Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, maverick Depression-era bank robber
Chicago, Spring 1934
Film: Public Enemies
Release Date: July 1, 2009
Director: Michael Mann
Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
It’s been quite some time since I’ve visited Public Enemies, the Michael Mann-directed action thriller depicting the life and crimes of Depression-era desperado John Dillinger. The film received mixed to positive reviews upon its release with much of the praise going to Michael Mann’s usual attention to detail as well as Johnny Depp’s performance as the Indiana-born outlaw.
Colleen Atwood’s period costumes are also worthy of attention and praise. High fashion was the signifier of success for Depression-era gangsters, and Dillinger rarely led his gun-toting cronies into a bank without being dressed to the nines.
Even when on the run, such as this scene set not long after Dillinger’s narrow escape from an FBI ambush at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin, John Dillinger made a consistent effort to dress well. (The film plays with historical accuracy to present its own narrative, pushing Billie Frechette’s arrest to after the Little Bohemia raid; in real life, Billie was arrested on April 9, 1934, two weeks before Melvin Purvis’ federal agents attempted to trap the Dillinger gang at Little Bohemia.)
Without the support of his criminal network – most of whom are now dead, arrested, or have alienated him – Dillinger turns to his sole remaining ally, his girlfriend Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The two abscond to the Indiana dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan for a late night rendezvous where Dillinger makes grand promises of an idyllic island life after the proverbial “one last job”.
The next day, the two drive into Chicago to meet an underworld contact when Billie is immediately apprehended by federal agents. All that Dillinger can do is watch in desperation as his “blackbird” is brutishly manhandled and forced into custody. The scene may sound dramatic, but – in fact – little was punched up for this cinematic portrayal.
In reality, Dillinger and Billie had just spent a relatively blissful weekend with Dillinger’s family in Mooresville, Indiana. After a Sunday afternoon full of coconut cream pies (Dillinger’s favorite) and now-iconic photographs of the outlaw posing with Billie and with the wooden gun he used during his infamous escape from the Crown Point jail, the two were headed back toward Chicago for a meeting with Art O’Leary, a private investigator employed by Dillinger’s attorney Louis Piquett.
According to G. Russell Girardin’s definitive Dillinger: The Untold Story:
After leaving O’Leary, Dillinger telephoned Larry Strong, supposedly a friend, and spoke to him about arranging a hideout for a few days. An appointment was made to meet Strong at his tavern, the State-Austin Inn, 416 North State Street, at eight o’clock that evening. Unknown to Dillinger, “friend” Larry had recently turned informer, and he immediately did what informers do. John Dillinger was at heart a country boy and, despite his prison experience, still somewhat naive in the ways of the underworld. He was still learning that while this society may possess a few characters endowed with redeeming qualities, on the whole it consists of conniving outcasts who mock the very notion that there is honor among thieves.
At the appointed time, John Dillinger drove to the restaurant and parked around the corner while Billie Frechette went in. Before she could walk back out and mistakenly signal Dillinger that it was safe, five or six federal agents surrounded her with pistols and machine guns.
Dillinger, watching intently, saw the commotion and drove away unnoticed. Billie would irritate her captors greatly by insisting that Dillinger had been elsewhere in the room when the agents pounced and had simply strolled past them out the door.
Dillinger, considerably irritated himself, immediately phoned O’Leary at his apartment hotel on Pine Grove to let him know “the Gs just picked up Billie in a restaurant at State and Austin… I was sitting in my car around the corner. There were too many of them for me to take her away.”
What’d He Wear?
For his meeting with Billie and her subsequent arrest, Depp’s Dillinger wears a navy worsted three-piece suit with a rust-colored chalkstripe. The stripe’s gentle contrast against the navy suiting provides a touch of subtle complexity and sophistication.
Three-piece suits with double-breasted jackets enjoyed the height of their popularity in the 1930s. Dillinger’s suit in this sequence incorporates many details distinctive to ’30s tailoring that aimed for the “hourglass” silhouette with widely structured shoulders with roped sleeveheads, fully cut trousers, and a high, suppressed waist line.
The double-breasted jacket’s peak lapels sweep across the front with a six-on-two button formation that Dillinger wears open throughout the scene; combined with his loosened shirt collar and tie, unkempt hair, and manic expression, the unbuttoned suit jacket adds a sense of desperation to Dillinger’s look that echoes his panicked emotions during the scene.
The jacket’s sleeves are a bit too long, totally covering his shirt cuffs when his arms are at his side (best seen in the close-up of Dillinger gripping the 1911 pistol in his right hand; see “The Gun” section below.) The jacket also has a half-belted back, an era-evoking detail that also adds a desired degree of waist suppression.
The unbuttoned jacket shows off Dillinger’s vest, which also received plenty of exposure in behind-the-scenes set photos of Depp sans jacket (such as the one at right.) The single-breasted waistcoat is consistent with era styling with both a high-fastening five-button front and a high notched bottom, placed to accommodate the long rise of his trousers. The vest has four welted pockets.
The flat front trousers have an appropriately high rise to Depp’s natural waist line. They have a full, roomy cut over the hips and through the legs down to the cuffed bottoms. There is a straight pocket on each side and likely two button-through pockets in the back.
The trousers have belt loops for Dillinger’s black leather belt with its closed silver-toned rectangular buckle, a belt style known to have been worn by the outlaw both at the time of his arrest in January 1934 and when he was killed seven months later.
Though decorum says to avoid wearing belts with three-piece suits (to avoid the “bunching” effect of the buckle under the waistcoat), Dillinger needs his belt to hook onto his mahogany leather double shoulder holster for his 1911 pistols, wearing one under each arm. This double shoulder rig was custom made for Johnny Depp to wear on screen by Don Brown, owner of Ted Blocker Holsters. You can read more about Ted Blocker Holsters’ connection to Public Enemies and other major productions on their site.
