Gangster Squad: Gangster Gloss

Gangster Squad is a fantasy grounded in reality. One of the coolest costume design names in the business, Mary Zophres, unveils a Los Angeles catwalk circa 1949. Maybe not 100% what actually existed but given the romanticised tone of the movie, exactly what hoped to see.

To be clear, Mary Zophres has not ignored historical accuracy. After working on films such as Catch Me if You Can (2002) and True Grit (2010) she is known for her dedication to factual detail, yet never at the expense of telling the story her director wishes to. In this instance director Ruben Fleischer has approached Gangster Squad as an old school matinee. While based on some real characters, namely hoodlum Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) and task force cop John O’Mara (James Brolin), it is heightened fiction, all Tommy guns and fedoras, slinky gowns and cigarettes.

Costume design sketch for Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Her silk and chiffon evening gown was originally intended to be teal (perfect with auburn hair), but during fitting red provided far more impact.

The gangster look we see on screen was actually created during 1930s; an odd case of art imitates life influences art. Take James Cagney and Edward G Robinson in movies such as The Public Enemy (1931) and Little Caesar (1931) wearing wide pinstripes and almost baggy trousers; these initially influenced costume designers of the period and then were adopted and exaggerated by real life gangsters. Their mantra was not purposely bad taste but more to contort and push beyond expected limits. Suits became livelier, midriffs tighter and shoulders broader. Shirts were silk with elongated collar points in eye-bleeding patterns and monogrammed. Neckties were short, fat and loud, while hats featured wider bands and generous brims.

This brassy style is demonstrated in Gangster Squad, which despite being set over twenty years after the gangster uniform was born remains faithful to the suggestion that career criminals always wear their success. You cannot be a gangster until you dress the part; it is the peacock strut evident on Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire and Floyd Banner in Lawless. Those in charge have to stand out from their subordinates, so dress in brighter, more experimental and, on occasion, tackier clothes than anyone else can afford.

Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin and Sean Penn all had their hats – a mix of fedoras and homburgs – custom made for the film.

Gangster Squad’s primary villain Mickey Cohen is all about the little fixtures; long collar points, pocket squares that match his shirt (recently attempted by James Bond in Skyfall), soft velvet slippers and leisure suits. Apathetic cop Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) pays even more attention to sartorial display, even at the expense of his job. Note Wooters’ double breasted chalkstrpe suit worn with matching waistcoat, blue geometric print shirt and two-tone shoes. By modern standards it is almost fancy dress, but in late 1940s he was painfully fashionable.

Jack O’Mara however is far more utilitarian. Zophres worked hard to ensure all the Squad are set apart from one another and its leader, rather like Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables, adopts a sober manner. Fresh from serving in the Army, O’Mara is not remotely interested in how he looks, only his obligation to duty. His suits are dark brown and green, narrow stripes with no embellishments. To O’Mara any effort directed at clothes would take away from his quest. He is very much the action hero witnessed in eighties cinema. Contrasted against James Bond’s conservative bespoke suit, Die Hard’s John McLane (Bruce Willis) in dirty vest and cords was a real man. Likewise Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), who for a period character (1930s/40’s) was borderline scruffy.

Emma Stone does not have what could immediately be described as a 1940s figure, i.e. wide hips, tiny waist and full bust so girdles were used to contort into the necessary shape. Her dresses are early 40’s rather than late (Gangster Squad is set in 1949).

Beyond the actual Gangster Squad are some terrifically costumed background players: molls, a Carmen Miranda-like club singer, street urchins and most impressively, a zoot suit wearing hood in a jazz bar. The zoot suit was an audacious item, created in New York’s Harlem, politically charged (seen at racially motivated riots) with pronounced shoulders on a jacket that fell to the knees, floppy brim hat and low crotch pants. The zoot has a blink or miss it moment in the film, but one that demonstrates Mary Zophres slotting in real historical details whenever she could.

For her female lead Grace Faraday (Emma Stone), Cohen’s sassy if delicate failed starlet girlfriend, Zophres consciously rejects Dior’s ‘New Look’ of tiny waist, huge puffy skirt and even huger bosom for a ‘poured in’ 30’s silhouette more suitable for the actress’ figure. Nothing less than a showstopper, Grace’s red dress when meeting Jerry Wooters pales all around her into insignificance. This is a good example of costume intentionally distracting the audience, though not at the expense of the wearer. Emma Stone looks amazing because Grace Faraday looks amazing; the dress draws our eye but we do not forget who is zipped inside. The leg slit is at least an inch too high because A) it is more flattering and B) it fits Grace’s personality – a woman who pushes boundaries and lives dangerously, too dangerously perhaps, for her own good.

Gangster Squad is beautiful Hollywood costume. It reconstructs late 1940s period through a lustrous lens embracing the most dazzling and elegant of everything. The story features factual characters, but they are living in a larger than life world. Mary Zophres embraces the gloss without taking liberties, and as far as hats are concerned she could pretty much revive an entire industry.

Gangster Squad is currently on general release.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.