I was lucky enough to see Susan Claassen’s wonderful A Conversation with Edith Head in Toronto last month. Ms Claassen’s 90-minute near-monologue was impressive, as was learning of Ms Head’s costume design work on over 1100 films. What really struck me, the men’s image consultant in love with men’s clothes, was that Edith Head, winner of seven other Oscars for dressing the most talented and glamorous actresses in Hollywood, named The Sting as her favourite costume work because she learned that she preferred dressing men to women (sounds familiar!).
Head was able to make her stars look flawless– “Accentuate the positive and camouflage the rest,” as she used to say. She had two men, the equivalent of today’s George Clooney and Brad Pitt to outfit in period costume, and I though I can’t imagine what would need camouflaging on Paul Newman or Robert Redford, Ms Head certainly accentuated the positive in these two actors.
Seen in the top rendering, Redford’s pinstriped suit nipped in at the waist compacts his torso and broadens his shoulders, boosting his masculine shape, and at right, note the photo of Paul Newman in the soft royal blue suit and dove grey hat playing up his brilliant blue eyes.
I watched The Sting last night and took note of the costumes which made me think of a quote from Savile Row tailor, Edward Sexton: “The man should wear the suit; the suit should never wear the man”. Similarly, Edith Head said, “My motto is that the audience should notice the actors, not the clothes.”
If you are part of the audience who didn’t notice the clothes, let me take you on a brief walk through the character, the costumes, and the celebration of the period, filled with timeless visual symbols and signs of gentlemanly demeanour.
The time is 1936 in Joliet, Illinois. The first scene begins with a shot of a pair of fancy two-tone shoes walking past down-and-out men lying on the dusty sidewalk. The man in the shoes walks up the fire escape of a building into a busy gambling den– our first suggestion that despite the country’s Depression, there is money to be made and those who make it, dress fine.
The man in the two-tone shoes is conned out of $11,000 by three men, one of whom is small-time con artist, Johnny Hooker (Redford), scruffy in his dust-coloured unmatched trousers and jacket, and tie-less shirt. The first costumes we see strike the contrast between small and big-time crooks.
By the time Hooker meets up with Henry Gondorff (Newman) in Chicago to do the “Big Con” and swindle crime boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), out of half a million dollars, they’re getting their gang together to create a theatre of success and wealth in a fake betting club. Each new gang recruit is told to “go grab yourself a suit”. And so the set-up begins.
High-rollers wear shiny shoes and three-piece suits with loud, short, wide silk ties. Hooker, the young and eager up-and-coming con-man, needs grooming, and we watch his metamorphosis from small-time grifter to big-roller. Gondorff takes him to a barber shop for a shave, a haircut and a manicure, then to a tailor who fits a high-waisted navy pinstriped suit with peak lapels and matching waistcoat with a short colourful silk tie. This silhouette, especially in pinstripes, elongates Redford’s legs and exaggerates his masculine V shape, giving him added visual appeal and at the same time, reflecting his character’s youth, its impatience, and its folly.
We watch the rest of Gondorff’s gang transform into “men of wealth” with the addition of pocket hankies, spats, shiny two-tone shoes, tie pins, French cuffs and cuff links; starched collars, braces, walking sticks, and gloves to their already fancy suits and waistcoats.
“Not only do these men look more the part by dressing dapper, they’re more confident,” says Jonathan Hagey at Kingpin’s Hideaway, a men’s vintage shop in Toronto, “They carry themselves with more authority and create the illusion that they are well-to-do types.”
When Gondorff’s gang changes from small-time to big-time, it isn’t only their wardrobe that changes, but their behaviour as well. When Gondorff first meets Lonnegan at a poker game, he wants to fool Lonnegan into thinking he’s an inexperienced and foolish card player. He bursts in, smelling of gin, and says, “Sorry I’m late, I was taking a crap.” Lonnegan has little patience for the unrefined dress of the crass newcomer. “This is a gentleman’s game and a tie is required,” he says sternly.
Though the gang plays it as close to Lonnegan’s look as they can, not all the details are the same. Enter the costumer’s insinuation of character.
Have a look at the above screen shot and notice the difference in lapel widths and shapes. During this period, lapels were high and often peaked. Redford, the “hero/hunk”, has rounded and upward pointing peaks on lapels in proportion to his body and suggestive of his young age but Shaw, the “villain” is always seen in wide, exaggerated lapels with straight, pointed peaks. In this shot, Shaw looks larger than the other two and particularly devilish with his sharp, massive lapels and waxed moustache.
The Sting won seven of eleven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and of course, Best Costume Design, but this doesn’t come without some dispute. Edith Head is fabled to have been a little ruthless in her career path, not giving credit where credit was due. In fact, she was sued by the costume illustrator who said it was she who actually designed Newman and Redford’s costumes (source), but I can’t seem to find the outcome of that lawsuit, so I can’t say if it’s true.
What I do know is that when Edith Head, the most celebrated costume designer in Hollywood history, accepted her Oscar for best costume design for The Sting, she flitted onto the stage in her signature dark glasses and short bangs, in a long white dress with a matching black-trimmed vest.
“Just imagine dressing the two handsomest men in the world, and then getting this!” she said, holding out her award. Her joy and pride in the project cannot be disputed; it is a wonderful film on every level, and tells the story of elegant and ageless gentlemen’s dress and behaviour.
For those of you stylish and confident enough to blend 1930s elegance into your wardrobe, here are more period goodies from Kingpin’s Hideaway: