“The Power of the Dog” Clothing: History of Western Costume Design


A historical look at how Jane Campion’s costumes create a collision between the modern world of the 1920s and the iconography of the western.

The hard hats, leather leggings and button-down shirts of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” evoke century-old cinematic iconography and reflect an even older world. Take a closer look, however, and the camera reveals something else: Many of these men are wearing weirdly new clothes that appear to have been fresh from a Sears catalog.

Despite their frequent staging at the end of the 19th century, Western stories generally take place in an ahistoric cinematic landscape where the West must always be conquered. But Campion’s film shatters that mythology, highlighting how, in the 20th century, the modern world had encroached on what had become a carefully constructed male fantasy from ranch life to mail order 10 gallon hats.

Kirsty Cameron’s costumes straddle the modernism and glamor of the 20s and the rugged timelessness of the American West in a way that reflects the rapidly changing world and those, especially Benedict Cumberbatch’s toxic Phil Burbank, who rejects the encroachment of modernity. In an interview with IndieWire, Cameron said, “I never really thought of it as a western,” but the western’s imagery and ideology is an undeniable legacy the film grapples with.

The delicate balance of the costumes

This complex orientation to the changing world informs Cameron’s costumes for each character in “The Power of the Dog,” all of which inadvertently reveal how they wish to be seen by the way they dress. In the film’s remote Montana landscape (played by the South Island of New Zealand), Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) emerges as the most incongruous figure, not just for her femininity on a ranch dominated by the men but also for its embroidered decorative dresses. “Rose has a dress up facade,” Cameron explained. “There’s that elevation of her costume as she arrives at the ranch,” a reflection of her newfound wealth and status as the wife of George Burbank.

"The power of the dog" costumes Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog”


Likewise, Jesse Plemons’ George is perpetually dressed in formal costumes (even when participating in a cattle drive), a visual connection to his wealthy family, and the “convenience of the life they lived.” Her brother Phil (Cumberbatch) and son Rose Peter (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) serve as a contrast study, revealing the conflicts between the old world and the new. Phil drapes himself in the past and the layers of filth (which he notably refuses to bathe in), hiding his Yale upbringing as well as the deeper impulses of his soul. He is perpetually preceded in the spaces by his heavy woolen leggings like a kind of armor keeping everyone at a distance.

Peter defies expectations in his ill-fitting store-bought jeans. However, Cameron suggests he is at home in his gangly body: “He doesn’t mind being awkward.” Ultimately, it’s his “disciplined minimalism” and challenge – wearing white shoes and shirts on a dusty ranch – that point to the future.

Taken together, the film’s many scenes of her characters selecting clothes and dressing carefully show how central their physical appearance was to Campion’s world – far more than in the typical Hollywood western.

Designing an Authentic West

“The Power of the Dog” comes at a time when the western has long been re-evaluated, having for the most part abandoned the old celebration of white supremacy and manifest destiny in favor of meditations on masculinity, isolation and repression. At the same time as this revision of the philosophy of the genre, the westerns from “True Grit” (2010) to “The Assassination of Jesse James…” (2007) have moved away from the stock backlot of western and unusual cities. racked cowboy uniforms from previous decades. In turn, they’ve been celebrated for their cinematography, costumes, makeup, and artistic direction in a way the genre has never been at its peak as a B-movie.

For much of its history, its factory-like production meant that Western craftsmanship was largely ignored. The blindness of their design elements stemmed from their familiarity – they had become so naturalized by the time the Academy began to attribute costume design as its own category in 1949, the western’s iconography was so ingrained in the psyche of the people that his profession could not be made visible.

"Days of paradise"

“The days of paradise”

Paramount Collection / Courtesy of Everett

It was the western’s slow decline as a celebration of manifest fate that transformed the genre from a timeless mythology into a historically linked genre recognizable for these design cues. Starting with Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” in 1978, westerns – few in number at that time – were finally recognized for their craftsmanship. In the Costume category’s 73-year history, only 10 westerns were nominated, and eight of those nominations were for films made after Malick and costume designer Patricia Norris redefined the genre with “Days of Heaven”.

Like “The Power of the Dog”, Malick’s film takes place in the twentieth century, when Hollywood was already mythologizing a West still in the process of being tamed.

However, more than in this previous film, Cameron’s “The Power of the Dog” costumes reflect this clash between the border and modernity. Whenever Phil’s timeless world in which the West still needs to be tamed by white masculinity seems to envelop everyone, a Converse All-Star is there to remind us that his world is the dying one.

Clothes make the cowboy

The western genre was a staple of early filmmaking even before the filmmakers moved to Los Angeles (in part because of its fit with the genre). The Hollywood costume store cottage industry was born specifically to serve the many westerns shot in Southern California.

In 1912, Western Costume was founded in order to provide clothing especially for Native American figures, which locals have recognized as being inauthentically portrayed by these largely east coast producers. On a research trip to Los Angeles for “The Power of the Dog,” Cameron scoured vintage stores for inspiration and went to Western Costume, still an industry staple, where they ended up. acquire most of the guys worn by the cowherds in the movie.

In 1925, the year in which “The Power of the Dog” took place, Phil and his valets would have infiltrated the western iconography of early cinema. As Campion explained to Anne Thompson of IndieWire, “It’s just the end of this mythology when cowboys work there because they love the cowboys of old and they get their clothes. mail order orders and dress up as cowboys like some kind of cowboys quote. “

"The power of the dog" Kodi Smit-Mcphee and Benedict Cumberbatch costumes

Kodi Smit-Mcphee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog”


The iconic cowboy denim, leggings, boots and hats – made iconic by early film cowboys such as Broncho Billy Anderson and Tom Mix – could be found at a corner store or in the Sears catalog ( introduced in 1889 and ubiquitous throughout the west). Close examination of the cowherds following Phil shows a mix of worn duds as well as new buys with fringes and embroidery, which Cameron and his team hand-sewn in imitation of mass-produced styles of the early 20th century. .

But Phil, whose loyalty is to the previous version of the West, would never wear such flashy clothes. As Cameron puts it, “Phil’s whole idea was that he had been wearing his clothes for a long time, that he rejected the idea, in some ways, of progress.”

Throughout the film, the costumes embody the difficult coexistence of the modern world and the timeless frontier, trapping the characters between these worlds just as they are bound by the vast void of the landscape. Yet at the same time, the characters’ clothes offer little disguise for their inner being. And it’s only Peter’s recognition of what lies beneath Phil’s layers of armor that ultimately opens a way forward for most of the characters in the film.

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