Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, corrupt Atlantic City politician and bootlegger
Atlantic City, January 1920
Series: Boardwalk Empire
– “Boardwalk Empire” (Episode 1.01, dir. Martin Scorsese, aired September 19, 2010)
– “The Ivory Tower” (Episode 1.02, dir. Tim Van Patten, aired September 26, 2010)
– “Broadway Limited” (Episode 1.03, dir. Tim Van Patten, aired October 3, 2010)
– “Hold Me in Paradise” (Episode 1.08, dir. Brian Kirk, aired November 7, 2010)
– “A Return to Normalcy” (Episode 1.12, dir. Tim Van Patten, aired December 5, 2010)
– “What Does the Bee Do?” (Episode 2.04, dir. Tim Van Patten, aired October 16, 2011)
Creator: Terence Winter
Costume Designer: John A. Dunn
Tailor: Martin Greenfield
This week, I’m taking a look at outfits worn by BAMFs in the first episodes of some of my favorite TV shows. #MafiaMonday is a great excuse to start with Boardwalk Empire, particularly the suit worn by Steve Buscemi as Atlantic County treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the opening credits of the series’ five-season run… as well as a few early episodes.
What’d He Wear?
As seen in the credits…
The Boardwalk Empire opening credits sequence shows a clear recognition of costume design as an essential storytelling device. A series of shots of Steve Buscemi standing on a beach while liquor bottles wash up on his feet would have had a much different effect had he been dressed in his ’70s-toned layered turtleneck and topcoat à la Fargo or the mismatched black suit jacket and jeans as “Mr. Pink” in Reservoir Dogs.
Instead, we immediately meet Nucky Thompson the living legend, resplendent in a period-perfect charcoal striped three-piece suit, colorful shirt and tie with a distinctive contrast collar, a dark homburg reminiscent of The Godfather, sharp spectator shoes that are evidently immune to the effects of standing in the surf… and a red carnation, the gregariously dapper embellishment borrowed from Nucky’s real-life counterpart Enoch Johnson.
Nucky’s suit blends elements of traditional business suiting – charcoal material, pinstripes, and chalkstripes – for a distinctive look that differentiates him from the world of establishment politics and business while also avoiding the overt gangster connotations of a bolder white chalkstripe. Indeed, Nucky plays the middle like a fiddle (for the first few seasons, at least), viewed by the Atlantic City public as a generous civil servant while those in his circle know him better as the corrupt “half a gangster” just as capable of coordinating the importation of bootleg whiskey as he is of offering vocal support for the Women’s Temperance League.
The dark charcoal worsted suit, tailored by Martin Greenfield of Brooklyn, is patterned with a series of stripes alternating between a single-thread pinstripe and a wider four-thread stripe.
Three months after the final Boardwalk Empire episode aired, ScreenBid hosted an auction of many of the show’s props and costumes including the “iconic three piece suit from the opening credits,” which was made custom for Steve Buscemi but described as sized approximately 38 regular. The auction listing included several exclusive photos of the suit, including a view of the little-seen gold satin-finished lining with its faint red striping and Deco-style cricles.
The long double-breasted suit jacket has straight shoulders and squared front quarters that flare out below the high button stance to resemble the “shapeless” American sack suit characteristic of early 20th century American menswear, particularly when worn unbuttoned as Nucky tends to wear it. The wide lapels have straight gorges. There is a long single vent in the back.
Nucky’s suit jacket has four-button cuffs with a “turnback cuff”, a dandyish detail evoking the Edwardian era that Nucky wore on all of his early suits. The jacket has a welted breast pocket and straight flapped hip pockets on the sides as well as a flapped ticket pocket, placed high above the waist on the right side to align with the lower row of buttons.
The double-breasted front has four buttons in a square formation, highly placed above Nucky’s natural waist in two rows of two buttons. The suit jacket buttons are best seen on the sole occasion that Nucky wears his jacket fully buttoned during his press conference in “A Return to Normalcy” (episode 1.12).
The suit’s matching waistcoat (vest) has six buttons that fasten high on Buscemi’s chest with the lowest button left open over the notched bottom. It has four welted pockets.
The roaring twenties was the twilight of the gentleman’s pocket watch, which would gradually be eclipsed by the wristwatch over the course of the decade. Nucky wears his gold Elgin open-face pocket watch in his lower left vest pocket throughout the first season, connected on a 18″ gold chain to an ornate fob described by ScreenBid as “a trio of gold cubes with tiny ruby chips.”
The plain white dial has Arabic numerals with the “ELGIN” brand name clearly visible in the eighth episode, “Hold Me in Paradise,” when Nucky is in Chicago. (The ScreenBid auction confirmed that the same Elgin watch was used for the opening credits.) Nucky’s watch has a winding stem at 12:00 and a white sub-dial counting down the seconds at 6:00, a typical layout for open-face watches.
Similar watches are available online such as this pristine Elgin Grade 303 railroad watch from 1924, available from Etsy for only $99.
Nucky’s flat front suit trousers have a long rise, properly concealing the waistband under his waistcoat. They are most likely fitted to be worn with suspenders (braces), consistent with Nucky’ other suits and three-piece suit decorum, particularly in the early 20th century. They are cut straight through the leg down to the bottoms, finished with wide cuffs (turn-ups).
In the opening credits, Nucky wears a pair of black and tan calf leather wingtip oxford brogues. These spectator shoes, handcrafted in Italy for Forzieri, have a black wingtip, black lace panels for the six-eyelet black laces, black back heel quarters, and brown perforated broguing across the tan vamp.
As of September 2017, Forzieri is still offering these Italian handcrafted spectator shoes for $660 and proudly marketing them as the shoe from “the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire.” Though Forzieri has only existed for the last quarter of a century, these duo-toned brogues are certainly reflective of the spirit of men’s footwear during the Jazz Age.
Jumping up from his feet to the top of his head, Nucky wears a homburg – the preferred headgear of that era’s most powerful men – in a villainous shade of black felt with a wide black grosgrain ribbon and grosgrain edges along the curled brim. Thanks to the ScreenBid listing, we know the hat was crafted by Dobbs, a New York millinery founded in 1908.
You can find a selection of Boardwalk Empire hats available from Fashionable Hats, which also includes a helpful style guide for gents looking to top off their look à la Nucky Thompson, Al Capone, or Jimmy Darmody. Fashionable Hats offers a Stetson homburg in black genuine fur felt for less than $200 that will leave you feeling like the king of the boardwalk.
Dress shirts with attached collars were still novel in 1920, having only been patented the previous year by the Phillips-Jones Corporation (now Phillips-Van Heusen) as the “self-folding collar”. Men of Nucky’s status wore shirts with starched white detachable collars that could be easily removed and vigorously cleaned more frequently than the shirts themselves.
Just before the show’s September 2010 premiere, costume designer John Dunn spoke to Esquire about the signature “keyhole-cut” collar he developed for Nucky:
We did have a particular collar specifically designed for Nucky, though: a period collar that has a little keyhole cutout in the center — when you close the collar with the collar bar, there was then a little hole that the necktie would come out of. No one else was allowed to wear that.
Dunn’s particular collar is established in the opening credits and would adorn Nucky’s neck for the show’s first three seasons. Eagle-eyed fans have noted its similarity to the “Tyfold” collar introduced to the American market in 1903 by Cluett Peabody and Co., the same company that developed the attached-collar Arrow shirt in the late 1920s.
Colorful dresser that he is, Nucky is seen in the credits wearing his white “keyhole-cut” collar with a lavender shirt subtly patterned with circles that echo the bolder purple silk tie with “maroon floral medallions,” as described by the ScreenBid auction (which also confirms the tie’s manufacturer as “John Kocis”.)
The self-shirted double (French) cuffs of Nucky’s shirts in the pilot episode were all fastened by a set of octagonal vintage silver-toned cuff links with an onyx ring around a clear stone on each link’s face.
Episode by episode…
When we first meet Nucky Thompson in the pilot episode “Boardwalk Empire”, he is about to address the Women’s Temperance League in the same suit as we saw in the credits but with a radically different shirt and tie.
His yellow dress shirt is patterned with wide white stripes that are bordered on each side and split down the center with three thin blue stripes, creating the effect of light blue stripes from a distance. His white “keyhole-cut” detachable collar also makes its debut, pinned with his usual gold collar bar.
Nucky wears a bright blue-on-blue pindot plaid silk tie with Deco-inspired sets of two white-bordered squares placed haphazardly over the surface of the tie. The left square is gradient-filled in yellow, but the right square is transparent, revealing the blue pattern of the tie’s ground.
The following episode, “The Ivory Tower” (episode 1.02), finds Nucky making the rounds of Atlantic City, first running into the obnoxious George Baxter (Allen Lewis Rickman) on the boardwalk before checking in with the imperious Commodore (Dabney Coleman) at his palatial home.
Nucky again sports a light yellow shirt, this time solid yellow rather than striped. Instead, it’s his tie that’s striped in a series of varying navy blue, mustard yellow, and brick red stripes following the European “uphill” direction of left-down-to-right.
In both the pilot and “The Ivory Tower,” Nucky wears a knee-length camelhair overcoat with wide Ulster-style lapels and a high six-on-three-button double-breasted front. The coat has padded shoulders, swelled edges, a vertical welt pocket on each side, and a wide cuff at the end of each sleeve. In the back, an inverted box pleat on the upper back aligns with the long single vent that extends up to the half-belt.
Nucky spends some time in this Ritz Hotel office in “Broadway Limited” (episode 1.03), where he is visited by his erstwhile mentee, the troubled Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). Jimmy’s humble tweed Norfolk suit is the yin to Nucky’s elegant yang.
Nucky appears to be wearing the lavender circle-printed shirt from the opening credits, now paired with a similar multi-striped tie from the previous episode but in an opposing stripe direction.
That evening in the same episode, Nucky pays a visit to his ally Albert “Chalky” White (Michael K. Williams), dressing for the evening chill in a countrified brown heavy tweed wool top coat with a plaid pattern consisting of blue, beige, red, and black checks. The coat’s double-breasted front echoes the suit jacket beneath it with its peak lapels and “square” four-on-two button formation, also worn totally open. The coat has an inverted box pleat patch pocket with a flap on the left breast and large flapped patch pockets on the hips, below the lower row of buttons. The shoulders are padded and roped at the sleeveheads with a full cuff at the end of each sleeve. The back is accented with a Western-style pointed yoke and a half-belt.
Nucky’s opening credits suit reappears five episodes later in “Hold Me in Paradise” (episode 1.08) when Nucky is in Chicago for the Republican National Convention. He is dining with Republican Senator Walter Edge (Geoff Pierson) when he receives news of a robbery back in Atlantic City.
Nucky once again sports a solid yellow shirt for his dinner with Senator Edge, now worn with an “old gold” jacquard silk tie with an ornate floral pattern with cornflower blue center dots.
The outfit is evidently a hit as he also wears it for a press conference denouncing the D’Alessio brothers in the season finale, “A Return to Normalcy” (episode 1.12). In both of these later season appearances, he also seems to be wearing black oxford shoes.
This suit makes its final appearance in “What Does the Bee Do?” (episode 2.04) as a naughty Nucky is entertaining politicians, prostitutes, and prize-fighters when Jack Dempsey drops in on Mayor Ed Bader’s birthday party. (The real Ed Bader was born on June 8, 1874, but this episode is supposedly set before Memorial Day, sometime in the spring of 1921.)
New season, new shirt. Nucky wears a pale blue striped shirt with self-shirted double (French) cuffs and his usual detachable white keyhole collar. His tie is dark purple paisley silk.
Nucky would continue to wear charcoal striped suits through the run of the series, including a very similarly patterned single-breasted suit with double-breasted waistcoat throughout the third season, but this episode – ‘what does the bee do?’ – was the final in-show appearance of the suit that greeted boardwalk empire viewers in the credits each week.
Boardwalk Empire made great use of the burgeoning popular music of the early 1920s from vintage recordings of Tin Pan Alley hits to modern interpretations featuring the studious arrangements of Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra often accompanied by stars of today like Neko Case, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Liza Minnelli, Patti Smith, and Regina Spektor.
The opening credits were a different story, using “Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre, an energetic track inspired by 1960s rock roots.
This 2011 interview in The Hollywood Reporter explains creator Terence Winter’s decision:
“I wanted unexpected,” Boardwalk creator and executive producer Terence Winter tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I didn’t want to do some Charleston, which didn’t really kick in until 1924 anyway, and everything I heard from the period had people doing the Charleston.”
While experimenting with the opening, Winter says he paired the footage of Buscemi looking out to the horizon with several different pieces of music, including Brian Jonestown’s “Straight Up and Down.” “I had been a fan of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, so we tried it, and I said to the editor, that really works for me.”
Even with so much attention paid to period details such as wardrobe and props, the fact that the theme employs a contemporary song using instruments not yet invented during the prohibition era, when Boardwalk Empire takes place, doesn’t bother Winter one bit. “It’s a show set in 1920 seen through a different perspective, not a literal look at the 1920s,” he explains. “Some people find it jarring to see 1920s clothes and hear contemporary music. I look at it as, it’s a 90-second intro and then you have all the ’20s you want.”
Can’t argue with that.
How to Get the Look
- Charcoal brown-striped worsted wool three-piece custom “sack suit”:
- Double-breasted 4×2 “square”-buttoned long jacket with straight-gorge peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, flapped ticket pocket, 4-button “turnback” cuffs, and long single vent
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat/vest with four welted pockets and notched bottom
- Flat front high-rise trousers with straight/on-seam side pockets, straight leg, and wide turn-ups/cuffs
- Yellow or lavender dress shirt with front placket and double/French cuffs
- White detachable “keyhole”-cut collar
- Silver-toned octagonal cuff links with black onyx face
- Patterned tie with color echoing the shirt
- Black and tan leather wingtip oxford brogues
- Burgundy dress socks
- Black felt homburg with wide black grosgrain ribbon
- Gold-filled Elgin open-face pocket watch with white dial (with Arabic numerals and 6:00 sub-dial) and 18″ gold chain with ruby-studded triple-cube fob
On a chilly day, Nucky adds the extra layer of a double-breasted coat, either in luxurious camel or a rugged countrified brown plaid tweed.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
First rule of politics, kiddo: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.