Let’s dive into the Armani designed, vintage-inspired attire of one of the best popcorn movies I’ve seen: Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987).
Thus starteth the lesson.
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When I first watched Gangster Squad, I remember that I was floored. It was an action flick with decent style, a Hans Zimmer score (Jablonsky is basically RCP), and campy one liners. I’m pretty sure I knew it wasn’t all that great, but it was easy to take in, especially an 18 year old who had no style. It provided some of the first inklings of spearpoint collars and fun ties which later became such tentpoles of my style today.
The funny thing is that movies like this come around every once in a while, inspiring different generations to dress vintage. I remember talking about this very subject with vintage enthusiasts. Some guys got into it from Golden Era Films with Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart. Others like to cite The Sting or Goodfellas. I attribute mine to 2013’s Great Gatsby and Gangster Squad, which are on the “sillier” end of the spectrum. It’s the silliness that brings me to The Untouchables (1987).
The Untouchables was described to me as the original Gangster Squad swapping Chicago for LA (and Capone for Cohen). The movie is full of tropes, campy gangster villains, “good” vintage style, and a fun score (it’s Morricone, which is basically the OG Zimmer anyway). My friend Hector loves the film and has cited it as one of his inspirations for how he got into menswear; he’s been begging for me to cover it, which is why I’m doing it now (as well as made it a subject of the pod). So, being quarantine with nothing much to do, I decided to watch it and make note of the clothing.
The movie’s costumes were designed by Giorgio Armani, who had already done other films like The Bodyguard or American Gigolo. As one of the preeminent designers of the period, especially with his approach to tailoring that was rivaled only by Ralph Lauren (who also has done movies), it’s no surprise to me that many menswear guys today look fondly over the outfits in the Untouchables. And it’s not too bad; just keep his 1980s views in mind when looking
In this interview, Armani admits that the styling of the late 20s and early 30s (The Untouchables takes place during Prohibition) went against his design view at the time (which is probably best exuded by the previous entries I referenced). As a result, the film has a modern take on Prohibition clothing, which isn’t overtly as bad as Gatsby, but the effect is more subtle, similar to Gangster Squad.
To casual viewers, or at least people who don’t obsessively look at gorge details and buttoning point, the 3PC suits, wide brimmed hats, and pleated, wide legs that abound in The Untouchables are just enough to sell the audience on the “vintage” look. Of course, it’s not really all that period accurate when you look closer, as there are elements that look more 40s rather than the early 30s (Capone was arrested in 1931). Again, the movie’s attire isn’t that bad and provides a few ideas to pull from for contempoary-vintage outfits, which we’ll get into later.
I tried to find pictures of federal agents and gangsters just for the sake of this article.
Let’s begin by first recapping the tailoring of the time period. As I’ve written before, each decade has a distinct style, most visibly in the cuts and details of suits (which is what most guys wore back then). You’ll see this in the pictures I’ve provided below, but basically this time period (late 20s-early 30s) has a rather contemporary take.
For example, shoulders didn’t have much padding, jackets weren’t too long, button harmony was present, and trousers were wide (but not too wide) and didn’t have many pleats. Some garments still retained the feminine, elegant touch of the earlier 20s, but it’s still a rather a great period that would eventually give way to the mid 30s and all their Apparel Arts glory. Don’t forget that spearpoints were the name of the game, though they were more moderate during this time.
If you’re wondering about fedoras, the crowns here were tall and the brims rather medium in length; the wide brims with the front snap we think are 1920s didn’t really come until the 1940s and 1950s. It’s just a small thing, but I like to think
Also, The Untouchables TV series started in 1959, and has a very 1950’s approach to the clothing rather than being period accurate.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover a bit of Al Capone’s style. Now I’m not a guy who idealizes gangster fashion; in fact, none of these Prohibition pictures really do anything for me. However, I must admit that old Scarface did have command over his look.
Even if he wasn’t pushing the style envelope per se, he did dress slightly different than other guys of his time. This is most notable in Capone’s choice of single button suits. In the 1920s, there were still quite a few odd suits, such as ones with quadruple patch pockets or paddock suits (in which both buttons are meant to be fastened), but one button jackets were still mainly reserved for formal wear like morning dress and tuxedos. The fact that Capone does it probably points to his desire to appear elegant and bring formality to regular suiting (which was worn on an everyday basis).
This dandy approach to clothing shows up in a few other ways as well. You can see that he liked to accessorize with a waistcoat chain, something that many vintage enthusiasts (both serious and casual) tend to do. There are a few instances of Capone wearing spats, a very old school way of protecting your shoe that also has the benefit of adding visual interest to your trouser cuff/shoe are; by this time, the effect of spats had been largely replaced by spectator shoes. We also can’t forget his iconic cream fedora.
The Style In The Film
Now that we’ve explored Armani’s personal aesthetic as well as period clothing, let’s start getting into the attire present in the film. If you want a more in-depth look or perhaps another writer who doesn’t have my vintage predilections, check out BAMF.
We start with Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness. He’s presented to us as a Boy Scout of sorts: a clean cut, incorruptible family man, dedicated to bringing down Al Capone. As such, he wears a tell-tale uniform that works with his character: a grey-blue wool 3PC suit. It’s looks “trussed up” as 3PC suits often do, but it works with his straight forward good guy personality. His shirts are often plain or striped (but not boldy) and he has a penchant for wearing foulard ties, which will always have an inherent vintage charm.
As you could expect from a law enforcement officer, Ness doesn’t vary from his “uniform” for the duration of the film. He might switch out shirts and ties (which aren’t too different from each other anyway), but he retains that same 3PC suit. You guys know I’m not a big fan of a straight uniform, though he might serve as an inspiration for those of you that do.
Looking back, I wonder if Ness’s blue-grey suit was co-opted by the people over at Gangster Squad, where Gosling’s Jerry Wooters wears a similar shade also in a 3PC. Maybe it’s just a good guy thing!
While the outfit isn’t too bad, its the cut of the suit that is a bit off. You’ll remember earlier in this article when I mentioned that late 20s/early 30s suits had fairly normal shoulders (not extended or padded) and featured rather straight legs. Those elements aren’t present on Ness’s suit, as it retains the broad shouldered, wide fit associated with Armani. However, we can’t really fault him for it, as the film’s costumes are meant to be his own interpretation of the period’s style.
Ness’s suit also has a low buttoning point, which wasn’t very common (especially on tall, slender guys) at the time. Overall, it just appears like a “standard” 80s-90s suit that they accessorized with a foulard tie and Borsalino fedora. To most, that’s vintage enough.
But not to me.
During the famous mountain raid sequence, Ness actually wears something other than his 3PC blue-grey suit. Here, we get to see a bit of Armani’s take on vintage casual, putting Ness in a belted leather jacket. You’ll note that it’s definitely jacket length (like a sportcoat or even a peacoat), which was because this jacket was mainly used as utilitarian outerwear instead of the ones we normally know (which end at the natural waist).
It’s really not that bad, other than the fact that it has a low belting point, which corresponds to the late 70s-90s fascination with low buttoning points. When you look at vintage ones from around the same period, even longer length jackets had the belt right at the natural waist, in order to emphasize the broad shoulders and nipped waist of the “ideal” physique. The fact that it’s oversized with a low waist makes the jacket appear very 80s-90s.
Next up is IRS agent Oscar Wallace, the designated “nerd” of the group. Funnily enough, just like Con Keeler in Gangster Squad, the nerdy guy has some of the best attire in the film!
Just look at his outfit above. Not only is the suit flecked, but it appears to have a more moderate buttoning point (or the lapels are rolled that way) and even has a slouchy, softer shoulder; you guys should know by now that this is my aesthetic. It’s also much more pertinent to the actual styling of the time and as a result, looks “classic” rather than simply an 80s-90s interpretation. Also, I thought it was interesting that he wears a 3PC single breasted suit just like Ness. Maybe the Gangster Squad guys were onto something.
Wallace doesn’t wear striped shirts much, but he does have his own tie preference: bold repp stripes. Since repp stripes are very school oriented, it makes sense for this character to wear them, perhaps even to point to his school boy demeanor and stature.
Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone provides a break from the 3PC suit uniform of the untouchables. As you’d expect from the gruff, ear-to-the-ground, guerilla tactics guy, Malone has a rugged approach to his attire. To me, it looks like it’s based on workwear and country attire, though done through a generic lens.
Malone’s most famous look consists of a newsboy cap (props for not simply going with a driver cap), a donegal corduroy jacket (with patch pockets), an air-tie shirt, cardigan, and pinstripe odd trousers. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen similar looks in old 1920s pictures of bootleggers or simply on people who don’t live in the city. It looks vaguely rugged, which is probably enough for the film.
The look isn’t bad, but just a bit questionable considering all the different pieces. The air-tie is an oddity that stands out to me though when you look at this through the lens of the 80s-90s, it makes sense when done with the cardigan and frumpy jacket.
Like his fellow compatriots, Malone also wears a scarf and layers for the horse scene. This is where the weird 80s fashion comes through. At first glance, it looks like he’s wearing a full length, double breasted coat but in reality, it’s a thigh length, peacoat-esque garment.
