Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, cold and calculating New York Mafia boss
Long Island, NY, August 1955
Film: The Godfather
Release Date: March 15, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
Last weekend, I attended the baptism of my girlfriend’s nephew. While other family members were snapping photos through tearful eyes, I kept picturing fat Clemenza blowing a guy away with a shotgun and Moe Greene getting the Bugsy Siegel treatment.
Whether or not you’re the type of person moved to sentiment by a baptism, anyone who has seen The Godfather can hardly forget the brilliance of Coppola’s juxtaposition between Michael admitting his son into the church while simultaneously sending his enemies to hell.
After returning to the United States and taking his slain brother‘s former mantle as boss of the Corleone Crime Family, Michael Corleone leaves behind the earth tones he sported earlier in the film. Gray is now his color of choice, reflected throughout his wardrobe.
Wardrobe is an essential factor of The Godfather‘s characters, particularly Michael. We first meet him at his sister’s wedding during the opening scene. The wedding takes place in the summer of 1945, and Michael returns to his family as a war hero. He even looks the part, still sporting his USMC uniform.
His next outfit incorporates plenty of brown, a grounded color that both reflects nature and earth as well as evoking the brown of his uniform. Michael’s brown corduroy sport coat is far more college professor than gangster, and he even wears a brown overcoat with it.
When camping out at the Corleone household after the Don’s shooting, Michael again wears a brown overcoat, albeit with more layers of gray underneath. He knows he’s being pulled toward the dark side, but he tries to cover this up, smothering it with yet another brown coat. Still, the coldness of the gray is present.
Finally, when Michael sets out on his fateful mission to kill Sollozzo and McClusky, his look is as conflicted as his mindset. This sequence can be marked as the turning point for Michael both by its obvious context and his attire. His suit is a dark charcoal three-piece, making him look much more like a gangster than he did in his corduroy jacket. However, he still wears his brown overcoat from his early scenes with Kay. His fedora, the first non-uniform hat he wears in the film, is also brown. Many note the significance of the fact that Michael doesn’t wear non-military hats until he begins his involvement with the family, and it is not insignificant that this first hat is brown; the pureness of his character is now tarnished as even a brown garment is one associated with his criminal career. The brown overcoat, his last link to his prior life, is left behind as he abandons the murder scene wearing only the suit.
And finally, we’re back to the fall of 1950. Michael has been back for more than a year, and he is now de facto boss of the Corleone family. He visits Kay, presumably in New Hampshire, and tells her that he wants to take the family totally legitimate. It is also not insignificant that this is at the start of the 1950s, the decade of “the man in the gray flannel suit”. Michael may be more business-oriented than his father and brother, but he’s still a business-oriented criminal rather than a Wall Street executive.
With the exception of his trip to Las Vegas the following year and his father’s funeral, this dark gray tonal-striped three-piece suit becomes Michael’s primary outfit throughout the final act of the film. He wears it when visiting Kay, consulting with Vito immediately before his death, and during the climactic baptism and final scenes which mark his full transition from conflicted man to calculating mobster.
What’d He Wear?
Unlike many great films of the decade that still featured ’70s versions of period suits (The Sting, Dillinger, and The Great Gatsby come to mind…), The Godfather‘s characters look just like they would have walking out of an Italian-owned bespoke tailor shop in the post-war years.
The Godfather is known for its color-driven symbolism; seeing an orange in any movie now makes me wonder if a character is not long for this world. Brown, the color of soil, is more down-to-earth and practical. Michael’s early wardrobe and much of Don Vito’s clothing incorporate brown tones, as Vito is more pragmatic than ruthless. Sonny, the hothead, always wore gray suits with loud patterns and stripes. Tom Hagen, more businesslike, favors subdued and professional gray suits. It isn’t until he too becomes a part of this criminal world that Michael adopts the cold, hard gray tones into his wardrobe.
As boss of the Corleone family, Michael’s primary outfit is a medium-dark gray three-piece suit with a gray tonal stripe, paired with gray and black clothing and accessories. The suit has a noticeable sheen, indicating either a silk or – more likely – mohair blend.
George and King offers a suit, perhaps inspired by this look, called “The Michael Corleone Suit”. The G&K suit is a two-piece gray herringbone wool with a single-breasted 2-button jacket. While not an exact match by any means, G&K did a fine job of modernizing and honoring Michael’s look. Any of my Australian friends also receive free shipping, an extra bonus for a $799 suit!
Michael’s suit is cut generously throughout, apropos to 1950s fashion. The early 1950s were the last hurrah for double-breasted suits for a few decades until they regained popularity during the “power suit” fad of the ’80s when the emphasized shoulders offered by a double-breasted jacket became desirable again. As the ’50s progressed and conformity became the norm, men preferred to clean, simple, and slim looks offered by a single-breasted two-piece suit. Michael himself would wear these slim single-breasted suits in The Godfather, Part II – set in 1958 and 1959 – although outfits like his dupioni silk suit were anything but simple.
