Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, tough private detective
New York City, January 1971
Release Date: June 25, 1971
Director: Gordon Parks
Costume Designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
Almost 50 years after Richard Roundtree first stepped out onto a busy New York City street, John Shaft remains a cultural icon with the release of the fifth and latest installment of the Shaft canon that arrived in theaters this weekend.
Roundtree made his cinematic debut in 1971’s Shaft, establishing the blaxploitation genre and rapidly followed by two sequel movies and a short-lived TV show that all starred the former model as the tough private eye from Ernest Tidyman’s series of novels. Roundtree would reprise his role as John Shaft I—uncle of Samuel L. Jackson’s character—in Shaft (2000) and Shaft (2019)… yes, that’s three films in one series all named Shaft.
The film begins with Roundtree’s Shaft spending a wintry day dodging Harlem crime boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and his goons until Bumpy finally corners the detective in his midtown office to hire him to find his missing daughter. Also memorable from the original Shaft is Isaac Hayes’ funky soundtrack, anchored by the Academy Award-winning theme song.
What’d He Wear?
From the get-go, Shaft establishes his wardrobe as a variety of leather jackets and turtlenecks, all for various purposes. When the time comes to assault a mob hideout, it’s a black leather motorcycle jacket (and matching pants!) with a black turtleneck. But when he’s making an impression for strutting through the streets, it’s hard to do better than a long brown leather coat.
This first-seen of Shaft’s leather outerwear takes styling cues from a classic trench coat—albeit in mahogany leather—with its double-breasted front, epaulettes, belted waist and cuffs, and long fit. It’s an appropriately ’70s-styled update to the classic, trench-coated private eyes of film noir and undoubtedly made a lasting contribution to the enduring movie and TV trope of the “badass long coat”.
The front of Shaft’s coat has two columns of three brown plastic sew-through buttons in addition to a self-belt that fastens through a gold buckle. The set-in sleeves are also belted on the cuffs, each with a gold single-prong buckle that can be adjusted to tighten around the wrist.
Shaft’s coat has short epaulettes (shoulder straps) with a button near the neck. There are large patch pockets on the hips, covered with flaps, and edge-stitching throughout. The lining appears to be blue satin silk. Magnoli Clothiers has developed its own replica of John Shaft’s original coat, priced at $895 and available to be customized in a variety of different leathers.
Under Shaft’s signature leather coat, the detective keeps his look fashionable with a series of suits and blazers all worn with turtlenecks. His first suit, seen as he walks the streets of New York, enjoys a shoe shine, and confers with his police pal Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) consists of a large-scaled dark brown, teal blue, and beige plaid with a rust-orange center stripe on each plaid set, all on a golden brown flannel ground.
The single-breasted suit jacket has wide notch lapels that roll to a two-button front, a welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets, and four-button cuffs.
The suit’s matching flat front trousers rise high to his natural waist with slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and gently flared plain-hemmed bottoms and is worn with a wide dark brown belt with a shiny gold squared single-prong buckle.
Shaft tucks in his tan cashmere knit turtleneck, which has a finely ribbed roll-neck and cuffs.
According to his shoeshiner Cul (Arnold Johnson), there is a scuff on the left toe of his brown leather square-toed ankle boots.
The first day’s sequence is followed by a brief series of vignettes showing Shaft looking for Bumpy’s daughter, checking with his usual contacts and informants. He wears his coat buttoned up so that we can see little of his outfit aside from his black turtleneck and black leather gloves.
A few days later, an extended sequence includes Shaft taking his original suspect Ben Buford (Christopher St. John) to see Bumpy before he arrives at the No-Name Bar to “serve” two of the mobsters who have been assigned to take him out. He layers warmly under the brown leather trench coat with a brown barleycorn tweed suit that has a red windowpane check.
