Let’s get this out of the way right from the get-go: Westworld (2016) is NOT a “historical costume” TV series in any way, shape, or form. What it is is really good sci-fi with some costumes that are theatrical takes on late 19th-century clothing worn in the “Old West.” If you’re looking for history, or a historical setting, or historical accuracy, move along, kiddo. If you’re looking for an entertaining and thought-provoking TV series, fire it up!
IMPORTANT SPOILER WARNING: One of the things that makes the first season of Westworld so interesting are all the layers of mysteries in the plot. I’m going to try not to give away any MAJOR plot points, but I will have to mention some things that aren’t apparent until midway through (or at the end of) the season. So, if you want to fully enjoy this show, I recommend watching it first, then reading this review!
Westworld is set in some unspecified time in the future at an “Old West” (yes, I’m going to keep putting that in quotes) theme park for REALLY rich people. The theme park is an immersive experience for the “visitors,” made even more so by being peopled by convincingly-human androids (“hosts”) who 1. don’t know they’re not human, and 2. accept the Old West world around them, including the visitors, as the real world. The series focuses on a number of interconnecting characters, including those who work to design, build, and program the hosts; visitors to the park; and some of the hosts themselves. It asks questions about what makes someone human, and the nature of time, and the roles of emotions, but it’s also just a damn interesting and entertaining story.
So why am I reviewing Westworld for Frock Flicks? Well, for one, to let any readers who were wondering, like I was, whether it was worth a watch (yes, but not if you really want it to be a historical show); and because the costume designers have said that they did a lot of historical research for the “Old West” costumes and aimed for a lot of realism, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at those historical influences.
Costumes in Westworld
The costumes for the first episode were designed by Trish Summerville (no period film credits, but contemporary films like Gone Girl); then Ane Crabtree took over (Pan Am, Masters of Sex, the not-period-but-still-interesting-to-mention forthcoming The Handmaid’s Tale). The Telegraph says that the costume designers spent a lot of time:
“…trawling images of people who actually lived in the Wild West from the 1850s to 1890s. ‘A lot of the time those photographs are actually people’s personal photos that you find online through their ancestry,’ [designer Ane] Crabtree remembers. ‘… It’s actually the most interesting and individual way to research and that’s where you find true character, when you look at people’s versions of that time. Western clothing was invented to be worn long term and in harsh climates and also for hard work, but there’s also this really cool thread of individualism that was super exciting to add to each character by looking at those photos.” (Why the Westworld costumes were so complicated to create)
So that end, let’s look at the major characters — well, those who wear “Old West” costumes — and look at 1. what the costume designers were going for, and 2. how the costumes relate to what was actually worn in the late 19th century West. That being said, re: #2 — it can be REALLY HARD to find visual sources for what was worn on a daily basis. There are, of course, tons of photographs from the late 19th-century American West, but most of these are posed portraits in which the sitter was wearing their best clothes. And while more casual photos certainly exist, trying to FIND them in any logical manner that doesn’t involve 30,000 hours trawling through image databases is very difficult. That’s what I had to do to find the images I’ve got here, so since I have a life, and have already spent 10,000 hours (rough estimate) on this post, my research isn’t going to be quite as thorough as I’d like…
The Hosts in Westworld: Good Girls
As opposed to the prostitutes! Again, looking specifically at those wearing “Old West” clothes (i.e., in the park)…
Dolores – Flashback
Dolores is the consummate Girl Next Door. She’s beautiful, she’s peaceful, she’s innocent, she’s pure, she’s kind…
Each time Dolores wakes up in bed, she’s wearing a sleeveless chemise with inset lace and ribbon “beading” (the woven-through ribbon — I always wonder why that is called “beading”?):
Yes, this is exactly the style of chemise worn in the period as a woman’s primary under-layer:
We only get a quick glimpse at Dolores’s corset, in a scene where she’s painting by the river and has taken off her bodice. Most notably, it’s an underbust corset (meaning, it doesn’t cover the bust). Does she wear this all the time? Don’t know!
Okay, so, underbust corsets pre-1900ish? Not a thing. Corsets always supported the bust in the 1870s-80s. (Yes, underbust corsets are totally a thing nowadays).
