Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, private investigator and ex-policeman
Los Angeles, September 1937
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Now that summer is upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s high time to make sure that you’ve got some duds in your closet that are as appropriate for a day at the office as they are for the sunniest season.
A self-employed gumshoe like J.J. Gittes calls his own shots. As Chinatown is set in 1937, suits were de rigeur for men, but Gittes is hardly the type to rely on the gray flannel suit trope, especially in the sunny southern California locales.
Investigating the Mulwray case leads Gittes to some surprising settings, but such is the adventurous life of a private eye. Luckily for Gittes, his staff – the studious Walsh (Joe Mantell) and the simpler-minded Duffy (Bruce Glover) – are always on hand.
What’d He Wear?
Leave it to J.J. Gittes to drape himself in gray without looking even remotely boring. His light gray gabardine three-piece suit is a luxurious summertime look that defies the conventional gray business suit.
With its padded and roped shoulders, ventless back, and wide, sweeping peak lapels, the double-breasted suit jacket is cut in the tradition of typical ’30s fashions. Gittes wears the suit’s 6-on-2 button jacket open when sitting, standing, crouching, and reclining (his day of investigation indeed calls for a variety of postures!)
There are four buttons on the end of each jacket sleeve. The hip pockets are jetted, and Gittes wears a dark red silk kerchief in the welted breast pocket, coordinating with the pink in his shirt and tie.
A sample of the stunning designs of costume designer Anthea Sylbert, who received her first Academy Award for her work on Chinatown, can be found online here.
Sylbert’s designs reveal an outfit clearly intended to be this one with a single-breasted, six-button waistcoat (or vest, as we Americans have dubbed it) with a notched bottom. Even though it’s worn open, the jacket’s full cut conceals much of the vest below it when on screen. Consulting Sylbert’s designs informs us that the vest likely has four welted pockets, a common aspect of 1930s suit waistcoats.
All of Gittes’ trousers have single reverse pleats, rising high to Jack Nicholson’s natural waist line with the waistline hidden under the vest of his three-piece suits. The trousers are generously cut through the legs, with 1″-high turn-ups (cuffs) at the bottoms.
“Rust brown suede shoes” with a wingtip toe are stipulated in Sylbert’s concept sketch, and the cognac suede wingtips seen on screen certainly fit the bill. These five-eyelet short-wing oxford brogues appear to be the same ones that Gittes wore with his tan birdseye tweed sport jacket later in the film. He wears them here with dark socks that appear to be black.
Oxford brogues in cognac brown suede are difficult to find these days, so Chinatown sartorialists may need to settle for open-laced derby-styled shoes like these fine Cole Haan “Warren” wingtips (link) or these Frye “James” wingtips (link).
Then again, we know Gittes likes his Florsheim shoes so you could also check out these “Jet” longwing oxfords from Florsheim, available in dark brown or sand tan for less than $100 (link).
The first time this suit makes its appearance, Gittes wears a light pink shirt with a white contrast collar and cuffs. The suit’s high-fastening waistcoat covers most of the shirt, making Gittes’ long collar points and cuffs the only parts of the shirt mostly visible, a look not uncommon in the late 1930s. His cuff links are plain gold oblong links.
Gittes’ black and white glen plaid tie threatens achromatism, but the tie’s pink overcheck coordinates with the shirt for a soft but effective color treatment.
The morning after Gittes’ “nosy fella” incident, he shows up to work in the light gray gabardine suit, but this time in a different shirt and tie. His shirt is striped with double sets of closely-striped thin brown stripes on a white ground and the same long-pointed collar as his light pink shirt. His tie is printed in a Deco-inspired series of brown swirls in three shades: beige, tan, and brown.
No matter what you’re wearing below the neck, no self-respecting ’30s private eye would dare venture out in public without his fedora. Gittes wears his usual dark gray felt fedora with its wide black grosgrain band.
Gittes wears a unique vintage wristwatch in Chinatown, a flat gold-toned watch with a square dial on a link bracelet that fastens through a single-prong buckle.
So You Wanna Be a Private Eye?
They say hiding in plain sight is best. To capture his subject’s suspicious behavior on camera, J.J. Gittes doesn’t always need to take refuge hiding on rooftops (we see what happens when he does!)
Instead, Gittes takes Duffy, the meatier-headed of his two assistants, out for a lovely late summer’s outing on Echo Park Lake.
While Duffy rows and grins, Gittes casually leans back and snaps some photos of the errant Hollis Mulwray enjoying an intimate-looking afternoon with a woman who is certainly not his wife! (Whether that woman is his wife’s sister – or daughter – is another question entirely…)
How to Get the Look
- Light gray gabardine suit:
- Double-breasted 6-on-2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button vest with four welted pockets and notched bottom
- Single reverse-pleated trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale pink dress shirt with long white point collar and white double/French cuffs
- Plain gold oblong cuff links
- Black-and-white glen plaid tie with pink overcheck
- Cognac brown suede 5-eyelet short-wing oxford brogues
- Black socks
- Gold-toned wristwatch with flat square dial on buckle-strap link bracelet
- Dark gray felt fedora with wide black grosgrain band
For an extra pop of color, Gittes wears a red silk display kerchief in his breast pocket.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
How do you like them apples?