Researching outfits for the Netflix western The Harder They Fall, the costume designer Antoinette Messam got a history lesson in the process. The film’s story is fictional, but it draws on the real-life black cowboys of the west, including Nat Love, Bill Pickett, Rufus Buck and characters such as Stagecoach Mary, who delivered mail across the US, protecting it from bandits with a shotgun. It is now thought that one in four cowboys were black, but this reality has been whitewashed from history.
“I literally had to buy this book, The Black West,” says Messam. It contained images of these people for her to pore over. “They all had their own individual style,” she says. “So, when it came to my cast, it was really, really important that I differentiate everyone so they’re not a cookie-cutter, stereotypical cowboy, you know?”
Directed by Jeymes Samuel and produced by Jay-Z, the film features Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors. Their costumes showcase Messam’s research skills. Love, played by Majors, wears jeans. Messam says the original appeal was the indigo colour, “but I when I started doing my research, I was shocked to know that denim as I show it existed far before my timeline, from the 1850s. I was like: ‘My shit is accurate, you guys.’”
Stagecoach Mary, played by Beetz, is reimagined as a former gang member who owns saloons. She wears a corseted dress that multitasks. “When we first see her, it’s important to show her in the attire of a saloon,” says Messam. “Then, when we see her again, she’s dressed to go out on the plains … her dress is split, so that she can straddle a horse, not sit side-saddle, which was common at the time.”
Details like this are crucial for Messam. Most viewers will notice King’s frilled blouse, Stanfield’s neckerchief or Elba’s red velvet jacket, but look closer and you will see the different cultural influences that people such as Love and Buck would have absorbed. “It was important for me to use references from all over the world,” says Messam. “Spanish references, Mexican references, indigenous references. Mary wears a lot of silver and turquoise, and they were influenced by the vaqueros, Mexican cowboys.”
Cuffee, played by Danielle Deadwyler, is a gender-non-conforming character who provides the muscle on the door of Stagecoach Mary’s saloon. “In doing my research and coming across a woman who dressed non-binary, as we would call it now, it looked to me like it was mostly for practical reasons,” says Messam. Cuffee is clearly more comfortable in a man’s suit than a skirt. “To be taken seriously, that’s what worked for her,” says Messam. “If she was going to knock somebody out, it was better that she was wearing pants and a jacket.”
While modern viewers might assume that the clothing in The Harder They Fall would conform to gender norms, Messam says the era was more varied in reality – especially in the wild west. This is evident in her costumes. “It’s hard to see some of them in the saloon, but there was a woman in hats and pants alongside the ladies of the night,” she says.
The Harder They Fall comes out at a time when western style is enjoying a moment, with black Americans in the public eye showcasing the look. At the film’s premiere, Taraji P Henson wore a stetson, while others donned cowboy boots. This follows Beyoncé in chaps, Lil Nas X in a cowboy hat and the Yee-Haw Agenda, a website and Instagram account that works as an archive of imagery.
Is this about rediscovering style heritage lost to history? “Well, there’s that – and there’s also the fact that people are becoming aware of the cowboy culture that exists now,” Messam says. She references Elba’s film, Concrete Cowboy, which is based on a real-life black cowboy community in Philadelphia, and a community she visited in California. “Doing this film, they brought in cowboys from across the country to ride the horses,” she says. “I got to know some of them. They’re so cool.”
The Harder They Fall is on Netflix from 3 November