The film's costume designer channels Bonanza's Little Joe for a short and sexy Django Unchained jacket.
Who can forget Clint Eastwood’s low-slung cowboy hat in the dollar movies or Henry Fonda’s rough duster in Once Upon a Time in the West? The look of the main character greatly enhances the story line and action in both traditional and nontraditional spaghetti westerns. For Django Unchained, that important task fell to costume designer Sharen Davis, who worked with director Quentin Tarantino for more than a year to create the right look for Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins, Christoph Waltz, Don Johnson, and dozens of secondary actors.
An acclaimed costumer, Davis created the looks for such films as The Help (based on the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett about African-American maids working in white households during the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi) and Dreamgirls (the glitzy and glamorous fictionalized story of Diana Ross and The Supremes starring Jennifer Hudson).
Davis grew up watching classic TV westerns, so Django Unchained was a dream gig. “My father was a bit of a western fanatic and as a child we would watch Bonanza, [The] Big Valley, and Gunsmoke. I noticed, even at that young age, how amazingly manly these men were, especially Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates. My family got really sick of me singing the Rawhide theme song as a very little girl.”
From the outset of Django Unchained, Davis says, she had “decided to play the fine line between the Mandingo exploitation style and spaghetti western time in film history.” Hands-on down to the stitches, Davis illustrated every costume in the film and Tarantino approved each one before she and her team went to work. They discussed fabrics, colors, and styles from pre- through postproduction, tweaking and changing the looks based on changes in the script. “Some of the costumes are extremely campy and I had to go past the clothes into the character of the actors,” she says. “The poor actor would come into wardrobe and Quentin would be in the fittings and start rehearsing with them,” Davis says laughing. “As soon as they were dressed, he saw them as their characters and felt it was time to get to work.”
Davis’ work started with dressing the all-important main character, drawing both on her own immersion in westerns as a child and her previous collaborations with Jamie Foxx. She had worked with Foxx twice before, garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design for Dreamgirls, in which he played the Berry Gordy Jr.-based music mogul Curtis Taylor Jr., and for Ray, in which he played music great Ray Charles.
“Jamie has the ability to totally change his look, speech, walk, and attitude. It does not look like Jamie when I look at Django,” Davis says. “So when he started his transition, I got to start mine. Quentin invited me over to his house after I’d been hired and we watched three episodes of the old TV series Bonanza together.”
Tarantino told Davis he wanted Foxx to “look like Little Joe” (the youngest son in Bonanza’s Cartwright family). “So we started the metamorphosis with his Western costume and I realized that Quentin wanted me to make a costume for Jamie that related to that sexy Little Joe character with that same short jacket. However, this vision had to be his own look and style. It took me 10 different tries to get that jacket just right.”
Getting the jacket right was important, but Foxx’s transition from Southern slave to Western-style bounty hunter wasn’t complete until he threw a saddle over his shoulder and donned a felt cowboy hat.
For Walton Goggins’ Billy Crash, the Mandingo fight trainer, it was also the hat that sealed the transition. “Sharen really found the hat, and as fate would have it, it was the first hat I tried on and really keyed into who this guy was,” Goggins says. “The clothes that Sharen designed really hang off Billy in a very elegant way. He has very little movement in the story and therefore these clothes don’t move that often; they are graceful in their state of disrepair. Billy is a very elegant guy in the way he talks, walks, handles his gun, and Sharen captured this feel through his wardrobe.”
Working in deep rich fabrics is one of her trademarks, so creating a somewhat authentic wardrobe for Leonardo DiCaprio as plantation owner Calvin Candie was a real challenge. “During the time that Django Unchained took place, most men wore black period suits and I didn’t really want to dress Leo that way. ... So I once again combined the spaghetti western and exploitation look and dressed him in rich brown tones, as well as designing a beautiful burgundy satin jacket, which becomes a pretty significant costume.”
When Davis dressed Kerry Washington, the goal was to never make her look tattered or downtrodden even though she plays a slave. “Her character, Broomhilda, wore beautiful dresses made from beautiful fabrics, and I kept the color intensity up on her,” Davis says. “Kerry never actually looked bad — we weren’t really playing realistic with her. A slave at Calvin Candie’s plantation, she is cleaned up and looks really great through most of the movie; and her finale outfit is kind of a Western frontier look.”
Sporting a gray goatee and shoulder-length hair, former Miami Vice pinup boy Don Johnson is virtually unrecognizable in Django Unchained. Johnson costars as Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennet, the owner of the Bennet Manor plantation (“a funny and bad, kinder and gentler slave owner, bigger than life and very flamboyant,” according to Johnson), who reluctantly helps Django and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) after taking a bribe. Having grown up with Johnson’s blond and beautiful James “Sonny” Crockett character on Miami Vice, Davis can only laugh when she thinks about how she hyperventilated the first time she met him in the hallway of the film’s production offices. “I couldn’t even talk to Don but immediately looked at him and thought, He has to wear white, just like Sonny wore. I designed a white cotton linen suit for him, and of course he looked fantastic.”
As daunting as it was to bring all of the elements of Django Unchained together in a total look, was it fun? Davis relished the challenge. “The guys in these spaghetti westerns are really sexy,” she says. “They’re like rock stars, so I really went for it.”
From the January 2013 issue.