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Contender Q&A: 'True Grit' costume designer Mary Zophres

She drew inspiration from the Montgomery Ward catalog, an Albuquerque taxidermist and cowboy fashion sense.

February 03, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Clockwise from top; Costume designer Mary Zophres; Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in "True Grit; Zophres' Mattie Ross costume sketch.
Clockwise from top; Costume designer Mary Zophres; Hailee Steinfeld as… (Mary Zophres / Paramount…)

When Mary Zophres was designing costumes for Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit," product placement tie-ins were the last thing on her mind. Her rugged Old West garb for stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld was based on rigorous historical research. "It wasn't about making somebody look sexy," she says. "By not giving a nod to contemporary fashion, it helps you set yourself as an audience member in that time and place."

The very muted clothing palette made me think of a vintage sepia photograph. Was that intentional or did people dress in drab colors in those days?

It was very true for the men. In the research, all the photographs are black and white, but you could find things in a catalog or diaries. The Montgomery Ward catalog was like a flier, not a catalog like we have today, but for the men's clothing it was gray, brown, black and that was it. And shirts usually came in cream. And everything, with the exception of the shirts, was made out of wool. The poor guys. Even in the summertime, the men had to wear wool. Comfort wasn't even considered.

The women had a much more colorful palette. I remember a plaid that was available in mauve and mint green, and after embedding myself in the world of this movie, the thought of mauve made me want to puke. Or like a mint green. Yes, it's historically accurate, but am I going to help tell the story by having those colors in the crowd? No. What will help tell this story is we want to emphasize that it's wintertime and it's freezing and these people are about to embark on a journey on horseback. No Patagonia. You keep it tonally dark and somewhat somber.

I noticed that you didn't make a lot of costumes for each character.

Jeff had two changes, Matt Damon had one, Mattie [Hailee Steinfeld] had two changes. She goes to town, she doesn't anticipate staying the amount of time that she stays. That's why we kept her in the same dress. And she has her city coat and when she goes on the trail, she puts on her dad's pants, a shirt of her own that she has brought and her dad's coat is over that. We just needed a lot of multiples. Mattie needed 12 coats because she has different phases, and in each of those phases she had a stunt double and a photo double and a double because she was a minor.

Was the man's coat Mattie wears designed to symbolize the fact that going into Indian country is unconventional for a young girl?

That's the underlying meaning to me, but there are many levels to that coat. It's the way for her to connect to her father now that he's gone — she's wearing his clothes. When you see the dead figure in the beginning of the movie, he deliberately does not have a coat on because we wanted to suggest that he didn't get shot in his coat so there's no bullet hole.

Did you take any liberties with vintage style?

I'm sure I did, but I tried to stay accurate at the same time. Authenticity was interesting to me. There's a formality in the script of language, and to me the clothing had the same kind of formality. It was considered risqué to walk outside without your vest on in 1870. I read a cowboy saying, "It's like going outside in your underwear." So all of the men in the movie have a vest on. The constriction in the clothes — there are button flies and the pants are worn high — all of that lends itself to the story, I thought.

The roving doctor with the bearskin coat and head for a hood — was the bear head in the script?

It said that he was wearing a bear skin. Joel and Ethan were actually very specific. They wanted his head to be inside the bear head.

How did you make that?

The gentleman they cast was huge — he was 6 foot 4. We couldn't find a bear big enough. You'd think bears would be big enough, but they weren't. I went to a taxidermist in Albuquerque, and on the floor was a bearskin rug with the head. And I was like, "OK, that's going to be his head," because it looked pretty good. And he happened to have some bearskins in a box. So we took those and cobbled four bearskins together to make that guy's outfit because he was so big. We wanted to envelop him in it. When he comes riding up, it looks like he's a bear on a horseback.

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