At a pivotal juncture during the Fathers & Sons episode of Godless (2017), the camera tracks into a pink ribbon tied on the back of young woman’s hair; a woman who is suffering from the onset symptoms of smallpox and unlikely to find recovery. Later in the episode we pan across dozens of freshly dug but unnamed graves each with it’s own crucifix. We don’t see the woman again, but on one of the crucifixes is tied a pink ribbon. Such is the power of even the slightest costume and accessory details in Godless, the narrative is informed by their very presence.
Costume designer for Godless was Betsy Heimann. Perhaps best known for costuming Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Almost Famous (2000), she is extremely well respected in the industry. Godless is some of Heimann’s most complete work yet. The western era in question, 1884 in Colorado, is well documented historically. This is a good and bad thing. Godless is not a docudrama; it is fiction. A classic Wild West revenge saga played out over vast plains and pocketed towns. Heimann needed to recreate the reality of the era while at the same time nodding toward genre signifiers that we as viewers expect to see.
The ‘hook’ of Godless is that La Belle, the main town featured in the show (and it really existed), is almost entirely populated by women. This is because a mining disaster claimed the lives of most of the men. Husbands, sweethearts, sons and fathers – all gone in an instant leaving the town’s women to take over their every role (two lawmen are about the only able bodied males in the town, and one of them is seemingly losing his sight while the other is barely out of his teens). What women wore during this era is certainly researchable, their home dresses, Sunday Best and suchlike, but what they would have worn to work in a more manual role, far less so. Women did undertake manual labour, though these jobs were typically fulfilled by men…unless of course these men became sick or absent.
Clothes on Film chatted to Betsy Heimann about costuming the world of Godless and some of the subtle character and period details she scattered across the landscape.
“I knew myself how I wanted Godless to look” explains Heimann. “What I needed to compile was a reference for my writer/director, Scott Frank. So I started with the mine and then the women. I located a reference for the Chrisman sisters and then I found some shots of women ranchers. On one picture I found this woman raunchier wearing these four button pants and her blouse with the bandana tied and slung to the side, which became a reference for Mary Agnes’ top half, and the bottom half became my inspiration for Alice’s riding pants.“.
The Chrisman sisters, all real-life single women who lived in Nebraska during the late 1880s and ran their own homestead claim without men (read more), also provided inspiration for one of the most immaculately attired characters in Godless, Charlotte Temple (Samantha Soule), specifically their love of bold prints. “Charlotte had, like, 25 changes” expands Heimann. “I got to make all of those different dresses. I got the silhouette from an old photograph of a woman sitting looking at herself in the mirror. There was a blouse I made for Charlotte that we pleated in the front and the back and vertically in the yoke. She was always fancy“.
Charlotte, however, was the exception – desperate to attract an eligible man she felt she had to dress this way. The remaining women of Godless were unique in their attire because they did not have clothes for manual labour, not really, so Heimann added in appropriate touches she discovered during her research. For example, the women building the church who tuck their skirts into their belts. This was taken directly from a photograph of female miner of the era (very rare) doing exactly the same thing. “It was hard to get this to look natural” Heimann notes. “You think, ‘how do you know for sure when it looks like a costume or not?’. You always start with the hat. You find the hat that works for that actor and that character, and then you dump it in a pail of water, beat the crap out of it and lay it out to dry in the sun. Different guys can tolerate different hats. Like Jack O’Connell could not take a high crown, but when Kim Coates walked in for his fitting I said to myself ‘it’s the bowler’. Scott does not like bowlers but I said ‘it’s the evil McCabe and Mrs. Miller!’“.
Kim Coates plays mining company security agent Ed Logan, and brings much of his own demeanour to the role. “Kim was very inspirational to me. The thing is, you have to know that when you do a western it’s every boy’s dream, so when they put these clothes on, and I had very specific looks for each of them, it’s suddenly ‘Oh my god, this is the best costume I’ve ever had!'”.
For Betsy Heimann, Godless was an opportunity to put into practice skills she has spent a career honing; skills taught to her by Lester Bayliss, legendary costumer for most of John Wayne’s westerns. “My first job in the industry was working with Lester Bayliss on Tom Horn (1980). Godless was full circle for me. I was able to take everything that Lester taught me and combine it with everything I’ve learned over these many years. It was a homecoming“.
