Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, corrupt Atlantic City treasurer and “half a gangster”
Atlantic City, January 1920
Series: Boardwalk Empire
– “Boardwalk Empire” (Episode 1.01, aired September 19, 2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
– “The Ivory Tower” (Episode 1.02, aired September 26, 2010, dir. Tim Van Patten)
Creator: Terence Winter
Costume Designer: John A. Dunn
Tailor: Martin Greenfield
The real “Nucky” Thompson—actually named Enoch L. Johnson—was born in 1883 and, like his semi-fictional TV counterpart, was raised in Atlantic City with both he and his father serving as sheriff. By 1920, he was the county treasurer and made much money from illegal bootlegging during Prohibition.
The show, which uses Johnson only as a basis for the character of Thompson, uses a few details from Nucky’s real life, such as his ever-present red lapel carnation, his chauffeur-driven blue Rolls-Royce, his political maneuvering, the death of his first wife Mabel in 1912, his eighth-floor headquarters at the Ritz-Carlton, and the enormity of his graft.
The first two episodes, set during the first days of Prohibition in January 1920, show the audience the position Nucky is in: He has to decide between being a shady politician or a respectable gangster. His choice is reflected in the words of Jimmy Darmody, his young protege:
You can’t be half a gangster, Nucky. Not anymore.
What’d He Wear?
By 1920, especially in the United States, white tie was rapidly becoming more and more passé. Men were seen everywhere in dinner suits (tuxedoes), the dressed-down combination of a dark dinner jacket and matching trousers with a white shirt and black bow tie, eclipsing the white bow tie and formal tailcoat that was increasingly a part of a previous world.
Nucky bridges the gap between old school white tie and the more “modern” black tie with an unorthodox and completely individualistic approach to formal wear, sporting a “white tie” look that takes more of its cues from the black tie approach—and even a standard business suit—with a particularly informal black waist-length dinner jacket and ivory silk high-fastening waistcoat.
Nucky wears a distinctive black evening coat, more consistent with the dinner jacket than an evening tail coat and immediately communicating that this ain’t your father’s (or, to modern readers, great-great-grandfather’s) white tie ensemble.
The black jacket has grosgrain silk-faced notch lapels, often found on early 20th century dinner jackets before the more elegant shawl collar or peak lapel was standardized as the most traditional choice of revers. Even more unconventional is the fact that the notch-lapel jacket has a double-breasted front with the six satin-covered buttons (two to fasten) worn unfastened. The jacket has a single back vent and slanted pockets with grosgrain-faced flaps. The jacket’s sleeves are finished with four grosgrain-covered buttons and a short “turnback” cuff also faced in black grosgrain.
Nucky’s full-backed formal waistcoat (vest) is made from ivory horizontally ribbed silk, with four buttons down the single-breasted front to the notched bottom. The waistcoat has a shawl collar and two slim-welted pockets in line with the third button, where he wears his gold Elgin pocket watch and the “double Albert” style chain that connects to a fob wore in the opposing pocket.
Per the dictated fashions of the era, the waistcoat and bow tie are made from matching ivory silk, and the bow tie is appropriately the self-tying kind.
Nucky’s white formal shirt has a pleated front and a detachable wing collar. The black shirt studs have gold trim to match the set of cuff links worn in the shirt’s rounded double (French) cuffs. The talented pianist and dapper dresser Peter Mintun has commented that “Nucky’s folded collars also should be properly starched so that they are ‘stiff as a board.’ His folded collars are always creased.”
Nucky’s black wool formal trousers appropriately seem to match his evening coat and are detailed with black grosgrain stripes down the sides, though the turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottom are indicative that this dinner suit seemingly pre-dates the standardization of plain-hemmed bottoms on dinner suit trousers. The trousers have side pockets and button-through back pockets. Nucky’s choice of footwear is black leather oxfords with black silk socks.
Both out of decorum and for comfort in the cold Atlantic air, Nucky dons a topcoat and black homburg when venturing outside in his formal attire. The charcoal herringbone wool knee-length, single-breasted top coat has black astrakhan fur-faced peak lapels that end high over a high-fastening three-button front. There are two large hip pockets, covered with a flap, and the back of the coat is half-belted for a more flattering silhouette should Nucky decide to wear it closed.
