Robert De Niro as Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, tough truck driver-turned-Mafia enforcer
Philadelphia, winter 1956 through spring 1961
Film: The Irishman
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Design: Sandy Powell & Christopher Peterson
Martin Scorsese’s latest crime epic, The Irishman, has been the subject of several requests since it was released on Netflix at the beginning of November. With one of my favorite directors helming some of my favorite actors in a subject and setting that held personal interest for me, The Irishman had been eagerly anticipated by me since the project was first announced… though I admit that I did have some hesitations about the running time and the advanced ages of all involved. As it turns out, the very factors I was most concerned about are what arguably contributed to the film being a modern masterpiece.
All aged over 75, the director and his three leads are able to take a more authentic approach to what Scorsese himself has called “a reflective movie… a retrospective, so to speak, of a man’s life, and the choice that he’s had to make.” The 209-minute epic is Scorsese’s longest film to date, his ninth movie with Robert De Niro and his fourth overall collaboration with both De Niro and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to play the shrewd mob boss Russell Bufalino, alternatively known as “McGee” or “The Old Man”. Despite the two men’s overlapping subject matter and reputations over the last half-century, The Irishman also marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and Al Pacino, who brings his bombastic energy to the role of defiant and controversial Teamster official Jimmy Hoffa.
Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, positing Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard and friend Frank Sheeran as the man responsible for the labor leader’s famous 1975 “disappearance”, The Irishman spans nearly 60 years from a young Sheeran’s 411-day service as a U.S. Army NCO serving in Anzio during World War II up to the eve of the former hitman’s death at the age of 83. Describing it as “a classic story about loyalty, brotherhood, and betrayal,” Robert De Niro plays Sheeran, the titular Irish-American in an Italian-American world, nodding to three decades earlier when De Niro portrayed the self-described “Irishman” Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, though Sheeran is a surprisingly different character.
Thinking back on his life of crime and killing, Sheeran may share Jimmy Conway’s lack of remorse, but it isn’t due to the violent sociopathy or lust for larceny that drove his character in Goodfellas. Instead, Sheeran is presented as a man who truly knows no other options. He grew comfortable with killing and learned to mentally justify it at a relatively young age during his rough wartime service, and he has a simple, pragmatic approach to life, far from the calculating and often sadistic Jimmy Conway.
It was like the army… you followed orders, you did the right thing, you got rewarded.
The movie is framed in flashback, first of an aged Sheeran recalling his life from a funeral home and, inside of that, framed by his fateful road trip with Buffalino to a family wedding in the summer of 1975. During the latter, the two gangsters are waiting by the side of the road for their wives to finish their smoke breaks when they realize they’re near the Texaco station and Stuckey’s restaurant where their paths had first crossed about 20 years earlier when Frank was a simple truck driver, a decade returned from World War II. The meeting happens almost exactly as Sheeran described it to Brandt for the ninth chapter of I Heard You Paint Houses:
The day I met Russell Bufalino changed my life… I was hauling meat for Food Fair in a refrigerator truck in the mid-fifties, maybe 1955. Syracuse was my destination when my engine started acting up in Endicott, New York. I pulled into a truck stop and I had the hood up when this short old Italian guy walked up to my truck and said, “Can I give you a hand, kiddo?” I said sure and he monkeyed around for a while, I think with the carburetor. He had his own tools. I spoke a little Italian to him while he was working. Whatever it was, he got my horse started for me. When the engine started purring, I climbed down and I shook his hand and thanked him. He had a lot of strength in that handshake. The way we shook hands—warmly—you could tell that we both hit it off with each other.
Soon after, we find Sheeran making the acquaintance of a Philadelphia mobster and chicken store owner known as “Skinny Razor” (Bobby Cannavale) for his physique and his method for swiftly preparing chickens for his customers. By December 1956, Sheeran and Skinny Razor are embroiled in a steak scam that finds Sheeran in hot water with his company. Face-to-face with connected union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), Sheeran passes an unspoken test by fervently refusing that he would ever “give names”, even if it would save his jobs:
No. No names.
Once he’s earned the trust of Russell, Skinny Razor, and the Philadelphia mob helmed by Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Frank Sheeran finds himself taking on jobs that raise the violent stakes of his criminal involvement.
