“I was with my team on probably the first or second day of shooting. It was all hands on deck and we were throwing fake dirt on the actors because I was like, ‘It has to be dirtier’ — and we were already up to our elbows in fake dirt and distressing the material,” says Janie Bryant. “And I turned to my team and said, ‘I didn’t think that I was ever going to be back here again. But here we are.’”
The veteran costume designer relates in her Tennessee drawl, and sounding a little like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone rejoining the Mafia family, that she’s in a place she endearingly calls “Western-ville.” And she’s all in, outfitting a literal cast of thousands for Taylor Sheridan’s sprawling drama 1883, which premiered this week on Paramount+ as the prequel to the streamer’s hit drama Yellowstone, and is getting the biggest numbers for a cable debut since 2015. Bryant, who garnered an Emmy for her costumes on the HBO series Deadwood, has been in these parts before. But in the interim, she became practically a household name herself as the era-defining mastermind of Mad Men’s cosmopolitan ‘60s fashions, and not incidentally also launching some of her own fashion collaborations in the process.
But she’s a long way from the canyons of Manhattan these days, filming in the plains of Texas and mountains of Montana. But this time around, it’s a very different story and set of characters than Deadwood, she hastens to point out.
“You know, there’s one word to describe it, and that is epic, epic, epic,” Bryant says. “On my first episode, I probably had a thousand extras. And of course, designing the principal cast.” Not to mention outfitting a passel of stunt actors as well as the group of immigrant characters coming from a different world and making their way across the plains in the wagon train, shepherded by the flinty Sam Elliot as Shea Brennan. And, as she puts it about joining up with Sheridan, Hollywood’s creative deity of the moment who impossibly brought the project from page to screen in seven months, “Taylor’s amazing. He’s pretty epic himself.”
Bryant was on a similarly tight timeline and started designing with her team in L.A. in June before shifting the costume-building to Fort Worth when filming began in August before moving location to Montana and then back to Texas again. Speaking to THR this week, she enthuses that she has just finished fitting the very last costume for the season, which wraps shooting in mid-January — but she demurs when asked who the costume was for. Given that the starry cast also includes Tim McGraw and his real-life spouse Faith Hill as James and Margaret Dutton, newcomer Isabel May as their teenage daughter Elsa and as big-name cameos from the likes of Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton — it could be anybody’s guess.
Bryant also credits the players for the authenticity on-screen. “The actresses are all in corsets … riding horses or driving wagons, and the men are all in wool with the heat and the elements, and you can really feel how taxing it was,” she says. “Think about a hundred-degree weather and wearing a camisole, corset, bloomers, bustle pad, petticoat and then putting a costume on top of that. I applaud them for being for going with it.” She adds, “My costume team had gotten some ice packs and other things to try to ease the pain. Sam Elliott was like, ‘I don’t need it. I want to be hot.’ They really embraced what it would be like to live in 1883.”
Bryant says she gave a lot of thought to the teenage Elsa character, whose growing up mirrors the larger story (and who also functions as writer Sheridan’s alter ego in narrating the tale), particularly in her opening scene on a train in her traveling garb.
“It was really important to show her off in the beginning, this wide-eyed innocent with all the youthfulness of that character,” Bryant says. “She is kind of a wild child, too, and her aunt Claire slaps her for being rude and later she jumps off the train.” But, exacting artist that she is, Bryant notes that Elsa takes that leap while wearing a period dress with a then-fashionable polonaise, an added overskirt draped to the side (a flourish that Victorian dressmakers revived from the Baroque Period a la Marie Antoinette). “It’s one of my favorite things ever,” Bryant says, adding that Sheridan expressed the preference for its blue color. “Blue is the color of the sky, and I feel like Elsa has kind of an airy quality about her,” says Bryant. “But you’re going to be very excited about the journey of that blue traveling costume. It’s like a character in itself.”
Similar forethought went into Faith Hill’s attire in a dusty pink fabric Bryant sourced in England and Tim McGraw’s frock coat with a leather-trimmed collar and hand-carved wooden buttons. “I wanted them to look well-dressed and prepared for this journey,” Bryant says. “It’s like the whole family really had no idea of what they were getting into. So, they prepared as best they could.” It’s also a stark contrast to the solitary figure of Elliott’s Shea, who first appears in almost otherworldly isolation. “He’s lost everything,” she adds. “Just being in the long johns, the suspenders, the trousers, the boots. Just bare-bones and vulnerable.”
Amid a busy year with 1883 as well as her earlier stint this year costuming Paramount+’s Why Women Kill, Bryant has a new round of fashion collaborations as well. She’sto individualize three of its “American Classics” styles that are currently available, include a version of its Vintage Quartz model on a chain bracelet. And coming in the spring, she’ll be unveiling a capsule collection that draws on her deep knowledge and affection for the American West, including men’s and women’s outerwear, shirting, and accessories, with rugged-wear outfitter Tom Beckbe.
Shooting over the past long days and months, Bryant spent a good deal of time “seriously out in the country,” as she puts it. “We were just out there. One night, I will never forget, I was driving back to the hotel, and it was pitch-black dark outside. I couldn’t see anything and all of a sudden, I see a huge, huge family of wild pigs running across the road, and I almost hit them. One looked like it weighed a thousand pounds. And all these little piglets. I just love them, but it was terrifying.”
And Bryant realized she was really, really lost, just trying to get herself back to her hotel for the night.
“And then some cowboy saved me, thank goodness, as they do,” Bryant continues. “I stopped and he said, ‘Ma’am, do you know where you are going?’ And I said, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ And he pointed the way for me so I could get back home.”
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