Dillinger wears one of his usual white cotton dress shirts with a plain front, double (French) cuffs, and possibly a breast pocket. The spread collar is sloppily unbuttoned at the neck, leaving the collar points to lay flat over his vest and his suit lapels.
Dillinger’s tie is block-striped from left-down-to-right in dark blue and brick red with squiggly thin beige stripes running over each stripe in the same “uphill” direction. The loosely worn tie is knotted so that the four-in-hand knot is only the dark blue section.
The Ted Block Holsters link above explains that they dyed the holster leather “reddish to match Depp’s shoes,” an interesting case of someone matching his shoes to his gun holster rather than to his trouser belt… although I suppose that’s more of a priority for a natty outlaw. Dillinger’s “reddish” shoes are a pair of mahogany five-eyelet cap-toe oxfords.
When the real John Dillinger was killed on July 22, 1934, Special Agent Daniel Sullivan and Inspector Samuel P. Cowley of the Bureau of Investigation (later known as the FBI) recorded a “gold ring with ruby set” when tracking Dillinger’s inventory. The ring was inscribed “With all my love, Polly” on the inside. Though “Polly” would be Polly Hamilton, Dillinger’s final girlfriend that he met shortly before his demise, Public Enemies depicts Depp’s Dillinger wearing a similar ring throughout the film on the third finger of his right hand.
Visible under Dillinger’s left shirt cuff is a yellow gold dress watch with a white dial on a dark leather strap.
The real John Dillinger resorted to back-alley plastic surgery in the final months of his life, but Public Enemies‘ Dillinger does little to hide his appearance beside donning a pair of tortoise acetate-framed sunglasses with round green-tinted lenses. An iCollector listing for these glasses claims that there was only set used during the production as they were a true vintage item dating to the 1930s.
Though I have no firsthand experience with it, Magnoli Clothiers’ “Dillinger Suit” is worth mentioning for taking inspiration from Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies wardrobe and seemingly this suit in particular. The suit is available starting at $735 and several positive reviews for it are listed on the site.
How to Get the Look
Most photos I’ve seen of the real John Dillinger show a preference for single-breasted suits (rather than double-breasted), but Johnny Depp’s costumes in Public Enemies are an elegant representation of one of the most common styles during the outlaw’s heyday in the mid-1930s.
- Navy rust-chalkstripe worsted three-piece suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and belted back
- Single-breasted 5-button vest with four welted pockets and notched bottom
- Flat front full-cut trousers with long rise, belt loops, straight side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton dress shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Dark blue and brick red block-striped tie with thin beige squiggly overstripe
- Black leather belt with silver-toned rectangular closed buckle
- Mahogany brown leather double shoulder holster (for two full-size 1911 pistols)
- Mahogany brown leather five-eyelet cap-toe oxfords
- Navy dress socks
- White sleeveless undershirt
- Thick gold ring with dark ruby flat stone, worn on right ring finger
- Yellow gold dress watch with white dial on dark leather strap
- Tortoise acetate round-framed vintage sunglasses
Public Enemies accurately depicts the classic John Browning-designed 1911 and 1911A1 series of pistols as the weapon of choice for the Dillinger gang, who obtained most of their heavy arsenals in real life by raiding military and police armories.
The model most frequently seen used by Johnny Depp as John Dillinger is a blued pre-war Colt 1911A1 Government Model, marketed for the civilian market and chambered in the venerable .45 ACP.
Depp’s Dillinger carries his two 1911s in a leather shoulder rig custom designed for the film by Ted Blocker Holsters as explored above. While the concept of wielding two pistols akimbo has been popularized thanks to John Woo’s films, the real Dillinger had been reported to carry two pistols on occasion, specifically in G. Russell Girardin’s Dillinger: The Untold Story when recounting a November 1933 bank robbery in Racine, Wisconsin. This robbery was depicted early in Public Enemies and indeed found Depp brandishing a .45 in each hand (which certainly made for a #CrowningMomentOfBadass in the film’s theatrical trailer.)
By the spring of 1934, the Dillinger gang’s deepening underworld connections meant an influx of heavy firepower unavailable even to most law enforcement agencies of the era. One particularly lethal weapon in the gang’s arsenal was a Colt Super 38 modified into a fully automatic “machine pistol” by gunsmith Hyman S. Lebman of San Antonio. (The Colt Super 38 was a 1911-style pistol introduced in 1929 to fire the new, powerful .38 Super ammunition. Dillinger also used standard semi-automatic models.) Public Enemies became the first “Dillinger movie” to depict this distinctive weapon with its Thompson-style foregrip and extended 25-round magazine, using a standard 1911A1 converted to 9mm and altered to fire in automatic bursts. The weapon is most prominently used by “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) during the Little Bohemia scenes.
You can read more about the weaponry of Public Enemies at IMFDB. If you’re interested in learning more about Dillinger and Nelson’s dealings with the shady Lebman, check out the original FBI files at Faded Glory: Dusty Roads of an FBI Era, a fantastic resource for folks interested in this period in American criminal history.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie and Bryan Burrough’s book used as source material, though the film excises much of Burrough’s well-researched material about fellow outlaws “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Alvis Karpis and the Barker gang, and Bonnie and Clyde.
I also highly recommend Dillinger: The Untold Story, an unpublished manuscript by G. Russell Girardin that was rediscovered by William J. Helmer, as a definitive source for all Dillinger-related material.
Want to take that ride with me?