What’d He Wear?
For a three-and-a-half-hour mob epic requiring more than 100 wardrobe changes for its lead character alone, three-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell brought on her stalwart collaborator Christopher Peterson as co-designer. Though Powell had worked extensively with Scorsese before, The Irishman was a decided change of palette from her previous production, Mary Poppins Returns.
“It’s a complete antithesis to Mary Poppins Returns,” Powell told Jazz Tangcay in a November 2019 interview for Variety. “The palette was determined by the period, and Rodrigo Prieto did that with the effects he was creating. The ’50s in my mind had a lot of blues and grays. In the ’60s, a lot of the colors were mustards and olives. That’s also reflected in the background and the crowd. The ’70s had burgundy and browns. That, in my mind, is where the color palette came from.”
One look that unified these palettes was the brown leather jacket that Frank Sheeran wore across many early scenes set from the mid-1950s through his brief role in the organization of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the spring of 1961, driving a truckload of armed guerrillas from Baltimore to Jacksonville.
“While Russell and Hoffa and capos from the Bufalino family wore a certain kind of armor, we tried to put Frank in a younger man’s wardrobe at the beginning of the film,” Christopher Peterson shared in a November 2019 interview with Bill Desowitz for IndieWire. “And eventually, as he rose in power, he started adopting that same kind of look. But he had a leather jacket early on that grew a bit out of a uniform that Teamsters wore at the time along with their caps.”
“There were so many, but the outfit that sums up his youngest look is when he’s got the leather jacket and the cap,” Sandy Powell shared in a November 2019 interview with BFI. “That was something that was very hard to get right. And we had to make that. To find a leather jacket from the ’50s in good condition is impossible.”
Powell and Peterson’s team created a remarkable hip-length jacket made from tough brown leather that appears to be cowhide. The jacket zips up the front, beginning a few inches up from the bottom just below the waist line, up to the neck. The jacket has at least five external pockets, with two set-in pockets on the hips covered with pointed flaps and a slanted hand pocket in front of each hip pocket. There is also a zippered pocket on the left chest that
As seen in a post on The Irishman‘s official Instagram page, the jacket is lined in a light brown piled fleece that adds extra insulation and warmth, as well as intimidating heft.
Each set-in sleeve is finished at the wide cuff sections with two small, leather-covered buttons. The ventless back has a semi-belt across the back that is also detailed with a vestigal leather-covered button at each end.
This well-traveled leather jacket is the first item we see “young” Sheeran wearing when the film first flashes back from his 1975 road trip to two decades earlier on a highway outside Philly, where Sheeran makes the acquaintance of mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) over his truck’s busted timing belt.
For made of the leads and supporting characters, hundreds of shirts were made for the production by Geneva Custom Shirts, the New York-based shirtmaker responsible for dressing scores of gents on all sides of the law in Scorsese-world for decades with Goodfellas, The Aviator, and Boardwalk Empire among their many credits.
During his on-screen tenure as a truck driver, Sheeran wears a dark gray melange flannel shirt with a long point collar, a plain (French) front with smoke gray two-hole plastic buttons, and two low-slung patch pockets on his chest. He wears the top button undone to reveal a stark white cotton crew-neck undershirt. Of all the visible shirts he wears with this jacket on screen, only this dark gray shirt buttons to the neck sans loop.
Topping his look is his peaked cap with its soft charcoal gray eight-panel cloth cover (with a cloth-covered button at the top center), perforated with two grommets on the front of the crown and one on each side above the brass studs fastening the black leather hat band that stretches across the front. The cap also has a black worn leather brim.
After Sheeran’s scam with Skinny Razor has been discovered by his employer, he meets with Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), the mob-connected lawyer representing the Teamsters union. For this meeting, he wears an eye-catching woolen flannel long-sleeved shirt in a golden yellow and black plaid with a brown pixilated “shadow effect”. The shirt has a fashionably wide camp collar (also known as a loop collar for the small loop device fastening the left side of the shirt to the button buried under the right collar leaf), a plain front with mixed brown plastic four-hole buttons, and two patch pockets on the chest.
