In Killers of the Flower Moon – Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama – Indigenous culture takes the spotlight in more ways than one. Based on the non-fiction book by David Grann, the film tells the real-life tale of how members of the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma were murdered after oil was discovered on their land. In addition to a powerhouse Indigenous cast – including leading lady Lily Gladstone (who’s already garnering Oscar buzz), Cara Jade Myers, and Hollywood legend Tantoo Cardinal – the film uses distinctive costuming that pays homage to traditional Osage design to tell this untold story.
Such a monumental project was no small feat for the lead costume designer, Jacqueline West, and the research process began long before filming. First, West needed a team of Indigenous consultants to ensure the costuming was accurate for the time period, so she enlisted lead Osage costume consultant Julie O’Keefe to work closely with her. Together, they then assembled a whole team of Osage artists – including Kugee Supernaw, Sean Standing Bear, Jennifer Tiger, Jessica Harjo and Moira RedCorn – to work on special pieces for the film. “They contributed so much,” says West. “I couldn’t have done this movie without [them]. We wanted to make sure that we got it right because it’s such an incredible story that needs to be told properly.”
The movie centres around Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who marries Mollie (Lily Gladstone) as a ploy to infiltrate her wealthy Osage family, the Kyles, and steal their inheritance. Soon after, Mollie’s sisters start to disappear under mysterious circumstances, one by one. In the early 20th century, the Osage Nation was one of the richest people per capita in the world, earning substantial royalties from oil sales in their territory. This wealth made them a target.
Knowing this history, West and O’Keefe wanted the Native attire in the film to be extravagant and beautiful – two qualities they often found within their research of what Osage members wore at the time. “I must have pulled 2,000 photographs from the period,” says West. “There was a range from traditional to modern. Some people travelled to France and had the best couture clothing, bespoke suits and handmade shoes – but even the moderns always had a touch of Osage that they hung on to.”
A pivotal piece that exemplified this idea of luxurious – yet traditional – Osage style was the blanket, an ornamental accessory worn by all four of the Indigenous sisters in the film. West and O’Keefe’s research found that many Osage women wore striped blankets by Pendleton that were sometimes adorned or embellished by family members with extra elements. “[Osage] women wore these as armour,” says West. “It’s what you wore when you went out and faced the world, and [you felt like] you can handle anything in it.”
Since many of the archival photographs were in black and white, however, the costume team had to take liberties around the colour schemes. “I did that with the help of Pendleton – we went back to their knitting mills and saw what colours were being produced in the ’20s for the Osage,” says West. Pendleton ended up re-creating more than a thousand blankets for the film, and then the workroom of Indigenous artists fringed them, added ribbon work, or embroidered symbols onto them.
West and O’Keefe also took special care in how all of these main (and background) characters wore the pieces – whether they were draped across the back or folded delicately over the arm. “There’s many different ways to wear an Osage blanket,” says O’Keefe. “There’s different ways to fold it, depending on where you are.” The way the accessories were styled even became a crucial detail. “Lily Gladstone would not go to set without Julie going to her trailer first to make sure the blanket was folded the exact right way for the scene,” says West.
Ernest and Mollie’s wedding ensembles were crucial costumes as well. In Osage culture, traditional wedding coats and top hats – worn by women during the ceremony – are some of the most important and sacred elements. The look derives from the early 1900s, when military jackets and top hats were often given to Osage chiefs and leaders from the US government and were subsequently repurposed as bridal attire. “The irony is that it takes something that represents the white man’s power and makes it something joyous and celebratory for an Osage wedding,” says West. “There’s something so beautifully rebellious about that.” In the film, Mollie sports a bespoke military-style coat with an embroidered skirt, finger-woven belt, and 18-inch top hat decorated with French ribbon and feathers.
While the film’s costuming includes plenty more splendour to take in – don’t miss the handmade moccasins, striking ball-and-cone earrings, beaded chokers, or Stetson hats on the Osage men – it was the process of creating these pieces and bringing them to life that truly resonates with the designers. For once, an entire Indigenous community was allowed to take the creative reins behind the scenes – a rarity in Hollywood, which has historically appropriated and stereotyped Indigenous people – and tell an accurate story through fashion instead. “It was amazing to have that participation,” says O’Keefe. “There’s so many other communities down the road that can have a say.” Still, they hope you don’t get too swept away in the beautiful designs. “I hope [viewers] don’t remember the costumes,” says West. “If you remember the costumes, you missed the story.”
This article was originally published on British Vogue.
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