The Untouchables: Ness’ Gray 3-Piece Suit
Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, honest and intrepid federal agent
Chicago, September 1930
Film: The Untouchables
Release Date: June 3, 1987
Director: Brian De Palma
Costume Designer: Marilyn Vance
Wardrobe: Giorgio Armani
This blog has been focusing on a lot of bad guys lately, so let’s take a look at a good guy… at least according to the film about him.
Despite what Robert Stack and Kevin Costner’s portrayals may have you believe, Eliot Ness didn’t single-handedly stop Al Capone’s reign of terror over the city of Chicago. Even Ness’ own account paints himself as a crime-fighting pariah who overcame the odds with a tight-knit group of rogue lawmen and brought down a monster.
In real life, Ness was indeed a Bureau of Prohibition agent in Chicago. The legend of Ness’ career is told straightforward enough; he was an honest cop in a city full of the opposite, and he did put together a band of “untouchables” after refusing a mob lawyer’s bribe to look the other way. He even suffered the loss of a close friend at the hands of the gangsters, although the man killed in action was reformed former convict Frank Basile rather than a U.S. Treasury agent as shown in the film.
After getting grilled by the press and meeting the uninspiring “flying squad” of corrupt Chicago cops under his command, The Untouchables depicts Ness recruiting a band of three trusted men (in real life, there were eleven men, all Prohibition agents) going on successful raids of breweries and stills, simultaneously discovering that Capone could be nabbed for income tax evasion. After killing about 1,200 people from the Canadian border to a Chicago train station, Ness and the last remaining “Untouchable” take Capone to court, where Ness also manages to exact revenge on brutal hitman Frank Nitti by throwing him off of a roof. Furthermore, they manage to do all of this in about one week’s time.
The only truth to the last paragraph is that Capone did indeed go to court, where he was convicted on October 17, 1931 on five out of 22 tax evasion charges and was sentenced to eleven years in prison. Despite being charged with 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act, all of the Volstead Act charges were dropped, making Ness’ contribution to Capone’s downfall minimal. The federal government, specifically Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, had chosen two tactics for nailing Capone: income tax evasion and Prohibition violation. Ness was given the second task while the IRS, led by Frank J. Wilson, managed to make the income tax charges stick.
Still, there’s no doubt that Ness was a successful raider. An extensive wire-tapping operation, rather than a wisdom-brewing Sean Connery, was the source, however. Ness’ honesty was rewarded after the Capone conviction when Ness was made Chief Investigator for the Chicago Prohibition Bureau. Of course, the position would only be valid for two more years as Prohibition was on its way out, but it is still a neat gig for the resume.
What’d He Wear?
Costner’s Ness wears both a Badass Longcoat and a Nice Hat throughout most of the film, making him look even more legendary as he fights crime around the city. He wears three suits in various shades of gray, but his main suit is a medium gray flannel wool three-piece suit, one of many beautiful costumes supplied to the film by Giorgio Armani. The film’s costumes, designed by Marilyn Vance, were nominated for an Academy Award.
Although the suit shares some stylistic touches with the 1980s, the fit and overall look are appropriate for 1930. The mid-section is pulled in, emphasizing the shoulders and legs to lend Ness a more athletic profile, the male equivalent of the female hourglass.
The jacket is the most ’80s part of the ensemble, with the notch lapels rolling down to the low 2-button stance, which Ness consistently wears unfastened. The shoulders are padded and the front darts help pull in Ness’s waist to contribute to the desired athletic profile of the era. The ventless rear keeps the jacket clung to Costner as well. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket and flapped hip pockets.
Ness’ waistcoat (vesT) has five buttons down the front and four welted pockets—two on the top and two on the bottom. The back is finished in gray satin to match the lining of the jacket, and a strap across the rear adjusts the fit. The vest has notches on the bottom of both the bottom and the front.
Ness’ trousers are pleated with an era-correct high rise above his natural waist. There are no rear pockets, but the trousers have side pockets along the seams, in which Ness often places his hands. They have a generous fit through the gently flaring legs to the plain-hemmed bottoms, which have a medium break over his black leather shoes. Ness appears to be wearing black dress socks with his shoes, rather than gray socks to continue the leg-line into his shoes.
Ness wears two different dress shirts with his suit. The first and last times we see the suit, he wears it with a plain white cotton shirt with a point collar and double (French) cuffs. He prefers to pair this shirt with a burgundy silk necktie that has a beige-over-blue squared foulard pattern.
