Throwback Thursday! Enjoy a style that looked awesome for its time but might not translate quite as well in 2013.
Today, the focus will be on Robert Redford’s first suit from his Oscar-nominated role in 1973’s The Sting.
Robert Redford as Johnny Hooker, small-time Depression-era grifter
Joliet to Chicago, September 1936
Film: The Sting
Release Date: December 25, 1973
Director: George Roy Hill
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Four years after their successful pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford met up once again for The Sting, a 1973 crime-comedy about two con men (“grifters”, in the film’s and Jim Thompson’s parlance) who team up to take down a brutal syndicate big shot against the backdrop of the corruption of 1930s Chicago.
But before all of that, Redford finds himself flush with money after conning a mob numbers runner. He struts into a store armed with his $4,000 and leaves with a bold pinstripe suit. The scene is described in David S. Ward’s screenplay:
EXT. PAWNSHOP - LOOKING INSIDE - DAY Hooker is getting a radio and well-worn suit out of hook. It's like seeing old friends again. All pantomime.
Next on his list are champagne and flowers and he’s all set to take out his occasional girlfriend, a burlesque vamp named Crystal, out for a lovely night of underground gambling dens. She has to work but her mind is soon changed when Redford promises to spend $50 on her. Women.
After these early scenes, Redford’s look takes a 180 under the guidance of Paul Newman’s character, gentleman grifter Henry Gondorff, who sets him up in a pindot gray three-piece suit or a black tuxedo, depending on the occasion. Gone is the busy shirt, tie, and boyish cap combo of his date with Crystal; Redford is now outfitted in all solids and a wide-brimmed fedora.
However, it is this suit, designed by Edith Head (who won an Academy Award for her work on the film) that stands out in many people’s minds, some for being hideous and some for being madly period-authentic. When I first saw The Sting in sixth grade, it was this suit that inspired my modern day sartorial interest and led to the creation of this blog twelve years later.
(For anyone who is interested, I eventually purchased a variation of this suit in more of a mustard brown. It was double-breasted but still had peak lapels. I wore it to many middle school dance and, in 7th grade, I was Johnny Hooker for Halloween.)
What’d He Wear?
Hooker makes his preference for earth tones clear, sporting brown throughout the first quarter of the film before he is gentleman-ized by Gondorff. His initial outfit, when he is a small-time grifter who would’ve “settled for pawnin’ one of them shoes!”, is directly out of a Dorothea Lange photo – a beaten-up brown double-breasted coat that barely covers the waistline of his torn brown trousers, paired with an ecru shirt buttoned to the collar.
After his first taste of prosperity, Hooker goes out and blows a quarter of his newly-gained fortune on a suit. I’ve read all of the following descriptions of the color on the Internet: “wide pinstripe and earthtone brown”… “bold brown pinstripe”… “garish burgundy with white chalk stripes”… “brown with red stripes”… but I think the best description would be seal brown with widely-spaced white chalkstripes.
The jacket of the seal brown chalkstripe suit is very typical of the 1930s: single-breasted with wide peak lapels, a 2-button front, a welted breast pocket, and straight flapped hip pockets – which often find themselves tucked in with Hooker’s constant fidgeting. The jacket is also ventless and features 3-button cuffs. The fabric on the collar underneath the lapels is a plain brown.
The exact jacket worn by Redford was sized with a 39½” chest and 17½” sleeves.All trousers throughout the film are styled similarly with double reverse pleats, inside suspender buttons replacing outside belt loops or adjusters and a 2-button extended waist tab. The bottoms are finished with cuffs (or turn-ups, if you will.) Naturally, the trousers of Hooker’s suit match the jacket with a seal brown ground and white chalkstripes. The trousers have side pockets but no back pockets.
Hooker’s suspenders are about an inch wide with 18 stripes in varying shades of gray, dark blue, light blue, and white. The hardware is silver-colored with deep brown leather straps on the bottoms and back. For a legitimate pair of The Sting-era suspenders, you need a set with buttonholes and a pair of pants with buttons lining the inside to accommodate them.
