Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, private investigator and ex-policeman
Los Angeles, Fall 1937
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
When not donning a more businesslike gray for his investigations in the city, J.J. Gittes shows a clear preference for earth tones. He is seen earlier wearing a cream suit around the office, and he sports a nice sandy brown three-piece when visiting the Mulwray home.
Gittes heads to Catalina Island to meet Noah Cross, played by a charming yet sinister John Huston, for lunch. Following lunch, Gittes follows tip after tip, taking him from the hall of records to the San Fernando Valley orange groves to a dubiously administrated retirement home, accompanied now by our established femme fatale, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).
Nearly each step of Gittes’ journey is met with increasing resistance, but he is luckily dressed for his long day in arguably his most comfortable outfit in the movie.
What’d He Wear?
Costume designer Anthea Sylbert set forth with a very distinctive look in mind when crafting J.J. Gittes’ most dressed-down look in all of Chinatown, his sole divergence from his natty three-piece suits as he spends the day outside the city, from Catalina Island to the valley.
The loosened decorum of the roaring ’20s and the subsequent Great Depression hastened the emergence of more dressed-down clothing and, for men, this meant the wider acceptance of sport jackets as alternatives to the matching two- or three-piece suit.
Though he’s meeting a “respectable” local elder like Noah Cross, Gittes still dresses for the more rural surroundings by adopting a tan woolen sports coat with contrasting slacks, a checked shirt, printed tie, and—like any good 1930s gentleman—fedora as his outfit of the day.
Apropos the growing chaos of Gittes’ investigation, this sport jacket and tie ensemble combines a mishmash of busy patterns and fabrics, united by its warm, desert-like palette that also contrasts from the cool, businesslike grays of his suits in the city.
Gittes’ beige-and-cream tweed sportcoat is woven in a large birdseye fret pattern that is best described as a Deco version of a Greek key motif. It’s a distinctive and luxurious pattern that further sets Gittes apart from the “salt-of-the-earth” folks he encounters when he ventures outside of L.A. He may try to de-urbanize his wardrobe by wearing a sport coat and slacks rather than a flashy three-piece suit, but his clothing is still too stylish to let him fit in as a “man of the people”.
The sportcoat is single-breasted with a two-button front that he wears open throughout the day. The breadth of the notch lapels suggests 1974 more than 1937, detailed with edge-swelling from the lapels to the pockets. A white linen handkerchief puffs out of his welted breast pocket. The large patch pockets on each hip have a narrow flap.
Gittes’ sportcoat is another example of an “action back” tweed jacket that was very popular in the ’30s. (BAMF Style previously broke down an action back jacket as part of Warren Beatty’s tweed three-piece suit in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Coincidentally enough, another Faye Dunaway movie.)
The action back jacket is distinctive for its typically belted back with pleated, bi-swing shoulders that are designed to allow much greater arm movement. Sometimes, these jackets also feature a center pleat but Gittes’ jacket only has the “pleat[s] at shoulder” that Sylbert called for in her design.
The shoulders themselves are softly padded with heavily roped sleeveheads and four buttons at each cuff that match the brown-toned horn buttons on the front. Like the notes on Sylbert’s sketch called for, the jacket indeed has a “half belt” back with “soft gathers on top only”.
Gittes wears a pair of medium-low rise darted front stone-colored trousers. They are roomy throughout the leg with a crease extending down from the first belt loop down to the flared cuffed bottoms. Gittes’ chinos have straight on-seam side pockets and jetted rear pockets with no buttons.
Ever the colorful dresser, Gittes forgoes the traditional brown leather belt for a striped cotton surcingle belt. The belt consists of three balanced stripes: navy blue on top and bottom with bright yellow running through the center. The buckle is barely seen, but it appears to be gold-finished.
Gittes’ ecru cotton shirt has a fine brown overcheck. The long point collar has a narrow spread, and the shirt buttons down a front placket. The rounded barrel cuffs also close with a button.
The division between the stylish city dude Gittes and the angry Okies is further drawn by the “J.J.G.” monogrammed on the box-pleated pocket of his shirt. By the time they see it, though, they appear to sympathize with him more than on their first meeting.
