Monday 13 May 2013

White guys in suits: capitalism, costume and violence in the Wild West

In the 1990s, Western movies like Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) and Wyatt Earp (1994) self-consciously challenged the mythology of the American frontier. The ‘conquest’ of native peoples was redefined as genocide, and heroic gunfighters were exposed as shady characters. This desire for rawness and honesty was reflected in their visual style. The pristine candy colours and gingham bonnets of 1950s movies, with lawmen dressed like TV Country-and-Western singers, gave way to murky, stained, sepia-brown costumes based on authentic nineteenth-century photographs.

            Set in an Arizona mining town in 1881-82, Tombstone (1993) retold the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the so-called gunfight at the OK Corral. Tombstone did not attempt to rewrite history or expose legendary lawman Earp as a brutal killer. Instead, what really set Tombstone apart were its costumes.

Michael F. Blake’s Hollywood and the OK Corral (2007) explains how the film developed its unique look – almost by accident. In the 1980s-90s, many filmmakers were hiring costumes manufactured to depict a generic, ahistoric Wild West, not always caring about developments in fashion and technology across the nineteenth century: accuracy was less important than a vague old-timey feel and, in the 1990s, this meant ‘authentically’ grimy brown rags. However, with so many Westerns being made at once, there were not enough brown rags to go around. When designer Joseph Porro visited the Hollywood costume stores to clothe the cast of Tombstone, the cupboard was bare.

Tombstone’s costumes had to be made from scratch. Relying now on his own research, Porro discovered that sepia photographs are not entirely reliable, and that the Wild West was not actually brown. He and screenwriter Kevin Jarre embraced the fact that, in the 1880s, Americans were in love with the vibrant, clashing colours produced by new aniline dyes: purple, turquoise, magenta, crimson… In the tough mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, people had an insatiable appetite for novelty and colour, and they were willing to pay for it.

            Tombstone is surely one of the best-dressed Westerns ever made. The lawmen and gamblers dress as 1880’s men-about town, wearing silk-cravats, bowler-hats and immaculately starched collars. History may know them as ‘Wild West gunfighters’, but Porro’s designs acknowledge that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday saw themselves as modern businessmen, not thugs. Through dress, they identify themselves as the bearers of progress, urbanisation, capitalism and order.

Scene from Tombstone (1993), director: George P. Cosmatos

By contrast, the outlaw cowboys dress in garish, eccentric costumes, their rustic styles marking them as reactionary and antisocial. Sharp tailoring and personal hygiene must triumph over chaos. This is more profound than it seems, as recent research suggests the ‘gunfight at the OK Corral’ was not ‘good vs. evil’, but modern capitalism using police to conquer the frontier by force. In Tombstone, the white guys in suits always win.

How important is historical accuracy in costume? In this film, the outlaw cowboys wear red sashes to give the impression that they were a modern criminal gang. In fact, the ‘Cow-boys’ operating in Arizona were merely a loose, shifting population of cattle-rustlers, bandits, and small-time ranchers, and they did not wear ‘gang colours’. However, these historically-inaccurate sashes allow the film to engage with 1990’s anxieties about policing modern urban gangs, just as the Earp/Holliday movies of the 1940s, 50s and 70s reflected America’s anxieties about Hiroshima, the Cold War, or Vietnam respectively. These movies have always raised questions about the legitimacy – and the essential Americanness – of using violence to enforce order: the historically-inaccurate ‘gang colours’ in Tombstone draw audiences back to those historically-authentic questions.

Forced by necessity to make everything afresh, Tombstone’s costume designers subverted the expectations of 1990’s audiences by reminding them that people in the ‘Olden Days’ did not see themselves as the quaint, dowdy figures fossilised in sepia photographs. Rather, they were sophisticated, stylish, excited by new technology and fashion, and grappling self-consciously with the pressures of modernity.


‘Awful Arizona’, Denver Republican, May 22, 1882
Michael F. Blake, Hollywood and the OK Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007) [most of this textile story is drawn from Blake’s interviews with people who worked on Tombstone)
Gary Roberts, Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006)
Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: the Life Behind the Legend (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997)


Dr Alex Tankard University of Chester

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