The stiff hats, leather chaps, and button-down shirts in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” conjure a cinematic iconography that’s a century old, and reflects a world even older than that. Look more closely, however, and the camera reveals something else: Many of these men are wearing suspiciously new duds that look like they’re freshly delivered from a Sears catalog.
Despite their frequent setting in the late-19th century, Western stories usually transpire in an ahistorical cinematic landscape where the west always needs to be won. But Campion’s film breaks that mythology, underscoring how, by the 20th century, the modern world had encroached on what had become a carefully constructed male fantasy of ranch life down to the mail-ordered 10-gallon hats.
Kirsty Cameron’s costume designs straddle the modernism and glamour of the ’20s and the rugged timelessness of the American West in ways that reflect the rapidly changing world and those, particularly 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,” yet the imagery and ideology of the Western is an unmistakable legacy with which the film grapples.
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 remote Montana landscape of the film (played by New Zealand’s South Island), Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) stands out as the most incongruous figure, not only for her femininity on a male-dominated ranch but also for her deco embroidered dresses. “Rose has a façade of dressing up,” Cameron explained. “There’s this elevation of her costume by the time she arrives at the ranch,” a reflection of her new wealth and status as the wife of George Burbank.
Similarly, Jesse Plemons’ George is perpetually clad in formal suits (even when participating in a cattle drive), a visual connection to his wealthy family and the “properness of the life that they lived.” His 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 cloaks himself in the past and layers of dirt (which he notably refuses to bathe away), hiding his Yale education as well as the deeper impulses of his soul. He is perpetually preceded into spaces by his heavy, wooly chaps as a kind of armor keeping everyone at a distance.
Peter stands defiant of expectations in his ill-fitted, store-bought jeans. Cameron suggests he’s at home in his gangly body though: “He doesn’t mind being awkward.” In the end, it is 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 selecting clothes and carefully dressing show how much their physical appearance was central to Campion’s world — much more so than in the typical Hollywood Western.
Designing an Authentic West
“The Power of the Dog” arrives at a time when the Western has long been reassessed, having mostly abandoned the old celebration of white supremacy and manifest destiny in favor of meditations on masculinity, isolation, and repression. Hand-in-hand with this revision of the philosophy of the genre, Westerns from “True Grit” (2010) to “The Assassination of Jesse James…” (2007) have moved far from the stock backlot Western towns and off-the-rack cowboy uniforms of previous decades. In turn, they have been celebrated for their cinematography, costumes, make-up, and art direction in ways the genre never was in its heyday as a B-movie staple.
For much of its history, its factory-like production meant the craft of the Western was largely ignored. The blindness to their design elements stemmed from their familiarity — they’d become so naturalized by the time the Academy began awarding Costume Design as its own category in 1949, the iconography of the Western was so ingrained in people’s psyches that its craft could not be made visible.
Paramount/Courtesy 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 bound genre recognizable for those design elements. Beginning with Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” in 1978, Westerns — few as they were by this time — finally became recognized for their craftwork. In the 73-year history of the Costume Design category, 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 takes place in the 20th century, when Hollywood was already mythologizing a west that was still being tamed.
Yet, more so than in that earlier film, Cameron’s “The Power of the Dog” costumes reflect this clash between the frontier and modernity. Every time Phil’s timeless world in which the west still needs to be tamed by white masculinity seems to envelope everyone, a Converse All-Star is there to remind us that his world is the one that is dying.
Clothes Make the Cowboy
The Western genre was a staple of early cinema even before filmmakers moved to Los Angeles (in part due to its suitability to the genre). The cottage industry of Hollywood costume shops was born specifically to serve the many Westerns being shot around Southern California.
In 1912, Western Costume was founded in order to supply clothing particularly for Native American characters, whom the locals recognized as being inauthentically portrayed by these largely East Coast producers. On a research trip to Los Angeles for “The Power of the Dog,” Cameron scoured vintage shops for inspiration and went to Western Costume, still an industry staple, where they ended up acquiring most of the chaps worn by the cowhands in the film.
By 1925, the year in which “The Power of the Dog” is set, Phil and his cowhands would have been seeped in early cinema’s iconography of the West. As Campion explained to IndieWire’s Anne Thompson: “It’s just on the end of that mythology when the cowhands are working there because they love cowboys of old and they are getting their clothes from the mail orders and dressing as cowboys as a kind of quoting of cowboys.”
The cowboy’s signature denim, chaps, boots, and hats — made iconic by early cinematic cowboys such as Broncho Billy Anderson and Tom Mix — could be found at a corner store or through the Sears catalog (introduced in 1889 and ubiquitous throughout the West). A careful look at the cowhands shadowing Phil shows a mix of well-worn duds along with newer purchases with fringe and embroidery, which Cameron and her crew handstitched in imitation of mass-produced styles of the early 20th century.
But Phil, whose loyalty is to the earlier version of the West, would never wear such showy duds. As Cameron puts it, “The whole idea of Phil was he’d been wearing his clothes for a long time, that he rejected the idea, in some ways, of progress.”
Throughout the film, the costumes embody the uneasy co-existence of the modern world and the timeless frontier, trapping the characters between these worlds just as they are bound together by the vast emptiness of the landscape. Yet at the same time, the characters clothes offer little disguise for their inner selves. And it is only Peter’s recognition of what lies beneath Phil’s layers of armor that ultimately opens a path forward for most of the film’s characters.