They’re not cookie cutter: Dressing the black cowboys in The Harder They Fall

woman in white v neck shirt wearing black hat

Antoinette Massam, costume designer for the western, explains how historical figures influenced the looks of Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield in this new western.

Antoinette Massam, the costume designer for Netflix’s western The Harder They Fall learned a lot about history while researching outfits. Although the film’s story is fictionalized, it draws inspiration from real-life black cowboys, such as Nat Love, Bill Pickett and Rufus Buck. Stagecoach Mary was a mail carrier across the US who protected it from bandits using a shotgun. Although it is believed that only one in four cowboys was black, this fact has been erased from history.

Messam says, “I had to buy this book The Black West.” She was able to look through the images. She says, “They all had their individual styles. So when it came down to my cast, I felt it was very important that I distinguished everyone so they weren’t a stereotypical cowboy.”

grayscale photography of piled cowboy hats

The film was directed by Jeymes Samuel  and produced by Jay-Z. It stars Regina King, Zazie Bent, Idris Elba, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, and Zazie Beetz. Messam’s research skills are evident in their costumes. Majors plays Love in jeans. Messam claims that the original appeal of indigo was due to its color, but “I was surprised to discover that denim, as I show, existed long before my timeline. It dates back to the 1850s. I was like, “My shit is correct, you guys.””

Beetz portrays Stagecoach Mary as a former member of gang who now owns saloons. The corseted gown she wears multitasks. Messam says that it is important to show her in the saloon attire when we first meet her. “Then, when she sees us again, she’s dressed for going out on the plains… her dress has been split so she can straddle horses, not side-saddle as was the norm at that time.”

These are the most important details for Messam. Many viewers will be able to spot King’s frilled blouse, Stanfield’s neckerchief, and Elba’s red velvet jacket. But if you look closely, you’ll see the cultural influences Love and Buck would have taken in. Messam says, “It was important to me that I use references from all around the world. Spanish references, Mexican references, indigenous references.” Mary is a fan of turquoise and silver, which were inspired by Mexican cowboys, the vaqueros.

Cuffee, played by Danielle Deadwyler, is a gender-non-conforming character who provides the muscle on the door of Stagecoach Mary’s saloon. Messam says, “I found a woman who was dressed non-binary in my research. It seemed to me that it was mostly practical reasons.” Cuffee clearly prefers a suit to a skirt. Messam says that she was able to make her being taken seriously by wearing a suit and a jacket. “If she was going knock someone out, it was better if she was wearing pants with a jacket.”

Modern viewers may assume that The Harder They Fall’s clothing conforms to gender norms. However, Messam claims that the reality was much more diverse than this – especially in the Wild West. Her costumes are a perfect example of this. She says, “It was hard to see some of these ladies in the saloon. But there were women wearing hats and pants along with the ladies of the night.”

woman in white v neck shirt wearing black hat

The Harder They Falls comes out at a time western style is in vogue, with black Americans being prominently featured. Taraji P Henson was wearing a stetson to the premiere of the film, while others wore cowboy boots. Beyonce is seen in chaps and Lil Nas X wears a cowboy hat.

This is about rediscovering the style heritage that has been lost to history. Messam states, “Well, that’s one thing – but there’s also the fact people are becoming more aware of the cowboy culture now.” She mentions Elba’s film Concrete Cowboy, which is based upon a real-life Philadelphia black cowboy community and one she visited in California. She says, “They brought in cowboys across the country to ride on the horses while they were making this film. I met some of them. They are so cool!”

Netflix’s The Harder They Fall is available starting 3 November.

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