Harvey Keitel as Larry Dimmick, aka “Mr. White”, professional armed robber
Los Angeles, Summer 1992
Film: Reservoir Dogs
Release Date: October 23, 1992
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Costume Designer: Betsy Heimann
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
If you’ve never heard of Reservoir Dogs, you’ve either:
a) Chosen to live under a rock
b) Never stepped into a college dorm room inhabited by at least one male (see also: The Boondock Saints)
Once again, I turn to the pros at Clothes on Film to help express the importance of this film’s costuming. Chris Laverty, who interviewed the film’s costumer Betsy Heimann, states:
Betsy Heimann’s costume design for Reservoir Dogs spawned a legacy in pop culture and fashion that is still being felt today. Heimann and director Quentin Tarantino determined a cinematic sub-genre by redefining the appearance of the petty gangster. From shambolic to symbolic; a man in a black suit, white shirt and black tie walking in slow motion is possibly the single most memorable costume image of the nineties.
Tarantino, who originally planned on making the film on a paltry $30,000, eventually managed to raise $1.2 million to make his debut that some maintain is still his best even more than twenty years and ten films later. I know I throw this word around a lot on BAMF Style, but Reservoir Dogs is nothing short of iconic. From the opening conversation, with Tarantino nasally breaking down Madonna’s propensity for promiscuity to the final shots fired cutting to Harry Nilsson’s tribute to coconuts.
Of course, it is the film’s simple opening credit sequence that sticks with every viewer. Eight men, all but two relatively unknown but on the verge of stardom, slowly strolling from a diner to a Cadillac. An otherwise banal situation, enhanced by the men’s casual demeanor in their slick dark suits, George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag”, and the knowledge that few – if any – of these men will be alive by the end of the day.
What’d He Wear?
Reservoir Dogs establishes many of the Tarantino trademarks from pop culture references to his interwoven world of criminals. It also establishes his “professional criminal” uniform of black suit, white shirt, and black tie, which would show up again in Pulp Fiction and, sans tie, in Jackie Brown.
As Heimann noted in her discussion with Clothes on Film:
“Quentin wanted to pay homage to French New Wave films. He also wanted the robbers to have certain anonymity. When he showed me some film clips, I remarked that the men were all wearing dark suits with white shirts and dark ties. This provided the anonymity we were looking for.”
While the men may stand out from the rest of the civilian world, they do blend anonymously into a world where all criminals wear the same thing.
What most people don’t initially realize is that only Mr. White and Mr. Brown (QT himself) are wearing actual suits, while the other men are wearing suit coats with either dark trousers or black jeans. Of the film’s relatively small budget, only $10,000 was allocated to costumes, which meant Heimann and Tarantino had to get creative. Luckily, this budgetary limit also worked in favor of the film’s realism, as Heimann explains:
“In my mind, these guys had been in/were just released from prison, which would leave them without many choices of clothing. If their instruction was to wear the dark suit and tie, they could put that together easily and for very little money at a thrift store. That is how the concept came together.”
Appropriately, both for the film’s context and the casting, Harvey Keitel’s suit as Mr. White looks the sharpest throughout. Heimann utilized Keitel’s connection with the agnès b. brand to outfit him in his black wool suit. agnès b. is an especially appropriate choice given the timing and context of the story; it was a very popular brand during the era, showing up often in Bret Easton Ellis’s masterful satire of materialism American Psycho. Furthemore, Agnès herself (who has the Tarantino-esque badass birth name of Agnès Troublé) was very passionate about film noir and American crime cinema, leading her choosing New York for her first international store in 1983.
Mr. White’s suit utilizes the narrow silhouette that Heimann and Tarantino aimed for, even working on Keitel’s stockier frame. The single-breasted jacket has slim notch lapels that roll down to the 2-button front. The jacket has a welted breast pocket and straight hip pockets with flaps that occasionally tuck into the pocket.
The suit jacket has natural shoulders and a ventless rear. The sleeves have 3 non-functioning buttons on the cuff and often fall short of the shirt sleeve underneath.
Mr. White’s suit trousers have a more generous fit than the slimmer-fitting jacket. They are single reverse-pleated with a high rise and full break, plain-hemmed bottoms. His black leather belt has a dulled silver rectangular clasp.
Since every man’s jacket, trousers, and footwear are different, the only garments that each man truly has in common are the white dress shirt and slim black tie. However, Heimann was sure to make sure that there was still realistic and characteristic variety:
“Each had a different shirt with a collar that worked well with their neck. I also chose different widths of black ties for each one. As long as they all looked like they were wearing a black suit, white shirt and tie, it didn’t need to be an actual suit. The narrow silhouette fit their body types and the nervous quality of their characters.”
Mr. White’s shirt is white cotton has a baggy fit, often spilling over the waist of his trousers. The shirt has a spread collar, front placket, and breast pocket. The rounded button cuffs are often exposed when the jacket sleeve slides up his arm.