And now, The Blue Dress:
Designer Crabtree has spoken about the color choice:
“I know that the color is very important to Jonathan Nolan, one of the show’s creators, and I can’t say 100% all the things that this color means, but I know that starting from the beginning, it was certainly a color that existed in the 1850s — 1890s in terms of the West. It’s also a color that makes her come up in the forefront of every scene because there’s straw and dirt and earth tones. This way, she pops from the frame. We reserved that color for her throughout the whole of the show. It just looks so beautiful, and it’s a simplistic design choice because it hearkens to the West. It’s the color of the sky, and where we’re shooting in terms of the desert, it really stands apart from that landscape, especially if you’re talking about wide, expansive shots in Utah where everything is very red. It began as a very easy choice – what’s going to make her stand apart from the locales? Further than that? That’s all Jonathan, so I can’t speak to that.” (The Colors of Westworld)
“Blue has a long history as a colour of innocence and purity — look at any depiction of the Virgin Mary, and she’ll be wearing blue, so it seems a significant hue for Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood and the oldest inhabitant of the show’s Western-themed theme park. ‘There are so many secrets on Westworld so I don’t actually know Jonathan and Lisa’s ultimate reason for having her in blue — it’s quite a giant rabbit hole of reasoning and inspiration… We wanted Dolores to stand out in the frame though. It’s a beautiful rich blue which photographs incredibly in the locations which we have. In reality also it’s a colour that existed back in the 1800s.” (Why the Westworld costumes were so complicated to create)
Looking at the dress itself, it’s very late 1870s/early 1880s, what is often called the “natural form” era:
Let’s compare this dress with what real Western women were wearing in the 1870s-80s. If we look at posed portraits, we see very similar styles to those worn on the East Coast or in Europe. Of course, it took time for fashion news to travel to the Midwest and West Coast, but it definitely got there! And while a woman on a ranch might not have 100 dresses, she definitely had a best dress that was relatively up-to-date, at least within a few years:
Dolores isn’t dressing up in her Best Dress to have her portrait taken, is she? So let’s look at some more casual wear for comparison, in which we’ll see some women wearing similarly well-tailored styles as Dolores, and others even more casually dressed:
The main thing we don’t see in any of these photographs is a lower neckline for daywear. Low, usually square necklines were typical of afternoon and evening dresses in the early 1870s. It’s another element that helps date Dolores to the early- to mid-1870s, although the fact that she’s wearing it as a day dress (given the fact that she probably couldn’t afford very many dresses, and so wouldn’t have cause to own an “afternoon” dress as opposed to a day dress) is suspect from an accuracy angle:
As a side note, the blue dress features an interesting technological innovation. According to Crabtree, “The blue dress worn by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) had to be recreated from the pilot, which meant finding an alternative to the vintage fabric that was no longer available when the show went to series. It wasn’t just about making many versions of the exact same thing and sometimes variations of an important costume were made by Crabtree because ‘on set there was a million theories so I was always sort of designing for a million theories just in case’ (‘Westworld’ Secrets From Costume Designer Ane Crabtree).” In order to do so, they “…had to [3D-print the fabrics], because we needed multiples of everything. Dolores’s [Evan Rachel Wood] outfit, for instance, involves a bodice, a skirt, and a petticoat, and we had enough of the original vintage fabric to make three or four of each. But then we reprinted about four more in 3D, because we needed to dress her stunt double, too (Of Course Westworld’s Costumes Are 3D-Printed, Too).”
Now, I would rant about Dolores’s hair, which is 1. since it’s worn down, a style that would only be worn by young girls, and 2. ridiculously perfect, as it bugged me throughout most of the series — until I realized that of course it’s perfect and romanticized! She’s the perfect girl next door, of course she has to have princess hair!
Dolores – Current
Designer Crabtree says:
“Dolores’ two costumes represent aspects of both timelines; the way the fight sequence with Man in Black played out in ‘The Bicameral Mind’ cutting between Dolores in her feminine blue dress and her practical cowgirl attire was one way to show just how disorientating things are for a host stuck in these loops. Whereas the blue dress is [original costume designer] Trish Summerville’s creation, the pants look is all Crabtree.” (‘Westworld’ Secrets From Costume Designer Ane Crabtree)
Did women ever wear pants/trousers in the Old West, as so many Western movies like to depict? OCCASIONALLY, if the woman in question was literally dressing as a man, like Calamity Jane, a frontierswoman, professional scout, and later performer:
But, by and large, our image of 19th-century cowgirls in pants is one that was created by theater and movies. I’ll let a memoir of the late 19th-century West ‘splain things:
“There is something else that I have seen in rodeos, and occasionally in illustrations of Western stories in magazines that I take exception to. That is, girls wearing pants! In my whole experience on the range, I never saw a cow-girl. Girls in those days rode side-saddles, and wore long skirts to ride in. Under no circumstances would they be seen wearing trousers and riding a horse a-straddle.” (Deep Trails in the Old West: A Frontier Memoir)
Maeve – Flashback
Maeve has two different outfits in her flashback scenes, both full skirts and blouses:
She blips in and out of different roles, but the main one I want to talk about is when she’s posed as a victim of the really-horrible-outlaw-whose-name-I-can’t-remember:
Most corsets of the era look like the one I posted above, but this isn’t completely crazytown:
The Westworld Hosts: Prostitutes
The prostitutes in Westworld wear flashy, shiny, fashionable to the mid- to late-1870s bustle gowns with evening necklines and sleeves. Designer Crabtree said:
“Their look comes from a lot of reading I’ve done about the ‘soiled dove’ which is a great term for a prostitute… There are great books about it which I read 17 years ago and re-read for this. There weren’t a lot of job offers or things for a woman to do in the Wild West and of course being a prostitute or if you were lucky, a madam, was one of the main jobs. They do refer to that career as ‘soiled doves’ and how they were beautiful jewels in the midst of quite desert-toned Western clothes worn by the men, so they always stood out.” (Why the Westworld costumes were so complicated to create)
So now, what did real prostitutes wear in the Old West? Oh goody, the totally-hard-to-document thing! The problem is most of the photographs of known prostitutes were again posed portraits, and prostitutes would have even MORE reason to want to look respectable and/or fashionable (“screw you! I’m rich and fabulous!”) than your average woman!
