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All film wardrobes require research, but for costume designer Mary Zophres, Cowboys & Aliens felt more like a history lesson. To assemble the Western outfits of Olivia Wilde’s Ella, Zophres says, ”we looked at diaries of frontier women who traveled west with three dresses.” Zophres, who had just finished up True Grit, ultimately based Wilde’s main costume on an 1870s original, which she tracked down at L.A.’s Motion Picture Costume Company. ”When Olivia put on that outfit, it was clear that it was right for her,” says Zophres, who had close to 20 copies of the dress made. ”It’s hard to find [originals] because they’ve disintegrated by now. That was a miracle.”
For Zophres, moving from the set of True Grit to Cowboys, both of which take place in the 1800s, was an easy transition — to an extent. ”I had all the groundwork of the research,” she says. ”But True Grit was more urban and winter. We had a researcher on for Cowboys because it was a different location and season. And I didn’t want the two movies to look alike.”
When the team decided on earth tones for Ella, the palette wasn’t limited to clothing. ”I put a row of highlighted extensions under her hair,” says hair department head Gloria Pasqua Casny. ”You see lighter ends because that’s what would happen in time in the sun.”
”It was a much more conservative time,” says Zophres of the buttoned-up, long-sleeved look. She also made Ella’s outfit more streamlined and less Scarlett O’Hara: ”In the story, the town isn’t doing well, so she’s not going to have a hoopskirt on.”
The floral fabric that makes up Wilde’s dress was a True Grit holdover. ”I had a yard of that fabric from True Grit, but it was too feminine for that movie,” Zophres says. She instead used it for Cowboys, and had L.A.-based fabric printer Cad Fab reprint nearly 100 yards of the design.
Wilde tried on nearly a dozen pieces before settling on one from L.A.’s History for Hire, which the team replicated. Says Zophres, ”It was a nice balance between this feminine dress and looking like she was someone who could take care of business.”
Ella’s buttonhooks, based on an original pair, were specially made by Western Costume in L.A. ”We had a version with traction for when she had to run and a version with the leather sole,” Zophres explains.