Bugsy Siegel in White Tie
Warren Beatty as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, debonair and mercurial “celebrity” gangster
Hollywood, March 1945
Release Date: December 13, 1991
Director: Barry Levinson
Costume Designer: Albert Wolsky
Unfortunately, the ultra formal white tie dress code is all but extinct in American culture. The popularity of black tie in the post-World War I era was the first bullet to the chest of white tie, but an increasingly informal society has peppered white tie with more bullets than the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Luckily for sartorial purists, Downton Abbey and programs of its ilk have inspired a resurgence in early 20th century formalwear. As Mad Men has taught us, all it takes is a good TV show with well-dressed characters to get Americans to dress better.
A natty dresser like Bugsy Siegel didn’t need examples from the movies, though. While I’ve never seen a photo of the real guy in white tie, it makes sense that an image-conscious guy like Siegel would sport a formal tailcoat for a night of dancing at the legendary Ciro’s nightclub in West Hollywood to cultivate his image as a romantic ladies’ man rather than a vicious mobster. Siegel even tells a photographer from The Herald that captures him in mid-dance:
See that they run that, and not one of those sinister mugshots.
In the film’s universe, it’s Thursday night, March 8, 1945. The U.S. First Army has just taken Cologne back after the Battle of Remagen and the Allies are making their way further into the heart of Europe to surround Hitler. V-E Day is just two months away. In the Pacific, the Americans continue firebombing Japan.
The mood at Ciro’s is light, but conspiracy and intrigue are laced in every conversation. After dancing with an eager young ingénue, Siegel acquaints himself with the Count and Countess di Frasso, sparking his own ambition to fly to Europe and kill Mussolini. The usual cavalcade of stars present at Ciro’s isn’t well-represented here, although George Raft (Joe Mantegna) – a boyhood friend of Siegel’s from Hell’s Kitchen – makes an appearance.
The real Ciro’s was the place to be seen for movie groupies in the ’40s and ’50s. It was opened in January 1940 by William Wilkerson, the same entrepreneur that discovered Lana Turner and actually founded the Flamingo before Siegel took the idea and ran with it. Until closing its doors in 1957, stars ranging from the Rat Pack to Lucy and Desi could be found enjoying its luxe baroque atmosphere. Future presidents JFK and Ronald Reagan drank and dined with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, as well as gangsters like Bugsy Siegel. Ciro’s is long gone now, having converted to a rock club in the ’60s before the site became The Comedy Store in 1972.
What’d He Wear?
Bugsy adheres pretty closely to the rules of formal evening dress… which is pretty surprisingly for a guy named “Bugsy”. His black wool tailcoat is nicely tailored with wide peak lapels faced with black silk. The front cuts away at a sharp angle, as an evening dress coat should. There are few instances where evening dress can be adjusted to fit popular trends; Bugsy’s wider lapel points and slanted gorges, padded shoulders, and the white linen handkerchief, tri-folded into his breast pocket can be considered among them.
The four decorative buttons and 3-button cuffs are covered in the same black satin silk found on the lapel facings. The buttons are one of the few deviations from standing evening dress, as most traditional tail coats were fitted with six front buttons and four buttons on the cuff. There are also two decorative satin-covered buttons on the rear waistline above the single vent tails.
Moving further down, Bugsy’s trousers are made of the same black wool as his tailcoat with a black satin stripe down the side. The trousers may actually have the correct double stripe, but it is difficult to tell from the angles offered in the film. They are double reverse-pleated with a high rise under the waistcoat and correctly plain-hemmed bottoms. He wears them with ivory-colored suspenders with silver clips for his waistband. They are only seen on the ground with his shoes after Virginia’s late night visit.
The waistcoat has a V-shaped opening and wide shawl collar with flat bottoms. It closes in the front with four mother-of-pearl buttons on a single-breasted layout.
The bottom of the waistcoat has a wide notch and two welted pockets. Traditionally, the bow tie and waistcoat were constructed from the same white or off-white piqué. In this case, Bugsy’s low-cut waistcoat is a deeper ivory that clearly contrasts against the plain white tie.
Bugsy’s white cotton formal shirt has the proper detachable wing collar, although standing collars are also an option. His wing collar is held into place by a gold button on the front and a gold button through the rear. The stiff front closes with two diamond studs visible between the tie knot and the waistcoat opening. His single cuffs are fastened in place by rectangular gold cuff links.
Bugsy also nails the bow tie, wearing a white piqué bow tie that is clearly real, evident both by the knot and its appearance when untied.
I don’t know what the rules of evening dress say about undershirts, but Bugsy sports a white cotton crew neck short-sleeve t-shirt.
Bugsy ignores the traditional (and, if you ask me, outdated) black patent leather opera pumps for a pair of four-eyelet cap-toe oxford shoes made of well-polished black calf leather. His socks are likely also black, and probably silk. Oxfordsare acceptable alternatives for opera pumps, although some fellas have also worn Chelsea boots or side-buttoning boots with white tie.
If Bugsy breaks any steadfast white tie rules, it is his choice of wearing a wristwatch rather than a pocket watch, although he should be given a break for nailing the rest of the look so nicely when no one else in the club is even trying. His gold watch is worn on a slim black leather strap.
Bugsy’s only other accessory is a gold pinky ring on his left hand with a dark stone. Although he’s married, Ciro’s is no place for a playboy gangster like Bugsy to be wearing a wedding ring.
Go Big or Go Home
And speaking of rings, one of Bugsy’s all-time smooth moments comes when he hands a ring to a slow-witted Ciro’s waiter and points out Virginia. The waiter doesn’t move, so Bugsy instructs him: “Put it in her hand.” While Johnny Mercer and Jo Stafford croon the 1945 hit “Candy” from stage, Bugsy watches with hungry eyes as Virginia accepts the gift and distresses her uniformed date.
How to Get the Look
Can you pull off full evening dress?
- Black wool cutaway tailcoat with 4-button decorative front, wide peak lapels with black satin facings, welted breast pocket, 3-button cuffs, and 2 decorative rear buttons over single vent with tails
- Ivory piqué low-cut waistcoat with wide shawl flat-bottom lapels, V-shaped opening, 4-button single-breasted front, two welted pockets, and wide notch bottom
- Black wool double reverse-pleated high-rise formal trousers with black satin side stripes, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton formal shirt with stiff plain front and single cuffs
- White detached wing collar
- Diamond front studs
- Gold rectangular cuff links
- White piqué bow tie
- Black calf leather 4-eyelet cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black silk dress socks
- White cotton crew neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Gold wristwatch on black leather strap
- White linen pocket square
- Gold pinky ring with dark stone, worn on left pinky
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I only talk this much before I’m gonna kill someone.
Two of the most disappointing fashion mistakes in the last few years were George W Bush AND Barack Obama wearing white tie/tailcoat ensembles with turn down collar dinner shirts. Don’t they have handlers for that kind of thing? If one is going so far as to wear full formal, why not wear a detachable collar? A modern wing collar is no substitute for the real thing.
I know! I would embrace actually getting the opportunity to go white tie, and I don’t think there’s a man in the country with greater access to whatever fashion he wants than the President. JFK would have never made such an error…