Nearing the end of Serpico there’s a scene where the title character, played by Al Pacino, arrives at a park to confront the rest of his precinct, up the hill comes Serpico and all handful or so men in front of him all rise to meet him. The intensity of this scene is palpable, the blistering heat of summer in New York City matched only by the unwavering stares of Serpico’s colleagues. Right in the middle of it all, is the man himself, wearing a pulled down hat that’s closest relative would have to be a lampshade (a common motif throughout the film), a billowy tunic, a beard that could looks ripped from an Appalachian mugshot, and a soft but stoic expression. Serpico looks to be the anti-cop, and yet he’s simultaneously of far greater worth than the other badged men that stand before him. Serpico’s appearance runs parallel to the films storyline, pitting him as the sole undercover officer willing to go as far as his job necessitates. His style is an amalgam of his Italian upbringing, his military tenure, his Greenwich Village residence, and the badge that’s stowed in his pocket. As the scenes shift, so does Serpico’s attire, flowing between undercover costumes (including a blood stained butcher’s apron, and the full regalia of an orthodox Jew), a Navy issue peacoat and watch cap, and a campus ready polo shirt and matching coaches jacket. Beneath all those layers was just a man who knew he was doing the right thing, and so outwardly, no one could pull off a disguise like Serpico.
I’ve come to realize, over the past year or so, that all “premium” (read: expensive) cable channels adhere to this cyclical schedule wherein each month they pick a handful of new releases and proceed to air them to absolute death. While normally only one of this films is watching, (if that) fortunately for me, February’s crop includes one of my favorite movies of the past year or so – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
So with this past week being one of the most hectic of the year I’ve found myself coming home at all hours of the night and tuning into David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of the first installation of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, which has led me to two conclusions – one this is a terrible movie to fall asleep to and two Daniel Craig’s character has the most enviable shawl collar cardigan collection I’ve ever seen.
It opens with a Princeton crested navy blazer, closes with a duffle coat and in between The Talented Mr. Ripley traverses between the Ivy League world of New York City, the cobblestone steps of Italian cities, and concludes with a nod to the English countryside. As the diabolical Tom Ripley (played by Matt Damon) arrives in Italy from New York to bring Dickie Greenleaf (played by Jude Law) back to the city and his father’s shipbuilding empire, he is clothed in pleated trousers, a black knit tie, and what appears to be a Brooks Brothers button-down, which would’ve been standard issue for any “Princeton man” of 1955. I won’t spoil the story by detailing Tom’s exploits as a con artist, although Damon’s performance as one of the most finest liars to ever grace the silver screen is worth the price of admission alone. But it’s the costumes, running the spectrum from trad to Neapolitan to Anglo that wrap the entire film in a blend of hopsack, cord, wool, and cashmere which covers all the character’s ruthless deeds and personality flaws, making them seem all the more sinister from behind those fine threads.
“You’ve got a clean shirt and you bathe everyday. That’s all there is to it.” This is one of the first lines spoken in the 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, during a scene between Tom Rath (played by Gregory Peck) and his friend Bill Hawthorne, as Hawthorne casually offers Rath a job during their nightly commute from Manhattan back to Connecticut. Hawthorne says the line as he mentions a public relations job that he thinks Rath might be good at, but it’s really a reference to the movie as a whole. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is about the facade of middle class life in the 1950’s with it’s daily struggles that fester on commuter rail rides, arriving in oversized modern offices big enough to contain a lifetime of dreams deferred, or buried nightly in neatly manicured grass patches on postage stamp lawns, all bundled up in identical gray flannel. Whether or not this is actually how life in the fifties was, I can’t say because this movie (and the book it’s based on by Sloan Wilson) are nearly twice my age, but what I can say though is that for as much as I enjoy this movie, I’ve always had a problem with the title.
This past weekend I finally got a chance Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup after being recommended it countless times over the past year. Overall, the film is a mod-era masterpiece, but there was one scene in particular where the main character Thomas, a photographer played by David Hemmings, traipses through a park, snapping off frames of a couple in the distance, that I keep coming back to. The scene is beautiful and brilliant, but I must admit, that’s not why this scene stuck in my mind. Wearing a pair of Beatle boots, stark white denim, a button down shirt with the collars undone, and a forest green jacket, Hemmings’ outfit, which would become his uniform for much of the film, had me considering the remaining few cold months ahead.
There’s this scene just over halfway through Borsalino, where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character arrives at Alain Delon’s character’s newly acquired mansion and the two men reflect on their rapid rise from foot soliders to kingpins. As Belmondo stepped out of his open air coupe, wearing a double-breasted overcoat brown with this faint windowpane check and is greeted by Delon in a satin shawl collar belted robe, that he’s wearing as a jacket (complete with pocket square,) I couldn’t help but stop and think that Borsalino might be the best dressed movie that no one ever talks about. What strikes me though is that the film seems like it was specifically designed to be high scripture for the menswear community, right up there with Three Days of the Condor, Breathless and the Godfather Trilogy Borsalino plays out like an amalgam of all these films combined, it’s French Nouvelle Vague, meets gangster flick, all wrapped up in meticulously tailored outfits complete with a bevy of Borsalinos.