This would be Nucky’s sole evening wear for the first two seasons before donning traditional black tie for the first time in the third season premiere, set on New Year’s Eve 1922.
Go Big or Go Home
Nucky Thompson has a very distinctive lifestyle: a chauffeur-driven robin’s-egg blue Rolls-Royce limousine, an array of showgirls vying for his attention, huge bankrolls of cash, and adoring citizens. Needless to say, this doesn’t come cheap…
However, there are little things you can do for a more attainable—and legal—Nucky Thompson lifestyle. For a nice night out, hire a limousine or a chauffeured car. Even if you don’t have a date (at least at the start of the night), it is a nice way to travel without the stress of driving. Throw a big party, maybe a little bigger than you can afford, with good whiskey, expensive champagne, and loud brass playing Dixieland jazz. For additional authenticity, make the whiskey in your basement or buy it from someone else who did. (If you’re the type of gentleman who enjoys the occasional smoke, Nucky fills his gold cigarette case with Lucky Strikes à la Don Draper.)
Lucky for us, the makers of Boardwalk Empire released an extensive soundtrack album with tracks of authentic music from the era recorded by Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks, a terrific band that does startlingly good recreations of original arrangements from any era. Giordano’s band was also featured in The Aviator, spotlessly recreating music from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
In the first episode, we see Nucky entering Babbette’s Supper Club on the Boardwalk as “Livery Stable Blues” plays. “Livery Stable Blues” is considered to be the first commercial jazz song ever recorded. Cut by the Original Dixieland Jass Band for Victor on February 26, 1917 and released two weeks later, “Livery Stable Blues” was a major hit—becoming the first popular recording to sell over a million copies—and began a wave of hot jazz that lasted well into the Depression before swing began to take hold.
Appropriately, the show kicks off Prohibition— or “the Jazz Age”, as coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald—with the song that kicked off the jazz era in the United States.
What to Imbibe
If characters like Nelson Van Alden had has way, this section would be all about milk and hot cider. However, Prohibition – as we all know – was a massive failure due to its encouragement of bootleggers to produce booze.
Prior to Prohibition, whiskey was a very regionally-enjoyed drink. The Irish enjoyed Irish whiskey, the rest of the UK drank Scotch, and Americans kept to their Bourbon. The Volstead Act muddied the waters. With any whiskey on demand in the U.S., bootleggers began taking what they could get (or making it) and Americans, if they were lucky, developed a taste for Scotch or Canadian whisky, both of which rapidly gained popularity during the Prohibition era. Unlucky Americans were forced to deal with bathtub gin or near-poisonous grain whiskey and, thus, the cocktail also gained popularity as people added any mixer they could get their hands on to mask the taste of formaldehyde in their Scotch.
Nucky wouldn’t need to worry about any of these issues. Get a few bottles of Canadian Club or—since this is a celebration—some vintage bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
How to Get the Look
Nucky Thompson likes to show off, as illustrated by his luxurious limousine, his lavish parties and gifts, and his colorful wardrobe. Thus, Nucky—ever the individualist—developed his own unorthodox evening wear that blended the formal white tie aesthetic with an informal black tie approach.
- Black double-breasted dinner jacket with satin-faced notch lapels, 6 satin-covered buttons, satin gauntlet cuffs with 4 satin-covered buttons on each, a long single center vent, and slanted flapped hip pockets
- White formal pleated shirt with a large detachable wingtip collar and rounded double/French cuffs
- Ivory silk bowtie, adjustable
- Ivory repp silk 4-button single-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapels and 2 jetted hip pockets
- Gold pocketwatch and chain
- Black formal trousers with a thick satin stripe down each leg and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather laced dress shoes
- Black silk socks
- Charcoal herringbone 3-button single-breasted knee-length topcoat with black astrakhan fur peak lapels, open hip pockets, half-Norfolk belted back
- Black felt homburg with black ribbon
- White ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt
- White cotton boxer shorts
And, of course, Nucky always has his stainless flask of whiskey.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the first season.
Nucky wears his particular tuxedo throughout the first two seasons. Most of the details and screenshots in this article are from the first two episodes, “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Ivory Tower”.
Rest assured that dry though the country may be, I am in the midst of concluding arrangements that will keep Atlantic City wet as a mermaid’s twat.
Nucky’s attire in the first season is nicely approached several other places online, notably:
Also, here is an excellent link for Buscemi fans.