Here’s some photographs of known late 19th-century Western prostitutes, all dressed fashionably:
But what did prostitutes wear when they were on the job? I’ve read some primary sources mentioning underwear, and a lot of unsubstantiated popular history saying that they might wear “tastefully revealing attire” (Upstairs Girls: Prostitution in the American West) or “flannel or cotton night-gowns… [or] a thin house-dress with nothing underneath… [or] no clothing whatever except slippers and stockings” (The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld) — but I have a rule of not trusting unsourced popular histories.
Here are a very few potentially-casual images I’ve found for some real documentation:
On a side note, Crabtree was asked about the prostitutes jewelry: “Those came from Joseff of Hollywood, this incredibly cool old-world place that made all the jewelry for Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck’s classic films. Going there is like going to a museum — it’s one of the few places left like that. (Of Course Westworld’s Costumes Are 3D-Printed, Too).”
The Westworld Hosts: Good Guys
Alright kids, I’ve run out of steam, so here’s what you get for boy-related discussion. Most of the interviews given by the designers seem to be more referencing Western films than real historical clothing:
“In the West, it became a thing that the white hats were the good guys and the black hats were the bad guys — it became a kind of unsaid western rule; the Sheriff wore the white hat. The John Wayne or the Gary Cooper had the white hat while the dangerous villain or the ones who were dark and sexy had black. It’s based in reality but we use it for character story in Westworld… It’s the hardest decision I tell you. It takes as long to decide on what hat style because it’s the first thing people see in these wide, expansive shots so it means so much.” (Why the Westworld costumes were so complicated to create)
Comparing that look with real historical clothing:
The main observation I have is that from my reading, bowler hats would have been much more popular in the era than the Stetson/”cowboy” hat.
The Westworld Hosts: Bad Guys
What did real bad boys of the Old West wear? Very similar clothing to that worn by any other man!
The Westworld Visitors
Again, these costumes were much more influenced by film than not:
“For them, we looked to fashion from the 1850s through the 1890s, and mixed it with very iconic references from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. We also looked at images of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and even Steve McQueen to create these rugged, manly looks that’d make the guests feel like they were stepping into another time. It’s by design, by the way, that we made the guests’s outfits a lot more opulent and beautiful and bespoke; they’re supposed to feel superior to the hosts.” (Of Course Westworld’s Costumes Are 3D-Printed, Too)
Compare them to yet more average-guy-wear from the period:
Of the Man in Black, the ultimate baddie, Crabtree says:
“There’s a very old-school hippie weaver in upstate New York, near Woodstock, who wove the fabric for his jacket. We had another artisan hand-paint it afterwards. And his hat we got at Baron Hats — I was totally starstruck walking into that place, because everyone in Hollywood goes there to have hats made, and they have all these beautiful wooden hat forms on display.” (Of Course Westworld’s Costumes Are 3D-Printed, Too)
And at least one female visitor decides to go Team Menswear:
“In episode 3, we put the beautiful Bojana [Novakovic, who plays Marti] in a vest and cowboy hat. That was cool because it was the first time we got to put a woman in that rugged gunslinger role — and she looked so sexy! It was fun figuring out how to make the women look just as powerful as the men. And I definitely believe that some of the women visiting the park would look at the men’s outfits and say, ‘Fuck it, I want to be a badass, too!'” (Of Course Westworld’s Costumes Are 3D-Printed, Too)
Have you seen Westworld? What did you think of the mix of historical and film references in the costumes?