Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in "The Homesman." Credit: Roadside Attractions.

“The Homesman”

December 5, 2014

What does a woman wear to transport three women driven mad by the perils of pioneer life? Something warm, for starters. In “The Homesman,” Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, who has taken the job of returning the traumatized women from the unforgiving Nebraska Territories to gentler quarters in Iowa.

Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones as George Briggs, a drifter Cuddy enlists to help her, the film is based on the award-winning novel by Glendon Swarthout.

The mid-1850s setting of “The Homesman” straddles a time when women were wearing confining, heavy and voluminous dresses and underpinnings– hardly the kind of garb suitable for rugged outdoor life. Costume Designer Lahly Poore made more than 200 original pieces of clothing–bloomers, petticoats, coats, hats and more–to outfit a story that covers a rugged five-week journey across the frontier.

With the film shot out of continuity, Poore had to devise garments with three levels of distressing to represent the wear and tear on the clothes. She also built a rabbit fur hat, with the knowledge that Cuddy probably caught the rabbit herself.

Poore sought original sources for her research to find what made psychological sense to her characters.

“When you read letters from the frontier, you found that women were constantly cutting off their dresses because they were dragging in the mud, or getting caught in the campfire. They found it incredibly inconvenient to wear,” she said. That seeming act of fashion defiance was a precursor to the Reform-era movement that had women adopting bloomers to ride bicycles.

The small-budget film shot in about eight weeks across the cold, high desert of New Mexico and Georgia, during the winter and early spring.

“It gave the actors a sense of reality on who they were portraying and what their lives were like,” Poore said.

Swank’s character spends a significant amount of time in a paisley, wool challis dress with the era’s signature dropped shoulder. “That shoulder can be hard to wear. On camera, it can widen the shoulder and bosom area and look very heavy, very fast,” Poore said. Swank’s svelte figure minimized the effect, Poore said.

The designer chose the paisley because it evoked the period’s paisley shawls. “I loved the coloring–it reminded me of the colors in nature. But we overdyed it so it wasn’t quite so bright,” she said.

The dimmer colors and modest attire reflect the values of Cuddy, a religious, former school teacher who demonstrates great fortitude as a woman surving alone on a homestead.

“She was very honorable, and doing the right thing was important to her. So she wouldn’t be flouting convention much,” Poore said.

Like her female lead, Poore also managed her journey with assistance from helpers, including cutter Erica Ciaglia, who made Cuddy’s dresses.

“I had a fantastic crew on that picture,” said Poole. “They worked extraordinarily hard.” Just like in the movies.

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