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Stylish new films to see this holiday season: 'True Grit'

December 14, 2010 |  2:41 pm


Opening Dec. 22, "True Grit" is Joel and Ethan Coen’s envisioning of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, about a headstrong young girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to avenge her father's murder in 1870s-era western Arkansas and Indian Territory. She hires one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and much to his chagrin joins him on the trail.

Cutting a wide swath through the wild frontier, they cross paths with outlaws, snakes and a cocksure Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon). Thanks to costume designer Mary Zophres, the look of the characters along the dusty trail is intoxicating. I caught up with her for a few minutes recently to talk duster coats and 10-gallon hats.

I’m assuming you didn’t look at costumes from the original film, because this project is based on the novel, right?
I didn’t watch the film on purpose, because I didn’t want to be influenced by it. But I read the book twice.

How did you research the project?
I was very rusty on this time period, so I had to start from scratch, because it wasn’t like this was a book or a script that had a lot of details about the costumes. I spent two months at the research library at Western Costume in North Hollywood. I looked at lots of photos from the time period, except that you have to interpret every one. Because what people wore when they went to the photo studio wasn’t necessarily what they wore in real life. They probably only had one photo taken during their entire life, so they might borrow something, or wear something from the studio.

I also looked at a lot of written research from diaries and books. “Calico Chronicles: Texas Women and Their Fashions 1830-1910” was an invaluable book. It has a lot of original writing about fabric and clothing and undergarments. One entry talked about how a woman rotated her three dresses. Because people didn’t change their clothes very often. And men didn’t wear any underwear until much later. Their shirts were just longer and tucked into their pants. Gross, right?

How did you want Rooster Cogburn to look?
Iconic without being fancy. One thing that bothers me about some westerns is that they are too slick. If somebody has four garments they have been wearing for 10 years, imagine the wear. Rooster doesn’t have a lot of money; he even says that he lives in the back of a Chinese grocery. So I asked myself what he would have.

There was one style of shirt issued to the entire Union Army, so I re-created that. We made all the costumes. And you’re meant to think his coat was made from a Civil War blanket. I was obsessed with his coat, which is based on a photograph from the book “Bad Men: Outlaws and Gunfighters of the Wild West.” It's double breasted with a large collar and slit in back. My tailor specializes in period clothing. She knows that the shoulders would have been more set back and that there was no such thing as a shoulder pad at that time. When Jeff (Bridges) tried on the coat, his whole posture changed, and he started dropping his voice. When you see a shift like that in the fitting room, it gives you chills.

Getting the hats right must have been difficult.
In those days, there were no classic cowboy hats. There were city hats that were worn on the plains and they got messed up. For Jeff, we must have tried 100 hats. We narrowed it down to four, and then, when he auditioned with the final girls for the role of Mattie, he got dressed. That’s how Method he is. When we saw him in the hat, we knew it was the one. It was from American Costume, and we had multiples made.

So they weren't all wearing Stetsons, huh?

No. Stetson started out being a city hat company. The founder John B. Stetson’s son had asthma, so the family moved out West and started making hats with wider brims for guys on the trail. They were called “Boss of the Plains” hats, and that’s what Mattie wears. Her dad would have had access to that hat, because it was sold in the Montgomery Ward catalog at the time.

LaBoeuf is the antithesis of Rooster.

He’s the dandy of the bunch, so we thought, what can we put him in that will make him look different from everyone else in town. Nobody else wore buckskin, so we went with a fringed buckskin jacket. We modeled it after one worn in a photo of an actual Texas Ranger. His gloves have fringe, too. With him, it’s all a little too much.

Mattie’s trail outfit is fabulous. The oversized green wool coat cinched with a rough-hewn belt reminds me of Prada! What was the inspiration?
We  knew she would put her dad’s coat and hat on because that was scripted. I thought the green coat was a little more youthful for some reason, and we needed something to cinch her up. Men were not wearing belts in those days, but they had belts that tied their saddle rolls together. So that’s how I pitched it, that she could have wrapped that around the waist. It was really cute. I kind of want that outfit.

The fabrics had a great heft to them.
I agonized over all the fabric and button choices. A lot of the wools I used had to come from Europe, because I tried to use 32- or 18-ounce wools and they are hard to find here. We made everything and aged it. If we hadn’t had a great tailor and a great aging department, the movie would not have looked like it does.

-- Booth Moore

Top photo: Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in Paramount Pictures' "True Grit." Credit: Paramount Pictures

Bottom photo: Matt Damon plays LaBeouf in Paramount Pictures' "True Grit." Credit: Paramount Pictures