A historical look at how Jane Campion’s costumes collide the modern world of the 1920s with Western iconography.
The hard hats, leather leggings, and button-up shirts in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” evoke century-old cinematic iconography and reflect a world even older than that. Look closer, however, and the camera reveals something else: many of these men are wearing strangely new clothes that look like they’ve just come straight out of a Sears catalog.
Despite their frequent setting in the late 19th century, Western stories are generally set in an ahistorical cinematic landscape where the West still has to 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 of ranch life to mail-order 10-gallon hats.
Kirsty Cameron’s costume designs straddle the modernism and glamor of the 1920s and the rugged timelessness of the American West in a way that reflects the fast-paced world and those, especially Benedict Cumberbatch’s toxic Phil Burbank, who reject the encroachment of modernity. In an interview with IndieWire, Cameron said, “I never really thought of it as a western,” but the western imagery and ideology is an unmistakable legacy the film struggles with.
The delicate balance of costumes
This complex orientation to the changing world informs Cameron’s costumes for each character in “The Power of the Dog,” all of whom inadvertently reveal how they wish to be seen by how they dress. In the film’s remote Montana landscape (played by New Zealand’s South Island), Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) stands out as the most incongruous figure, not just for her femininity on a male-dominated ranch, but also for its embroidered decorative dresses. “Rose has a facade of disguise,” Cameron explained. “There’s this elevation of her costume the moment she arrives at the ranch,” a reflection of her newfound wealth and status as George Burbank’s wife.
Kirsty Griffin / NETFLIX
Likewise, Jesse Plemons’ George is perpetually dressed in formal suits (even when attending a cattle drive), a visual connection to his wealthy family and the “cleanliness of the life they lived”. Her brother, Phil (Cumberbatch), and Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) serve as a study in contrasts, revealing the conflicts between the old world and the new. Phil hides in the past and layers of dirt (which he notably refuses to bathe), hiding his Yale upbringing as well as the deeper impulses of his soul. He is perpetually preceded in spaces by his heavy woolly leggings like a kind of armor keeping everyone at bay.
Peter defies expectations in his ill-fitting store-bought jeans. Cameron suggests he’s at home in his lanky body: “He doesn’t mind being clumsy.” Ultimately, it’s his “disciplined minimalism” and defiance – wearing white shoes and shirts on a dusty ranch – that point to the future.
Taken together, the film’s many scenes of its characters choosing clothes and dressing up show how central their physical appearance was to Campion’s world – much more so 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 mostly abandoned the old celebration of white supremacy and manifest destiny in favor of meditations on masculinity, isolation and repression . Along with this overhaul of genre philosophy, Westerns from “True Grit” (2010) to “The Assassination of Jesse James…” (2007) have moved away from the backlot of Western towns and off-the-rack cowboy uniforms. boy from previous decades. They, in turn, were celebrated for their cinematography, costumes, makeup, and art direction in a way the genre has never been at its peak as a B-movie staple.
For much of its history, its factory-like production meant Western craftsmanship was largely ignored. Blindness to their design elements stemmed from their familiarity – they had become so naturalized by the time the Academy began assigning costume design as its own category in 1949, Western iconography was so ingrained in the psyche of people that his craft could not be made visible.
Paramount/Courtesy of Everett Collection
It was the slow decline of the western as a celebration of manifest destiny that transformed the genre from a timeless mythology into a historically linked genre recognizable for these design elements. Beginning with Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” in 1978, westerns – few in number at that time – eventually gained recognition for their craftsmanship. In the Costume Design category’s 73-year history, only 10 westerns have been nominated, and eight of those nominations have been 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 is set in the 20th century, when Hollywood was already mythologizing a West still being tamed.
However, more than in this previous film, the costumes of “The Power of the Dog” by Cameron reflect this clash between the border and modernity. Whenever Phil’s timeless world in which the West has yet 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 cinema even before the filmmakers moved to Los Angeles (due in part to its genre-appropriateness). Hollywood’s cottage industry of costume shops arose specifically to serve the many Westerns filmed in Southern California.
In 1912, Western Costume was founded to provide clothing specifically for Native American characters, which locals recognized as being inauthentically represented 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 made his way to Western Costume, always a staple in the industry, where they ended up acquiring most of the chaps worn by the cowherds in the film.
In 1925, the year “The Power of the Dog” takes place, Phil and his cowherds would have been infiltrated into the Western iconography of early cinema. As Campion explained to IndieWire’s Anne Thompson: “It’s right at the end of this mythology when the cowboys work there because they like the cowboys of old and they get their clothes from mail order and dress up as cowboys as some sort of cowboys quote.”
Kirsty Griffin / NETFLIX
Iconic cowboy denim, chaps, boots and hats – made iconic by early movie cowboys such as Broncho Billy Anderson and Tom Mix – could be found at a convenience store or in the Sears catalog (introduced in 1889 and ubiquitous throughout the West). A close look at the cowboys following Phil shows a mix of well-worn duds as well as new purchases with fringe and embroidery, which Cameron and his team have hand-sewn in imitation of the mass-produced styles of the early 20th century.
But Phil, whose loyalty is to the earlier version of the West, would never wear such conspicuous duds. As Cameron puts it, “Phil’s idea was that he had been wearing his clothes for a long time, that he was rejecting 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 selves. And it’s only Peter’s acknowledgment of what lies beneath Phil’s layers of armor that ultimately paves the way for most of the film’s characters.