Featured in the September 2011 issue of SHARP Magazine is a piece called, "Original Gangsters". It basically highlights how the heritage/vintage look is now, and always has been, "in". While this particular aesthetic may be a current trend, dressing smart has always been a classic standard that men can rely on for a great look. To add fuel to effect, I interviewed John Dunn and Lisa Padovani, costume directors of the hit HBO series "Boardwalk Empire", to get their take on this great sartorial philosophy, since much of this aesthetic is displayed throughout the show. You can read the feature in the magazine, out on stands now, or the full interview below!
Lance Chung: How much research was necessary when creating outfits for the show?
John Dunn: We've researched the show extensively in libraries and film footage from the period. We used a lot of tailoring catalogues from the period to see the silhouette’s nature and suiting of the men. For women, we used a lot of real clothing. We found museum pieces and studied them and learned about the application of them and the trims and treatments. We create as much of it as we possibly can, but we work very hard to make accurate period recreations for the clothing, rather than coming up w fantastical designs that are our idea of 1920. We put a great deal of effort into reproducing as closely as we could.
LC: What standard of accuracy did you feel was necessary?
Lisa Padovani: John and I both have high standards and we're both very detail oriented, which is good for the both of us. Neither one of us like to settle for anything. It's difficult with the short period of time we have on a television schedule, but we do whatever we possibly can do to make it as ornate as it can be in the time that's given us. We use very good, natural fabrics. No synthetics. We try to be the same way it used to be with buttons and trims and more.
LC: For the pieces that you had to create, did you produce them in a way that they traditionally would have been made as well?
JD: We try to use the same techniques. We have a catalogue of patterns that we use from the period so we get the accurate cut of the dresses and coats and all pieces of clothing, and yes the techniques. It's an interesting time period, clothing-wise, because clothing was still largely hand-made. There was still a large population of people with handmade clothing. So the hand-sewing skills were still evident in the clothing. But also, you've got the machine-age up in full force now, so they're manufacturing clothing as well. So it's sort of a combination of the two, and we very much do the same thing. We have a lot of handwork that's done on the women's clothing, and we actually bought a few machines for manufacturing the clothing that was used in the same period.
LC: Did the fact that a lot of the characters in the show were also real characters in life make it easier for you? Or harder?
LP: Of course we do the research, but we also look at the character. Terry is not constructing a documentary, he's constructing a whole world that's made up. So, it's grounded in reality and we use them as touchstones as something to start with, but we use our own imaginations to flesh that out in our own tastes and what we think it should be.
JD: It's not just for us too, it's for actors. You don't want the actor to feel like they are doing a wax museum reproduction of sorts. You want the actor to let it become their own. We always want to give them some breathing space so they don't feel like they're some breathing, carbon copy of a real person. So we use the real-life person as inspiration, but in order to breathe life into it on screen, I think the actor needs to have a little wiggle room, so we take that into consideration as well. We like to allow the space for that to happen.
LC: The show is set in the 1920's during the Prohibition Era. Were there any political and social factors that influenced the way people dressed back then?
LP: Oh sure, absolutely. One of the big things that we talk about is shirt collars and suits for men because the suit silhouette changed after the war. Young men wanted to dress young, and a slimmer, sexier style came out. They didn't want to look like their fathers or grandfathers. And plus, attached collars were coming on the scene, which quickly became popular because it was so much easier and more comfortable. So for men, it was definitely a reaction to the war. For the women, it was the end of the corset. It was a very free time, before the structured brazier. It was a very liberating time.
JD: And that sort of goes with the '60s as well, which was an echo of the '20s, where you had really dramatic change happening in a decade. Our first season for Boardwalk was set in 1920, so the '20s haven't actually happened yet. We were setting the stage for more dramatic changes in the lives, particularly, of women in this period. And the clothing will reflect that. So, we actually made sure that we had a strong foundation from the late 1918-1919 in the show in order to demonstrate the very dramatic changes in women's clothing, which was a reflection of what was happening to them socially. The war had a profound effect on them, prohibition did, and getting the vote was huge for women. They were exploring all these new options that they had. A lot of things were staying the same, but a lot of things were changing for women as well.
LC: Overall, do you get more a sense of liberation or constriction from that era? Or was it back and forth?
LP: I think it was very much a liberation. It felt like the country was reborn a little bit. So many things were on the scene, so many innovations. Everything was becoming modernized.