Gittes’ tie is printed with a series of reddish-brown Deco swirls on a mustard gold silk ground. He ties it in a four-in-hand and wears it slightly long for 1937 as it hangs down to the waist line of his lower rise trousers. It fastens into place at mid-torso with a gold tie bar.
Gittes wears a pair of cognac brown suede 5-eyelet short-wing oxford brogues with tan socks that nicely match the leg line of his khakis. Though they would have been anachronistic for this particular setting, suede desert boots would also be a suitable and effective companion with this outfit.
Gittes extends the earth tones and desert palette to his accessories, as he should. His fedora is brown felt with a wide brown grosgrain ribbon and a high pinched crown. It’s an awfully sunny day so the relatively short-brimmed hat needs some help; Gittes also dons a pair of simple rimless sunglasses with brown round lenses held into place by thin gold arms.
Gittes wears a gold watch on his left wrist on a unique link bracelet with a buckle. Though watch was identified by Watches in Movies in January 2017 as a vintage Longines Palladium, a period timepiece that had been retailed by Tiffany & Co. in the 1930s and 1940s, I believe a closer look in hi-def reveals that it’s actually a Benrus.
So You Wanna Be a Private Eye?
This sequence is loaded with some of Gittes’ finest P.I. tricks, including a cavalier bit at the Hall of Records. After a snooty clerk prevents Gittes from borrowing a book, Gittes asks to borrow a ruler:
Yeah. The print’s real fine. I left my glasses home. I’d like to be able to read across.
The clerk slaps the ruler down on the desk, for which Gittes smarmily thanks him and takes it back to the records book where he lines it up against the owners’ column. With a loud cough, he muffles the sound of the ensuing rip and stashes the names of the new owners in his pocket.
Without being familiar with the scene, one might think that Gittes is the one being an asshole here, but a poster on the [now-defunct] IMDB message board explained the beauty of the scene and the necessity of the snooty clerk:
You know what’s so great about his being such a snot, and why it works so well for the scene? It takes the edge off when Jake, a moment later, rips out the part of the page showing the land sales. We already know Jake’s a guy that bends (and sometimes breaks) rules, but Towne and Polanski cleverly make sure that we’re still 100% with him when he destroys a county document, because he’s not only getting the information he needs, he’s putting one over on the officious little “weasel.”… Like I said: clever. There’s not a detail in Chinatown that’s wasted or serves no purpose.
Gittes also gets a chance to put his quick wit to good use at the Mar Vista retirement home when he and Evelyn pretend to be seeking a nursing home for his father from the bureaucratic Mr. Palmer.
Gittes: Do you accept people of the Jewish persuasion?
Palmer: I’m sorry, we do not.
Gittes: Don’t apologize – neither does Dad.
How to Get the Look
Gittes’ look translates well throughout the decades, although the devil is in the details. Every item – from the monogrammed check shirt, Deco tie, and striped belt to the unique Greek key action back jacket – is especially distinctive to both the man and the era. Since you’re a different man in a different era, be inspired… but don’t be a copycat!
- Beige “Greek key”-birdseye tweed single-breasted “action back” 2-button sports coat with large notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped patch hip pockets, “bi-swing” pleated shoulders, 4-button cuffs, and belted back
- Ecru (with fine brown overcheck) cotton shirt with long point collar, front placket, monogrammed box-pleat breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Mustard gold silk four-in-hand necktie with reddish-brown Deco swirls
- Gold tie bar
- Stone-colored darted front chino trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted rear pockets, and flared cuffed bottoms/turn-ups
- Navy-and-yellow striped cotton surcingle belt with brown leather front strap and gold-toned single-prong buckle
- Brown suede 5-eyelet short-wing oxford brogues
- Tan dress socks
- Brown felt fedora with wide brown grosgrain ribbon
- Rimless sunglasses with dark brown lenses and gold arms
- Vintage gold Benrus wristwatch with flat square dial on buckle-strap link bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. And if you’re eating fish for lunch, try it with the head… just don’t serve the chicken that way.
Gittes: In Chinatown.
Evelyn: What were you doing there?
Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Gittes: As little as possible.