John Travolta as Tony Manero, aimless paint store clerk and disco god
Brooklyn, Spring 1977
Film: Saturday Night Fever
Release Date: December 14, 1977
Director: John Badham
Costume Designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Saturday Night Fever, the definitive film of the disco era. Often remembered for its soundtrack and street style, a closer look reveals an uncompromising film that wasn’t afraid to explore the dark themes that lurked beneath the era’s glittery polyester veneer, all propelled by an equally uncompromising star turn from a 23-year-old John Travolta.
“The film is far from perfect,” commented Roger Ebert in his four-star review, which itself masterfully explores what gives Saturday Night Fever such appeal seemingly despite itself. Ebert questions why it meant so much to his late friend Gene Siskel, and the question made me consider if I, too, would have such fondness for the film if I had first seen it at any other time in my life. I first saw Saturday Night Fever, and — for better or worse — I was able to identify with Tony and his pals who shielded their insecurities with macho swagger and who strove for no greater ambition than to land a “date” for the night.
Five years ago, I rewatched Saturday Night Fever and was disgusted by the misogyny and racism of the characters, perhaps out of embarrassment that these were characters with whom I was once able to identify without recognizing these awful traits. During all those viewings in high school, I evidently glossed over the fact that this was “one tough picture”, as Sean Burns wrote in his excellent 2015 review for WBUR 90.9.
Now in 2017, as I’ve turned 28 and the film turns 40, I have a greater appreciation for what the film was communicating and that, rather than glorifying this lifestyle, Saturday Night Fever is merely putting it on display, providing an immortal voice for a short-lived but significant era in American culture and allowing future generations to take from it what we will.
Burns’ review continues to ably summarize the film and set the scene for its final act:
The slender thread of a plot follows Tony’s attempts to woo Stephanie into being his partner in a local dance contest, but she’s outgrown guys like him. Moving to Manhattan and taking night classes, Stephanie is trying to better herself and it is very much to the credit of [Norman] Wexler’s script that she’s stumbling every step of the way. Still, Tony sees her not just as a dance partner but also as possibly his way out of his increasingly claustrophobic neighborhood’s conscripted rituals. It’s no accident they end up dancing to The Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman”, because Stephanie’s more than a [dame] to Tony, she’s a life raft…
By the final reel that dumb dance contest has become an afterthought, and the film goes on spiraling into one shocking scene after another, complete with a suicide and a gang rape — nothing you’d expect from the kitschy reputation. The movie ends on a note of hesitant uncertainty. We don’t know if these kids are gonna make it through, but you really hope they will.
What’d He Wear?
Tony Manero’s white suit for the finale of Saturday Night Fever remains one of the most iconic costumes in movies, less for its fashion value and more for symbolizing the hedonistic zeitgeist of the ’70s celebrating one last hurrah before giving way to the ruthless materialism and conservative values of the 1980s.
After Saturday Night Fever was released in December 1977, renowned film critic Gene Siskel immediately felt a connection to the film that he would eventually see at least 17 times. Within a year, Siskel purchased the suit at a charity auction for $2,000, and it would be one of his most prized possessions until 1995 when it sold to an anonymous bidder at a Christie’s auction in 1995. Yet another 17 years passed and the suit seemingly disappeared, until 2012 when the superfan agreed to lend it to the Victoria and Albert museum for its Hollywood Costume exhibit that opened that October.
Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, guest curator of the V&A’s exhibit, offered an explanation of the suit’s appeal to the Daily Mail prior to the opening of the exhibit:
Saturday Night Fever was actually a very dark little movie, and this suit, made of completely gross polyester, was the shining light, the symbol of aspiration and hope that shone in the film in that heart-stopping moment when it all comes together, the music, the lights, the suit, and Travolta dances in it… It took me totally by surprise. I fell completely in love with him, as everyone who sees the movie does.
So what went into this iconic clothing moment that clearly affected so many viewers? Months of extensive costume design and custom bespoke tailoring? Nay.
The story of how John Travolta eventually ended up in a suit that would go on to define an era speaks volumes about the effect of a talented costume designer, illustrated by Saturday Night Fever‘s Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s brilliant work. Fashion of the 1970s is often caricatured today due to its excess, but Von Brandenstein was able to authentically reflect contemporary fashions using all sourced clothing, essentially also creating a time machine to inform today’s viewers that yes, people actually did wear silky floral shirts and pink pants or voluminous faux-fur coats. Budgetary reasons led to director John Badham requesting that all film costumes be purchased off-the-rack rather than created for the film, which heightened the degree of authenticity.
Of course, John Travolta’s Tony Manero would need something special for the film’s climax, a major dance number with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) set to the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman”. Initially, Travolta and Badham had envisioned Tony taking to the dance floor in a sleek black suit, but Von Brandenstein encouraged them to go with a white suit instead. Not only would a white suit photograph better in the dark but colorful discotheque, but “she felt strongly that white represented Tony Manero’s personal journey from ignorance to enlightenment,” as described in V&A’s press release that was posted by Dezeen in August 2012.
