Old West accouterments -- costuming and collecting

In the John Wayne vs. Clint Eastwood thread, Zeldar made this post regarding the Iron Mistress Bowie Knife from the 1952 film of the same name.

In that thread I said that I have a bowie knife, which I made using this blade from Dixie Gun Works. (Click the image for a better view.) I made a plain oval guard from a thick sheet of brass stock, and the scales from rosewood. The scales are held on by brass rivets. I cut the scabbard from 1/4" leather, which I dyed a tawny brown. It’s a one-piece scabbard that is folded in half and sewn and riveted, with a belt loop folded down and sewn. I think it’s a decent example of a typical, plain Old Western bowie knife.

As far as a tool, I think it’s better for chopping wood than anything else. As a weapon, it’s almost a good short sword. Were I to outfit myself for an Old Western adventure, I’d carry something like J. Russell & Co.'s Green River Knife Works 35-241 (1840s pattern, modern reproduction stock number). There’s a photo on this page, but you need to zoom in on it to see it. My scabbard is the same shape as the one in the photo, but not ornate. There is a line of brass rivets, and the edge is whip-laced; and there is a simple, single, slot for a belt to go through. It’s a good size for camp use, and also for a close-in tussle. I see it as more of a Voyageur knife – though the Green River factory didn’t open until after the last Rendezvous. To my knowledge, this knife has no movie credits; and it is certainly less known compared to a bowie knife. But if I were costuming a Western, I’d have knives like this.

I could go on about other things; particularly guns. (For example, Clint Eastwood’s guns were more period-correct than ones used in many classic Westerns. The Rifleman’s famous Winchester wasn’t made until a decade after the years the series was set, and it was a carbine and not a rifle.) But I’ll leave it open for now so people can discuss Old West costuming and props.

I had meant to comment on it at the time, but this picture of your knife blade is very close to the ones I bought back in the 50’s that had Original Bowie Knife etched in the blade and which came from Solingen, Germany, and sold in the $5-10 range at places like army surplus and hunting goods stores. I probably had at least four of them over the years, and broke various parts of all of them by throwing them.

I was in my 20’s when a buddy suggested I look into Randall. That’s when I got the one I have that’s as close to the movie knife as I have seen up close.

That article linked above mentions how the same prop knife got used in several Jim Bowie pictures and TV shows, and if you really want to hop on a nostalgia truck, check out YouTube for several clips including Adventures of Jim Bowie - Birth of the Knife 1 of 3 and others.

Sadly, the only clip of The Iron Mistress that I have located doesn’t show the knife as such, just another used in a duel before the famous one was even built. Laddie and the Ladies - THE IRON MISTRESS (Excerpts) is it for now, until somebody posts the portion that shows the blacksmith shop and that beautiful piece of steel sticking up in a post. There was a time when I got a screen shot of that scene from TV taken with a movie camera. Needless to say, not postable quality!

Since your title mentions costuming, maybe a mention of how the styles for clothing and hair and such changed over the decades as the emphasis for “period realism” crept into the making of Westerns, could come under the same general topic.

I remember laughing out loud at the way early Westerns in the 30’s and 40’s had blue jeans with these bodacious cuffs rolled up – at least three inches worth. Then there were the fancy shirts Roy and Gene wore.

Whether accurate or not for the period, I always thought the slickers like they wore in Pale Rider and The Long Riders were just too cool. Same with the hair styles but I always wondered if that wasn’t just a sign of the times and what your well-dressed hippie looked like in those days.

Can you name a movie where the costumes were truly accurate for the period, or are you like me and just hope the costume designer did some research?

You’ll hate me for this…

Heaven’s Gate. According to the DVD commentary, costuming, sets, and accouterments were meticulously researched.

I never got into the Western mania brought about by the films made in the '40s and '50s, because I wasn’t alive then. I missed the Roy Rogers/Dale Evans films. (But in the early-‘70s we’d hop in the ol’ Cessna and fly out to their ranch in Apple Valley for dinner at the restaurant). The whole ‘singing cowboy’ thing is alien to me. So when I catch a glimpse of any of those films, the fancy embroidered shirts and such make me laugh. In more serious films I can’t help but notice the '50s hairstyles and the weird-looking trousers – sort of like seeing the velour uniforms in Lost In Space.

Not that there weren’t acceptable costumes in films back in the heyday of Westerns. But the ones I mentioned really stick out as either A) Deciding the audience doesn’t care and going with then-current style; B) Laziness; or C) Ignorance. I think it’s a combination of all three. The filmmakers wanted to tell a story, and accurate costumes were not important to it. As long as it looked half-way like something someone would have worn then, it was good enough. ISTM that it wasn’t until the '70s that emphasis began to be placed on period accuracy.

Hair was all over the place in the 19th Century. (sigh Attempts at humour should not be made after just getting up from five hours’ sleep.) People seem to have attempted to cut their hair from time to time, but many contemporary portraits display hair lengths that would not be out of place from the '70s to today. Damned hippies! On the other hand, portraits of Jesse James (1847-1882) show him with hair that would not be out of place in 1950s or early-1960s America. Many buffalo hunters and indian fighters such as ‘Wild Bill’ Kickock and ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody chose long, flowing locks. The Plains indians would take scalps, so some frontiersmen wore their hair long to show them that they were not afraid of them or to taunt or dare them. (‘You want my scalp? Come and take it!’) People didn’t bathe as often back then, so their hair often looks a bit nasty. Also, it was the style of the time to oil or grease the hair.

Facial hair was also common (on men, at least). ZZ Top beards, gigantic moustaches, and bushy muttonchops were all the rage. Gettysburg made a good attempt at depicting the hairiness of the historical figures. Unfortunately, the beards looked glued-on.

I too, like the dusters they wore in The Long Riders and Pale Rider. I remember wanting one at the time, though nowadays I’d prefer to have some sort of post-modern black and menacing style of thing. I do have an oilskin drovers coat, though. When I was getting into black powder I wanted a period-correct costume, beginning with a frock coat. Somewhere I have a bag containing all of the material for one, and period-correct patterns. A friend offered to make it for me, but it never happened and I never pursued finding a tailor.

I’d rather not generate yet another spinoff thread, so I’m asking that you look at this old thread I started back on 08-02-2006, 11:19 AM called Essentials for Your Basic Small Town (a la Western movies) and which got only 12 Replies and 238 Views by 08-02-2006 03:26 PM (same day).

See if any of those topics fit in with the theme of this thread. If so, great. If not, that’s okay, too.

I know I’ve mentioned it before in some thread on the issues of Old West movies and that has to do with the houses out in the middle of nowhere, with no trees visible in any direction, (may even be out in the arid wastelands of the Desert Southwest), and there sits a log cabin with dogtrot and chimney blasting out smoke. How did they get the logs there? Mail order?

Well, there was the over and under shotgun/rifle that Shotgun Slade carried.

The sawed-off Winchester that Steve McQueen carried in Wanted Dead or Alive

The pistol length shotgun Johnny Yuma carried in The Rebel.

The shotgun cylinder that Ringo had grafted onto his six shooter in Johnny Ringo

And of course, the modern derringers that Yancy Derringer carried.

They all were probably a reaction to Wyatt Earp’s Buntline Special.

There’s been an addition to YouTube that features Iron Mistress Movie Bowie Knife and, as luck would have it, there’s a showing tonight on the Encore Westerns channel that I am recording at the moment.