentic. “Being an indigenous person myself, and being from the Lakota area of South Dakota, I wasn’t about to get certain things wrong. Every costume was inspired by family photos and research from libraries, so it has a nucleus and genesis in reality.”

In considering her characters, Crabtree hits upon the appeal of Westerns to visitors of a fictional theme park, but also the appeal of Westerns themselves. “Westerns are all about idealizing America, that sort of rugged, anything can happen, if you can build it, you can do it—that sort of high optimism. It’s a way of carrying yourself with aplomb and charisma that I tried to throw in, whether they were a good guy or a bad guy.”

In thinking about the motivations of characters in such a world, Crabtree hits upon not just the appeal of Westworld to the characters who visit it, but the universal appeal of Westerns themselves.


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