Per Badham’s edict regarding budget, even such a salient costume would need to be purchased off-the-rack. Von Brandenstein’s shopping expeditions led her to a cheap men’s boutique in Bay Ridge, particularly fitting as Tony was to be a denizen of Bay Ridge. Von Brandenstein found the all-polyester white suit and knew that she had her armor for the newly enlightened Tony Manero… though she could have hardly anticipated its full impact.
Rather than pure white, Tony’s three-piece disco suit is closer to ivory though the plastic buttons on the jacket and vest are pure white, as is the satin-finished lining on the inside of the jacket and back of the vest. The material is 100% polyester, and 1977 might have been the most fashionable year for a gent to be strutting around in head-to-toe polyester, despite the fact that this highly non-breathable fabric would have its wearer sweating like Patrick Ewing after a single hustle.
The Christie’s auction listing for the screen-worn suit that had once belonged to Gene Siskel carried a label from The Leading Male, a men’s shop once located at the corner of Kings Highway and East 12th Street in Midland, Brooklyn. (According to the DVD commentary, Travolta actually had two identical suits for the dance sequence; after performing (and sweating profusely) in one, he would switch into a second while the other suit dried.)
The cyclical nature of men’s fashion meant a revival of 1930s styles for both men and women. Tony and his crew illustrate this point with their single-breasted suit jackets with wide peak lapels and straight shoulders with roped sleeveheads.
This is a cheap polyester suit in 1977, and so Tony’s wide peak lapels are far from timeless, extending nearly the entire width of the front of the jacket and coming to a sharp peak at the armpits. The full-bellied lapels have long gorges.
For the despondent Tony’s subway ride at the end to Stephanie’s apartment, he flips up his lapels to reveal a pure white fabric under his collar.
The two-button suit jacket has four matching buttons on each cuff. The three outer pockets on the jacket are all patch pockets with pick stitched edges like the lapels.
“When choosing what goes in to such a major dance costume, I paid attention to the usual factors of cut, ‘danceability’, and maintenance, and I thought about the character of Tony Manero,” commented Von Brandenstein in V&A’s press release.
Tony’s suit jacket was certainly made more “danceable” by its extra-long double vents, also a fashionable element in 1970s tailoring.
The single-breasted matching waistcoat (vest) rises to mid-torso with a single-breasted, five-button front. Tony correctly leaves the lowest button undone at the notched bottom. The vest also has two narrowly welted lower pockets between the axis of the third and fourth buttons.
When reviewing the film in 1999 after the death of his friend Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert included the following quote from Scott T. Anderson: “The peculiar construction of disco pants is a marvel of modern engineering… So loose at the ankles, yet so tight in the groin.”
The trousers rise high with the beltless waistband, which was reported to be a size 28 in V&A’s release (as posted on Dazeen). The ideal style of a disco dancer’s trousers was to keep them as tight around the hips as possible, so there’s nary a pleat to be found on these flat front trousers. There are straight pockets along each side seam and the two jetted back pockets each close through a single button.
The plain-hemmed bottoms of these trousers are dramatically flared… just as they should be in this situation.
Tony’s elegant moves on the dance floor are no doubt aided by his distinctive footwear, a pair of black-and-gray leather wingtip brogue half-boots with five lace eyelets and highly stacked heels. He wears them with black socks, hardly the most traditional hosiery with white suits but ultimately consistent with his black-and-white aesthetic.
Which brings us to Tony’s shirt. Ebert’s review mentions that he once had the opportunity to inspect the Saturday Night Fever suit that Siskel had in his possession and he noticed that “it came with a shirt that buttoned under the crotch, so it would still look neat after a night on the dance floor.” The Christie’s auction listing elaborates on this device, explaining that the shirt was “attached to the waistband of the trousers with an elastic fabric; this allowed Mr. Travolta the freedom to dance and strike his now legendary poses.”
Manufactured by Pascal of Spain, the shirt itself is black polyester and striped with double sets of white-stitched broken stripes. The shirt has steeply mitred cuffs that close through one of two buttons; Tony wears his cuffs on the inner button for a looser fit around the wrists.
Travolta wears the button at the top of the point collar unbuttoned as well as the two buttons under it, exposing his gold jewelry and chest hair.
In the 30th anniversary retrospective published by Vanity Fair in 2007, cast member Paul Pape fondly recalls accompanying costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein to Times Square to shop for the characters’ clothing and accessories. “We were buying all these polyester things, picking out all this costume jewelry. She had a great feel for it,” recalled Pape.
Throughout the film, Travolta wears two gold necklaces with pendants that all get lost in his maze of chest hair that remains constantly exposed by his half-buttoned shirts. The longer, simpler necklace has a plain gold cross. The shorter but thicker necklace has both a round saint-embossed pendant and a gold cornicello (or “corno”), a horn-shaped amulet traditionally worn by Italians to protect themselves from bad luck.
