If you are afforded the opportunity to watch Martin Scorsese’s masterful Killers of the Flower Moon more than once, make sure you pay close attention to the costumes by Jacqueline West. With every viewing, I have noticed more texture, more color, and, most importantly, I have learned more about the Osage history just from watching this film. Even if you are unfamiliar with the horrifying events of Scorsese’s latest opus, you become immediately curious about how these people wear their clothes and why. Collaborating with Osage wardrobe consultant, Julie O’Keefe, honoring the Osage people was always at the forefront of West’s mind and heart.
A lot of unspeakable violence happens to the Osage people in Scorsese’s film, but the image that always comes to my mind when I think of Killers is a seemingly simple one. Four sisters–Mollie, Reta, Anna Minnie– sit on a blanket as they watch men roughhouse. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest is among them, and Lily Gladstone’s Mollie defends her crush on him as her sisters playfully jab her. One might assume that this is a throwaway scene, but the blanket wraps and other costume pieces inform us of so much. Each woman holds a different fan, and every sister (except for Mollie) dons a hat. Anna lays on her stomach.
“I want to turn that picture into a painting–I love the palette,” West begins. “Julie was my co-conspirator throughout that scene, and they tell a story when they are all together. We always compared the sisters to a three-button suit. One is traditional all the time, one is traditional some of the time, and the third never does that. Mollie is the never and she maintains her traditions. The other sister, depending on the scene, have some Osage clothing on. Anna’s blanket has totally fallen off her 1920’s dress, so she truly represents ‘the modern’ It confirms their closeness, so it contributes to the sadness of how they were murdered one by one. In that moment, they were still happy and together, and there is a unity of them on that blanket. You really believe that these women are sisters. These women are from different Native nations, but when they came together to make this film, they became sisters. You felt that they loved each other, so they got very close on this set. Julie was a thread that wove between them. She would visit each of them in their trailer, and she would make sure what they were wearing was right for that scene. There would be a certain way that you would wear yourself. They are speaking Osage and talking about these rascals that they are attracted to or involved with–it really reveals the complexity of the story that is about to unfold about love and betrayal. You can love someone but still betray them. Visually, I love the color palette, I can’t help but think that it looks like a painting. The decisions of the hats and blankets show a lot of personality.”
“It’s one of my favorite scenes too,” O’Keefe says, with a smile. “When you look at the intricacies of how their blankets are positioned, it explains so much. Blankets and shawls are telling about a life event that’s happening, so you are seeing them in repose during a fun time in their life. Everyone is dying around them and they know it, so they are representing themselves through costumes but also real clothing. Jacqueline had thousands of research photos, and we had some through the Osage Tribal Museum. You really see the representation of Lizzie Q, who is very traditional, but as you’re going through with modern clothing, Minnie and Reta are still showing who they are on the outside who they are on the inside. That’s a day for enjoyment, and they have on some of their best–my grandmother used to call it her “going to town clothes,” and you would show it off from time to time.”
When Ernest and Mollie get married, we get a glimpse of a traditional Osage wedding ceremony. Mollie wears a stunning jacket, and we see a few family members wearing large hats towards the beginning of the festivities. The details waft and dance on the wind. We can almost smell the fresh air. O’Keefe was quick to jump in and reveal some history of these garments.
“These [jackets] were given as a diplomatic give when this delegation was leaving Thomas Jefferson,” she says. “The men in our tribe, historically, are known to be tall, statuesque and strapping, and they couldn’t wear these blankets. What they would end up doing is giving them to their daughters. I think the last arranged marriage was, I think, in 1942, and, when it was time for a wedding, they would have a team of family members and friends of the family all preparing. It would all start with a bushel of groceries. The groom would bring food and put it at the end of the driveway for the bride. If the family came down and they decided to take this basket of food, they would take it back and they would prepare a meal. Then the families would get together to start the preparations. Horses would be given away, and this is in the ’20s. They would have money tied on them. I’ve seen an old netting that they would dress horses and cars in.
“For the coat, you knew you would be marrying someone of great importance in the tribe. Not everyone had those coats. As they continues to keep trading these and putting our own ribbon work and our own imprint on these military coat, it would turn into this beautiful piece of art. That would all be given away. Everything on that bride is given away. There’s a trunk that I saw from a family member who had an entire collection from a wedding that her great-grandmother had helped with. I mean literally everything. The netting from the horses, the flags, the blankets, the hat–everything goes to that person. It’s kind of like a dowry but it’s not going to that family. We no longer have the use of those wedding coats, and they stopped trading them. All of a sudden, we started making our own, and we do today. We use that same wedding coat in a ceremony known as Passing of the Drum at our traditional dances in June. There are three different districts, and there is someone known as the drum keeper and that family takes the drum around the village. They will make wedding coats to give away to certain people who support the village, and they will give them away within the first few days of the dances.”
“I read somewhere that the Osage doesn’t judge their wealth by what they could afford but by how much they could give away,” West adds. “If a chief’s daughter was being married, one wedding could cost fifty thousand dollars, and that would be one million dollars right now. He gave away nine Chevrolets to people who worked on the wedding. Could you imagine giving away nine cars now? I love that concept that your wealth was displayed not to show how ostentatious you were but by what you could give your family and friends. I think that’s so beautiful. Find someone who will do that in this day and age.”
Ernest doesn’t seem like a man who puts a lot of stock into the clothes he wears. “I love money,” he admits very early on, but he isn’t initially splurging on clothes right away. Mollie does give him a cowboy hat when her interest in him grows bigger. It’s almost as if the hat represents her heart, and she is giving it to Ernest to wear boldly, proudly. She wants him to look and feel confident. Later, we see details added to it to show Ernest feeling welcome by the Osage people.
“That’s a huge symbol that the Osage has accepted him into their life,” West says. “The Osage men’s aesthetic leaned more towards the inner cowboy rather than the businessman in the suit. The suits were the bad guys or the evil force. Not that Osage men didn’t wear suits, but they adorned them with cowboy boots or a scarf with a slide rather than a necktie or maybe some degree or blanket-wearing. When you look at the research, it’s quite beautiful, but there is a Western aesthetic that they incorporated into their dress. The natural thing to bring him away from the cab driver’s suit and flat cap was to bring him a cowboy hat. Later, he sports a finger-woven hat band around the top of it and at the wedding, he’s wearing a blanket around his pants. There’s touches where you feel that he stays more cowboy, and you feel like Mollie was responsible for bringing him in closer to being an Osage men rather than a guardian or a banker. Those people were more suspect, and she is trying to keep him more in her world without having him dress like an Osage man. We added them as subtler notes.”
I admitted to West and O’Keefe that I wanted to take all of Ernest’s neckties or maybe even the purple suit he sports when he sees Mollie off to Washington D.C. Instead of asking what they would take for themselves, I closed my conversation by mentioning how vibrant the final shot of the film is.
“That’s a modern day scene of the drum dance,” West says. “That’s the survival part of the story, and these people can revel and dance as a nation. They were able to stay together, so they can celebrate.”
“That’s who we are today,” O’Keefe says.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is playing in theaters now. It becomes available to rent and digitally own on December 5.