JD: The freedom for women had not existed before. Obviously, not total and complete freedom. That's yet to be achieved by humankind anywhere (Laughs). But women were certainly able to see more opportunities, which was reflected in the clothing. It was much more bare. Arms were being exposed, which never really happened too much. And skirts eventually got shorter. There was a simplicity and a freedom to the clothing that was new, as well as the short hair that women were wearing. It definitely impacts our show as far as what our characters are going through.
LC: Throughout the show, we saw a lot of the male characters wearing 3-piece suits, which seems to be associated with that period of time. When and why do you think people stopped wearing 3-piece suits? Was there a specific reason, or was it more of a cyclical thing?
JD: It was probably both. Again, as the ‘20s progressed, there was a sense of becoming less encumbered and having more freedom. The additional layer was just something that was one more skin that was being shed as we progressed. There is also a more conservative thing about them as well. It's a little less sporty to be wearing a whole 3-piece suit, so there's definitely an American sportiness that will begin to manifest itself on the show.
LP: It's also definitely a fashion thing as well. If you look at suits from the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, suits become skinnier and skinnier; so there weren't vests. And then in the ‘70s they went through the crazy, wide lapel, and now the 3-piece is “in” again. So it does have to do with silhouette.
JD: It was also economically influenced as well. When we start our story, America is just coming out of the war. And a guy would have worn a suit. He would've had to wear that everywhere he went. Sometimes he would have to be more formal, or dress less formal. He had to consider whether he was going to church or dancing or to work during the day. So basically, it was an all-purpose outfit. But America was doing quite well in the ‘20s, and people, just in general, would have had more clothing as they progressed into the ‘20s in their closets. So you would have more options and you wouldn't rely on 3 piece suits to take you to everywhere you were going.
LC: Now, we're seeing a resurgence of 3-piece suits on the runway. Do you have any advice on how they should be worn?
JD: What's wonderful about a 3-piece suit is the versatility of it. You can wear it in a casual fashion, without a vest, without the jacket, and more. There are a lot of different combinations. You do, however, have to wear it with the pants. But, it's a very versatile outfit to have. And a gentleman, throughout the entire day, can have business attire all day in a 3-piece suit, but if he wants to lose his jacket on a warm summer night, he can still look good in a shirt and vest.
LP: And also, they're doing a vest that's not the same fabric as the suit, especially if you're doing something in a colour or plaid or print. Any kind of a textured suit, you can do a plaid vest that goes underneath it, which also looks great.
JD: It's something that you can have to simplify your wardrobe and make it work in many different ways by introducing a 3-piece suit.
LC: Is there a certain cut that you find is important?
JD: I think for the modern body, especially with the vest, you really want a nice, clean, narrow silhouette. Otherwise, you'll end up looking like a sack of potatoes. I also don't like too much shoulder or lapel, either.
LC: Suspenders seemed to be quite ubiquitous back then as well. Was this more of a functional aspect or a self-expressive aesthetic?
LP: I think mostly function. The pants were higher waisted. But men wore belts, too, all the time. We tend to use suspenders for all of our suits because it looks correct. Once you put a belt with a suit, it starts to look a bit contemporary. But for work pants and workers, they mostly wore belts over suspenders. I think it was more of a safety thing too. Suspenders could get caught up in machinery, so it was a little dangerous for a worker to wear them. But suspenders, we've got some beautiful vintage ones that you just can't find anymore. You can't even recreate it because they don't make the same kind of elastics and ribbons that they would've used back during that time. So, when we find them, we treasure them and use them on our show. Because when you see a glimpse of them, they're really great.
JD: I also, personally, find them much more comfortable than belts. I had never worn them until this show, but I had our tailor make up a suit for me, and it was the first time I ever wore pants with suspenders. And there's a wonderful sort of freedom not to have this strip of leather cinching you at the waist.
LP: You also stay neater looking because your pants never fall down when you're bending over or doing tasks. And your shirt tends to stay tucked in better.
LC: Do you think that modern men can make good use of them?
LP: I think they're very handsome. You don't want to look like “Mork” (from Mork & Mindy), but again, in the ‘70s suspenders came back because they were recreating what was happening in the ‘20s. But yeah, I think a beautiful suspender is great.