Tony wears a thick gold ring with a dark rectangular flush-set stone on the third finger of his left hand, traditionally a finger reserved for wedding rings though this certainly is not that.
The Cultural Impact
Like the film and its soundtrack, the white suit had an immediate cultural impact. Three years after its release, when disco was effectively considered “dead”, this scene was spoofed in Airplane! when Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) whips off the jacket of his U.S. Navy service dress white uniform, revealing a white vest and black disco shirt as he immediately strikes a pose. (In an interesting connection, Robert Hays co-starred on Angie, the short-lived TV vehicle for Saturday Night Fever star Donna Pescow.)
Of course, Gene Siskel had called Saturday Night Fever his favorite movie of all time and owned one of Travolta’s screen-worn suits for 17 years before selling it for $145,000 at a Christie’s auction in 1995. After Siskel died in 1999, Roger Ebert concluded his updated review of Saturday Night Fever: “I asked Gene if he’d ever tried it on. It was too small, he said. But it wasn’t the size that mattered. It was the idea of the suit.”
Yours truly had also made it a personal mission to find a similar suit (no need to track down one of Travolta’s!) When I was in tenth grade, I finally hit pay dirt at a local Goodwill store when I found an ivory three-piece suit, no doubt from the ’70s and constructed in 100% polyester à la Manero with a single-breasted peak-lapel jacket, five-button waistcoat, and beltless trousers with flared bottoms. The suiting had a subtle brown hairline pinstripe that differed it from Travolta’s solid-colored suit, but at $10.99, I wasn’t going to complain.
To illustrate my thrifting achievement, I dug up a few photos of said suit in action 13 years ago when I could actually fit into the 38R suit! (Apologies to my classmates who likely had no idea that they were associating with a future style blogger and thus would be subject to being featured online in this context.)
- The author of this blog in 10th grade, circa November 2004
- The author and fellow student council representatives dressed to promote the school’s dance contest, February 2005
- The author and his dance partner, exhausted after winning 1st place in a school-wide disco contest, February 2005
One would be remiss to discuss Saturday Night Fever without exploring its best-selling soundtrack, anchored by the Bee Gees but also featuring tracks from KC and the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang, The Trammps, Yvonne Elliman, and more.
The film’s theme, “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, is the anthem most associated with this film (and often wrongly with this scene), but it was the more romantic “More Than a Woman” that scored Tony and Stephanie’s award-winning dance at 2001 Odyssey.
“More Than a Woman” was one of several songs that the Bee Gees wrote and performed originally for the film, with the three-stage recording beginning in February 1977 in France and wrapping up seven months later in an L.A. studio. A second version of the song, performed by the R&B group Tavares, was also featured on the soundtrack album and in the film itself, during one of Tony and Stephanie’s practice sessions.
What to Imbibe
And after such an invigorating dance? Tony’s pals thoughtfully ordered him his signature drink, a Seven and Seven, that would be waiting for him upon completion of his dance.
Derisively referred to as “the quintessential wedding drink” by bartender Patrick Williams in a Thrillist article, this highball was particularly popular during the ’70s as its two ingredients — Seagram’s 7 whiskey and 7 Up lemon-lime soda — were each considerably popular on their own during the decade. To make it, just pour a shot or two of Seagram’s into a highball glass, add ice, and top it off with enough 7 Up until you’re satisfied.
After a disappointing night at 2001, the Faces hit the road in Bobby’s busted ’64 Impala with cans of Schaefer for all. This beer is an inspired choice for the Faces, as this group of Bay Ridge boys would certainly appreciate a Brooklyn brew like Schaefer.
Schaefer first came onto the American beer scene in 1842 when the first brewery opened in New York City, though this would be relocated to Brooklyn in 1916 when Rudolph J. Schaefer constructed what the company itself calls “the very best in pre-Prohibition breweries” (Source). The brewery expanded throughout the 20th century, eventually closing the Brooklyn plant in January 1976, selling out to the Stroh Brewery Company five years later.
How to Get the Look
The Tony Manero look is best reserved for costumes, but if you are going to shoot for pulling off this look, you may as go for real clothing rather than some papery-looking costume kit.
- White polyester disco suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Single-breasted 5-button vest with two slim-welted pockets and notched bottom
- Flat front high-rise beltless trousers with straight side pockets, button-through jetted back pockets, and flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black polyester shirt with white-stitched broken stripes, point collar, plain front, and mitred adjustable-button cuffs
- Black-and-gray leather 5-eyelet wingtip brogue half-boots with stacked heels
- Black socks
- Gold short necklace with saint pendant and Italian cornicello pendant
- Gold long necklace with plain gold cross
- Thick gold ring with dark set-in rectangular stone
Do Yourself a Favor and…
There’s ways of killin’ yourself without killin’ yourself.