Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, obsessive-compulsive Belgian detective
Orient Express, Winter 1934
Film: Murder on the Orient Express
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Costume Designer: Alexandra Byrne
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Readers who have seen my posts focused on adaptations of And Then There Were None, Death on the Nile, and Evil Under the Sun are likely aware that I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie’s mystery fiction since I was 10 years old. Thus, it’s a continued thrill to find her works thriving as studios on both sides of the pond continue to churn out lavish adaptations of her work a full century after she introduced the world to Hercule Poirot with the publication of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920. In particular, David Suchet has been performing yeoman’s work as the quintessential Poirot across 70 episodes of an ITV-produced drama series that successfully—and relatively faithfully—adapted every novel and story that prominently featured Christie’s master detective.
In the spirit of contemporary BBC adaptations like The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, Ordeal by Innocence, and The Pale Horse, Kenneth Branagh helmed what’s now the fourth adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, arguably Christie’s best-known novel famous for its then-groundbreaking solution. The novel was first brought to the screen in 1974 with Albert Finney as the eccentric but undoubtedly brilliant Poirot among an international cast that included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Widmark as the deservedly doomed American gangster Ratchett. Unlike previous adaptations, this Oscar-nominated hit received Christie’s rare of stamp of approval, though her sole protest lay with Finney’s facial hair:
It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest mustache in England—and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity—why shouldn’t he?
Evidently, Branagh sought to rectify this misstep by literally doubling down on Poirot’s famous whiskers, thanks to hair and makeup designer Carol Hemming.
“Three days free of care, concern, or crime,” promises Poirot’s libertine friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) when the detective agrees to travel back to London via the Orient Express. Unfortunately, the lawful bliss of Poirot’s luxurious journey is interrupted by the violent murder of a shady, gun-toting art dealer after the train has been stalled by a snow drift. Poirot hopes to let the local police handle it, but Bouc—fearing the police’s potentially racially prejudiced approach regarding the train’s diverse set of international passengers—insists that Poirot engage his “little gray cells” to solve the crime.
What’d He Wear?
Deviating from some of the fussier-dressed Hercule Poirot of previous adaptations, costume designer Alexandra Byrne took more inspiration from the character’s service history. “In working with Ken he was very keen for Poirot to have a military background,” Byrne shared for a March 2018 Zoomer article. “We felt that gave Poirot a kind of vanity through decision and through precision, replacing peacock vanity.”
This precision also implied a man with a limited yet tasteful wardrobe that he wore with care. In a Vanity Fair article that describes Poirot’s “slightly OCD, perfectionist streak veering slightly into the world of the luxurious,” Byrne also adds some context to Poirot’s screen closet:
“For an Englishman of the period”—or a Belgian living in the U.K., like Poirot—“the most important thing was that you were true to your class; you did not dress outside it. Poirot was a police inspector. He would have been making a good living, but he would have been upper-middle class, not upper class, and so would dress accordingly.”
“Men had two suits: their best suit and a worn-out suit as their leisure wear,” Byrne explained for The Hollywood Reporter. “I looked to the practicality of how men would dress on a train, what they would wear to keep warm.”
To ensure that all of the characters’ clothing delivered period sensibilities with a touch of modern relevance, Byrne and her team made nearly all of the costumes from scratch… thus, it was likely a blessing for the Oscar-winning designer that the majority of the action was set in a confined space with just over a dozen characters. On the other hand, this intimacy meant spending more time with these characters with more extended camera time focused on their costumes. Thus, Byrne enlisted Scottish mill Brydon Thompson to create period-perfect cloth for Poirot’s suits. “It was much heavier 18-ounce wool than is used in menswear tailoring now,” Byrne explained to Zoomer. “Today it’s a thick fluffy suiting, whereas in the 1930s, it was a much tighter, drier weave.”
Aside from the black dinner suit he wears when boarding the Orient Express after his interrupted dinner, Branagh’s Poirot wears only two lounge suits over the course of the movie: a charcoal plaid suit during the Jerusalem-set prologue and a dark navy herringbone flannel suit for the duration of his three days on the train.