The double-breasted suit jacket has wide peak lapels, each with a buttonhole, that help scream, “I’m powerful.” Though Michael was more understated in both dress and attitude than his older brother, it must have been hard for the freshman boss to avoid the temptation of flaunting his new position. The sharp lapels with their long gorges and silver sheen are certainly indicative of knives, like the kind that Michael metaphorically stabs into the back of friends and associates.
OK… getting ahead of myself here.
Michael’s double-breasted jacket has a traditional 6×2 button stance, and he wears it both open and closed. Like the rest of the suit, it is fully cut and the padded shoulders (with roped sleeveheads) enhance his chest to make the 5’7″ Al Pacino more menacing. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and a ventless rear.
The suit has a waistcoat – or vest, since I’m an American – with a high-fastening 6-button front. An interesting feature on the vest is a small notch just above the top button, creating a square effect that is covered up when the vest is fastened.
The vest’s rear lining is dark gray silk with an adjustable rear strap; a white inner lining is best seen during Michael’s final conversation with his father. There are four welted pockets – two on each side.
Michael’s single reverse-pleated trousers are appropriately high waisted for the era. They have on-seam side pockets, cuffed bottoms (aka turn-ups), and a comfortably large fit through the hips and legs.
Although the trousers also have visible belt loops, Michael ignores them in favor of a pair of stone gray suspenders (aka braces) that button to the inside of his trouser waistband. The suspenders have silver adjusters and black leather features.
Now evidently a huge fan of monochromatic palettes, Michael wears a very light gray shirt with a point collar. It is very distinctive from the usual dress shirt with two patch pockets – one on each side of the chest. The white mother-of-pearl buttons fasten down the front placket and button over the wrists on rounded barrel cuffs.
Michael’s tie offers him a chance to vary his color… but again we have a monochromatic tie with thin light gray and black diagonal stripes alternating down in the right-shoulder-down-to-left-hip direction.
The tie reminds me of one worn by Al Capone in his famous mugshot from May 1929; perhaps this similar tie was chosen to show that Michael had now reached the same position and reputation as Capone.
After a long day of ordering murders, Michael relaxes in his office by removing his jacket and vest and loosening his tie. Here, the tie looks especially long against his high-waisted trousers. Michael likely tucks the bottom of the tie into his trousers à la Fred Mertz to avoid the tie poking out under the vest. While tucking a tie can be considered a faux pas, it’s far preferable to having the bottom stick out in the genital region.
Further down the leg, Michael wears a pair of well-polished black leather plain-toe derbies with black dress socks. All of this black and gray must mean his closet looks like an episode of Leave It to Beaver.
When he first visits Kay on his return from Italy, it is a cool day in fall. He wears a heavy wool knee-length overcoat that is – and I’m sure you’ll be shocked – black. The coat is double-breasted with a 6×3 button stance, although he wears it open. It has wide peak lapels – like the suit jacket – with swelled edges. The hip pockets are flapped, and the presence of a welted breast pocket – usually considered unnecessary on overcoats – nods to additional luxury.
Michael wisely ditches the overcoat for the scenes set in summer 1955, instead only wearing a dark gray felt homburg in terms of outerwear. The homburg has a wide black ribbon.
During the earlier Kay scenes, Michael wears a black homburg. The black is a better option for a cold weather hat and also for indicating a sinister nature. Kay must have been very shocked when her corduroy-wearing war hero showed up five years later in a chauffeured Cadillac limousine wearing a black coat and hat, the traditional attire of the mustache-twirling villain.
Michael is forced to break his monochromatic rule for his jewelry, although his two simple and utilitarian pieces hardly draw attention away from the outfit. He wears a gold watch on a slim expanding bracelet. The white face is square and appears to use Roman numerals.
Michael, now Kay’s loyal husband, wears a plain gold wedding band on his left ring finger. He foregoes the diamond-studded pinky rings preferred by those of his ilk.
The Huffington Post ran a brief feature last year analyzing The Godfather‘s timeless sartorial lessons, showing a few examples from this outfit in particular in support of suspenders and three-piece suits. One great photo from the feature shows Al Pacino and Marlon Brando together during Michael and Vito’s final scene together with Pacino drinking Budweiser.
I don’t recall seeing this in the film – and I pay attention to these things! – so either Coppola was fine with his actors imbibing between takes or we now know Michael Corleone’s beer of choice.
Go Big or Go Home
The “baptism of fire” is one of the most iconic sequences in cinema history. As Michael’s ruthless schemes fall into place, he is simultaneously baptized into evil as his godson is baptized into the church. Coppola makes this contrast clear as young Michael Francis Rizzi is clothed in white and crying out of confusion; older Michael resembles steel both in his nerve and his attire. The priest, young Michael’s vessel of baptism, prepares his holy items as the assassins, serving as older Michael’s vessels of his own baptism, prepare their weapons.