In yet another self-referential touch, Sheeran is tasked by Russell Bufalino to drive a rig from Philly to Baltimore in the spring of 1961 to meet “a fairy named Ferrie,” referring to David Ferrie, the shady pilot who has been connected with both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the assassination of John F. Kennedy… of course, Joe Pesci himself had brilliantly played Ferrie in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991).
Sheeran leaves Philadelphia and Baltimore wearing this same shirt under his trusty leather jacket, though he’s removed the jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves by the time he reaches the sunny environs of the “dog track outside Jacksonville” where he’s to drop off the armed guerrillas riding his truck into the care of prickly CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins)—a decade predating his Watergate infamy—who brushes him off into an old Dodge sedan to drive back to Philadelphia. Sheeran describes the mission, and his thoughts on Ferrie and Hunt, in “Respect with an Envelope,” the fifteenth chapter of I Heard You Paint Houses.
Whether it’s the Pittsburgher in me being naturally drawn to black-and-gold or not, this is among my favorites of the shirts that De Niro wears in The Irishman. While you could pick up a similarly colored plaid flannel shirt in a pinch—such as these affordable but modern-inspired alternatives from Amazon Essentials, High Entity, Quiksilver, and Urban Pipeline (via Kohl’s)—this woolen flannel shirt with its distinctive mid-century fit, long-pointed loop collar, and shadow plaid design would take some labor to add to your collection. Searching vintage outfitters is always a good solution, though you could scan the wares of Pendleton Woolen Mills who continues to offer similar garments with their signature “board shirts”.
Once Sheeran is firmly embedded with the Philadelphia mob, he wears a burgundy shirt with a subtle indigo shadow plaid effect. The shirt has a loop collar like the yellow-and-black shirt, though his tough leather jacket pushes the top of the shirt together to resemble a point collar with a loop more than a camp collar.
Like the charcoal work shirt, this shirt has a plain front that fastens with smoke plastic two-hole buttons. There is a patch pocket on each side of the chest, and the sleeves fasten with button cuffs. He wears the top button open to reveal his light gray heathered cotton undershirt.
Burgundy shadow plaid shirts are a worthy addition to a working man’s wardrobe. Though the pocket, placket, and collar differ from the specific shirt worn by De Niro, this Faherty Brand twill flannel shirt (available from Huckberry) takes proud inspiration from work shirts of the ’50s.
Though Sheeran is working much for the gangsters who he meets in their silk suits at the Villa Di Roma restaurant, he is still very much a working man and tends to forego the fedoras and homburgs of his criminal colleagues in favor of more labor-friendly hats such as the dark navy ribbed knit cap he wears for scenes set on colder days and nights. In I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran recalls this being his headgear of choice during recreational football games: “They had leather football helmets in those days, but with my oversized head I couldn’t get comfortable in one. So I played with a woolen cap on my head, not for bravado or anything, but it’s the only thing I could get to fit my big head.”
Sheeran’s “beanie” evokes the wool watch caps that Frank would have grown familiar with during his service in the military, and genuine U.S.-issue watch caps by Rothco are still available from retailers like Amazon.
Sheeran cycles through his shirts when wearing his leather jacket, though he seems to always wear the same trousers, a pair of full-fitting dark gray flannel flat front slacks with wide but short belt loops, gently slanted side pockets, and cuffed bottoms with a full break. He also wears the same belt, a well-worn strap of slim black leather with a dulled brass single-prong buckle.
In September 2019, just over a month before the movie premiered, the official Instagram account of The Irishman posted an incredible flatlay of Frank Sheeran’s early trucker outfit, including his panel cap, leather jacket, scarf, trousers and belt, a pair of phantom sunglasses, and even his boots and wristwatch.
Thankfully, the shoes included in the flatlay were De Niro’s screen-worn combat boots and not the giant platform shoes that the actor wore to lift him closer to the real Sheeran’s 6’4″ height. Once the Internet caught hold of set photos featuring the tall shoes, the normally reticent De Niro even laughed about them during his April 2018 appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
The actual black leather combat boots have seven-eyelet derby-lacing, not unlike the “service shoes” that Sheeran would have been familiar with wearing during his Army service. The plain-toe boots have black leather soles with chevron-shaped ridges.
