At the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) goes to his closet and audiences see that he keeps Jack Twist’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) blood-stained shirt on a hanger, layered beneath one of his own shirts.
“That was the shirt Jack wore on their last day on the mountain,” says “Brokeback” costume designer Marit Allen. “The one he took from Jack’s parent’s house…. That shirt symbolizes their entire relationship."
Throughout Ang Lee‘s moving love story, based on Annie Proulx‘s short story, the characters’ clothing telegraphs their emotions louder than any words.
“Proulx’s story is so pure, and tender that the costumes and wardrobe needed gentle handling,” says Allen. “Hopefully you don’t notice the clothing, but you feel the emotions that the clothes convey. In that sweeping landscape, those two figures and their clothing act as subliminal telegraphs.”
Allen, who worked with Lee on two previous films, including his Civil War movie, “Ride With the Devil,” was keenly aware of the film’s epic feel. But Lee also wanted to capture the reality of the time, the cowboys, ranchers and their economic situations. One invaluable tool for Allen was Richard Avedon’s book, “In the American West,” much of it shot during the late ’70s.
But adhering to strict, often unspoken western-wear traditions proved to be a real challenge.
“Everything worn by cowboys and ranchers has a meaning and a cultural reference,” says Allen. “It would be very easy for an outsider unfamiliar with the code to make a mistake. For instance, cowboys wear Wrangler jeans [they’re much tighter] and ranchers wear looser Levi’s. Even the shape and heel height on a cowboy boot tells a tale. So does the height, color, brim and shape of a hat, which also varies from state to state. For instance, Jack’s broader Texas hat is different than the one Ennis wears in Wyoming. And all of this is unspoken but rigorously observed.”
The time period also had a distinct look.
Photo: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wear their hearts on their sleeves in "Brokeback Mountain."
(Kimberly French / Focus Features)
]]>“The ’70s shoulder was much higher and the armholes were tighter,” Allen explains. “The shirts were also more constricted. And that period’s polyester was much different from polyester used now. It hugged the body and has a sexual connotation that a pure cotton just doesn’t convey.”
Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s clothing, most of which was specially made for them, also reflects their characters’ social trajectories.
“Ennis’ life goes downhill after Brokeback. And his clothes reflect this. He’s poor, scraping by to support a family. He wears the same clothes, doesn’t buy anything new and his wardrobe gets more dreary and worn as the years go by,” says Allen. “But Jack, married to a wealthy wife in Texas, has money and his clothes are more in style, flamboyant and expensive.”
The two men’s wives’ clothing also conveys emotions. In the scene when Jack’s wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway) is talking on the phone with Ennis about Jack, her polyester western shirt has dark, sharp colors around the neck. “That shirt was full of danger and foreboding. It had a viciousness about it that works when she is lying to Ennis about Jack,” Allen says.
The quiet despair sensed in Ennis’ dour young wife Alma, (Michelle Williams) is also palpable due to her wardrobe. “I had found a vintage dress — a very worn, faded floral dress — that I thought would be perfect for Alma. Michelle tried it on and looked in the mirror. We both just started to cry. That sad little dress said everything about Alma’s life. It just broke my heart.”
Allen couldn’t be happier that a couple of items from Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s wardrobe (boots, belts) went missing when the film ended. “They wanted some things to remind them of the filmmaking experience,” says Allen. “It’s nice that they wanted souvenirs. That always makes me smile."