- Over time, costuming in cinema Westerns has reflected changing perceptions about the myth of the West and about what a Western ought to be. In the earliest Westerns, production staff probably costumed all characters in what they perceived to be the current dress for Western people. In The Great Train Robbery (1903), costumers make no attempt to distinguish the characters as particularly Western as opposed to rural. Early silent stars such as Broncho Billy and William S. Hart deliberately affected what they considered authentic working cowboy costumes that reflected the dark visions of their films. Tom Mix, however, began the trend in the early sound era toward stylish costuming that branded the star and displayed fashion rather than any sense of authenticity. Stars of B Westerns, then, developed specific costumes that immediately identified them with their audiences. Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and early 1970s reacted against fashion and returned to what some Sergio Leone fans probably thought of as realism, but realism usually meant dirty as opposed to clean-cut. Nevertheless, spaghetti stars such as Clint Eastwoodand Franco Nero were still branded by their specific costume fashion. Alternative Westerns since the 1980s have attempted to return to historical authenticity in their costumes, but the historical authenticity of Kevin Costner’s costumes differs markedly from the historical authenticity of the silent stars’costumes. One specific element of the cowboy costume that has changed through the years is the use of chaps. The first screen cowboy, Broncho Billy Anderson, regularly wore large sheepskin chaps, yet this kind of chaps is almost never seen again, except in comic scenes to brand someone a tenderfoot. In Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), comedian Jack Benny goes West and wants to appear “authentic,” so he dresses in great big sheepskin chaps just like Broncho Billy, but here they are a signal for laughter. Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, and Tom Mix frequently wore leather chaps, but in the film Western tradition, chaps are downplayed, probably because cowboy heroes in cinema Westerns rarely actually work for a living out on the ranch. Another part of working-cowboy costumes rarely seen in Westerns is leather cuffs. Again, Broncho Billy’s and William S. Hart’s costumes featured these cuffs; they were an essential part of workingcowboys’ equipment. As they roped cattle, real cowboys would dig their boot heel into the ground to provide a firm anchor and loop their rope around the cuff, which provided the protection from friction and rope burns. Authentic or not, cuffs were apparently too cumbersome for the movie cowboy, and apart from Anderson and Hart, they never quite caught on with Western leads. Rather cuffs seemed limited to actors playing villains or old-timers; for example, a lesser villain, Earl Dwire (in films such as Six Shootin’Sheriff (1938), frequently wore cuffs, and Raymond Hatton, playing a grizzled old-timer in several Western series, especially the Rangers series with Jimmy Ellisonand Russell Hayden, used them as an integral part of his costume. Hatton’s cuffs “seemed to be the real article, for they were well scarred with rope burns” (Fenin and Everson 1962, 183).The cowboy hero’s hat has also undergone considerable modification due to changing styles. William S. Hart wore a black hat with a flat brim and high, pointed crown—a style rarely seen on later heroes, except possibly in William Boyd’s costume. Tom Mix and Tim McCoy continued the tradition of very large hats with tall crowns, but later B Western stars wore much less prominent hats. Roy Rogers set the style for many with his low-crown white hat and sharply upturned side brim. Gene Autry, Rex Allen, and other B Western stars wore highly stylish hats. Most mainstream Western stars wore hats that clearly showed their wear. Hats worn by John Wayne and Randolph Scott were not primarily for fashion; grease lines showed up occasionally. But the biggest change to hat style came with the spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood’s low, flat crown and flat brim clearly differentiated his character from all who had come in the past. If B Western stars were prone to wear showy costumes that bore no resemblance to historical Western outfits, they were succeeded by late-20th-century fashion-conscious Western stars. The stars of Young Guns (1988) and American Outlaws (2001) wear outfits evidently straight off the racks of fashionable Western wear stores. When Sharon Stone strides down the street of Redemption in The Quick and the Dead(1995), she wears a stylish duster, fancy stitched boots, a low-brimmed hat, and designer sun glasses. Women’s costumes have changed from decade to decade, more in response to fashions at the time of production than to reflect historical accuracy. High, understated bodices and long skirts typify the silent era, while more practical tops and shorter skirts emerged in the 1920s. From the 1920s on there has been no hesitation to show wellshaped legs and curves. Pants rolesabound in Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s. The Outlaw(1943), starring a sultry Jane Russell, has often been seen as the film that began exploiting sex through revealing female costumes, standard features in most Westerns today. Costuming Native Americans has generally paralleled the move from stereotyping to an attempt to treat the tribes authentically. Early silent Westerns and even many classic Westernsshow Native Americans in costumes derived more from dime novels and comic books than history. Indian chiefs, for example, did not wear full-sized war bonnets while charging down a hill in pursuit of white settlers, except in cinema Westerns. Alternative Westerns have attempted to replicate historical dress to a greater degree than the past.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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