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Costume Spotlight: Tombstone (1993)

A Review of Women's Costumes

Tombstone: 1993, costume design by Joseph Porro

First, a discussion of what this article is not. It will not be a discussion of the historical or theatrical merits of Tombstone. This is an article about the quality, execution, and historical accuracy of the women’s costumes in this film. This is not an attempt to tell anyone not to like the film or costumes or not to copy its costumes. It is merely an offer of knowledge and opinion to show what this designer did historically right and historically wrong. Always remember that even if costumes in a film are not historically accurate (HA), the film may still offer ideas and inspiration.

Tombstone is set in 1879 (even though the fight at the OK Corral took place in 1881). This places the film smack dab in the middle of the Natural Form or Cuirass Body period - 1875 to 1882.

As quoted from Harper’s Bazar, October 23, 1875, “The ideal at present is the greatest possible flatness and straightness: a woman is a pencil covered with raiment.” The silhouette was flat, straight, and vertical with slenderizing continuing up to 1881. Additionally, asymmetry was introduced in draping and trim application. In fact, the bustle as worn in the mid-1870’s and again in the mid-1880s essentially disappears. There is a very small “bustle” pad that could be worn under skirts but a majority of the skirt back interest is done with elaborate draping and not an understructure. This is NOT a bustle era despite some very interesting designs on the derriere.

Now for specifics. The day dresses of the Earp wives appear to be cotton calicos. They are all in small-print print patterns, though it is impossible to tell if the calicos are historically correct since the detail is too small to see. These light weight, comfortable fabrics would have been appropriate for traveling during the summer.

The style of the three Earp wives’ dresses are in the princess cut and are period correct. Unfortunately, the backs of two of the dresses are never visible so no comment can be made on back draping. Additionally, there does not appear to be any embellishment on these two dresses. However, Mattie Earp’s (Wyatt’s wife) has a strange low hanging half-circle ruffle on the front of the skirt at about knee height which seems out of place. Additionally, the front of the bodice has a bib effect using lace in a scoop design. THIS is a modernism in the 1970’s Gunne Sax interpretation of Victorian style. The treatment is not HA.

The day dresses of Josephine (“Josie”) Marcus on the other hand have some issues. She first appears in a grey “silk” dress trimmed in persimmon. I don’t believe anyone, even with money at their disposal, would have traveled in a silk dress. It would have been too dirty traveling by stagecoach and certainly uncomfortably warm. I understand the designer’s reason for having her appear in a dress of this type in her first scene, but for historical re-enactors, it’s simply not realistic. Additionally, this is supposed to be silk faille, but when the sheen on the dress is examined, it appears to be rayon or something artificial (polyester?). There is no way to be certain that this is some sort of artificial textile, but it just doesn’t read as silk in sunlight. Whether correct or not about this gown’s fabric, as historical re-enactors natural fibers always work best -- or at least textiles that read as natural in bright daylight. Additionally, it appears that all of Josie’s day dresses are silk, which is fine when not traveling and a good choice for someone portraying wealth. There is one other textile issue that was a miss here. There is a raspberry dress Josie wears toward the end of the film that appears to be Dupioni silk. My recent research shows that Dupioni and Shantung do not start appearing in women’s European clothing until around 1890. On a positive note, the color choices are HA for Josie’s gowns.

One of Josie’s gowns stands out in a bad way. In the middle of the film, she appears in what is supposed to be a silver tissue lame silk dinner gown. Everything is wrong with this fabric. Even in the “evening light” of the saloon, it screams artificial. While gold or silver silk lame existed (“cloth of gold” or “cloth of silver” goes back to at least the 14th Century in Europe), it never looked like this. This dress is almost “glow in the dark.” It’s the poster child for historical inaccuracy (on many levels).

As to the accessories for the women, they are historically reliable other than several pairs of earrings that look like posts rather than hooks. Even the long dangly earrings are period correct. Hats and hair ornaments are HA, especially the toque style hats. Reticules, carpet bags, parasols, gloves, all acceptable. While the shawls are also appropriate, there is one exception. One of the Earp wives in the beginning of the film wears a small, sheer, triangular “shawl.” This looks more like a fichu AND an 18th Century one at that.