This idea of what the American West actually looked like in the 1880s versus what we expect to see thanks to cinematic tropes is not something that Heimann considered. Paramount to her was that everyone in the cast looked real and believable and distinctive, without in any way drawing attention to themselves. That is why you won’t spot a lot of duster coats in Godless, itself more of a stagecoach riding garment that was often made of linen and only provided limited protection against the elements. In fact you will see only one, on Sam Waterston as Marshall Cook. “I knew he could rock a duster coming out of all that haze and smoke. I loved the colour – there is a little bit of yellow in there to be optimistic before he’s let down at the devastation he sees“.
The colour yellow is also used for the dress worn by Alice (Michelle Dockery) in her flashback rape scene during Fathers & Sons. This was actually indicated in the original script and provided stark contrast between the colour’s normally optimistic connotations and its flip-side as acidic and draining. Within the context of Godless, Alice’s fiance had sent this yellow dress so he could recognise her on their wedding day. Costume then, adding another level of poignancy to an already hugely powerful scene.
Clothing is referenced a few times in the dialogue of Godless, not least in the first episode when Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) notices Mary Agnes (Meritt Weaver) wearing her dead husband’s shirt and pants. “With Mary Agnes there was a little bit of softness to her that I could bring, like that little ruffle shirt she had on” explains Heimann. “I also thought it would be nice for some of the women in the shoot-out at the end to be wearing their husband’s pants or shirts“. This was not the case for all of the female characters in the finale. Martha, the occasionally naked German artist hiding out in La Belle, is wearing all her finery. A costume discord that works beautifully in context. “That’s Martha’s wedding dress. You can see this in the photograph that the Pinkerton detective hands around. I really didn’t want to find a way to ‘dress up’ the period, that was just boring to me, so I suggested to Scott that if I could make this dress then she could do the shoot-out wearing it. He loved the idea“.
A quiet but significant character transformation takes place for Roy when he puts on clothing belonging to Iyovi’s (Tantoo Cardinal) deceased son and essentially reclaims it as his own. For Iyovi all memory and meaning of this distinctive outfit is now conferred on Roy. “I researched the Paiute tribe and found out they worn these printed shirts” Heimann confirms. “There are three different tribes in the show and they all dressed differently. But I know the print for Roy would be authentic Paiute and I really fell in love with that green cotton. I just wanted it look very different to Roy as the ‘outlaw guy’“. The semblance of the ‘outlaw guy’ generally conjures up a mythical, Hollywood created figure emboldened with masculinity and mystery. It’s an essential western motif. This is also why you will see no union suit underwear in Godless (period correct as this all-in-one under-suit was not popular until the early 1900s. “Jeff Daniels and Jack O’Connell are not going to be running around in union suits. It becomes comedic. Can you imagine Frank’s manic episode in the camp? Wandering around in front of his gang in a union suit?“. Heimann delved into every single aspect of costuming with Godless, from coats to drawers. “Oh the female cast had it all on – the bloomers, the corsets“. It’s about gait and posture too; nothing makes someone stand up straight like a tightly laced corset.
Beyond La Belle, Heimann had to create another functioning and very real town, Blackdom, which is hardly seen in Godless but vitally important as narrative set up and as historical reference. “I researched Blackdom and the Buffalo Soldiers” she notes. “I’m pleased to say that when the actors showed up and saw the level of scrutiny I had undertaken, they relaxed. These were fighting guys turned farmers and I considered it was important as homage to show this“.
One of the ways Heimann holds onto the Buffalo Soldiers’ past is to have Rob Morgan as ex-soldier John Randall wearing his military coat at the dinner table. Roy’s beaten hat is another example of this backstory concept. “These boys do not know how to handle their headwear” explains Heimann. “They are always playing around with them and Jack played around with his hat so much it got a hole planted in it! We decided to just leave it there“. Clothing, as with life, collects nicks and dents, patches and tears.
Betsy Heimann fashioned a distinct land in Godless; it is familiar and known yet fresh and expansive. Driven by staunch authenticity and a career understanding of the western genre on screen, she has contributed to making this show a sweeping, epic dedication to a time populated by heroes, villains and those just trying to survive.
With thanks to Betsy Heimann.
Costume sketches by Gina Flanagan.
Godless the complete series is now streaming on Netflix.
© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.