JD: And they're comfortable and practical. And you can find beautiful contemporary suspenders as well. Stores like Paul Stewart, Brooks Brothers, and J. Press all have really nice ones. I wouldn't be surprised if J. Crew started introducing some as well. It's a fun and comfortable accessory. But you can't wear them with low-rise pants, because they're not as successful at that. But they're really quite wonderful and comfortable to wear, and everyone should give them a try. Again, it's a way of dressing up a shirt and pant outfit, and you can do that without going over the top.
LC: And you're referring to the suspenders where you have to have the buttons sewn into the pants, yes?
JD: I prefer them, and those are more fun. The clip-ons always feel a little childish for me. We only use button suspenders.
LP: And you can just sew the buttons in, or just easily take them to your tailor or dry cleaner. And when you find the new suspenders, they'll often come with the buttons included.
LC: We saw that there were a lot of hats on display throughout the show, and they seemed to say a lot about the person who wore them as well. There's one episode where Al Capone changes from the newsboy hat to the fedora, which served as a metaphor of him becoming a man. How did you decide which hats were suitable for each character? Do you think there is a place in the modern man's wardrobe for hats?
JD: Oh yeah, absolutely! I mean, it's a wonderful accessory, and very practical. It's a real form of expression, the hat. You can really express what kind of person you are. Do you want to have a youthful newsboy cap, or are you ready for a fedora. It's a lost accessory, but I think men are starting to really embrace it again. In New York especially, we're seeing a lot more hats. People are enjoying wearing them again. You can wear them without looking like you're trying to be 1920s or 1940s, because there are so many different silhouettes in hats now. It's really about finding the hat that suits your face.
LP: You have to own it! You have to feel confidant in that hat.
JD: I mean, look at everybody wearing baseball caps. It's not that people don't want to wear hats. There's no reason for people not to get a little adventurous and try a different shape.
LP: I saw a young man wearing a boater with a shirt, tie, suspenders, and vest, and he looked fantastic! And he didn't look vintage. He definitely was inspired, maybe from our show, who knows. But the stuff he had on was very contemporary. I thought he looked great and the stuff he had on, he owned it. You could tell that he really felt good in the outfit.
LC: It seems like there's been a resurgence in that 1920s/1930s fashion reappearing more and more in pop culture and on people who seem to be very inspired from that era. Do you see any kind of style resurgence, similar to the likes that Mad Men saw, coming from your show?
JD: It's hard to say! In truth, we're completely focused on telling the story that we're telling here with Boardwalk Empire. If it turns out that fashion is influenced by our work, and us telling the story, that's a wonderful thing. And it feels like that is the case. People are excited about the clothing, and we're definitely going to see more and more of it in fashion. And I don't think people will be doing carbon-copies of 1920’s clothing, but influences will be there in the silhouettes and the way people are putting clothing together. And there's a real interest, especially in menswear, in having more choices, more ways of expressing yourself. I think the Mad Men ‘60s suit was a wonderful thing. But it's nice for men to have different options to play with, because that 1960’s silhouette is not for everybody. So, we're opening the eyes of another generation to the clothing of the past that could functionally work for them now, and look very cool.
LC: And it's a very refined-looking aesthetic, and there's a lot of throwbacks to heritage looks going on now, which is great.
JD: Yeah, and we're just hopeful that because the show airs regularly, people can actually go back and look at it for inspiration and see how we're putting things together and get ideas. Not necessarily make carbon copies of it again, but see the freedom of new possibilities. Or rather, old possibilities and make them new again.
LC: When we think of the 1920’s and 1930’s, there is a bit of a doom and gloom image that people sometimes associate with that era. But on the show, we see a lot of great bold patterns and colours that seem to be consistent throughout the show. When and why do you think suits became more conservative after that? Because it seems like there was a very vibrant aesthetic back then.
LP: Well, you know, actually. The teens started that vibrancy in the suit. They started to do a lot of plaids, and the ‘20s really carried over with that. I mean, I don't know why it went more conservative, necessarily, but I guess it seemed to for one reason or another.
JD: I think what we found that surprised us was that, looking back from this time period, we're used to seeing everything in black and white photographs. When we started doing the research, we would get these tailoring books from the period with the actual swatches or descriptions of the colours they were using. And we were like, “wait a minute, they really were into colour”. And the thing about America, at this point, was that they had just gone through a horrible war. But when we start our story, they had just won that war, and there was an exuberance with a country sort of flexing its muscles, saying “ok, we did this great thing. Let's do some more great stuff”. It was a very positive time in America, and soon to be a great deal of money. Because the period between WWI and the Depression was actually a very good time in America, there was a lot of money going around, and the clothing reflects that. I think, again, because of research pictures with everything being in black and white, it looks like it was a lot more gloomy than it was. If they had colour photography from the period, people would be surprised that what we're doing is not a stretch.