A couple days ago Vanity Fair came out with their list of The 25 Most Fashionable Films of All Time, a collection that undoubtedly included some stylish films, but also raised a few questions about contemporary movies, because the list didn’t include a single film past 1988. I wish I could outright argue with Vanity Fair’s decision to focus on the classics, but I do have to agree with them that our most stylish cinematic days are probably behind us. Over the past twenty-four hours I’ve been racking my brain trying to com up with a recent movie that I feel could have made that list, and a few have come to mind, but they never really stand up against an “all time list.” It’s hard to find a film that matters in that context these days, mostly because I find style in recent movies to be too deliberate. There seems to be something forced about costumes, especially because most our contemporary films that are concerned with fashion are set in the past, or at least allude to it.
Yet, there is one film that comes to mind, Tom Ford’s A Single Man. While Ford did not do the costumes for the movie himself (a fact that I was pretty surprised about) he did work directly with costume designer Arianne Philips, in conceptualizing the style of the film. Set in California in the 1960’s, the film focuses on George Falconer (played by Colin Firth) a homosexual professor who is copping with the loss of his partner. The whole film is filled with the hard angles and strong hues of the mid-century modern period, a backdrop that only amplifies George’s already dramatic outfits that include little more than a form-fitting black suit, pressed white shirt, thick rimmed black glasses and a thin black tie.
There’s something haunting about his costumes, like a man dressed for his own funeral. He’s surrounded by few other characters but their clothes only seem designed to compliment his. There’s a young student in a fluffed out shaggy dog sweater and a lightly checked shirt-a plethora of textures against George’s flat black suit. A random acquaintance wearing a rolled white tee, cuffed selvedge denim, and work boots, sitting at the opposite end of the spectrum of simplicity. And then there’s the flashbacks to George meeting and spending time with his partner, the costumes are softer, the palate is more neutral, George wears light pants, and more relaxed shirts, painting a scene that is warmer all around. And then it’s back to normal, and George’s black suit feels all the more abrasive. With a film as small, and simultaneously as colossally important as A Single Man, the look of George and those around him exaggerates the effect of loss and guides the film to it’s completion.
It’s difficult to write about Alan Flusser without recognizing how polarizing of a figure the man has become. As we’ve seen in some recent comments, the author/designer’s work isn’t exactly as respected as it once was by the up-and-comers in the menswear world. Not to mention his personal style at this point, which is slowly turning into a farce of what he once preached. Yet, there was a time when Flusser reigned as king, when he was declared one of the best menswear designers in America, had a small but influential bespoke shop in midtown, and outfitted some of the best dressed men of that era.
To grasp Flusser’s reach, you have to look no further than what is arguably his greatest work ever, the costumes of Gordon Gekko. In 1987 when Flusser was approached to design Gekko’s costumes for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street he had already been running his own shop for almost a decade, becoming the tailor of choice for the financial district’s upper crust. In the face of both triumph and uncertainty, there’s never anything amiss with Gekko’s outfits. It was all peak lapels, horizontal striped shirts, bold ties, patterned suspenders, collar pins, chalk white pinstripes, trousers without belt loops, and white contrast collar, facets that mirrored the power and prowess of a man like Gekko.
His style embodied old-school New York trad, but also something new, a flashier, more worldly look that embraces the excess of the era. Gekko is as remembered for his insurmountable greed in the film as he is for his suits, but they both reflect a time period where those on Wall Street thought they were untouchable gods, something that they felt everyone must recognize.
In the end Gekko’s suits cost upwards of fifty thousand dollars, but it was money well spent, the film became a classic, Gekko is now considered one of film’s all-time best dressed characters, and Flusser’s name began popping up everywhere. Flusser claims that the next year his business quadrupled off the press he gained from the film, but there was also a bit of pushback from Wall Street’s credited custom designer, Ellen Mirojnick. She wasn’t exactly happy that Flusser ultimately overshadowed her and her work on the film. So a couple years ago when Oliver Stone began working on the sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he called on Mirojnick to design the costumes, but in turn Mirojnick never called Flusser, instead choosing to guide the look of the character’s all by herself.
Her decision certainly left the film with a much less iconic style to it, but then again, it’s not like wall street really has any style to it these days. I can say that I don’t think anyone on wall street actually dresses how Gekko, and Jacob Moore (played by Shia LeBeouf) did in the sequel, because their clothes actually seem to fit them. As we all know there’s no longer any sort of definitive style to the financial district, unless you consider oversized suits and square toed shoes to be a “style,” but, looking at these costumes in the sequel, it seems a bit confused to me.