The suit’s second appearance, on the climatic day of Wallace’s murder and the train station gunfight, is paired with a striped shirt. The shirt is white with thin dark blue double stripes, a moderately-spread collar, and double (French) cuffs. His tie has a dark green silk ground and a light blue and gray “splotch” pattern.
Ness wears the same cufflinks throughout the film, a pair of round gold and silver clusters. Al of his shirts have double cuffs, inferring that he may be a bit more careful about his appearance than his “working man’s” attitude might suggest. In real life, Eliot Ness was a fussy dresser without the subdued sophistication of Costner’s portrayal.
Ness, the consummate professional, is rarely seen out of his vest, so we only get a glimpse or two of the dark suspenders he wears with his suits, but when he removes his jacket, he shows off a black leather shoulder holster under his left arm with a snapped retention strap holding his 1911-style pistol in place.
His other accessories are utilitarian, simple, and attractive, including a plain gold wedding band on his left ring finger and a classic gold rectangular watch on his left wrist. The watch has a white face with a 12:00 sub-dial and a crystallized case. It is fastened to his wrist with a black leather strap that buckles with a gold clasp.
Finally, we get to his outerwear, the aforementioned hat and coats. His hat stays the same from start to finish, a gray felt fedora with a thin black ribbon. This band is thinner than we’re used to seeing in period films, but photographs prove that it was indeed a fashionable to own a fedora with either a wide or a thin band.
Ness’ first coat, worn on the “umbrella raid” with the corrupt Chicago cops, is a long and voluminous light-brown gabardine coat with large lapels and a 4×2-button double-breasted front. It has jetted hip pockets and raglan sleeves with tab cuffs that extend halfway around his wrists and fasten with a single button.
Ness’ second coat, his medium-gray raincoat for the train station gunfight, has an even larger fit, making the concealed carry of a shotgun possible. Although it has broad ulster-style lapels and a 4×2-button double-breasted front like the other coat, they are otherwise differently designed.
The coat has wide, padded shoulders and a storm flap over the back. A half-belt fastens to a button on each side of the back, with a single vent splitting up the center.
The gray coat’s set-in sleeves are wide through the arms, flaring out at the cuffs despite a belted buckle-fastening strap, best seen as Ness handles his shotgun one-handed between Malone’s apartment and the train station.
Go Big or Go Home
Despite resisting vices like graft and drinking, he does so more because they are against the law. He even answers a reporter’s question about the end of Prohibition with a smirk, saying that he would probably have a drink to toast the end of the era.
His only real vice in the film, and a realistic one given the time period, is constant smoking. His preferred brand while going after Capone is Camel, but he mysteriously – and prominently – has a pack of Lucky Strikes in front of him when he is reading his headlines at the end.
Costner’s Ness isn’t vain, but he is important to protect his image as one of the few honest crimefighters in a vice-ridden city. Thus, it is more pride than narcissism that drives the protection of his image.
Of course, his main goal in the film is to protect good people from the forces of evil. After the first day of his new job working in tandem with the Chicago Police Department, he recognizes that he’s got some shitty bosses and co-workers and immediately sets out to do the job better himself. This sort of drive should be implemented into any man’s work, whether he’s a gun-toting federal agent or a desk-bound IT guy. The next time you complain about your boss and don’t do anything about it, remember the example that Eliot Ness set. Just don’t shoot anyone. (Unless they’re murderous gangsters.)
Ness’ holstered “mohaska” is a nine-millimeter Star Model B in one of the last films to substitute the Spanish pistol for an actual M1911. This practice was very common during the 1960s and 1970s in films such as The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Dillinger, and Three Days of the Condor when .45-caliber blanks were less reliable. By 1987, the Hollywood firearm industry had perfected the use of .45-caliber ammunition but The Untouchables still armed Ness with a Star Model B in the firing scenes.
IMFDB, the Internet Movie Firearms Database, has tracked down the exact Model B handled by Costner in the film.
His buddy and fellow “Untouchable” George Stone (Andy Garcia) also tosses Ness his backup, a nickel-plated Colt Detective Special, for the end of the train station sequence.
The Detective Special was a six-shot snubnose revolver introduced by Colt in 1927 and designed for concealed use by plainclothes police officers, most often chambered in the .38 Special police cartridge. It eventually found favor among both police and gangsters as an easily concealed “belly gun”.
