John Travolta as Vincent Vega, laidback mob hitman and self-described “Elvis man”
Los Angeles, Summer 1992
Film: Pulp Fiction
Release Date: October 14, 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Costume Designer: Betsy Heimann
With Halloween around the corner, I’m revisiting one of my favorite Halloween costumes: Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. It’s a great chance for a couple’s costume, whether your significant other is a Mia or a Jules.
Pulp Fiction‘s colorful, sprawling cast of characters and famously non-linear timeline makes Vincent an even more interesting character when you realize that he is the only one to appear in each segment of the film. The role marked a rejuvenation for John Travolta, whose career had gone stagnant during the ’80s with the only real commercial success coming from Look Who’s Talking. Established and rising actors including Alec Baldwin, Daniel Day-Lewis, James Gandolfini, Andy Garcia, Michael Keaton (aw!), Gary Oldman, Jason Patric, Sean Penn, Tim Roth, and Denzel Washington had all been either interested in or considered for the role, and even Michael Madsen would go on to regret not reprising his Vega brother role when offered.
Vincent Vega was the laidback yin to Jules Winnfield’s fired-up yang. While Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) would intimidate a target with his fire-and-brimstone brand of furious anger, Vincent would merely slump against a wall, puffing one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and debating whether or not to voice a situational complaint of his own. It might have been his easy temperament that led Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to tap Vincent as the henchman-of-choice to entertain his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) when Marsellus was called out of town.
What’d He Wear?
When he’s on the job, Vincent Vega adopts the look favored by all slick criminals in Quentin Tarantino’s universe: black suit, white shirt, and slim black tie. His partner in crime, Jules Winnfield, pulls it off with aplomb, even adding a collar pin as part of a decision on costume designer Betsy Heimann’s part to signify Jules’ tight-necked role as the “preacher” of the duo.
On the other hand, Vincent is described (by Mia Wallace herself) as “an Elvis man” due to his both his laidback-to-a-fault attitude and his rockabilly-evoking duds. Perhaps as a tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville’s notion that costumes were symbolic suits of armor, Vincent’s off-duty wardrobe is just a personalized take on the same black suit, white shirt, and tie that Marsellus Wallace seems to dictate for all of his henchmen.
In a 2014 phone interview with Fashionista, costume designer Betsy Heimann explained that the black sack coat was courtesy of French designer Agnès B., who had also designed Mia’s black velvet coat. According to Heimann, “Agnès B. was a great friend to us. She came to us through Harvey Keitel, who wore her suit in Reservoir Dogs. I had a relationship with Agnès that continues to this day and so I went to her when we were doing Pulp Fiction. Agnès is a big supporter of independent film and she was very generous to us.”
Vincent’s single-breasted coat has notch lapels with a dark chocolate brown leather collar and a non-functioning buttonhole on the left lapel. While there’s little doubt about the leather collar, the rest of the jacket takes on a sheen under certain light that suggests the presence of mohair, perhaps a wool-mohair blend.
Vincent’s jacket has a 3-button front closure that he typically leaves open. As was fashionable in the ’90s, it has a ventless back, padded shoulders, and gently roped sleeveheads. Each sleeve ends with 3-button cuffs. The breast pocket is jetted – rather than welted – with a jetted pocket straight on each hip as well.
Vincent’s white dress shirt is one of the few items present with both his black suit and this more casual outfit. It is lightweight cotton with a spread collar and 1-button mitred cuffs. There is a large breast pocket on the left with mitred bottom corners. As we see as he lunges the adrenaline shot into Mia’s heart, he wears no undershirt.
Vincent notably wears a bolo tie, also known as a shoestring tie. Often associated with Western wear and Native American culture, the bolo tie is the official neckwear of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Betsy Heimann played on these cowboy associations when she placed Vincent in one “because he was a bit of a cowboy,” as she told Kara Rennie of On Screen Fashion.
