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COWBOYS AND ALIENS

Costumes of the Film
Costume designer Mary Zophres arrived on this production immediately following another Western, the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit. "It's a historical period for which there are not a lot of photos,” she explains. "Between the two films, I think I've seen every photograph from the time.”

With the feedback of her Iron Man 2 director, Zophres began creating the look for each of the film's characters, starting with Jake Lonergan. "We had to make him an iconic hero,” she explains. "I wanted you to be able to see him from far away and know who he was.” To accomplish this objective, Zophres created a silhouette for the laconic stranger—complete with a leather vest, chaps and a signature hat—an outline that would identify him throughout the film.

With the period's reliance on heavy wools, long hemlines and high collars, one of the challenges the designer faced was crafting costumes that wouldn't look dowdy on her performers. Still mindful of the historical details, she notes, "I also wanted the clothes to be flattering and look attractive. We've made a film with some very sexy movie stars.”

In this genre's catalog of female characters, there isn't much that rests between saloon girl and prairie woman. Ella falls out of the range of Western archetypes: she is a woman traveling alone through the West. Craig laughs, "She would have had a bad reputation, I think is the best way to put it.”

Ella appears in Absolution, trailing Jake in the shadows and wearing a gun in a belt slung over a pale yellow dress. The inspiration for Ella's dress came to Zophres from a single piece of fabric. "It was something I'd gotten six months before from a vendor who deals with antique clothing and cloth,” she recalls. Oddly enough, the most fragile costume on set never saw a rip or tear. "The irony,” says Zophres, "was the guys' pants had tons of blowouts up their back seams while Ella's delicate dress never ripped.”

The inevitable result of hours on horseback, busted seams kept Zophres' crew busy sewing pants back together. For help with another problem endemic to Westerns, Zophres learned tricks from the real-life cowboys working on the film. In the middle of an elaborate scene with the cast, dozens of horses, multiple cameras and cranes, a hat could fall off and ruin an entire take. She turned to the rodeo crew and background players working behind the camera for advice. "Riding a horse is what these guys do for a living,” she says, "and they have all kinds of secrets for keeping their hats on.”

Except for one scene in the film, the clothes worn are rough and reflect the unforgiving landscape. In the 1870s, clean laundry—or a change of clothes, for that matter—was a luxury. Zophres advises that the aging of costumes and the distressing and dirtying up of all manner of fabrics and leather are a big part of the making of any Western. "They didn't have washing machines. You were washing things on the side of a rock or in a little tub and hanging them out to dry. The wind was blowing constantly, and there was a layer of dirt on everything you owned. You brought what you could fit in one suitcase, and you wore it and mended it over and over again.”

Though our characters have just the clothing on their backs, the production required up to 14 copies of any given outfit, many of which needed to look more worn as the story went along. For Ella alone, there were 17 copies each of her two outfits. The process demanded a team of 30 people, a third of whom were dedicated to aging wardrobe. Once clothes were worn and washed, they were aged again.

Zophres' commitment to historical detail extended from top to bottom. "Nearly all the clothing at the time was made out of wool, except for most shirts,” she explains. "And if it was hot, it was very unpleasant. We had the background players in corsets because it gave them the right silhouette. In those days, it was all about having a small waist. It also helps them have the right kind of posture. Even though they were pioneer women who dressed practically, they were still wearing corsets. All the female background players wore corsets, stockings and garters under their dresses. "They didn't love it at first, but by the end of the day, many said that their backs felt better.”

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