Hair styles in the film are unfortunately “Hollywood-ized.”Like the gowns, this is a “long and narrow” period for hair. Hair would have smooth and flat on the sides and piled on top of the head.There was also a lot going on at the back of the head. There were soft curls, frizzy curls, braids, elaborate chignons, and all sorts of fanciness. Those women who did not have well-coifed styles would have probably had simple buns toward the top of the head. The film, however, has several ladies with hair draped around ears, sausage curls bouncing all over the top of a head, hair parted on the side, to name just a few inaccuracies. Essentially, do not rely on the film for hair styling.

The necklines on day and evening dresses are accurate, with two exceptions (sort of). Mattie’s grey gown and Josie’s white and red gown, both of which have off the shoulder scoop necklines. This neckline style disappears during this period. It’s a vestige of pre-1875 (and yes, styles go out of fashion that quickly during the Victorian period and later). Mattie’s out-of-date neckline could be HA if one assumes she wouldn’t have the money or ability to change fashion quickly. However, Josie is another story. No one with her money or fashion sense, even out West, would wear a gown that was this out of style.

You may notice that Kate (Doc Holliday’s companion) is unmentioned to this point because pretty much everything she wears is historically inaccurate. Her hair styles to her clothes to her accessories are stereotypical Hollywood Western bad girl. The thin shoulder straps with dangly beads over the arms on her bodices, the small breasts squeezed so tightly they pop out the top of the bodice, the red and black colors, and the lace fingerless opera-length gloves are dance hall girl typecast. Only the clothing colors are HA – the rest a big nope.

Now for the worst costuming aspects of this film. It starts with fit and cut of the garments. Important info: ease (the quantity of inches the garment is larger than the wearer’s measurements) in the modern era for a tight fit is four inches. In the Victorian era it’s two inches. What a difference those two inches make. However, the fit of every single lady’s garment in this film is bad. They ALL have wrinkling, gathering, and puckering on the bodices. Not only are they badly fit (even by modern standards) it’s obvious there are no bones in the bodices to smooth them out. If there’s one universal in Victorian bodices it’s a smooth appearance. So, these are all poorly fit and incorrectly constructed. One of the worst examples of poor construction is on Josie’s grey dress, which has a princess cut bodice. It’s not known if the costume designer did not know how to fit a princess seam or knew and still did this, but at the bust tip there is a two-inch horizontal dart on the side-front panel. This is not a period way of fitting AND is unnecessary in a correctly cut princess seamed bodice as all the fitting is accomplished by precisely shaping the center opening and princess seam over the bust. This is absolutely not HA (and not necessary when properly fitted).

As far as the skirts, the shapes on a good portion of them (and all of Josie’s) are also not HA. As earlier stated, the look for this era is slim and long. Despite this not being a bustle era, there are bustles supporting almost every skirt Josie wears and even with some of the Earp wives’ dresses. In addition to the bustles many of the skirts (again, especially Josie’s) are simply too wide and voluminous for this period. However, the embellishment on the skirts when done is well executed.

As far as corsets, only two appear in the film: one worn by Kate and another by Josie. It’s obvious, though, that these are the only two corsets in the film and are only used in the two “underwear” scenes. Kate looks like she’s wearing something constrictive under her bodices, which may be a corset, but it seems to be used solely to push her very small bust over the neckline of the bodice. The corset you do get to see her wearing is not the right shape: too long over the hips and too straight across at the top. And X-pattern lacing is an amateur corset lacing mistake. As far as Josie’s corset, it’s very difficult to see, but from the visible snippets it may be correctly shaped. However, it’s clear from garment fit to physical flexibility to how the actors carry themselves no-one is wearing a corset. This seems like a hugely missed costume opportunity to create the proper look for the period. The addition of a corset takes a costume from being “period-esque” to “period.” What a difference a corset makes!

On the Darla scale of historical costume accuracy (10 being best, 1 being worst), Tombstone gets a solid 5. While the film should not be used as a good example of the historical accuracy, it does offer interesting embellishment ideas (okay, except for the obvious machine embroidery on Josie’s grey gown – applying a dyed lace applique to match the persimmon or hand embroidery would have looked far more period).

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