Sharen Davis
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Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for CDGA

From Looper to Westworld, costume designer Sharen Davis blends genre with period

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Jun 24, 2020, 10:27 AM EDT (Updated)

"You're aware we don't have a dress code?" Abe (Jeff Daniels) asks Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) early in Rian Johnson's sci-fi thriller Looper. Commenting on the tie — or "choker," as Abe calls it — that Joe wears as part of his whole vintage aesthetic, he can't get his head around the idea of taking clothing inspiration from movies. The so-called bastions of style are simply copying other movies he remarks, "These goddamn 20th-century affectations. Do something new." Set in 2044, it isn't inconceivable that neckties and leather jackets wouldn't still be in fashion, and costume designer Sharen Davis weaves the past, present, and future through the garments worn throughout this visual masterpiece.

Over the last decade, the two-time Academy-nominated veteran designer has made a mark on a variety of film and television projects, including Looper, Watchmen, and Westworld. The rich tapestry showcases Davis' eye for period detail, whether in flashback sequences, simulations or the retro-futuristic influence behind certain costumes. Both Oscar nominations are for biopics (Ray and Dreamgirls), and much like the Best Picture honorees, genre films are often left out. Of course there are exceptions, including Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road in 2016 and Ruth E. Carter's historical Black Panther victory three years later — Carter is the first Black designer to win this award. "It's been a long time coming," Carter noted when she won in 2019.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Davis is the only other Black person to have been nominated in this category in the nearly 100 years since the Oscars first began. This grim statistic indicates how small this pool of designers is, but with each recent year, the list of Black designers grows. "You need some kind of support to be able to continue on in the beginning," Davis pointed out in an interview with The Guardian after Carter's Academy triumph. The visibility of Carter and Davis across multiple genres is invaluable to those who come next.

In a career spanning nearly 30 years, Davis has recently been Emmy-nominated for her work on Westworld's second season, which expanded the scope of both the Delos parks and the real-world landscape. She also won a CDGA Award for Westworld in 2019 and was nominated this year for the Watchmen pilot. From Sister Night's (Regina King) caped skirt to Charlotte Hale's (Tessa Thompson) change into menswear as the park in Westworld is under siege, Davis has crafted costumes that make a statement. Here at SYFY FANGRRLS, we want to take a look back at these definitive moments in genre costume design.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Beginning with Looper, the distinct stylized palette deepens the overall themes by drawing on a variety of decades, including references to the Great Depression. Similar to how fashion is cyclical in the real world, Davis plays mix and match with several striking 20th-century sartorial trends. In a 2012 interview with Clothes on Film, Davis discusses the research she did and what periods she looked to. Young Joe's high-waisted pants, leather jacket, and thin chokers (sorry, ties) evoke images of Marlon Brando and James Dean at their youth-culture influencer peak. When the two meet, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) mirrors his younger self's styling in the choice of jacket and white tee, suggesting he is nostalgic for what was.

Meanwhile, the Henchmen in the future owe their signature look to an even older source. The wide-brim hats were requested by Rian Johnson to "keep them mysterious." As for the rest of the ensemble, Davis explained, "Gatmen coats were a combination of the late 1800s Western dusters made of oiled cotton, yet their style suggests an element of the 'G-men' from the 1930s." Futuristic nightclubs featured an array of background actors in elevated designs; however, not everyone partakes in city living or fashion.

Credit: TriStar Pictures

Out on the farm, Sara (Emily Blunt) has eschewed her former life to care for her son. Brandishing a shotgun and chopping up wood with ease, her look reflects this physical labor. Not to mention that she could easily blend into the '90s with her choice of tanks, plaid shirts, cargo pants, and boots. Costumes inform this fully realized world, and in giving instant context clues about who these characters are, it helps parse out some of the more mind-bending time-travel plot points.

Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla reboot is set in a world resembling our own, so this required a more muted concept. Scientists, military, and medical professionals make up the core cast, which is reflected in the uniforms and toned-down garments. This is not to say there aren't stylish moments, but this movie is less concerned with flourishes. Distinguishing who is an expert in what field is established by what they wear; the costumes by Davis do not distract from the rest of the story.

Credit: HBO

Playing a role is exactly what the robots of Westworld have been designed for, to fulfill the fantasies of the ultra-rich. Trish Summerville and Ane Crabtree designed the first season, which spent most of its time in the Wild West and Delos facility. A brief glimpse at Shogunworld was unveiled in the Season 1 finale in the laboratory, which Davis brought to life with Maeve's (Thandie Newton) trip into this world. "Akane no Mai" is the episode that was Emmy-nominated, focusing on Maeve's time in Shogunworld — with a subplot dedicated to Delores and Teddy in the Sweetwater town location.

In Shogunworld, Maeve and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) meet their equivalent characters in Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Akane (Rinko Kikuchi). This link is subtly underscored by the materials and colors of their costumes, and Davis drew on the Season 1 costumes throughout this storyline. "I actually drew it off of her regular red dress — well, 'regular,' her gorgeous saloon dress," she told Decider about the final kimono worn by Maeve.

Credit: HBO

Blending historical with futuristic influences is a Davis signature, ideal for the intersecting timelines and locations of Westworld. The monochromatic taste of the outside world was established in the first season, which Davis gets to take further with Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) in sleek black bodycon dresses (that become part of the Season 3 tapestry). Fashion can be both a weapon and a distraction; armor comes in many different forms in Westworld.

In designing the Watchmen pilot, Davis once again married her keen eye for historical detail with concepts that portray an alternate landscape to the one we live in. "It's Summer and We're Running Out of Ice" depicts the very real 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in its opening sequence, featuring a large number of background actors, as well as young Will Reeves and his family. This incident has been called "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history," and by opening the series with this sequence, Watchmen signified that the trauma of the actual past would play a defining role in the alternate history of this present. The costumes — as much as the production design — add to the authenticity before the superhero disguise element comes into fruition. Watchmen felt incredibly relevant when it debuted last year, even more so in 2020 after the recent worldwide Black Lives Matter protests.

Credit: HBO

Masks are a big factor — again, Watchmen is ahead of its time — and Davis also had to develop the overall look of the police department in the present day (including the striking yellow face masks) and the detective personas. The most stylish is, of course, Regina King as Angel Abar, aka Sister Night. King spoke to Essence last year about how Davis established this now-iconic design, taking creator Damon Lindelof's request to incorporate a cape and elevating it. "Damon was really clear that he wanted to have a nod to the cape. You know, the Caped Crusader, the superheroes you know, that always have a cape, but Sharen was like, 'But we gotta make it cool! We gotta make it fly.' So instead of the cape around the neck, it's a cape skirt." Move over, Batman and Superman, because no superhero in a caped costume has looked this effortlessly cool.

King also explained that after trying out various masks, it was Davis' idea to use the airbrush technique. The looks in the pilot set the tone and instantly made Watchmen stand out visually, which designer Meghan Kasperlik built on across the rest of the season.

Credit: HBO

Recently, Davis reunited with Jamie Foxx (she designed Ray and Django Unchained) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the upcoming Netflix movie Untitled Henry & Rel Sci-Fi Project. Plot details and images are still scarce, beyond this being set in a world in which a pill gives users superpowers for five minutes. From this blurb alone, it is clear why Davis was chosen to craft these looks — she has the imagination to bring this version of the world alive.

Genre costume design is an expansive category that can dream up new worlds while drawing on the past and present of the one we live in. Davis has spent the last decade balancing depictions of futuristic or alternate realities — often portraying a fractured society — with period-set projects. A trailblazer in her field, Davis has crafted many unforgettable science fiction garments fit for robots, loopers, and superheroes, no matter what era they live in or influenced by.

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