Tuesday 2 July 2013

Inspirations - The Searchers

Costume Design and Inspiration in the Film : The Searchers

The classic westerns of John Wayne have never really been my thing and The Searchers is a film I  previously would have avoided, and certainly never expected to find so much design inspiration. I won't give away the plot, but here's a glimpse of the beautiful things to watch out for in the film.

Technicolor is most important word in the title graphics as the film opens. There is an overall colour tone that dominates of warm reds and oranges. Just watch the purity of the red as it gleams from the screen on those fabulous long johns! The colour is oil paint rich in saturated brights with deep black dramatic contrasts. Technicolor films are always a treat for the eyes and this visual confection is like dark chocolate pudding. 

After colour we have the detail. Each frame holds a symbolic language of it's own in the brilliantly designed sets such as the rustic cabins that place you at the table amongst the copper pots, willow china and hand painted wooden furniture. I never expected so much detail in a western and it was an indulgence that could be studied equally in every location of the story.

The costume plays a vital role in providing the detail and the rich colour and textures add subtle context to the story. The use of American Indian textiles and art throughout the settlers wardrobe portray the complexity of this post Civil War, Cowboys and Indians tale. Even out in the sparse desert, a land of sweeping landscapes, horses and men, the language of the fashion and how it is used adds so much to the story.

The film begins with women preparing a meal in the cabin where the designer has kept the costume not only beautiful but practical to each character. Printed dresses are protected under white pinafores, crossing at the backs, tying at the waists, and with ruffles and embroideries that could be dresses in their own right. This initially adds softness, an insight into daily life in contrast to the rustic cabin. The layering adds extra volume in the skirts making the tightly fitted bodices appear even smaller at the corseted waists.

Ginghams and plaids play a large role in both the men and women's costumes, with little pieces of cloth and dolls dresses being produced as evidence in the search for the missing girl. Jeffery Hunter wears his gingham shirt in such a modern way it could be standard indie band fashion today. 

The all-American pair of jeans appear, although I'm not sure if they are in fact Levi's, but with the John Wayne and John Ford cowboy equation, these must be the most American denim on film. Ribbon bows add a finish throughout and became one of my favourite accessories, from the ends of pig-tales to gentlemen's bow ties in various thicknesses. I suspect a collection inspired by these are due. 

Hats are again a main-stay in all variations. Ward Bond's character takes great pride in his moleskin top hat and as they travel to New Mexico, flat ranch hats change to straw Sombreros. Scar's flamboyant feather head dress is grandly placed on his head whilst astride a magnificent horse, and one of my favourite scenes featuring Jefferey Hunter trading bowler hats with added feathers is a colourful feast laid out on screen. 

Hand decorated gun holders with fringing and the beautiful wool wrapped plaits of Natalie Wood, warmed by the red hues in undergarments and jackets tell of the attention given to the costume design in this beautiful looking film; and to think the costume designer, Charles Arrico was un-credited! This could be due the main characters being men, who in Hollywood at this time would have provided their own costumes. Did John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter and Ward Bond really create those incredible details themselves?

It would take a lot to achieve this level of communication and beauty in another film. The visuals are the key to expressing the challenges and developing relationship between the American cultures. Even the rocking chairs have an important role. 

Film Title: The Searchers 
Year: 1956
Director: John Ford
Cinematographer: Winton C.Hoch
Costumer Designer: Charles Arrico
Art Directors: James Basevi and Farnk Hotaling
Main Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, Ward Bond
Day to watch: Sunday afternoon
Format: as high quality and as big as you can get, don't miss out on that detail.