Sheeran’s field watch also reflects his military pedigree, evoking the A-11 timepieces worn by Allied GIs during World War II. This wristwatch has a steel case with a crown and a round black dial with white numerals and a white inner ring of markers. The watch is worn on an olive drab strap that looks in the Instagram post to be a ribbed nylon NATO strap similar to this Crown & Buckle strap (seen on Huckberry), though NATO straps of this color abound on Amazon with affordable pieces like this PBCODE strap. While the term would be anachronistic for this particular era in The Irishman, the modern NATO strap with metal keepers evolved from the AF0210 pass-through straps developed around 1945 and authorized by the British Army for their “W.W.W.” specification watches. You can read more about the history of NATO straps at The Spring Bar.
As Frank would rise in the world of the mob, he would change out his practical field watch for dressier watches such as the gold Bulova President watch with the rose-colored dial and black exotic textured leather strap that he wears throughout the ’60s and, eventually, the flashy gold Mathey-Tissot he would receive at his testimonial dinner in 1973 and wear for the duration of his life.
Another relic of Frank’s early days is the gold wedding ring symbolic of his first marriage to Mary (Aleksa Palladino), which he would cease wearing in favor of a flashier four-stone gold ring on his right hand and the bespoke 14-carat, diamond-studded gold “liberty coin” ring that Russell gifts him at the same dinner where he received the Mathey-Tissot watch.
When making his rounds on colder days, Sheeran protects his neck with a gray, black, and golden brown plaid scarf with thin white stripes bisecting the black sections, made from a soft woolen twill flannel suggestive of cashmere.
While neither of these reflects the exact pattern of Frank’s screen-worn wool scarf, there are a few alternatives in similar color schemes that include:
- INCA Brands “storm” tartan plaid flannel scarf (Amazon)
- Jos. A. Bank black, tan, and light gray plaid cashmere scarf (Jos. A. Bank)
- Pendleton tan and gray plaid “whisperwool” scarf (Amazon)
- The Men’s Store at Bloomingdales gray, black, and tan “big plaid” cashmere scarf (Bloomingdale’s)
During a few vignettes of Frank’s nighttime missions, be they hits or his ill-advised recon against the Cadillac Linen Service in Delaware, Sheeran bundles up with his leather jacket zipped up over the scarf and topped with a fawn-colored felt fedora with a narrow grosgrain band and grosgrain edges, all in a light brown that barely contrasts against the rest of the hat.
You can read more about The Irishman‘s costume design in these contemporary features and interviews with Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson:
The costume designers also cited the invaluable help of assistant costume designer Brittany Griffin who also happened to be Frank Sheeran’s granddaughter and was able to share archival photographs and even items that belonged to her grandfather.
What to Imbibe
Frank joins his pals for shots in a Philadelphia bar… though the bottle is surprisingly revealed to be Glenlivet 12-year-old single malt Scotch whisky, the same bottle that “Skinny Razor” (Bobby Cannavale) keeps on his table while they’re intimidating a welcher named Lou.
Scotch—particularly single malt Scotch—is a curious chase for what Frank and his colleagues shoot and chase with Budweiser after long days on the road, but…
Cars are a major status symbol in American organized crime, a point illustrated by Scorsese’s close-ups of pinkie-ringed fingers closing the doors of a shining Cadillac in Goodfellas or the “Cadillac vs. Lincoln” argument between Al Pacino’s character and his criminal colleagues in Donnie Brasco. Decades before he would acquire the Lincoln that would put him away for nearly two decades, Frank Sheeran drove the mean streets of Philadelphia in a black 1951 Hudson Hornet sedan.
1951 was the first year for the sleek Hornet, which embodied the popular low-slung “Ponton” body style of the fabulous fifties with its “step-down” design that Hudson had first used for its Commodore model three years earlier. Though Hudson Motor Car Company was hardly a prestige brand and was—in fact—on its last legs by the 1950s, the unique-looking Hornet earned the car a positive reputation among those who valued luxury and performance. Offered in multiple four-door and two-door body styles, including a convertible of the latter, this generation of 1951-1954 Hudson Hornets is considered an envied collectable today.
