Woman Walks Ahead (2017) tells the story of Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain: The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, Miss Julie, Blackbeard), a white woman from Brooklyn who in 1889-90 to paint Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes: Saints & Strangers, The New World, Crazy Horse), the Hunkpapa Lakota (aka Sioux) leader who led his people during years of resistance to the United States government and army. The two develop a relationship as Weldon spends time living with Sitting Bull, and she witnesses and eventually becomes involved in his resistance efforts.
I’m not going to go too far into the history behind the film, because Time magazine has a good run-down. I’ll say it was an interesting watch, if some elements weren’t totally believable and there was some definite “white savior” tropes present. The performances are good, however, and the costumes are quite nice!
Those costumes were designed by Stephanie Collie (South Riding, Peaky Blinders, The Go-Between, the upcoming My Lady Jane). According to director Susanna White, the two worked together to get the history of Native dress correct:
“One of the things which the white settlers did was to make it illegal for the Lakota people to wear traditional dress or carry out acts of worship in the traditional way. And we went back to documentary photographs of the time where you see that lots of Native Americans were wearing Western dress. Well that’s not what you traditionally see in Westerns. So through the film I worked with our costume designer, Stephanie Collie, starting out with the first time Catherine meets Sitting Bull he’s dressed in Western clothes. And then gradually, as they take up more and more of the campaign for their land, you see the Native clothes coming back and they’re very, very beautiful. And I was so struck in the research at the art and the craftsmanship. And it was really a terrible thing that they were forced to destroy those artifacts” (Chastain and White share a Feminine Gaze in Woman Walks Ahead)
White went on to say,
“So we wanted to celebrate the art – how beautiful the beadwork was, how those buffalo ropes are made – and we recreated things as they were. And it wasn’t just costume design for the sake of costume design. We were actually doing something really important culturally, so we see the costume change over the course of the movie, from the start where Sitting Bull is wearing Western clothing, [which is] what he’s meant to be wearing, but gradually you see a shift across the film to more of the really beautiful Native American clothes being worn. I had such a great [costume] designer in Stephanie Collie, and Geoffrey Kirkland, who is the main designer, and celebrating just how beautiful that culture was one of the joys of making the film” (Interview: Susanna White on Taking Steps Towards a New Frontier in “Woman Walks Ahead”)
Actor Michael Greyeyes (Sitting Bull) appreciated this commitment:
“I sat with Stephanie for over two days talking each scene and the progression. We charted it exactly and I walked away struck because I’d never been asked to do that. I had more costumes for Sitting Bull than for any character I’ve ever played. Again, that was not an argument I had to have. Stephanie was there beside me with the production support saying, ‘How do we expand the notion of a native character on screen?'” (‘Woman Walks Ahead’: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, director Susanna White on their portrait of old West).
Actress Jessica Chastain (Catherine Weldon) also noted how the costumes informed the performances:
“Catherine’s clothes can’t help but inform my performance. Wearing a corset in New Mexico in the summer! Watching the movie yesterday, it’s so ridiculous seeing her in her little shoes, corset, hat, and parasol. That slowly gets stripped away throughout the film. I love the moment when she changes her shoes for moccasins, because in a moccasin you feel the earth. I also love the scene where Catherine and Sitting Bull are disrobing after the rainstorm. There’s this idea of him looking at her, thinking ‘What is this weird corset thing that she’s wearing?” It’s so interesting how much of the story is told without explaining it. A lot of that is in the eyes” (‘Woman Walks Ahead’: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, director Susanna White on their portrait of old West).
Weldon/Chastain arrives in this beige and black striped traveling suit and bonnet:
I can’t find any back shots, but that apron drape is right out of the era — this is just as the bustle is going out of fashion, and the more A-line 1890s look is coming into style:
While still in her “wearing what I wore back East” phase, she also has this blue suit with amazingly gorgeous blouse:
This grey suit makes an appearance:
And she does, in fact, wear proper corsetry:
I was right, she does lose her hairpins:
Have you seen Woman Walks Ahead? What did you think?
Well, I was on board with this until Jessica Chastain started bitching about her corset. It’s not like she’s never worn one before (Crimson Peak). Jeez.
All the pictures I’ve ever seen of white women in the old west showed that they were wearing corsets. Not to wear one for women of that time would be like not wearing underwear today. They really didn’t overthink it- it’s what you wore when you got up in the morning.
YES. It was like putting on a bra. 99% of modern American women wouldn’t leave the house without one; ditto in the past.
Compared to the usual corset whining, I didn’t think it was too bad!
Huh. I read it along the lines of “boob sweat ugh” rather than “corsets dumb”
I mean, I wore a lift-and-separate bra in New Mexico in the summer and still felt grody. I refused to wear a sports or push-up bra in that weather, so she really had my sympathies…
So, I watched this on Amazon Prime I think a few years ago – closer to when it came out – and I have to say I was disappointed. There were things I appreciated about the film (and to my eye the costumes were decent) but I felt like it came up short on characterization, despite having a good cast, and in particular for Sitting Bull. I also wish he’d been more the focus of the film (definitely some white savior tropes there). A lot of films try to do too much; here I felt there wasn’t enough there.
On the back of that disappointment, however, I watched Wind River in part because it looked like it might have had a better approach, and was not disappointed. It’s a hard watch, as the film centers on a difficult topic, and it’s not a frock flick, but I thought it was excellent and it handled much better in my view the things I found frustrating in Woman Walks Ahead’s portrayal of Native characters.
Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check out Wind River!