Mr. White wears a skinny black silk necktie that makes him look even broader with the widely-spread shirt collar and unbuttoned jacket. The tie has a red label on the back; I don’t believe this is an agnès b. tie since she typically has a black label with white cursive, but someone out there may know better than I.
Unlike Mr. Blonde’s rockabilly cowboy boots, Mr. White wears a pair of well-traveled cap toe 4-eyelet bluchers constructed from black oiled leather. His socks are black with wide vertical ribbing.
Like any professional gangster proud of his craft but avoiding overt attention, Mr. White keeps his accessories minimal but notable. He wears a gold tonneau-shaped wristwatch on a thin black leather strap.
On his right pinky, he wears a gold ring with a square-cut diamond.
His black acetate sunglasses are not Ray-Ban Wayfarers as many think, but instead they were made by Lanvin, the legendary French fashion house. Mr. White’s sunglasses have appeared on several lists determining the most badass movie sunglasses like this and this.
Underneath, he likely wears one of the white cotton crew neck undershirts he is seen sporting when driving the gang around town before the job.
When he’s not on a job, Mr. White shows a preference for casual attire. His first meeting with Joe Cabot to discuss the job finds him wearing a dark red short-sleeve Lacoste polo shirt with two red buttons.
Chris Laverty reflects on this interesting choice in the Clothes on Film article:
Out of all the Dogs, Mr. White is perhaps the most dangerous because he seems so normal; we do not expect the violence within.
Laverty makes a good point, as Mr. Blonde’s light silk bowling shirt reflects a more classic gangster image. Of course, once Mr. White is back in a “gangster context” and takes an active role planning the job, he also looks a little more like a Sopranos extra.
Mr. Orange’s recollection of Mr. White, Joe, and Eddie in the bar after his recruitment shows Mr. White in a black short-sleeve shirt with a pattern of pale blue and cream-colored boxes that would certainly be welcome in Paulie Gualtieri‘s closet.
His other outfit, a cream-colored Hawaiian shirt with a printed palm tree motif paired with cream slacks, also projects the “sleazy gangster” image that tells us a little more about Mr. White. On the surface, he may seem like a calm, principled professional, but he’s as much an opportunistic killer under the surface as anyone else in the movie.
Go Big or Go Home
Mr. White commands a level of respect from the men in his group. Even Joe, the leader, “allows” Mr. White to take his old date book; sure he gives him shit about it, but if any of the other guys tried that, Joe would probably just kill them.
On the job, Mr. White maintains professionalism without resorting to wanton violence like Mr. Blonde. He has his scruples, but he still proves to be ruthless when necessary when he instructs Mr. Orange to cut off a store manager’s pinkies if the need arises. His ruthless pragmatism is best summed up in his own words:
The choice between doing ten years and taking out some stupid motherfucker ain’t no choice at all. But I ain’t no madman.
Mr. White is certainly a throwback to an earlier era of gangsterdom. Believing heavily in the “honor among thieves” code, he remains confident that Mr. Orange is an honest criminal and that Joe will ensure that Mr. Orange will receive the proper medical attention. He connects only with fellow criminals, telling Mr. Pink that he considered “taking [Mr. Blonde] out myself” when the latter went on a killing rampage, but the idea of killing a fellow criminal was obviously more damaging to him than saving innocent lives. He only draws his gun on Joe when it is clear to him that Mr. Orange – still a fellow criminal in his mind – is in danger.
Once he is mortally wounded, Mr. White begrudgingly learns and accepts the truth of Mr. Orange’s deception. Despite the fact that it will mean his own demise, Mr. White sticks to his principles and administers the coup de grâce to Mr. Orange. Mr. White cares about his duties as a criminal before anything else.
Branding-wise, Reservoir Dogs focuses on many more real-life brands than Tarantino’s later fictional universe of defunct cereals and “Red Apple” cigarettes. Mr. Orange clearly smokes Marlboro Lights and keeps Spaghetti-Os in his apartment, Mr. Blonde drinks Rémy Martin with Joe, and Mr. White offers Mr. Pink one of his Chesterfields. Here, Mr. White’s choice is more an indication of characterization than product placement; Chesterfields enjoyed their greatest popularity in the earlier half of the 20th century, an era when Mr. White’s “honor among thieves” code would have been more relevant. Now, they’re scarce in the U.S. (but still pretty popular in eastern Europe if you’re looking for a deck.)
If you’re looking to live the Mr. White lifestyle without resorting to crime, slip into your black suit and wayfarers, light up a Chesterfield, and listen to some solid ’70s hits while cruising through town in a gray ’88 Lincoln Town Car.
How to Get the Look
Mr. White best portrays the slim black suit, white shirt, and black tie that Tarantino was going for when creating his mobbed-up crew. Some people say black suits are only appropriate for weddings and funerals, but Mr. White shows us that there’s nothing wrong with wearing a black suit for a jewelry store robbery either.