Both of Poirot’s lounge suits are tailored and styled similarly, consistent with Byrne’s direction of a man comfortable in uniform. The suits consist of single-breasted, two-button jackets with peak lapels, double-breasted waistcoats, and pleated trousers, an elegant and period-evoking formula.
The trend of a single-breasted jacket rigged with the traditionally double-breasted peak lapel has ebbed and flowed through the seas of menswear over the last century, first emerging during the 1920s as a natural evolution of the increasingly popular peak-lapel dinner jacket. “By rigging a single-breasted jacket with a double-breasted rever, this lapel treatment virtually neutralized the double-breasted edge in forrmality,” wrote Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man. Branagh’s peak lapels are wide and full-bellied, per 1930s trends, with slanted gorges that “point” the edges of the lapels toward each roped shoulder. Together, the emphasized shoulders, suppressed waist, and flared skirt build an athletic silhouette that establishes Branagh’s Poirot as more of a man of action than his fussier, epicurean predecessors.
Poirot’s ventless jacket also has four-button cuffs, straight flapped hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket where he wears a white cotton handkerchief folded into a neat triangular point, the slightly more rakish alternative to the businesslike “TV fold” while considering less daring than the puffy flourish that dandier dressers like Fred Astaire opted for with their typically colorful pocket hanks.
He consistently wears his suit jackets open to show the matching double-breasted waistcoat that sweeps across his torso, an elegant alternative to single-breasted waistcoats that suggests an added touch of formality. The waistcoat has wide peak lapels and eight dark navy recessed plastic buttons, matching those on the front and cuffs of Poirot’s suit jacket, arranged in four rows of two buttons each. Poirot wears his silver-toned pocket watch in the left welted pocket, connected to a dark braided cord with a bolt ring that hooks just aside the second fastening button.
Byrne edified The Hollywood Reporter on how her approach to the details of Poirot’s suits reflected which side of the pond he called home. “There are many differences between American, English, and European tailoring in the ’30s. Trouser pleats on American trousers were set turned out, and English turned in.”
Branagh’s suit trousers as Poirot have double sets of forward-facing pleats that add generous but not excessively baggy space around his hips and through the legs to the bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
The long rise appropriately keeps the waistband covered by the waistcoat, ideal for three-piece suits but particularly so when the waistcoats are cut straight across the bottom; should the trousers fall too low, it wouldn’t be a small triangle of shirt showing but instead the even more sartorially offensive effect of the entire circumference of shirt visible between waistcoat bottom and trouser top.
I haven’t been able to ascertain if Poirot’s trousers are fitted with side-adjusters or a perfect tailored waistband or worn with suspenders (braces), though I suspect the latter. (Decorum during the era would have relegated suspenders to the role of an undergarment, which a proper gentleman like Poirot would strive to keep covered from the public.)
With his lounge suits, Poirot exclusively wears striped shirts with detached white point collars. Though shirts with detached collars as Poirot wears are all but extinct in the realm of accessible, ready-to-wear men’s clothing, the style lives on with “Winchester shirts” offering white collars—and occasionally cuffs—contrasting against different colored, striped, or patterned shirt bodies, popularized during the yuppie years of 1980s businesswear popularized by movies like Wall Street (1987) and American Psycho (2000).
On the first day of his Orient Express journey, Poirot wears a pale blue shirt with wide white stripes that are tri-split by two narrow gray stripes, worn as usual with his clean, stiff white point collar. His silk tie is the first in a trio of patterned silk neckwear he would wear with this suit, in this case a series of gray interlocking rings creating an “uphill”-direction stripe effect.
The next morning, Poirot awakens to discover that his neighbor, Ratchett (Johnny Depp) as bhas been murdered in his compartment. He soon takes charge of the investigation wearing a white shirt with bold, widely spaced striping in a brick red that—given the context—could be suggestive of the blood spilled in the case. (Is this an interpretive stretch on my part? Wouldn’t be the first time, if so…)
Poirot wears a gray woven silk tie patterned in rows of long black rhomboids that alternate between being horizontally and vertically oriented and are all detailed with a white dot in the center.
On the action-packed third day of the case, Poirot wears a bengal-striped shirt in slate blue and white, which we see to have self-shirted single cuffs worn with his standard silver-toned oval cuff links. His tie looks similar to what he wore the previous day, though the pattern appears to be a gray-on-gray diamond-shaped weave with small navy squares.