This tweed suit has a single-breasted jacket styled similarly to the plaid suit. The flat-front suit trousers share the plaid suit’s high rise, slanted side pockets, and jetted back pockets, though they lack belt loops. Instead, these trousers have an extended waistband that fastens in the front with a single button through a single belt loop. Shaft evidently doesn’t need a belt in this scene as he isn’t wearing the shoulder holster that typically connects to his belt.
Shaft again wears a light, neutral-colored knit turtleneck tucked into his trousers, though this particular jumper is cream-colored cashmere with raglan sleeves.
Early the next morning, Shaft again wears this cream-colored cashmere sweater when he goes to visit the two mobsters he encountered at the No-Name Bar, now in police custody, though he opts for a blazer and slacks instead of a suit. The dark navy double-breasted blazer has six shiny gold-toned buttons.
Shaft’s light gray flat front trousers have slanted front pockets, no back pockets, and flared plain-hemmed bottoms. He wears them with a thick black leather belt with a shaped gold single-prong buckle, used to secure his shoulder holster in place.
Shaft kicks his feet up on his coffee table, showing the audience his black leather loafers with gold horsebit detail worn with black socks.
The danger of Shaft’s line of work necessitates his carrying a sidearm, particularly a snub-nosed Colt Detective Special in a black leather shoulder rig. The holster itself is suspended under his right arm for a smooth left-handed draw, supported with a black vinyl strap across his shoulders.
Shaft wears a steel wristwatch with a round silver dial on a unique rally-style bracelet. The bracelet has three large holes on each side of the watch case, connected by a series of smaller holes as the band extends around the wrist.
While rally watch straps are often made of leather, metal bracelets with large round perforations like Shaft’s also emerged during the 1960s as a stylish alternative to the breathable straps popularized by race car drivers. (For example, check out this 22mm wide stainless “half bangle” watch band from Vollmer.)
What to Imbibe
We know Shaft is a heavy coffee drinker, enjoying a cup during his opening shoe shine and even fueling up for his final confrontation with an espresso (despite the bored waitress’ neglect of a lemon peel), but what does this super fly private eye to relax?
After spotting two mobsters—Carmen and Patsy—at a neighborhood bar, Shaft asks the friendly bartender if he can take over behind the bar and approaches the two men, asking for their order.
“Scotch and water, both,” responds Carmen (George Strus), prompting Shaft to draw a bottle of Dewar’s White Label to pour each a dram on the rocks. “On the house, gents,” he tells them, “and since the house is buying, I’ll have one,” pouring himself a tall glass over ice as well.
“That’s all booze!” Carmen exclaims after realizing no water was added. “Right on—all booze, one zillion percent,” laughs Shaft.
Given his profession, it’s appropriate that John Shaft’s preferred armament is the Colt Detective Special revolver, carried in a shoulder holster under his right arm.
This classic “belly gun” was one of the first to balance power and concealability upon its introduction in 1927, allowing its users to carry six rounds of the venerable .38 Special round in a relatively compact package with its “snub-nosed” two-inch barrel. Shaft carries the original first-generation Detective Special, most identifiable by its unshrouded ejector rod.
Shaft actually owns two Detective Specials: a blued steel model with wooden grips that he carries for most of the film and a nickel-plated backup that he keeps in his refrigerator, seemingly reserved for special occasions.
How to Get the Look
John Shaft updated the classic film noir trench coat and fedora to a long leather coat and turtleneck that made him the toast of the streets of ’70s New York.
- Brown mahogany leather trench-style coat with wide edge-stitched lapels, double-breasted 6-on-3 button front, patch hip pockets with flaps, belted front with slide-through buckle, and set-in sleeves with belted cuffs
- Brown plaid flannel suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and 4-button cuffs
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Tan cashmere knit turtleneck with ribbed neck and set-in sleeves with ribbed cuffs
- Dark brown leather belt with squared gold single-prong buckle
- Brown leather square-toe ankle boots
- Black leather shoulder holster with vinyl support strap and belt connector strap
- Steel wristwatch with round silver dial on metal rally-style bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Don’t bull me, man. I got the right number. This is Shaft.