The model survived the marque’s 1954 merger with Nash-Kelvinator to form American Motors Corporation (AMC), though production ceased for good in June 1957.
1951 Hudson Hornet 7A
Body Style: 4-door sedan
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 308 cu. in. (5.0 L) Hudson “H-145” straight-6 with Carter WGD 776S 2-barrel carburetor
Power: 145 hp (108 kW; 147 PS) @ 3800 RPM
Torque: 257 lb·ft (348 N·m) @ 1800 RPM
Transmission: 4-speed “Hydramatic” automatic
Wheelbase: 124 inches (3150 mm)
Length: 208 inches (5283 mm)
Width: 77.5 inches (1968 mm)
Height: 60 inches (1524 mm)
“Just show it to him, don’t use it,” Skinny Razor tells Frank Sheeran after handing him a nickel Colt revolver to intimidate Lou, though Sheeran clarified to Brandt that he recalled the welcher’s name to be Romeo. At this stage in Sheeran’s career, he hasn’t yet been asked to kill for the mob and he even explains in I Heard You Paint Houses that Skinny Razor’s advice was typical of that era in organized crime: “That’s the way it was in those days. You showed a gun. Now they don’t show you the gun, they just shoot you with it. In those days they wanted their money today. Now they want their money yesterday.”
Finally, Sheeran is asked to paint his first house for the hit on “Whispers DiTullio” (Paul Herman), who had reportedly earned his nickname when his halitosis reduced his permissible speaking to no more than a whisper. For the hit, De Niro’s Sheeran paraphrases some of the real hitman’s advice from the book:
In a case like this, the best thing to do is you use somethin’ brand new. Right out of the box. Otherwise, you don’t know where it’s been, you don’t know who’s used it, what crime it was connected to, that’s suicide. So… I recommend somethin’ new, straight out of the box. Stone cold. Clean.
After the hit, Sheeran pulls up to a bridge overlooking the Schuylkill River where he hops out of his car and tosses the revolver into the water, adding context in his narration:
Naturally, the next thing you wanna do is throw the thing away. You wanna get rid of it! There’s a spot in the Schuylkill River where everyone uses. If they ever send divers down there, they’d be able to arm a small country.
Based on the profile of the revolver that Sheeran sends into the river, it appears that he used a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson Model 36 “Chiefs Special” revolver, a .38 Special with a five-round cylinder and two-inch barrel, to kill Whispers. According to I Heard You Paint Houses, it was actually “something like a .32, the kind of gun the cops used to call a woman’s gun because it was easier to handle and had less of a kick than even a .38… I never could find my .32 after that, the one that Eddie Rece had given me to show to that Romeo in Jersey. It must have ended up someplace.”
How to Get the Look
Throughout the 1950s scenes in The Irishman, Frank Sheeran’s daily “uniform”—first as a trucker and then as a rising star in the Philadelphia mob—is a classic brown leather jacket, gray flannel slacks, and black combat boots with a rotation of durable work shirts and hats.
- Brown cowhide leather hip-length jacket with shirt-style collar, zip-front, slanted left chest zip pocket, flapped set-in hip pockets, slanted hand pockets, set-in sleeves (with two leather-covered buttons), and ventless back (with two vestigal leather-covered buttons on the semi-belt)
- Shadow plaid work shirt with wide camp collar (with loop), plain front, double chest patch pockets, and button cuffs
- White or light gray heathered cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt
- Dark gray flannel flat front trousers with wide belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with brass squared single-prong buckle
- Black leather plain-toe combat boots with 7-eyelet derby lacing
- Charcoal cloth-cover peaked cap with black leather band and black leather brim
- Gray, black, and gold plaid soft woolen twill scarf
- Gold wedding ring
- Steel military-style field watch with black dial (with white number markers) on olive drab ribbed nylon NATO strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, currently streaming on Netflix. I also recommend reading I Heard You Paint Houses, the 2004 memoir by Charles Brandt that inspired The Irishman.
I work hard for ’em when I ain’t stealin’ from ’em.