- Black wool agnès b. suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with slim notch lapels, 2-button front, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, ventless rear, and 3-button cuffs
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with high rise, belt loops, on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms with a full break
- White cotton dress shirt with spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and rounded button cuffs
- Black silk slim necktie
- Black leather belt with dulled silver rectangular clasp
- Black oiled leather cap toe 4-eyelet bluchers
- Black ribbed dress socks
- Gold pinky ring with square-cut diamond
- Gold tonneau-shaped wristwatch on thin black leather strap
- Lanvin black acetate wayfarer-style sunglasses
- White cotton crew neck short-sleeve undershirt
Further cementing his place as the group’s de facto leader, Mr. White is allowed to carry his own personal handgun during the robbery in addition to the one issued to each member of the team. In fact, it could be argued that since each team member was issued a Smith & Wesson 9 mm (which is listed in a deleted scene as Mr. White’s weapon of choice), Mr. White actually had a role in choosing which sidearm would be used.
In addition to the Smith & Wesson Model 659 used by each member of the robbery team, Mr. White carries his own personal Smith & Wesson Model 639 in his waistband.
Smith & Wesson first developed its Model 39 in the early 1950s when the U.S. Army was considering a new service pistol to replace the .45-caliber M1911. The Model 39, introduced into the civilian market in 1955, was the first American-designed double-action semi-automatic pistol. It was also Smith & Wesson’s first semi-automatic pistol to be chambered for a popular cartridge, as the firm’s only prior semi-auto, the Model 1913, was chambered for the proprietary and now obsolete .35 S&W round. The Model 39, while never as popular as the 1911, found steady adoption by some police and military units in the following decades. Its adoption by the Illinois State Police in 1967 broke the ground for integrating semi-automatic pistols into major police arsenals.
Beginning in 1979, Smith & Wesson introduced its second generation of semi-automatic pistols. The single-stack Model 39 was replaced by the alloy-framed Model 439, the blued steel or nickel Model 539, and the stainless Model 639. The double-stack Model 59 was replaced by the alloy-framed Model 459, the blued steel Model 559, and the stainless Model 659. I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here.
Smith & Wesson Model 659
Each member of the robbery team carries a Smith & Wesson Model 659, with Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and Mr. Blonde receiving prominent attention with theirs. Like its predecessor, the Model 59, the Model 659 is a traditional double-action (DA/SA) semi-automatic pistol chambered in 9×19 mm Parabellum with a double-stack 14-round box magazine. It is 7.44 inches long with a 4-inch barrel, and it weighs 1.72 pounds. Older versions were manufactured with rounded trigger guards, but Mr. White carries a later model with a squared trigger guard.
Smith & Wesson Model 639
As the only man on the team to openly carry two guns, Mr. White keeps his Smith & Wesson Model 639 tucked into his waistband. This is the gun he draws on Mr. Pink during their early showdown that led to one of the film’s many iconic images. The Model 639 has the same size and operation as the Model 659; the only difference is its single-stack magazine which only carries 8 rounds of 9×19 mm ammunition. Mr. White’s Model 639 (serial #A838685) is an earlier production model, evident by the rounded trigger guard and adding additional evidence to the argument that this was his personal sidearm.
Both the Model 639 and the Model 659 stainless variants were the last of Smith & Wesson’s second generation pistols to be introduced, and production ran from 1981 to 1988. The pistols became very popular during the ’80s with the Model 639 seeing a lot of action in Beverly Hills Cop, and the Model 659 showing up in many episodes of Miami Vice. By the time Reservoir Dogs was filmed in 1992, Smith & Wesson had already developed its third generation of pistols with a four-digit numbering system. The Model 659 was replaced by the 5906, and the Model 639 was replaced by the 3906, although additional trigger systems, calibers, and finishes meant an even greater variety of models as the line continued.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Also, check out IMFDB’s Reservoir Dogs page; it was one of the first pages on the site and receives continuous attention to keep all information as detailed and accurate as possible. The Clothes on Film article is also a terrific read.
You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.
If you’re curious about what some of the other men are wearing, Clothes on Film explains:
“Harvey had a relationship with Agnes B, and he didn’t need a multiple, so the designer gave us a suit.
Quentin didn’t need multiples ether. I found his suit on a shelf in a warehouse downtown. Mike Madsen wore trousers from C&R Clothiers and a black suit jacket. Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth were another matter. I needed four suits for each of them. I found a cache of 1960s dark navy, charcoal and black jackets; all alike just different colours. I paired them with black jeans and boots.”
So, both Mr. Orange (Roth) and Mr. Pink wore jeans. Why? Budget obviously, and because it did not matter. Their silhouette is the important factor. Providing all the team appeared to be in full suits, it is not essential that they actually were. The identical black suits ensemble so beloved by fashion spreads of the mid-1990s was created out of myth which eventually became reality. This is not a lie; this is moviemaking. Even so, Heimann had to be sure exactly how they would appear on screen, “I brought one of each colour jacket to the Director of Photography (Andrzej Sekula), and he assured me that they would all photograph black.”