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February 21, 2019

Far East of Westworld

One of Sharen Davis's toughest assignments for HBO's Westworld was re-creating feudal Japan.

Kathleen O’Steen
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO
  • HBO

Sharen Davis is the first to admit that she's shy — so shy, in fact, that while studying to be an actress in college, she decided that the most comfortable way to embody a character was to not stand on stage, but rather to design their costumes.

"I could become the character as I designed their look — to me, that was my acting."

This metamorphosis of thought has since turned into a very successful career, as Davis has taken a childhood love of sewing ("My mother taught me to sew when I was 13") and built a career as a costume designer with both an extensive track record in the world of film (The Help, Fences, Django Unchained, among many others) not to mention two Oscar nominations (Dreamgirls in 2007 and Ray in 2005) and one Emmy nom (Westworld in 2018).

In recounting that work Davis says that one of the most challenging assignments was to re-create Japan's feudal Edo period for the "Akane No Mai" episode of Westworld.

Davis — who had spent her high school years living in Japan and still retained some of her Japanese language skills — came to the assignment with some familiarity. "Most of the cast for that episode were brought in from Japan and they did not speak English," she says. "Not only were they trying to grasp the concept of America, but they were also trying to understand the concept of Westworld."

The designer says her time on set was a whirlwind of designing kimonos and Japanese military uniforms, traditional costumes for Samurai and vestiges of clothing that, while eastern, still evoked a Westworld sensibility.

"We used a color palette that in many respects matched the palette from the western world of Westworld." An example was when Maeve [Thandie Newton] dresses in a kimono, the material's silver background dappled with crimson flowers evoked the character's earlier saloon dresses. "Those colors don't exist in traditional Japanese kimonos."

With a host of Japanese soldiers, Samurai warriors and Geisha girls to dress, Davis says the prep work soon broke down into tag teams who handled different aspects of dressing.

"Traditionally it takes 40 minutes to put a kimono on, much of that time for tying the Obi [Japanese sash]," she says.

"We didn't have that much time, so we figured a way for the dressers to tag team different aspects of the layering. We hired special Obi tyers. I wanted to respect the history of the Japanese kimono and the tying of the Obi — which we had to do for both the men and the women — but I only had so much time to get the cast ready."
And while she found that some pieces, like the soldiers' armor and helmets, could be rented, that most of the other costumes, from the Samurai's embossed leather vests to the silk kimonos worn by the Geishas, had to be designed and built from scratch.

"This is a show that has a lot of blood in it," she says. "You can't rent a nice kimono and then destroy it. That just can't happen."

 

[Ed Note: On February 19, Davis won the Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Sci-Fi/Fantasy Television for her work on Westworld.]


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