Any doubt that Michael Corleone is incapable of redemption is wiped away when he renounces Satan as Barzini, Cuneo, Stracci, Tattaglia, and Moe Greene are simultaneously shot to death by Michael’s personal avengers. At the end of the day, his godson is now clean in the eyes of the Catholic church, and Michael has given himself absolute control (“a clean slate”). Michael Rizzi is anointed into the church as Michael Corleone is anointed godfather not only his godson but the underworld at large.
The baptism scene, considered a capstone of American cinema and the inspiration for many similar sequences since, was filmed at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York. When the Corleone family emerges, however, you see the Mount Loretto Church in Pleasant Plains, Staten Island. Interestingly enough, Francis Ford Coppola himself didn’t think the sequence worked until the organ soundtrack was added by Peter Zinner.
How to Get the Look
Just inherited a powerful mob family and want to pretend to take the “business” in a new direction? We’ve got the suit for you!
- Medium-dark gray mohair blend suit, consisting of:
- Double-breasted jacket with wide peak lapels, 6×2 button stance, padded shoulders, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless rear
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with four welted pockets, dark gray silk rear lining, notched top and bottom, and adjustable rear strap
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with high rise, on-seam side pockets, cuffed bottoms
- Light gray dress shirt with point collar, front placket, double chest patch pockets, and 1-button barrel cuffs
- Light gray & black striped tie with thin R-down-to-L diagonal stripes
- Black leather plain-toe derby shoes
- Black dress socks
- Stone gray suspenders with silver adjusters and black leather features
- Dark gray felt homburg with black band
- Gold wristwatch
- Plain gold wedding ring
- Black heavy wool double-breasted knee-length overcoat with wide peak lapels, 6×3 button stance, welted breast pocket, and flapped hip pockets
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the series and watch the first two and watch regularly to keep in cinematic shape. The third one; eh, you should watch it once to know it existed. Watching it once will also tell you why you wouldn’t really need to watch it again.
Michael’s handling of the Carlo situation is a primer in duplicity.
Today I settled all family business so don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Admit what you did… Don’t be afraid, Carlo. Come on, you think I’d make my sister a widow? I’m godfather to your son.
You’re out of the family business, that’s your punishment. You’re finished. I’m putting you on a plane to Vegas… I want you to stay there, you understand?
Only don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry.
Chronology in The Godfather series is often disputed with the book, the film, and personal theories offering constantly clashing dates. I personally believe that the scenes featured in this post are set in the fall of 1950 when Michael reunites with Kay, late July 1955 when Michael consults with Vito, and August 1955 for the “baptism of fire”.
Clearly, the opening action of the film is late 1945. Much mention is made of the war being freshly over, and Tom Hagen tells the crew “it’s almost 1946” when deciding how to handle Sollozzo. Connie’s wedding was the summer, and Vito’s shooting was directly before Christmas. Thus, it was likely around January 1946 when Michael shot both Sollozzo and McClusky and headed to Italy. It is intended that he’ll be away for a year, but the time gets longer as the war in New York continues.
Likely during the summer of 1948, Barzini approaches Carlo Rizzi and asks for his help in trapping and exterminating Sonny. Early that fall, Sonny is killed on the causeway (despite a baseball game from October 1951 playing on his radio). Michael receives this news in Sicily, Appollonia is killed, and he returns to New York.
Thus, Michael revisits Kay “more than a year” later. He probably returned early in 1949, spent some time rearranging the family’s empire, and then felt comfortable visiting Kay. It’s clearly fall when they reconnect due to the leaves on the trees and their warm attire; likely 1950.
When we next see Michael in Las Vegas, he is wearing a wedding ring. Presumably, his romance with Kay picked up right where it started from five years earlier. After the Moe Greene meeting, we jump ahead to Michael visiting Vito in July 1955; Kay also tells Michael that Connie wants him to be her son’s godfather in this scene. (Michael and Kay’s son is now three years old. For their son to be three, he would’ve had to have been born before July 1952 and conceived prior to October 1951. It’s unlikely that Michael and Kay would reunite, marry, and immediately conceive a kid over the course of a month (although crazier things have happened), so this context places their reunion in the fall of 1950.)
After talking with Vito, the scene cuts to July 29, 1955 when Vito dies. The date is clearly displayed on Vito’s tombstone at his funeral, which thus can’t be later than early August 1955. Soon after, Michael stands as godfather for Connie and Carlo’s son.
Does this timeline make sense? Let me know if I’ve figured it out. The Godfather, Part II further confuses things during the Senate hearings when the committee chairman places the Sollozzo/McClusky killing in 1947 and the Five Families murders in 1950. Neither of these dates are possible.