The Slickest Pair: Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
A wardrobe (and friendship) assessment of this sepia-toned friendship.
By David Kobe
Soft Focus is a monthly column about how clothes make a movie. For each installment, David explores how wardrobe contributes to a film’s impact, mis-en-scene, and culture at large.
The opening moments of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are sepia-toned – something out of an early John Ford film from 30 years prior or a Ken Burns documentary. As Butch and Sundance ride through big sky country to their hideout, the sepia tone fades away, and the color of the Old West announces itself.
We see Butch donning a white hat and Sundance in a contrasting black one. Butch has a slouchy and dusted chore coat with a white shirt, while Sundance dons a black shirt and dark-wash denim. Old West costume tropes would suggest that these two are enemies – the cold-hearted black hat foe and the stoic gunslinger in white. In reality, Sundance is a shy sharpshooter with a sensitive disposition, and Butch is a loud-mouth wise ass seemingly always a step ahead. Neither of them is the noble and stoic Gary Cooper or John Wayne.
Edith Head, the legendary costume designer, eight-time Academy Award winner, and the inspiration for The Incredibles’ Edna Mode, designed the wardrobe for Butch Cassidy. Head worked with them all. She created Kim Novak’s mesmerizing wardrobe in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, fictional former silent movie star Norma Desmond’s aging gowns for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd, and biblical costumes that lived up to the scale and grandeur of Cecille B. Demille’s Samson and Delilah.
With Golden Age stars like Grace Kelly, Rita Hayword, Hedy Lamarr, and countless others, Edith Head had the perfect canvas for her equally perfect renderings. While her Oscar wins were mostly awarded for films with extravagant and precise mid-century gowns, perfectly executed period costumes, or vibrant and colorful ensembles loaned to a biblical drama, her work on Butch Cassidy, is more understated and veers away from design and more towards styling.
Head’s sketches for the film, which were auctioned by Christie’s in 2001 for $1,450 (kind of a bargain), have denim and dark brown khakis samples pinned to the document. The materials are reaching out from the past, asking to be scuffed up and battered.
The sketches also demonstrate Head’s priorities for the costumes in the picture. She wanted to accentuate the actors’ legs with high-waisted slim-fitting pants. Their holsters are lazy on the actors’ waists, and their unbottoned shirt’s show off their glistening chests. These cowboy cool vibes are both a 1960s counter-cultural projection onto historical pieces but also simply part of the essence of the hyper-mythologized American cowboy. It’s easy to stomach the depravity of winning the West and its subsequent criminal rackets if the men doing the crime are handsome, and Edith Head had a real knack for turning train robbers into sex symbols and vice versa.
Head’s wardrobe offers a much more subtle comment on the simple morality of Western and male relationships. The film rests on Newman and Redford’s chemistry and charisma but also on Head’s ability to create the perfect wardrobe for these swashbuckling renegades. These guys are bandits and criminals – most likely murderers. They are simultaneously black hats and white hats, good and bad. Their wardrobes symbolically obscure their morality but, perhaps more importantly, give them an effortless coolness that is hard not to root for.
The posse of lawmen tracking down Butch and Sundance are devoid of character; they are simply shadows in the distance. Butch and Sundance’s costumes give them dimension and personality. The incongruity of the wardrobe also adds to the continued subversion of the Western. In a way, Butch and Sundance are slimy cowards who run at every sign of danger. When the film was being shopped around Hollywood with John Wayne as the intended goal, a studio head responded, "I don't give a shit. All I know is John Wayne don't run away." With their swashbuckling glee, brash attitude, and nonchalant style, Newman and Redford make running from the law seem as fearless and gallant as defending the Alamo.
There has been an obvious cultural uptick in interest in the American cowboy. I’m inundated with GQ articles on the best western shirts, boot-cut jeans, and boot brands to tie it all together. For ladies, think of a @velvetcoke Instagram post of Angelina Jolie in 2000 donning cowboy boots on the Tonight Show, racking up 60,000+ likes.
And, of course, these new moods and interpretations have come to life on the street. In cool high fidelity sound rooms and stylish dives in New York City, recovering frat guys in boot-cut jeans and coastal cowgirls in nap dresses wear their best bronco busters, looking ready to honky tonk in the Hannah Montana movie. But when we take inspiration from the American West, I don’t think we’re taking our cues from Gary Cooper’s shoestring necktie, black vest, and pocket watch in High Noon or John Wayne’s kerchief and eye patch in True Grit. Our cultural consciousness and, thus, our outfits reflect the sly, laid-back, and ruggedly charming style of Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy as conceived by Edith Head.
Newman and Redford are two of the most tempting figures for men who are interested in fashion. I’ve been one of these guys. You figure you can buy a Rolex Daytona (or replica), adopt a slacker Ivy League style, and call it a day. But the pure fact of the matter was that not only did these two have a knack for dressing, but they had a boyish American spirit that Edith Head knew how to capture in her direction.
You can’t just go to the Stenson flagship, which looks more like a Framebridge than an outfitter, cop the hat with an expensive feather, and call yourself a cowboy. Head understood that the clothes needed to look like they had done the job – the job being stick-ups and train robberies. Unlike Head’s other muses, who were perfect models for her sculptures of silk and lace, Newman and Redford were happy to step into the imperfections in the pieces she designed and fill them with their own allure.
Sundance is stubborn, scared even. Butch is calm and collected – wry about their certain despair. When Butch keeps urging Sundance to jump with him, Sundance bites back with frustration, “I can’t swim!” and gives an embarrassing nod of concession. Butch can’t help but let out a big belly laugh, “are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you,” Sundance takes a deep breath and shouts as the two grab each end of Butch’s belt and take a leap of faith,
No buddies are slipperier and more endearing than Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford as The Sundance Kid, and after a prolonged chase down with the law that leaves these two partners in crime at the symbolic end of their rope and on the literal edge of a cliff Butch and Sundance demonstrate what male friendship truly looks like as they jump into the unknown depths of the river below and its violent thrushes flying in the air like two girls jumping off the high dive together, helping each other find their courage.