The Bespoke Gangster Style of HBO's Boardwalk Empire
This month brings many glad sartorial tidings by way of the culture. There is Oliver Stone's sequel to Wall Street, the wardrobe process of which we've already uncovered. And there's a few more episodes of Mad Men, which we've been chronicling on The Style Blog this season as it continues to hold the mantle of Last Drama Standing since The Sopranos (or maybe The Wire, but still). But on Sunday comes the next great HBO epic from Sopranos alum Terence Winter, and John from Cincinnati this is not: In the Martin Scorsese-helmed pilot alone, you will see the kind of elaborate filmmaking you've haven't seen since, well, film. And with elaborate shoots comes an elaborate wardrobe — perhaps the most serious style throwback the small screen has witnessed this side of a BBC period miniseries. So before we begin weekly style recaps for this series as well, its costume designer, John Dunn, offered us some of his wisdom on bloodstained suits, the importance of a man's tailor, and the (fashionable) difference between working-class thugs and true gangsters. Without too many spoilers.
This is my process: About four months before we started filming, I hit the research libraries at FIT, I went to the Brooklyn Museum, the Met. I would go to the rental houses, and I would meet with the vintage dealers. I pored over tailoring books from the period — just completely immersed myself in 1920. The entire first season all takes place that year, so I was very focused on making sure that the cut and the silhouette of the clothing was that: 1920.
With Marty and Terry Winters, I developed the feel for each of the characters. We all wanted it to be very, very accurate and specific to the period. So, I limited myself to the fabrics of 1920. It got to the point where a couple of times I had woolens manufactured for suiting because I couldn't find exactly what it was that I wanted.
I knew that we were going to have to build suits.
I had to find a tailor; I didn't want the suits to all be vintage — old and raggedy, that had to be restored — so I used Martin Greenfield. I think you've heard of him.
I've got characters going to the tailor and having things made brand-new. It was a big deal for a man to get his suit made. Men didn't have many suits, so it was an important piece in their wardrobe.
We're used to looking at the 1920s in black-and-white. We see photographic documentation, we see films for the period — all black-and-white. When I was doing the research, I found various references to color in the magazines, and to my surprise the descriptions were very vivid. Tailoring companies used to have these large, coffee-table-size books with sketches of men's clothing that often included swatches of fabrics that they were manufacturing the suits out of. Man, there was some serious color there.
It's not exaggerated in any way. Nucky [Johnson, played by Steve Buscemi] is based on a real person who was known as a serious dresser. I tried to put myself in his place and see who he would be looking at. I thought, probably, someone who is well-known and trend-setting like the Prince of Wales would heavily influence him.
Atlantic City was a boom town where people were able to completely reinvent themselves, and their presentation was becoming more and more important — as important as it is now. A character like Nucky would understand the importance of the image that he's projecting. The minute he stepped out into the boardwalk of the hotel, he wanted everyone to know he was there. Of course, that would require that he have a lot of clothing.
Nucky wears a collar bar. The collars actually needed controlling back then, so the collar bar was very popular. We did have a particular collar specifically designed for Nucky, though: a period collar that has a little keyhole cutout in the center — when you close the collar with the collar bar, there was then a little hole that the necktie would come out of. No one else was allowed to wear that.
You do have other characters who don't have the financial means, or their social situation is such that they just didn't have clothing. Al Capone and Jimmy [Darmondy, played by Michael Pitt, pictured left] are working-class Joes at this point. It could be that you're going to see a transformation.At this point, Jimmy's just come back from the war and doesn't have a job, and Al Capone has got a wife and kid that he's supporting and they just — you need some sturdy, working-guy clothing. And if you get the job done and finally the bills start getting paid, then you can afford to look like the other guys and make the commitment that you're going to dress like that. So I don't think the way that they're dressed in the pilot is a huge departure from what they would've been dressed like at that time in their financial situation, but they had to ride on their good looks more than their expensive wardrobe.
The speaking characters, bad things happen to them. So I often have to have multiples on suits. That's what led me to working with Martin Greenfield and getting them to where they could make me a suit in four days, and in triplicate, so that the unspeakable could happen to some of the characters.
The Atlantic City people are a fashion-forward people, because they want to present themselves in a flashy way to say "I'm the top dog" with their clothing. But it's also a seaside setting. So despite the fact that most of the people there were working class, there was also this element of great wealth in a summer situation. I would say I probably did a lighter palette in Atlantic City and more colorful.
New York was much more serious and elegant. We did really cutting-edge tailoring for Arnold Rothstein. Lucky Luciano [left], I would say, is trying to be elegant but he's not there yet. Part of the story is that Arnold Rothstein takes the rough edges off of Lucky and he becomes quite a well-dressed man, but at this point he still makes a few mistakes. So his wardrobe is a little more crass and will become more elegant as the series progresses.
For Chicago, I wanted to have a real old-world connection of darker colors — just a more Italian, European feeling of the old country. These people were tied a little more closely to the people coming in from Europe, and Italy probably most specifically.
When I do feature films, I generally have the complete arc of the character. I know exactly what's going to happen to them, I know what happens to them in the middle of the movie, and I know where they are at the end. In the series, I have no information other than the script of the episode that I'm working on. I have hints of maybe what's going to happen to their character, but it keeps you very focused on where they are in that moment. It's more like life.
I don't like to do boring clothing, but you also have to make sure that you're not suddenly putting somebody in something that isn't going to make sense four episodes from now.
Read more: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/mens-fashion/boardwalk-empire-costume-designer-091510#ixzz15GBc4d7h