“Ken was very keen that the knot on the tie was immaculate and identical, part of a dressing routine,” Byrne shared of Branagh’s neckwear to Zoomer. “For example in the fight sequences when he loses a collar stud… [that’s] something that would be as distressing and invasive to Poirot as somebody having their front teeth knocked in!”
Though Poirot’s shoes get some prominent—and memorable—screen time during the opening sequence in Jerusalem, we see just enough of them while on the Orient Express to recognize that he’s likely wearing the same black calf cap-toe oxfords with a perforated toe cap and brouging.
The first topcoat that Poirot wears with this suit isn’t one of his own, nor is it one he would likely be wearing in any circumstances other than needing to hastily don a layer after taking a bullet to the arm. The dark navy waxed engineer’s coat has an Ulster collar with a throat latch, a single-breasted front, and set-in sleeves that are cuffed at the ends with a single button in the corner of each cuff.
“The idea of that came very much from Ken,” Byrne explained to Nathalie Atkinson for Zoomer, who was prompted to ask given Byrne’s experience dressing some of the “caped crusaders” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “He wanted Poirot to be disheveled for the first time and the cloak that he picks up is actually one of the crew’s cloaks—a waxed cotton protective cloak for one of the engineers on the train. He just wanted something over his shoulders in a way that Poirot doesn’t normally wear clothes.”
Finally, when the time comes for Poirot to leave the train early to attend to a murder on the Nile (hmm…), he dons his own coat… and you can tell. The sharply tailored charcoal wool double-breasted Chesterfield has peak lapels with a long collar densely faced in astrakhan fur, which is derived from the pelts of the now-endangered Karakul sheep that are native to Central Asia. Despite its value and luxurious connotations, Sir Hardy Amies dismissed astrakhan in his 1964 tome ABCs of Men’s Fashion as merely something that “used to be used only on the collars of the overcoats of passé actor-managers.”
The structured coat’s sleeveheads are more heavily roped than the suit jacket beneath it. The coat has swelled edges on the lapels, semi-cuffed sleeve-ends, and on the pockets, including the welted breast pocket and the large hip pocket flaps. The back is half-belted at Branagh’s natural waist with a long single vent that extends up to just a few inches short of the half-belt.
He appropriately dresses for the wintry outside air with black leather gloves and his black felt Lords hat, essentially a homburg with the differentiation of a pinched crown.
Curious to learn more about the costume design in Murder on the Orient Express? Check out the links below, many featuring firsthand interviews with costume designer Alexandra Byrne!
- “How the Murder on the Orient Express Costume Designer Outfitted Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer in Authentic ’30s Clothing” (Fawnia Soo Hoo for Fashionista, November 10, 2017)
- “Behind the Seams” (Divya Bala for GRAZIA)
- “How the Orient Express Costume Designer Used Detective Clues to Style the Cast” (Cathy Whitlock for The Hollywood Reporter, November 2, 2017)
- “How Costumes Reveal Character in Oscar Contenders Murder on the Orient Express and Mudbound“ (Bill Desowitz for IndieWire, November 22, 2017)
- “Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne Creates Sinful Style in Murder on the Orient Express“ (Susannah Edelbaum for “The Credits” by Motion Picture Association, November 10, 2017)
- “Check Out the Fashion Parade Onboard Murder on the Orient Express“ (Paulette Cohn for Parade, February 23, 2018)
- “Dressed to Kill: Inside the Lavish Costumes of Murder on the Orient Express“ (Valentina Valenti for Vanity Fair, November 8, 2017)
- “Fashion On The Orient Express: Part Two of Our Journey” (Nathalie Atkinson for Zoomer, March 1, 2018)
You can also find photos of this exact costume, including one with Byrne beside it, at Tanya Foster‘s recap of her experience aboard the Orient Express to promote the film.
What to Imbibe
I am of an age where I know what I like and what I do not like. What I like, I enjoy enormously. What I dislike, I cannot abide.
