Authenticity And Symbolism In “The Revenant”: An Interview With Costume Designer Jacqueline West

Costume Designer Jacqueline West designed unique looks for every character in “The Revenant” including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Left) and Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, right). photo credit: 20th Century Fox

By: Marjorie Galas

Jacqueline West caught on to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s tell early during pre-production of “The Revenant.”

West began her process by developing backstories for each key character.  She referred to period illustrations throughout this stage, ensuring the concepts were in line with the director’s vision.  He had, after all, been patiently letting his ideas about Hugh Glass’s astounding survival tale percolate for years after becoming attached to a manuscript written by Michael Punke in 2011.

“I showed him some fabulous drawings I found as inspiration,” said West.  “You could see from his body language when he really responded to an idea.”

A ranch owner in South Dakota were Hugh Glass’s tale is essential lore, West shared a devotion to the pioneer’s story before joining “The Revenant” team.  Excited to be recreating the journey of the frontier icon, she enthusiastically dove into the research stage, pouring over texts and frequently comparing notes with production designer Jack Fisk (they’ve collaborated on six previous movies).  Inspiration for styles came from a collection of 19th century illustrations drawn by Alfred Jacob Miller and painter Karl Bodmer’s portraits of Native Americans.  She observed some connections to Glass’s ordeal in the psychological stories by Russian authors including Dostoevsky, Chekov and Tolstoy.   Important details about the period also arose during consultations with former Museum of the Fur Trade director Gail DeBuse Potter, whose knowledge proved invaluable to other department heads as well. During a visit to the Nebraska-based museum, West studied textiles and fabrics, such as colorful calicos, that were worn by trappers living during that period.

During the design phase, West cleverly illustrated each character’s disposition through the design and materials selected for their costumes. Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), wore the tattered outfit of a poor farm boy coupled with a buffalo skin coat. Buffalo, an animal revered by Native American tribes for its strength and stability, provided a symbolic precursor to the young man’s future: Bridger became one of the most famous mountain men in history.  Self-serving and ruthless John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) wore a coat fashioned out of many animal skins.  Multiple otter pelts lined the jacket and his hat contained a whole beaver, complete with whiskers.  West chose the animal for its industrious nature – and notes that trappers, so ruthless in their quest to meet the demand for its fur, nearly hunted the beaver to extinction. Glass, whose relationship with the Indians resulted in his wedding a Pawnee bride and producing a son, wore a hooded frock directly inspired by an illustration of an Indian hunter that Inarritu loved. Dressed simply with a long, flaxen linen shirt, the hooded cape provided a spiritual symbolism to the character’s quest.  After being mauled nearly to death by a female bear, Glass wears the animal’s hide, allowing the creature that nearly killed him to save his life.  As concepts solidified, West and her team would build prototypes that were modeled for Inarritu who loved seeing the evolutions of the characters.

West particularly enjoyed designing the Native American costumes seen throughout the film.  Living close to the Sioux tribe in South Dakota, she was familiar with the value symbolism had within their garments.  In addition to animal hides, organic matter, such as kernels of corn, were directly applied in the designs on war vests – a practice Indians had that directly referenced their connection to the earth.  As trappers and traders ventured further into Indian lands, the Indian woman would also incorporate the European fabrics that were traded for supplies, left behind or broken down.  Throughout the process of designing these outfits, West and her staff paid careful attention to dyes and aging process for every skin used.

“All tribes used a different material, and they each had their own leather,” said West.  “It was almost like being back in art school; we were looking for the best patterns and looking for ways to make them all look different.”

Utilizing authentic material in the creation of the costumes was as important as the research that went into recreating every costume.  Real furs and skins were sourced from the Pacific Fur Trade.  This organization obtains all their material from the Parks Department who ensure every item is humanely sourced. The pieces were then all hand-stitched.  Creating costumes for the French Canadian trappers did provide a slight respite – these trappers used less animal hides in their wardrobe.  The material they used is still produced by Hudson’s Bay (Woolrich), although it did require a great deal of dying to match the dark colors and muddy appearance.  Aging all the material was also essential to give the appearance of items being worn day after day through the harsh conditions and long journey.  Dying, shredding, sanding and cutting helped, along with the waxy material that stood in for bear grease.  Trappers would use bear grease as a means to keep warm – and the frequent application of the substance would make skins almost unrecognizable by the end of a journey.  While no bears were harmed in the making of the wax West’s crew concocted, the material did effectively distress the wardrobe and added extra insulation for the actors.  Before any item appeared in a scene, every single piece of clothing was camera tested and reviewed by Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to ensure the textures, colors and aging techniques would hold up within the shots.

Any film, particularly action films, require duplicates of costumes, and “The Revenant” was no exception.   Battle scenes and bear attacks further complicated this need. The costume DiCaprio wears had to have twenty different versions, highlighting his different stages of his voyage, from the opening scene until he reaches the fort.    His change of clothes at the end of the film required ten versions to compensate for the damage that occurs during his duel with Fitzgerald.  West’s team spent a year building the costumes before production started.

Attention to authenticity was always at the forefront of West’s designs.  However, so was the well-being of every actor on set.  With temperatures dipping under forty degrees below zero, she took some liberties to protect the actors and keep them comfortable in the dangerous conditions.  For example, long johns didn’t exist in the early 1800s – in fact, the trappers wouldn’t have worn under ware at all.   They wore a long shirt that tucked between the legs and doubled as a nightshirt at the end of the day (DiCaprio does wear this type of shirt during his sequence in the church.)  West and her team created undergarments that had a polyurethane coating that both added warmth and, for DiCaprio’s scene taking place in the chilly water, provided extra insulation and protect the actor’s skin.  For Poulter and Hardy’s coatless scene in front of the fire, West created a second shirt to wear under their long sleeve tops for added warmth.  Off screen, plenty of supplies and garments were available to provide warmth and comfort.

Looking back on the experience she took with everyone involved in making “The Revenant”, West “feels an incredible sense of accomplishment” in not only the quality of the work, but the embarking on the journey of the film to begin with.

“We were all on a journey with Alejandro,” said West.  “We believed in his vision, and were enlightened throughout the experience.”

West is currently working on “Live By Night”, a prohibition era set drama written and directed by Ben Affleck.  This will mark her second collaboration with the director.  Her first foray on an Affleck, “Argo”, marked her second Oscar nomination (her first was on David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”)

“I’ve gone from trappers to flappers,” said West.

To learn more about “The Revenant” please visit: http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-revenant