Tom Hardy in Lawless: Return of the Knitwear Anti-Hero | Clothes on Film – Part 27

One point of discussion after watching Lawless not involving violence, morals or hairstyles, has been the simple item of clothing worn by Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant. It seems that his rudimentary knitwear has caused head-scratching and amusement for some cinemagoers. Yet there is nothing odd in Forrest’s choice of attire, in fact historically speaking for the early 1930s in rural America it is spot-on accurate, not to mention perfectly in tune with his character; a gruff man, comfortable in his own skin, who cares about as much for fashion as he does money.

This contrast between the man and his clothing provides an ironic twist. The knitted cardigan is soft to the touch and not especially hard wearing; Forrest is neither of these things, and thus the assertion that ‘we are what we wear’ does not apply. Unless we consider that garments cannot express meaning away from the body; that unless fulfilling their purpose (i.e. to be worn) clothes are merely a blank canvas devoid of expression. Forrest wears a cardigan many decades before its correlation with the repressed 1950/60’s Madison Avenue husband – trapped behind a desk, literally dressed and fed as he waits for time to catch up with him. Forrest would despise this man. When Forrest dons the cardigan it takes on new meaning, a flip reverse of the hard leather jacket seen on Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). In Forrest’s can-do world, real men wear knitwear.

Tom Hardy’s tough Prohibition bootlegger Forrest Bondurant. Forrest chooses a cardigan because it is what he has always worn growing up, plus it helped costume designer Margot Wilson smooth Hardy’s physique which was bulging in readiness for shooting The Dark Knight Rises.

For Lawless costume designer Margot Wilson, here talking exclusively to Clothes on Film, there was also a practical side to her decision. “Forrest was the most challenging” she explains. “Tom Hardy was bulking up (for The Dark Knight Rises) which was quite incongruous for our prohibition film. When I first saw Tom very briefly at a script reading he was bigger than I had imagined. So my task was to make him fit into our world and make him visually work with his brothers”. Setting Forrest apart from his brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia Labouf), provides subtle differentiation of character, often difficult to achieve in outwardly similar rural clothing. Wilson continues, “I asked director John Hillcoat how he was going to direct Tom. John said he was going to keep him very still. This was an opportunity to use one of my favourite garments. It held all the essence of Forrest for me”.

In period context (early 1930s) the cardigan may seem out of the place, though in fact surged in popularity during 20’s. The cardigan was considered sports wear, certainly not formal for all but the most artistic of men. Yet in a backwater it ticked several boxes: easily homemade, easily repaired and warm. Margot Wilson knew exactly when and where the cardigan became popular having traced the garment back to its roots, “This wonderful garment has traveled silently through time. It has been around since 1854 when the 7th Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell, fought in the Crimean war. The result of the battle was eulogized by Lord Tennyson in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. Throughout the Crimean campaign James and his officers wore a type of ‘sweater coat’ at night after their day on the battlefield. This is now the cardigan”.

Director John Hillcoat intended Forrest to be very still. He is a man of few words and sudden bursts of violence. The soft cardigan contradicts our ingrained expectation of cinema’s physical, capable anti-hero.

Forrest would have been living in cardigans for years. They are battered and often filthy. There was a distinction at this time in history between the dandy town gangster and his rural counterpart. While in Chicago or Atlantic City (as seen in Boardwalk Empire) the moneyed gangster wore fine suitings and colourful silk shirts, away from the metropolis these clothes were seen as frivolous and sissy. To even care about what you wore was at best considered trivial, at worst effeminate. The cardigan had no such connotation, particularly when shabby and distressed. Worn with crew neck or plain t-shirt (underwear) a cardigan prioritised the wearer’s face, drawing eyes away from the body. This is representative of many anti-heroes in cinema, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955) for example.

Wilson believes the cardigan’s current perception adds an extra layer to our expectations of Forrest. “I love the fact that it puts the audience into a comfortable mind set and then it is surprised by the explosive behaviour of the one who wears a cardigan” she confirms. “I was also looking for a garment that smoothed down Tom Hardy’s muscles and just ran over the top of his body without too much structure. A jacket would have made him even more bulky”. Fabric was important, practically for Forrest and to subconsciously connect with his surroundings. “It reinforced Forrest’s position as head of the family; it always gives a sense of belonging and comes with a silent attitude. Also the knit texture also gave him a sense of ownership that was his; something knitted immediately says hand done, a feeling of home, which is one side of Forrest Bondurant”.

As purely a fashion garment today, the cardigan shifts in meaning depending on the wearer. Those young enough embrace its assertion as ironic prep; while anyone past their forties loses all trace of irony and becomes a cliché – the blandly unimaginative man trapped in a dated style slump. It is a tall order for even principled tough guy Forrest Bondurant to alter this perception, yet with the term ‘Hardigan’ (as coined by journalist Beth Squires) currently bouncing around Twitter, there is no doubting the cardigan’s resurgence in popularity. The knitwear anti-hero has arrived.

Lawless is currently on general release.

© 2012 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.