Poirot is speaking more generally about his dismissive distaste for conversing with Ratchett, but he could also be summing up the character’s own finely curated taste. I believe the prominent inclusion of Veuve Clicquot champagne was the result of product placement, but it’s certainly not out of character for the epicurean detective to appreciate the coupe he is offered by Bouc.
The Veuve Clicquot story begins in 1772 when textile merchant Philippe Clicquot established a wine business that would eventually expand with the arranged marriage between his son François and Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the 21-year-old daughter of fellow textile merchant Nicolas Ponsardin. In the years following the 1798 wedding, Clicquot’s champagne business began to grow and he eventually handed over the reins to his son, though François would die of typhoid in October 1805 when he was 30, only four years after gaining control of the company.
Distraught by François’s death, the retired Philippe decided to liquidate the company but François’s widow was determined to manage itself and presented a proposal to Philippe, who accepted. The widow Clicquot (or “veuve Clicquot” in French, hence the modern name) thus became the first female champagne producer as she led the booming company into the 19th century with the launch of Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin on July 21, 1810. The business was threatened in its early years by naval blockades aimed to prevent foreign sales, particularly to Russia, but Barbe-Nicole’s persistence not only ensured that her business would survive the war but it would play a vital role in establishing champagne as the preferred drink of the upper class.
Hercule Poirot was never the sort of detective to regularly carry a gun, though the arms himself for the climax of Murder on the Orient Express with a Colt Police Positive Special that he took from “Gerhard” Hardman (Willem Dafoe), going so far as to identify that Hardman had not spent 30 years as a Pinkerton detective as he claims but instead had once been a police officer who had undoubtedly been connected to the Armstrong case at the center of Ratchett’s murder.
While the scene of Poirot seeing through Hardman’s cover by identifying his gun adds a degree of Sherlock Holmes-ian detection, it’s ultimately a fallacy much like the scene in GoldenEye where Russian gangster Zukovsky recognizes James Bond by his Walther PPK, stating that “only three men I know use such a gun… and I believe I’ve killed two of them.” A badass boast for sure but hardly creditable given that the decades-old weapon is one of the most popular among European militaries and police as well as civilians around the world. The same logic applies when Poirot observes of Hardman: “Your gun—the checkered grip, the blued finish—produced for the Police Positive edition. 1927 issue.”
To Poirot, this is evidence that Hardman could not have been a Pinkerton detective for “thirty years” leading up to the current date of 1934 as he’s armed with a revolver manufactured only for policemen seven years earlier. Poirot isn’t wrong that the details of Hardman’s Police Positive are consistent with the generation of Colt revolvers produced for the 1927 issue and marketed toward law enforcement, but it’s ridiculous to suggest that someone could only have one of these revolvers seven years later if he had been a policeman at the time, particularly for a police-adjacent function like a Pinkerton detective!
Had Poirot gone to the movies anytime over the few years leading up to the events of Murder on the Orient Express, he would have noticed gangster portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and Paul Muni carrying Colt police-issued revolvers as well… how confused he would have been!
How to Get the Look
While I can’t help you with that mustache… Kenneth Branagh’s suits as Hercule Poirot successfully executed the costume vision of a man whose sartorial approach is driven more by military-like precision and perfection rather than “peacocking”. The luxurious period-popular styling of the single-breasted, peak-lapel jacket, double-breasted waistcoat, and pleated trousers may draw attention, but Poirot’s subdued suitings like this dark navy Scottish wool indicates refined sophistication rather than the attention-grabbing unorthodoxy for its own sake.
- Navy herringbone 18-ounce woolen flannel three-piece tailored suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with full-bellied peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double-breasted 8×4-button waistcoat with peak lapels, welted pockets, and straight-cut bottom
- Double forward-pleated trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Striped cotton shirt with detachable white point collar and self-cuffs
- Silver oval cuff links
- Gray silk tie with repeating pattern
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark navy dress socks
- Charcoal heavy wool double-breasted Chesterfield coat with astrakhan fur-collared peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, semi-cuffed sleeve-ends, and half-belted back with long single vent
- Black leather gloves
- Black felt Lords hat with black grosgrain ribbon
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I do not approve of murder, my friend. Every day, we meet people the world would be better without, yet we do not kill them. We must be better than the beasts.