How a corset told the tale of Westworld

[SPOILER ALERT] This article contains mild spoilers for Westworld season 2, mostly in the form of discussion of costumes.

I recently finished watching season 2 of Westworld and am still processing the clever storytelling, the visual brilliance, and the excellent performances from a delightfully diverse cast. Despite being set in a ‘wild west’ theme park, the show gradually starts to offer a greater variety of ways of ‘doing’ masculinity and femininity than that setting would usually allow, and two of the most fascinating characters – Maeve and Dolores – evolve into a pair of the most complex heroes on our screens today.

Much as I adore Maeve Millay (played to perfection by Thandie Newton), I became more and more invested in Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy as season 2 progressed, realising that this was partly to do with her costume. She begins season 1 as a decorative object, seen purely as a plaything for others, with her corseted waist and flowing skirts emphasising a femininity crafted in patriarchy. When Dolores first breaks free from this, she adopts masculine clothing – a cotton shirt and practical trousers – which seems logical until you realise that it’s these systems of control which are telling us that masculine is better, more practical, more ‘sensible’. As her story develops further in season 2, Dolores returns to her corset and skirts showing that strong women don’t have to appear masculine to succeed.

An adaptation of her initial season 1 costume, in season 2 it becomes something that would have been considered immodest at the time the park’s narratives are set, as her underwear increasingly starts to show. The demure blue top is discarded, perhaps due to the construction allowing limited movement in the arms and shoulders – how can she fire a gun whilst wearing something so restrictive? – and her sturdy plain underbust corset and a delicate ribbon-trimmed cotton camisole are now on show. Once her skirt becomes torn at the hem, her white cotton petticoats also become visible, and every piece of these delicate underpinnings begin to show the audience what Dolores is going through.

Her journey in season 2 may seem less brutal than Maeve’s, but Dolores doesn’t change her clothing so we see the cumulative effect of the struggles she has endured. Blood stains her corset – perhaps her own, perhaps from others – while dust edges her petticoat, and the sweat in the armpits of her camisole mixes with blood from the bullet holes of injuries she has sustained. As she rides and shoots her way across harsh landscapes of the park, the audience realises that Dolores’ corset is not just a stylistic choice, it’s a part of who her character is and wants to be.

Ultimately, Dolores Abernathy’s costumes tell the hosts’ story and show how much it is like the evolution of the feminist movement. From oppression, to initial uprising, to the ongoing fight for freedom from the oppressors, her clothing carefully illustrates each stage of the narrative. Femininity has strength, and Abernathy’s blood and sweat soaked season 2 undergarments, on show rather than hidden away, illustrate this point better than any other costume choice could.

Image credit: HBO.

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