Adding to the weirdness, the coat has wide notch lapels and 6×2 buttoning. This makes it seem like it’s simply a tweed double breasted sportcoat but it clearly is meant to be outerwear. In some scenes, you can note that it has a half belt, a detail normally seen on overcoats. Armani was probably trying to do his own version of a DB mackinaw jacket, but it doesn’t stack up. It ends up just looking like the 80s-90s in action.
Andy Garcia’s George Stone (or Gisueppi Petri) blends the best of Wallace and Ness’s tailoring with Malone’s rugged attire. In fact, I think quite a few people in menswear today (who like vintage styling) probably take a few cues from Stone!
Stone has a classic vintage casual look, wearing a suede short jacket over a shirt/tie and slacks. The jacket is very cool, ending right at the natural waist, featuring a long point collar, and big breast pockets. However, these are details more prominent on 1940s-1950s jackets, especially gabardine ricky jackets. It stuck out to me like a sore thumb (though it’s still a nice jacket).
Like Ness, Stone likes wearing striped shirts and foulard ties, just in a bolder patterns. This, along with his use of a slick suede jacket, point to his youthful, hotshot presence in the group.
Let’s now talk about Al Capone, played by Bobby De Niro. Capone in The Untouchables wears 3PC suits that are single buttoned and feature a vest chain, just like the real Capone would wear. You’ll also notice that his trousers are flat front and straight legged, which might be the first real example of period late 20s-early 30s tailoring in this film.
Capone only makes a few appearances in the film, but each time, he is dressed immaculately. The film even gives him the chesterfield overcoat and cream fedora! I can see why Capone might be a source of inspiration to other menswear guys.
As BAMF points out, the tailoring for Capone was provided by Henry Stewart, a NYC tailor that was found by De Niro during a search for Scarface’s true tailors. No wonder his suits look
better different than the others in the film!
I’ll finish off by what is probably the most iconic outfit from the film: the white 3PC DB suit worn by Frank Nitti. Obviously monochromatic looks are a trope of gangster films, and it makes sense for the hitman to wear it. In Gangster Squad it was all black and here, the original, it’s all white. It’s eye-catching and certainly provides inspiration. Clearly, Armani was trying to exude the power of the white/cream summer suits that would grace the pages of Apparel Arts. It’s the reason why Palm Beach suits are so prized in the vintage community and why white suits are still popular today!
In this film, Nitti’s suit appears to be made from linen (maybe linen-silk), which he further accessorizes with a optimo-styled panama hat; it’s a look that is very 1930’s summer. Armani makes Nitti even more of a dandy (even compared to Capone) by giving him a few more things: a collar bar, spectator shoes, and a lapel chain. It’s all very loud and gangster-riffic.
I don’t hate his look, though I would never do that much white all at once (especially if it includes a tie). The real offender is simply the low buttoning stance and narrow spacing, which again, wasn’t exactly en vogue in the late 20s and early 30s. It isn’t noticeable when worn unbuttoned, which I love to do with DBs, but when it’s fastened, it can look a bit off. Despite all that, it does give me a hankering to wear my white suit and striped shirt, though I will definitely contrast it with a different tie; matching a white tie and suit is very Smooth Criminal, which I guess makes sense for Nitti.
And no, I didn’t forget at how square the shoulders are.
This was a very enjoyable popcorn movie with some fun costuming. However, as you’ve hopefully come to conclude along with me, it’s not entirely that vintage. It’s unabashedly Armani’s view (from the late 80s) of what the late 20s and early 30s is like, which comes off rather 40s if anything. As I’ve come to to learn the more I do these analyses, its that film costuming doesn’t actually have to be entirely period; it’s an art form like anything else (especially if the movie isn’t trying to be period accurate).
In the end, it will just stand out to vintage collectors like myself! I just hope that other people are able to recognize that and view period movies with a self-aware lens. I tend to find that many people who cite movie style tend to have some misconceptions about true vintage clothing. I’m definitely certain that many people today think that the 1930s were all wide suits and wide fedoras with shoulder pads, as this film (and many others) have presented. Here endeth the lesson.
But anyway, even if the attire is only slightly questionable (all the characters still look great) you should watch the film with all of its campy glory. The train station fight sequence is just ridiculous.
While many people are surprised that I haven’t seen this movie until now, I rather like the fact that it took me a a bit of time to finally do it. Being able to cover this after Gangster Squad provides me with a unique view, not simply because GS was more formative in my life, but because it’s very clear that GS took a lot of it’s ideas from The Untouchables (including the score).
All that’s left is for me to finally cover The Imitation Game (one of my favorite costumed films) and Live By Night (the worst costumed film I’ve seen). But that may be far into the future, because I’m a little beat from writing about movie style.
Thus endeth the lesson.
Always a pleasure,