I swore I wasn’t going to watch The English (2022), the recent Western miniseries starring Emily Blunt, because usually Westerns focus on non-shiny costumes. But I’ve been on a reading kick lately on indigenous American history, and realized that I wanted to see some on-screen portrayals, but also watch things that I can review for Frock Flicks (since I sadly don’t know nearly enough about indigenous dress history, there’s gotta be some white/Anglo/etc. dress for me to say anything knowledgeable). And I was surprised to find that the series sucked me in! The story is haunting, the characters are complex, and the performances are strong, particularly by Blunt as an English lady who arrives in the American West in 1890 to avenge the death of her son, and Chaske Spencer as the Pawnee tribe member and ex-American army scout who headed to make a new home.
The costumes were designed by Phoebe De Gaye (The Forsyte Saga, Lark Rise to Candleford, The Musketeers, The White Princess, The Spanish Princess), and while yes, there’s a LOT of what you picture when you think “Western,” Blunt’s character (Cornelia) arrives in very fashionable dress… and De Gaye did some excellent things with that typically “Western” dress.
At the beginning of the film, Cornelia arrives in the “West” in a fashionable pink ensemble that demonstrates just how foreign she is to this environment. De Gaye told MemorableTV.com:
“She’s a fish out of water. When we first see her arrive, she almost looks like she’s in My Fair Lady” (The English | Interview with Phoebe de Gaye (Costume Designer).
She was originally supposed to wear white in this scene, but De Gaye told Vogue,
“I came across an interesting portrait from the period by the academic painter James Jebusa Shannon, where the woman was wearing a traveling costume in a very pale pink. [Director] Hugo [Blick] responded to that straight away” (In The English, Costume and Character Are Inextricable).
Cornelia gets one other dress, a red satin dinner dress. It’s got puffier sleeves that seem a little fashion-forward for 1890. According to De Gaye, the goal was to keep Cornelia covered but also to be sexy:
“I thought that dress was just a great example of how you can be really sexy without showing an inch of flesh” (In The English, Costume and Character Are Inextricable).
After that, Cornelia goes practical, but her costumes are still visually interesting and not simply dyed with mud. According to De Gaye, there’s a progression that happens with Cornelia’s clothing here:
“If you watch closely, you notice that she initially loses the jacket that’s part of her riding outfit, which is sort of like her armor. Then she begins hitching back her skirt, showing the lining. And finally she strips down to her underwear, only for a moment, when everything is close to coming out” (In The English, Costume and Character Are Inextricable).
There are also several flashbacks to 1875, when we see Cornelia back in England and before all the trauma that’s led her to America. First, she’s just finished an archery competition and wears this great sporting ensemble:
I immediately thought of the famous painting of female archers from a few years earlier:
She also gets this dress, which is mostly backlit and so hard to see:
And finally, as things start to change for Cornelia but still back in the 1870s, she wears a black ensemble with yet another fabulous hat:
The other main character is Eli Whipp/Wounded Wolf, played by Chaske Spencer. He’s a member of the Pawnee nation who has just left the American army (yep, his backstory is complicated). De Gaye told Vogue that she worked with IllumiNative, “a Native-led organization dedicated to reeducating the public about the past and present lives of Native peoples across America.”
“They kindly gave us specific patterns to work from and taught us about the distinctive elements of Pawnee dress. For example, Eli’s moccasins are a particularly dark color, almost black; in the hide paintings [typical of the Great Plains], if you see a figure with black feet, that generally signifies that they’re Pawnee” (In The English, Costume and Character Are Inextricable).
De Gaye talked to MemorableTV about recreating the specifics of Pawnee dress:
“One of the authentic things that we had to try and get right with him was the wearing of the breechcloth and the leggings. This is often fudged a bit, but Hugo wanted us to make it how they actually wore these things. It can be quite revealing because the Pawnee would wear a loincloth and the leggings were like chaps. Then, a breechcloth – which is a length of fabric – would hang at the front and be tucked through the legs to the back” (The English | Interview with Phoebe de Gaye (Costume Designer).
There are several minor characters’ costumes worth noting:
So, if you’re interested in complex characters and a haunting story with thoughtful costumes, check out The English!
Have you seen The English? What did you think?