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Thanks to On-Set Creepiness, Thandie Newton Preferred Nudity to Wearing Her Westworld Costume

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Of all the fascinating elements of HBO’s Westworld–the narrative complexities, the ethical quandaries–the show’s costumes ranked high. The amount of detail that went into the characters’ clothes was immense. Not only did the costume designer go through the trouble of recreating intricate vintage fabrics through 3D printing, but the clothing choices played an important role narratively. If you weren’t paying attention to the costumes, you definitely missed some of the clues leading us through the show’s twists. Oh, and on top of all that, obviously, they were just plain stunning.

A post shared by WestWorld HBO (@hbowestworld) on

None of that, though, undercuts in any way what Thandie Newton had to say about her experience with costume. As Maeve, the saloon’s madam, Newton had scenes both entirely nude, as well as in her elaborate, corseted fuchsia dress. But as she describes it, it was the clothed scenes that made her more uncomfortable.

I was more comfortable naked because the costume was the most potent objectification of a woman, with the boobs pushed right up, the tiny waist. It’s an invitation for sex.

The fishnet tights, the little heels with the laces… It’s all about sensuality. It’s about eroticism. It’s about “Look, but don’t touch.” It’s all there to make the invitation for sex as provocative as possible and then the promise of satisfaction is practically just there.

An interview from last year with the show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree, confirms that that was, in fact, the whole point, both for Maeve and the women she was based on.

“Their look comes from a lot of reading I’ve done about the ‘soiled dove’ which is a great term for a prostitute,” says Crabtree. “There are great books about it which I read 17 years ago and re-read for this. There weren’t a lot of job offers or things for a woman to do in the Wild West and of course being a prostitute or if you were lucky, a madam, was one of the main jobs. They do refer to that career as ‘soiled doves’ and how they were beautiful jewels in the midst of quite desert-toned Western clothes worn by the men, so they always stood out.”

And, again, the colors of the costumes play a large role in that image. The bright jewel tones draw attention and desire, especially against the generally tan backdrop of the old West. It makes for a visually arresting picture, but it sounds like for Newton, the outfits are all too effective. They’re meant to turn the wearer into a sort of sexually objectified doll, both dainty and carnal, with a deliberately cultivated implication of guaranteed sexual fulfillment.

Newton says she “found [herself] more empowered naked than [she] did with the saloon outfit on,” and The Daily Mail translated that into the somewhat salacious, possibly misleading headline “Thandie Newton admits she prefers acting totally nude.” And perhaps she did find empowerment in having to expose herself to such an extreme degree. I don’t want to discount the potential power of that sort of strength through vulnerability. But it sounds like it’s as much (if not far more) about the way others (specifically, I think we can assume, men) react to her on set as it is about her own empowerment.

In the interview, Newton “explained that acting in the busty costume garnered a kind of unwanted, lewd attention on set, while her nude scenes saw her treated much more respectfully.”

It sounds like for Newton, that deliberately cultivated image of a beautiful, sparkly, easily obtainable sexual object, can be hard to shake, even today, and even when everyone involved knows it’s a costume. Beyond that, even when everyone knows it’s part of her job.

Given that description of the show’s onset dynamics, it’s great that Newton (and, hopefully, all the other actors, of which there were many, who were nude onscreen) felt respected during those scenes. But why is it that when she is dressed provocatively, in a costume that is not just revealing, but designed specifically to connote sexuality personified, to the point that it makes her uncomfortable–why is that an invitation for disrespect?

These are questions that I’m sure a million term papers and think pieces have been written about, and it’s clear Ane Crabtree, the designer, enjoyed delving into the sexual and professional politics of women in the old west and the role their clothing played. But it’s disheartening to have to realize that these issues aren’t relegated to history. That Thandie Newton can be tied into a corset and put on her “little heels,” and as much as she owns it (as she completely owned that whole show), and as powerful as she is, and as thoroughly as she’s inhabiting a character, exposed sexuality is a risk. Thandie Newton’s performance in Westworld was brilliant and consistently commanding, and yet even for her, it’s hard to even play at sexual objectification without someone on the outside inevitably thinking they have control over where that line is.

(via Daily Mail, image via HBO)

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