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Django Unchained: Tarantino’s First Costume Oscar?

Quentin Tarantino has directed films that feature some of the most iconic costumes of the last twenty years, e.g. Reservoir Dogs’ black suits (Betsy Heimann), Mia Wallace’s trouser suit (Heimann), the Kill Bill tracksuit (Kumiko Ogawa, Catherine Marie Thomas). Yet no Tarantino movie has ever won or even been nominated for a Costume Design Oscar; a travesty that may boil down to his stories often being contemporary, not period. World War II set Inglourious Basterds (Anna B. Sheppard) was an exception, but again, amazingly, not even a nomination.

Django Unchained, costumed by Sharen Davis, might just buck this trend. It is period so immediately stands in good stead. Secondly, judging by the trailers released so far, the palette is primary colourful, fun and rich with detail; one thing the Academy does not tend to appreciate is subtle. Davis is already a highly regarded costume designer, currently riding high after her work on Looper, but Django Unchained brings enough hype to propel her as a mainstream name in the industry.

Latest international trailer for Django Unchained.

Each trailer, especially the most recent, suggest a tonally familiar Tarantino film; typically one less focused on absolute authenticity than character exposition. Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie, for example; the flamboyant villian in city fashions, his clothes are deliberately peacocky, reflecting his theatrical persona. Jamie Foxx too as freed slave Django, at one point mocked for his church clothes, a baby blue suit with lace cravat, which is exactly what his character would have chosen when left alone with freedom and money for the first time.

Django Unchained is set in America’s Deep South during 1859, two years prior to the Civil War. Sharen Davis created a journal of looks from around this time before suggesting to Tarantino he choose a specific year in order to maintain historical continuity with costume. Authenticity may not be priority number one, but to a certain extent is vital to establishing and maintaining a believable story world.

Leonardo DiCaprio as colourful plantation owner Calvin Candie sporting ‘city fashions’.

With only nine weeks of official prep, Davis actually started work three weeks early (unpaid) to get a head start. Her research began as it always does by poring over library books of textiles and fabrics to get a feel for the period. Evidently this led her to believe that Tarantino could not just say ‘pre-Civil War’ on press releases; he needed to decide exactly when.

Analysing the trailers it is clear Django Unchained does not focus on ‘cowboy wear’ as such. Indeed the cowboy as a symbol of the Old West was not celebrated until after the Civil War. Men’s clothes were plain black or dark wool, hats floppy brimmed planter’s style (no Stetsons yet). The gentry indulged in a frock coat, perhaps a cape, or like Christophe Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, a Garrick. Django’s own coat is a wry nod to Little Joe’s (Michael Landon) permanent green version worn in classic TV series Bonanza.

Climate will play a part in costume. Here mysterious Schultz (Christoph Waltz) looks to be wearing a winter coat made from wolf pelts.

For women, clothes in this era were far more fun. Well, perhaps not to wear, but certainly to admire. The silhouette was a tiny waspish waist, as glimpsed several times during the trailers, with several layers of underwear, sometimes as many as five (corset, chemise, petticoats, etc). However this was exclusively Southern Belle attire, black slaves would need to make their own rudimentary clothes in order to survive; fashion did not come into it.

What these sartorial variations amount to for Django Unchained is an energetic and eclectic landscape of colour and texture. Presuming the film delivers as everything we hope, the Academy may get caught up with Acting and Original Screenplay momentum to bestow a Costume Design Nomination too. If so this could be the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership for Sharen Davis and Quentin Tarantino.

Django Unchained is released on 25th December in the U.S. and 18th January in the UK.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.