Vincent’s tie consists of a black braided leather cord strung through a silver ornamental slide piece with a black oval setting; this slide piece is the “bolo” itself. Silver ornamental aglets dangle at each tip of the cord that hangs down onto Vincent’s chest.
“I found Vincent’s bolo tie at Kenny’s Western Wear, which is no longer in existence,” Heimann told Emma Hope Allwood of Dazed. “It was this old time Western shop way deep in the Valley and it was this amazing store, and I also got these jeans which were these old-fashioned Levi’s made from polyester.”
The “old-fashioned Levi’s” that Heimann grabbed for Vincent are a pair of faded black jeans, fitted with riveted buttons, belt loops, and a standard five-pocket layout. They are cut straight through the leg. Vincent wears a black leather belt with a gold single-prong buckle.
When he and Mia are called up to the dance floor at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Vincent removes his black leather monk strap loafers, electing to dance more comfortably in his black ribbed Gold Toe tube socks, noted as such with their distinctive yellow toes. These cap-toe loafers with their steel buckles and heavy black soles are the same shoes he wore earlier with his black linen suit.
Vincent staggers into the Wallace homestead with a vintage brown waterproof raincoat bundled under his arm, spending more time carrying it (or dealing with the side effects of its contents) than he does wearing it. It is single-breasted with five large brown plastic buttons concealed on the front fly. It has side handwarmer pockets, a long single vent, and two well-spaced buttons on each cuff for closure; Vincent keeps the sleeves looser by fastening each cuff’s half-tab on the button closest to it.
Although the image of the Old West duster fits with Vincent’s cowboy persona, Betsy Heimann told Fashionista that the raincoat had originally been envisioned as a piece for Mia, forcing her to work backwards: “I remember liking the idea of Mia wearing that old overcoat while she was dancing through the house… That was born more of the image of Uma wearing it, but how was I going to get there? By putting it on Vincent. It was vintage.”
Vincent’s watch is a round-cased steel wristwatch with a black dial, secured to his left wrist on a black leather strap.
He famously wears a small yellow gold plain hoop earring in his right ear.
Go Big or Go Home
Vincent sees himself as a simple, laconic cowboy, rolling his own cigarettes from Drum tobacco and swaggering around uncomfortably when in a swanky new environment. Of course, we know he’s far more complex (and impulsive!) than he portrays himself; the real Vincent is the touchy, agitated criminal who accidentally shoots Marvin in the face rather than the Zippo-flicking “Elvis man” whose heroin-induced stagger is misinterpreted as laidback swagger.
In Speeding to the Millennium: Film and Culture 1993-1995, Joseph Natoli outlined Vincent’s cool indifference that defined his post-modern character: “It doesn’t matter one way or another to Vincent. It has no consequence. It doesn’t touch the still center of his being where Vincent’s story is filled with the protocols of survival and maintaining his cool. You might say he has a buffer zone of cool in which emotions and responses are filtered.”
To prepare for the role, John Travolta befriended a real heroin addict who was a friend of Tarantino’s. As Travolta later related to James Lipton, the friend explained: “If you want to get the ‘bottom envelope’ feeling of that, get plastered on tequila and lie down in a hot pool. Then you will have barely touched the feeling of what it might be like to be on heroin.” Travolta was more than happy to comply, parking himself in a hotel hot tub while his wife assisted him by lining up shots of tequila on the railings to help his “research”.
Of course, it’s not Vincent’s heroin use that briefly wins Mia Wallace’s heart. (In fact, his addiction briefly stopped her heart!) His ability to dance, despite extreme reluctance, both charms her and the audience by showing us just how much much lurks beneath the surface of this taciturn, mobbed-up cowboy.
The master of homage, Quentin Tarantino reportedly copied Vincent and Mia’s dance from Mario Pisu and Barbara Steele’s dance in Fellini’s 8½ (1963). It may have been this scene that locked Travolta into the role, as three of the actor’s major cinematic successes to this point – Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy – had all found him prominently tearing up various genres of dance floors.
