One of Midnight Cowboy’s most memorable costumes came about purely by chance. Walking back to her apartment one night, Roth noticed a fox-fur jacket in the back seat of a parked car; smitten, she bought it off the owner for $200. Later in the shoot, when an actress expressed uneasiness about appearing naked in a sex scene, Roth was prepared.
“I think she should be fucked in fox,” she said.
“Fox?” came the incredulous reply.
“Yes,” says Roth. “Nothing but fox.”
Her most important designs were for actor John Voight, the midnight cowboy himself. As the opening lines of the original novel on which the film is based make clear, style is an essential part of the character’s identity: “In his new boots, Joe Buck was six-foot-one and life was different.” For Joe, clothes are a way of asserting control — over himself, over others — and further underline of his already formidable sexuality.
Roth’s designs for Voight served this vision well. The character cycles through a series of gorgeous pearl-button shirts embroidered with classic symbols of the American west: stars, birds, hearts, roses. (“Terrific shirt,” says Ratso on meeting Joe Buck in a bar. “I mean, that is one hell of a shirt.”) Joe also sports a pair of tight slacks that advertise precisely what he’s selling, along with a fringe-y suede jacket Roth made herself. “I didn’t want it to be cute,” she tells Frankel. “I wanted it to look real and unhip.” The result is a man who seems overwhelmingly adrift — and decidedly gay: If Joe’s cowboy duds looked tough and “manly” back in Texas, in Times Square they read as comically homoerotic. That Joe fails to understand this — that he thinks his brand of studliness is pure hetero gold — is part of what makes him so endearing. At one point, Ratso tries to set him straight, as it were: “That great big dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street,” he yells. “That’s faggot stuff.”
Joe is mystified and angry. “John Wayne!” he shouts back. “You want to tell me he’s a fag?” Even for its time, the exchange is searing and uncomfortable—but it also serves to expose the contradictions at the heart of American masculinity. The “cowboy” archetype is the epitome of straight male power — unless it isn’t. Context is everything. Are they boots, or are they heels? Are they chaps, or are they, you know, chaps? They’re both, of course, and part of Midnight Cowboy’s genius is in how it plays with this duality. One man’s heterosexual hero is another man’s gay icon. Identity is relative, as much a product of perception as persuasion.
By the end of the film, Joe and Ratso have decided to leave New York. They board a bus to Miami, where Joe plans to pursue a new line of work. On the way south, Joe drops into a department store to buy a new set of clothes. Running back to the bus, he tosses his cowboy gear into the trash — shirt, boots, jacket, all of it, gone. Shorn of shoes and hat, Joe is quite literally a smaller version of himself. His charisma seems to have been cut in half.
Who will he become in Florida? The film is mum on this question, though, after reading Shooting Midnight Cowboy, you get the sense that Ann Roth had some idea where fate would take him. Whatever a man in a bland yellow button down and brown slacks does — that’s what Joe will do. Until, at least, he finds another outfit, another persona, another vision of who he can be.