LC: We've seen a lot more bold colours and patterns coming up as well, now. Any recommendations on how to wear them without looking ridiculous? Because it can easily go one way or the other.
LP: I think it depends on the pattern and the person wearing it too. I think you can wear anything you want, as long as it's an extension of yourself. If you feel uncomfortable in a pattern and you're wearing it just because it's trendy, it's going to show and you're going to look ridiculous. You can be a big guy and wear a bold collar and a bold pattern, and you'll still look fantastic because it's a part of you and you can carry it off. If a suit's going to be a crazy colour, and believe me i've had friends who have bought things like that, just pair it with a white shirt. Keep it simple. It looks really beautiful.
LC: And we did see some timepieces on the show as well. Were men wearing wristwatches back then, or was it sort of a pocket watch society?
JD: That's also a generational thing as well. Generally, the older and wealthier fellows in the piece were still attached to their pocket watches, and the younger generations were starting to wear wristwatches, which was becoming en vogue. It was definitely a piece that you would wear to express yourself with, and if you were looking to go more modern, you would definitely go for a wristwatch.
LC: Throughout the show, aside from the pocket watch and the hat, there wasn't a large use of accessories.
JD: Collar bars and cuff links were popular. Truth to tell, we were on a budget (laughs). It was hard for us to reproduce or find affordable cost jeweler. But accessories were really huge during that time. So, if you noticed a huge lack of it, it was probably a budget thing haha.
LP: Men definitely wore rings and stickpins, and we try to do that for principles, but can't really do that on all the background.
JD: And we'll put chains on the watches. And sometimes there aren’t any watches inside (laughs). But whenever we find interesting vintage pieces at the various vintage shows or flea markets, we try to work them in because they had some interesting little collar and lapel pins, and more. Whenever Lisa's out shopping, she'll find something and bring it back and we'll try to figure out what it is and figure out how it works. It's a nice archaeological dig a lot of times for the jewelry.
LC: Do you think accessories are an important aspect for the modern man in building an outfit?
JD: Oh, absolutely! They really just give that extra glint to an outfit, and I think just with cufflinks, it's fantastic. Collar bars are really cool and give you a nice, tight look with your collar and tie, which ends up looking very sharp.
LP: I'm all up for pocket squares too! Accessories are very much a finishing touch on an outfit. You can make a mediocre suit look a lot better than it is. If you don't have a lot of money, you can do that buy just investing in a couple good accessories.
LC: For some of the characters, we also saw a lot of layering in almost a formulaic manner with each piece being constructed and built. What is the appeal in dressing in layers with different contributing pieces?
LP: It just gives you so many more options.
JD: You won't have to change your clothes a bunch of time throughout the day either. You can leave your house in the morning and be appropriately dressed no matter where the day takes you. Whether it's a business meeting or lunch with friends or cocktails with friends. It serves and served both a functional and aesthetic purpose back then.
LC: Do you find that the footwear back then was a lot different from the type of shoes we're seeing today?
LP: Oh yes. We're a sneaker society, so getting modern feet into these older shoes, because people were used to these tight-fitting shoes, is much harder now. People don't wear them everyday and aren't used to it. So some of our vintage shoes just never go to use because there's just no foot on the planet that will fit them, unfortunately. But, I was just looking at a catalogue from 1920, where there was just some outrageous footwear from back then. Definitely bordering on tacky, but really astoundingly great. And if you got a hold of that design now and put it out there, believe me – it would sell. Like wild. It was still pretty sexy. And the button boot, it came back in the ‘80s and that's never gone out as far as I’m concerned. Stacy Adams is a company that we buy a lot of boots from for men because the design is the same as it's been when the company was founded back at the turn of the century. And men love those boots. They're very comfortable, very classic, and they look great!
LC: Was there a definitive shoe that represented that era?
JD: I would definitely say the ankle boot. So many people, both young and old, were wearing an ankle boot, or lace up. And it was pretty consistent throughout the social classes, as well.
LC: Thank you so much for such a great interview! You are doing some really great work with the show!
LP: Thank you!
JD: Thank you! We appreciate the questions you asked us, they were great!
Photography: Clay Patrick McBride
Fashion Direction: Luke Langsdale
Interview: Lance Chung