At first, Uma Thurman wasn’t enthusiastic about Tarantino’s use of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” for the twist contest, but Tarantino – who may have his faults but creative use of music isn’t one of them – just replied: “Trust me, it’s perfect.” Music supervisor Karyn Rachtman also tells a story of Tarantino’s mother on set during this scene: “Quentin’s mother came on the set when we were at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and she said, ‘Why is Quentin using [‘You Never Can Tell’]? Why did he chose that song? I used to listen to that song all the time when I was pregnant with him.” (The song was released about a year after Tarantino was born, but I’m sure there’s still something to that!)
Music is used perfectly through this sequence with some of the most notable soundtrack cues in all of Pulp Fiction popping up during this segment. One that particularly stands out to me is the film’s portrayal of the “tequila in a hot tub” feeling Vincent must have cruising down the evening streets of L.A. with the top down in his cherry red ’64 Malibu convertible, surf rock eminating from the speakers in the form of The Centurians’ “Bullwinkle Pt. II” off of their 1963 album, Surfers’ Pajama Party.
The Centurians track was one of many surf rock numbers that permeated Pulp Fiction to carry out Tarantino’s vision of “rock and roll spaghetti western music”. When the segment opens, Lance’s wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette, although Pam Grier had originally auditioned) is breaking down her piercings to the tune of “Bustin’ Surfboards” by The Tornadoes. Vincent hears “Bullwinkle Pt. II” on his way to the Wallace house, where Mia has Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” playing on the reel-to-reel, the same stereo that would later underline her nearly fatal overdose to the sounds of Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon”.
Picture-perfect time capsule that it is, Jack Rabbit Slim’s specializes in ’50s deep tracks. No stereotypical Everly Brothers for this joint:
- Gary Shorelle – “Waitin’ in School”
- Ricky Nelson – “Lonesome Town”
- Link Wray – “Ace of Spades”
- Link Wray – “Rumble”
- The Robins – “Since I First Met You”
- Woody Thorne – “Teenagers in Love”
To learn more about the music of Pulp Fiction, check out DJ Pizzo’s 2014 article from Medium.
What to Imbibe
Mia Wallace advises Vincent to help himself to a drink. He investigates the Wallace household’s booze lineup and sniffs out a bottle of “McCleary” blended Scotch, a fictional whiskey brand that also showed up a few years later in Bound. He pours himself a dram to maintain his substance-abusing haze throughout the night.
At Jack Rabbit Slim’s, Vincent eagerly orders himself a vanilla Coke rather than a $5 shake. There are two ways to make your own vanilla Coke, should you be so inclined. The simplest begins with pouring a chilled 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola into a glass then stirring in about a tablespoon full of vanilla extract. If you have more apothecarian instincts (and a lot more time on your hands!), you should check out WikiHow’s stovetop method.
How to Get the Look
Vincent Vega is a true individualist, finding his personal style somewhere between rockabilly and cowboy while winking at the black-suited uniform of Tarantino’s anti-heroes.
- Black single-breasted 3-button sack coat with dark brown leather collar, notch lapels, jetted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White lightweight cotton dress shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and 1-button mitred cuffs
- Black leather braided bolo tie with silver ornametal bolo (with black oval setting)
- Black polyester Levi’s jeans with belt loops, five-pocket layout, and rivet buttons
- Black leather belt with gold single-prong buckle
- Black leather cap-toe monk strap loafers
- Black ribbed Gold Toe tube socks
- Brown vintage waterproof cotton raincoat with single-breasted 5-button concealed fly front, slanted handwarmer pockets, set-in sleeves, half-tab button cuffs, and single vent
- Steel wristwatch with round black dial on black leather strap
- Gold mini-hoop earring
If you’ve already got Vincent Vega’s shoulder-length hair, pull it back into a sloppy ponytail.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and have a heart attack.