Hooker wears the suit with a shirt and tie that, although ’30s-inspired for sure, are probably slightly more at home in the garish 1970s. The shirt – made by Anto like all of those worn by Redford and Newman in The Sting – has a very specific abstract geometric pattern in varying shades of pale blue and baby blue, with dots in the lightest-colored squares. The barrel cuffs are often worn unbuttoned and rolled up, a curious combination especially paired with Hooker’s multi-colored sleeve garters.
The shirt has a spread collar with points a bit too long for the ’30s. However, they are not as anachronistically huge as often seen in other period films of the 1970s, especially Roger Corman’s low budget shoot-em-ups such as Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha. The shirt has a breast pocket and front placket.
Hooker wears a wide late ’30s variant of a kipper tie, a garish fad that enjoyed a brief revival in the ’70s. The color is a maroon ground with a deco-style paisley and stripe pattern of whites, blues, and other shades of red.On his head, Hooker keeps his dark brown mixed tweed ivy cap (or newsboy cap) with a permeating red pattern throughout. The cap, replaced by a wide-brimmed fedora when he goes to Chicago, signifies Hooker’s inexperience and youth, as well as being the choice headgear of the working class during the Great Depression.
When feeling rakish, Hooker cocks the cap on his head to show “I don’t give a shit” or “I’m pretending not to give a shit that you just swindled me out of $3,000.”
Hooker also keeps his well-worn brown leather wingtip brogues from the first seen, wearing them with black socks.
Hooker’s undershirt is white sleeveless cotton.
After the complexity and specificity of the rest of the costume, Hooker keeps his accessories refreshingly sparse. Both are Redford’s usual trademarks, the plain silver ring on his right ring finger and the silver chain necklace with a rarely-seen pendant. Hooker does not wear a wristwatch at all throughout the film, relying on wall clocks for his temporal engagement.
Go Big or Go Home
Johnny Hooker sets a prime example of what not to do on a date. He starts things off the right way:
But makes his first mistake of interrupting her at work…After promising to spend fifty dollars on her, she agrees to go out with him. Fellows, this is not a sign of a “nice woman” although kudos to Hooker for knowing exactly what he’s doing. Until he takes her to…
…an illicit gambling den, run underground by the mob and controlled by beefy guys who stand in the shadows with just enough light on them to illuminate their cigars.
He makes a bet, for $3,000 on red. The result: 22 black.
After seeing him lose $3,000 on a whim after promising to spend $50 on her, Hooker’s date leaves him. A smarter man might have bet $2,950 so that he would’ve still had the fifty left for her.
So there’s your lesson, gentlemen. Always keep an extra fifty bucks on hand in case your stripper girlfriend gets mad that you’re spending too much time and money in illegal casinos.
What to Imbibe
Appropriate for the time, place, and character, Hooker shows up at his buddy’s apartment after his failed date and immediately cracks open a bottle of Schlitz, which would be the Keystone Ice or Coors Light of the 1930s. It was cheap, accessible, and got people very drunk.
Schlitz enjoyed a long heyday from its development in the 1850s through its acquisition by Stroh’s in 1982. Up until that time, it was widely popular, with the brewery selling 21.3 million barrels in 1973. It is enjoying a revival, especially in Milwaukee, but it will likely never be back to its 1950s-1960s popularity levels. This is unfortunate as “Schlitz” is far more fun to say than “Coors Light”.
How to Get the Look
To get the exact look, a lot of this would have to be custom-made and, honestly, it probably wouldn’t look as good when exactly replicated. Instead, be inspired by the look and put your own ensemble together reflective of a ’30s grifter who has come into a bit of money.
- Seal brown white-chalkstripe suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped straight hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with 2-button extended waist tab and hidden suspender buttons, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffed bottoms
- Pale blue geometrically-patterned shirt with long-pointed spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Maroon-ground “kipper tie” with red, white, and blue paisley and stripe motif
- Brown leather wingtip brogues
- Black socks
- Gray/white/blue multi-striped suspenders with silver-toned hardware and brown leather straps
- Green multi-striped sleeve garters
- Mixed brown tweed ivy flat cap
- White sleeveless cotton undershirt
- Plain silver ring on right ring finger
- Silver necklace with pendant
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
You got the wrong guy, pal. I’ve been home with the flu all day. You can stake out my toilet if you want.