When he’s in assault mode (Ness Smash!), he carries a classic Winchester 12-gauge pump shotgun, even managing to conceal one under his large gray raincoat in the train station.
How to Get the Look
Just because he’s on the right side of the law doesn’t mean Ness can’t still dress fashionably. As opposed to the more colorful characters of the ’20s on this blog (like Nucky Thompson or Jay Gatsby), Ness shows off a fine example of a Prohibition-era business suit:
- Medium gray flannel wool three-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with a low 2-button front, notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, padded shoulders, and a ventless rear
- Single-breasted vest with 5-button front, chest and hip pockets, and notched bottom
- High-waisted pleated trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms and slightly flared legs
- White long-sleeve dress shirt with large spread collars and French cuffs
- Ness also wears a similar white shirt with thin dark blue double stripes.
- Dark red silk necktie with a beige square motif (with blue enclosed squares)
- Ness’ other tie with this suit has a dark green ground and blue and gray “splotch” patterns
- Round gold and silver cluster cufflinks
- Black leather laced dress shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black leather RHD shoulder holster for a M1911-style pistol
- Gold rectangular wristwatch with a white crystal-covered face and black leather strap
- Plain gold wedding band, worn on left ring finger
- Gray felt fedora with a thin black ribbon
- Light brown long raincoat with large lapels, natural shoulders, 4×2-button double-breasted front, button-tab cuffs, and jetted pockets
- Gray long raincoat with large lapels, padded shoulders, 4×2-button double-breasted front, strap-adjusted cuffs, half-belted rear, and long single vent
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. And if you’re into train station gunfights with sailors getting shot, check out Battleship Potemkin, the inspiration for de Palma’s train station sequence.
I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!
Man, this film had a huge impact on me when I first saw it in ’87. Back then, I was already smoking non-filtered Luckies and wearing a fedora in Winter, but I recall thinking how cool Ness’s coat looked and I remember Armani doing a complete line-up of suits that year based on the work he’d done for this film.
I think I held my breath throughout the entire train station shootout, too. I even have the score…on vinyl!
I’d love to find some documentation/ads from the Armani line and compare it to what we actually saw on screen! I like the way Ness was outfitted; yes, they’re all gray suits, but they stand out somehow – you know he’s not a gangster, but he still looks sharper than the average Joe from the era without being too flashy. Plus, the overcoat adds a level of badass (especially when he’s hiding a shotgun in it!) The score would sound great on vinyl, hope you still get to listen from time to time!
Giorgio Armani tried, but a few details mark this as a late 1980s suit rather than early 1930s. Most obviously, the waistcoat points are bit long and spread apart. The shirt’s collar points are too which was a trend of the 1980s (which has unfortunately resurfaced as of late).
I’m having a hard time finding information on the clothing the agents wore in the raid at the Canadian border scene. Costner’s fedora, scarf and leather jacket were badass. Any idea where I can find a list of these items?
A few corrections. Ness was not a Treasury agent (at least not during most of the Capone investigation). The Bureau of Prohibition, the agency to which Ness belonged, started out as a branch of the Treasury, but, in 1930, was switched to the Justice Dept. Ness formed his special Capone squad in November and December of 1930. Later, after Repeal, the Bureau was returned to Treasury where it became the Alcohol Tax Unit, which eventually morphed into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Which, ironically, is now back at Justice.
Second, Ness was, arguably at least, not self-aggrandizing in his autobiography as others involved in the case. Ness made a point of mentioning IRS Criminal Investigator Frank Wilson, and credited him with putting together the tax case against Capone. By contrast, Wilson did not mention Ness in either of his two autobiographies UNDERCOVER MAN, serialized in COLLIER’S but never published in book form, or SPECIAL AGENT, published by Holt in 1965. Wilson’s boss, Elmer Irey, was alos loath to share any credit with Ness in his book THE TAX DODGERS.
Thanks, Jim! I appreciate these helpful corrections and – as someone who loves reading about history of American law enforcement – I am also very impressed. If you were to recommend reading any of the books you mention, would you suggest Ness’s autobiography, Irey’s book, or either of Wilson’s? In your opinion, is there a definitive volume that accurately and fairly reflects the government’s successful case against Capone? I would love to include a mention of it in my post (and credit you for the suggestion, of course.)