In the 1920s, the richest community in the world was the Osage nation concentrated in northeast Oklahoma. Thanks to the oil below their lands, tribal members were sitting atop a vast fortune. And they were spending it, too, on roadsters and Parisian couture; there was a Tiffany’s counter at the local trading post.
They merged their newly acquired fashions with their tribal customs and aesthetics — wearing traditional wool blankets with Stetsons and Spanish-heeled cowboy boots, and adding embroidery and bright plumage to the towering silk hats they wore at weddings.
That mix of styles is vividly on display in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Martin Scorsese’s epic set in Osage territory and due Oct. 20. Based on the nonfiction best seller by David Grann, the movie stars Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone — a member of the Blackfeet and Nez Percé tribes — in a roaring crime saga about the murders that plagued the tribal nation starting in the 1920s, as the Osage’s white neighbors set out to strip them, by any means necessary, of their oil rights.
The culture clash was generations deep, said Julie O’Keefe, a member of the tribe and the film’s lead Osage wardrobe consultant. Her ancestors “had what I call Kardashian money dropped on top of them,” she said. They were economically savvy but until that erahardly even used a currency-based system: “We traded for everything that we needed.” The matriarch in the story, Lizzie Q, “had come off the prairie hunting buffalo.”
Led by Scorsese, the filmmakers aimed to be scrupulously authentic in the ways they depicted the Osage, down to the threads in their clothing. There was plenty of documentation: the Osage were rich enough to sit for portraits and even to make home movies — astronomically expensive at $800 a minute, said Jacqueline West, the film’s costume designer. “Few people in the world could afford that, but they documented their lives and their travel and where they lived so beautifully. I relied on those.”
The Osage always hadan eye for luxe and color when it came to clothing and adornment, said Daniel C. Swan, an anthropology professor and curator emeritus at the University of Oklahoma who has written about the tribe. “If you read the 16th- and 17th-century accounts of encounters with them, they had this air about them — we would say they had real style,” he said.
By the early 20th century, the Osage were as au courant as Vogue editors. “They had incredibly sophisticated palettes,” Swan said. “They wore the finest French, Italian, New York fashion; they kept up with hairstyles and footwear.” But perhaps the best example of their sartorial resplendence, and their culture, could be seen at weddings.
The wedding scene in “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a showstopper, with Mollie Kyle, the bride played by Gladstone, and her bridesmaid sisters in richly embroidered skirts, finger-woven belts and bespoke military coats, complete with brass buttons and braided epaulets. The look is topped off by towering 18-inch hats decorated with French ribbon and festooned with feathers dyed cyan or magenta. It feels fantastical, and it is utterly real.
The coats came into the Osage world entwined with American history. In the early 1800s, Osage leaders visited President Thomas Jefferson in the White House. It was part of a U.S. government effort to ingratiate itself with tribes along the path that the explorers Lewis and Clark would travel., and the leaders were greeted with military demonstrations that showcased the new country’s military might. The story goes that an Osage chief was taken with the coats worn by his Washington, D.C., counterparts, so they gave him one. It didn’t fit — Osage were exceptionally tall — and he passed it onto his daughter, who wore it to her wedding, a tradition that persisted for more than a century. (The top hats had a similar lineage — from headwear for infantry officers to party chapeau.)
Refashioning the attire of war for a bride, “there’s something beautifully rebellious about it,” West said. It’s a subversion of the dynamic Jefferson wanted to display: the Osage turned “something that represented power over them to something that represented joy.” They even made their own versions of the coats when the originals wore out.
“The U.S. government gave these coats out to all different tribes,” Swan said. But only the Osage remodeled them into wedding finery.
Swan, an author, with Jim Cooley, of “Wedding Clothes and the Osage Community,”organized a companion exhibition at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Okla., that Scorsese’s team visited early on in the film’s development. “As soon as they saw those wedding outfits, they said, ‘He’s going to love this! You can bet there will be a wedding in this movie,’” recalled Swan, who was also a resource for the film. (Scorsese declined to comment for this article.)
West, the costume designer, used vintage pieces as inspiration, including heirloom garments that descendants of the real-life characters had stored away in trunks. As much as possible, she commissioned copies from Osage artisans.
With multiple crowd scenes, O’Keefe, who lives in Tulsa, called on every Osage maker she knew. “Everybody in the community made moccasins for this,” she said. The local nurse who gave her a Covid shot wound up doing ribbon work on two blankets. West’s wardrobe team of 10 picked up the slack, learning how to finger-weave at lightning speed. Normally tied over the back of a chair, one belt traditionally takes months to complete.
An Osage wedding was unlike any other Indigenous ceremony: a huge, multiday affair steeped in their culture of generosity. “From a very young age, I was taught that being Osage is about sharing and fellowship and taking care of one another,” said Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of Osage News, the tribal newspaper. “An Osage shows their wealth not by how much money they have, but by how much they give.”
For weddings a century ago, Swan said, “they would give away 50 or 60 heads of horse, feed 400 or 500 people for a week.”In one account from 1932,in Hominy, Okla., the father of the bride bought five new Chevrolet roadsters and gave them away, Swan added. “He said he spent some $50,000 on that wedding” — over $1 million in today’s dollars.
That level of festivity was generally reserved for the eldest sons or daughters of a family, during the era of arranged marriages, and was limited primarily to full-blooded Osage, like Mollie Kyle. (It would have been unlikely for an Osage woman marrying a white man, as she does in the movie, Swan pointed out — but that was Scorsese’s creative license.)
The scene is a moment of lightness in a story that is otherwise wrenching. In his book, Grann writes that there were probably far, far more deaths than the 24 that the F.B.I. arrived to solve.
O’Keefe grew up in Pawhuska, Okla., the capital of Osage lands. “Everybody has a connection to the story,” she said. “There isn’t a district that doesn’t, because everybody within our communities lost someone, our family members, due to strange circumstances.”
The wedding coats are one emblem from that time that has been rewoven again and again; after World War II, they were worn at the Osage’s traditional summer community dance, instead of at weddings. It’s a rare and vivid example of a historical garment that attains cultural longevity, Swan said, while also being “recharted.”
At a recent dance, there were six or eight “bridesmaids,” O’Keefe said, “dressed in all these different wedding coats and hats, that were all given away to families.”
Each woman only gets one outing with a coat. In a dance that has hardly changed for more than a century, it’s a deeply symbolic moment, Shaw Duty noted. “People will always remember who wore them, who made them,” she said. “It’s all our own little Osage world, going on here, and it fills us with happiness.”