Where the original spoke volumes about the literal golden age of wall street and expressed a time when men really put effort into looking good, Money Never Sleeps feels like it heads in the opposite direction. It’s not that the outfits are bad, it’s just that they’re unimaginative, there’s really no expression to them, the suspenders, patterns, collar pins, all those little touches from the original are absent in the sequel. The clothes fit, but clothes can also fit a mannequin, and I think in the end that reflects where we are today in the style of New York’s professional class. There’s a lot of guys with money to spend, but instead of dedicating that money toward getting a suit that reflects who they are, they’re walking into department stores and absentmindedly buying what they think they’re supposed to. Hell, Gekko might have been greedy but at least he could dress himself.
In the early seventies Ralph Lauren was just beginning to find his way as a designer. He’d won an award for his collection in ’70, then a couple years later he debuted his signature line of polo shirts, but as far as most people were concerned he was still just another menswear designer who hadn’t really made his mark yet. All of that changed in 1974 when Ralph received an offer to work on the costume’s for Jack Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Ralph constructed dense outfits for Robert Redford and the rest of the male cast that captured the style of the Jazz Age. Even though the movie’s head costume designer Theoni Aldredge went on the win the Academy Award for the film’s costumes, and never really gave Ralph any credit for his work, he got what he needed out of the project. At the time The Great Gatsby went on to gross over twenty-five million dollars, and helped to propel Ralph into becoming a household name. The movie is largely forgettable, most people classify it as a misdirected adaptation of the book, but the costumes are still remembered for giving an early glimpse into Ralph’s prowess as a designer.
Forty years later, we all know Ralph’s record. He’s become arguably the most important American menswear designer of all time, never compromising, instead thriving off the consistency of the “Ralph Lauren” look, a Northeast meets Southwest, preppy by way of heritage aesthetic that reflects his personal style. Ralph’s always known when to experiment and when to reel it in, when to look forward and when to allude to the past. It’s this reference to the past that I couldn’t help but think about as I scanning through the photos of Ralph Lauren’s Spring 2013 collection. It’s not to say that the entire collection is reminiscent of the costumes from The Great Gatsby, but certain looks, especially in the more formal areas, seem like they’re ripped straight from Ralph’s sketch book from the seventies. It’s the chalk white stripes, the two-tone spectator-esque shoes, the low button stances, the double-breasted waistcoats, the patterned ties, the cream colored suits, the pastel shirts, the contrast white collars, the club collars, all of these characteristics of Spring ’13 remind me so much of The Great Gatsby ’74. With interest in the Great Gatsby obviously peaking again thanks to the new movie, and the inevitable return to the formality and details of the Prohibition Era, it only makes sense that Ralph would take a literal page from his own design book right now.
If there’s one thing you can say about Steve McQueen it’s that the man’s garnered a lotta ink over the years. I think it’s impossible to have any sort of conversation about style without seeing McQueen’s name pop up at least once, I mean I personally have mentioned him in every post this week, but I’m not going to apologize for that one. It seems that everyone’s approached the McQueen story in one way or another at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting and if there was ever a time for me to give the man a proper write up, it would be this week.
Looking at actors these days, there’s just something amiss about them. Everyone’s too polished, too rehearsed, too public, too egotistical, it all just feels wrong. How can I relate to people that I can’t even respect? If you look at actors from the sixties and seventies they did things, real things that were downright admirable. They rode motorcycles, gave to charity, smirked at the camera, got arrested, made mistakes, and all they while acted at the top of their game. Of course, every one of those feats that I just listed belong to one man in particular, Steve McQueen.
So why McQueen? What exactly made and still makes him so revered as the “King of Cool.” Personally, I feel that the answer lies in his love for motorcycles. The fact that McQueen rode like he did, not for the publicity, because it was something he sincerely enjoyed, tells us everything about why he became so prolific. It wasn’t about him being some calculated machine for Hollywood to control, he was just a man who had a rough upbringing that was one part farm life, one part city life, and filled with wild situations throughout (I won’t delve into this here because his story is a winding one, but if you get a chance you should all read about McQueen’s formative years, they were undeniably fascinating.) McQueen was an ex-Marine, with a troubled past, who rode motorcycles, and not to over-simplify things, but I’d say that’s a pretty damn good summary as to why the man became so legendary both on and off screen.
McQueen was not merely a collector, although he certainly did that, amassing over a hundred bikes in his day, but he was a venerable competitor as well. In an interview McQueen once admitted that his passion for moto-racing stemmed back to a tricycle that his great-uncle had given him as a toddler, but it was in the sixties that he really made his mark in the racing world. Even as he was becoming one of Hollywood’s most well known actors, McQueen competed in grueling off-road races such as the Baja 100 and the International Six Day Trial. Those images of McQueen, dressed in a mud covered moto-jacket and smiling as wide as he can, have been engrained in the male psyche for decades. Let’s face it, we’ve all felt emasculated by a McQueen photo at one time or another, but that’s the point. In this era everyone’s so preoccupied with everything being perfect, I look at a photo of McQueen at the end of a brutal dirt-bike race and he looks better than anyone out there today. McQueen’s shirts were faded because he broke them in himself, his clothes fit him well because he wore them to death, he looked comfortable and happy because he was, and he was so damn cool because he didn’t fake it, he just lived it.