Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “doctor of journalism” and alter ego of Hunter S. Thompson
Las Vegas, Spring 1971
Film: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Release Date: May 22, 1998
Director: Terry Gilliam
Costume Designer: Julie Weiss
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…
…and, with the scream of a bright fireapple red Chevy convertible speeding through the desert scored by Big Brother and the Holding Company’s manic “Combination of the Two”, we’re off and running with Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo on their way to a hallucinogenic weekend romp in Sin City. Johnny Depp’s opening narration as the notorious Dr. Duke transcribes verbatim the opening lines of Hunter S. Thompson’s landmark roman à clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The book and film chronicle Thompson’s drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas with his friend, activist attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, rebranded for the story as the 300-pound Samoan “Doctor Gonzo” who would ultimately be portrayed to chaotic perfection by Benicio Del Toro.
On the anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday on July 18 in the foul year of Our Lord 1937, let’s join Raoul Duke on “a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character… a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.”
What’d He Wear?
Hunter S. Thompson had befriended Johnny Depp several years earlier, so there was little question in the writer’s mind that his friend would be up to the task of portraying him, inviting him to spend four months living in the basement of Thompson’s Owl Farm home in Colorado. In addition to sharing his manuscript and mementos from “the Vegas book,” Thompson also personally shaved Depp’s head to resemble his own and provided assorted articles of clothing and accessories—from that patchwork jacket to his TarGard cigarette holder—to complete Depp’s transformation for the screen.
Both Raoul Duke and his storied attorney Dr. Gonzo are clad in Acapulco shirts for their adventure, having evidently heeded their own advice. “The only way to prepare for a trip like this,” Thompson wrote, “was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy then screech off across the desert and cover the story.”
Duke is dressed in a dark brown short-sleeved camp shirt with an all-over yellow floral pattern, outwardly similar to a traditional aloha shirt but made from a soft terry cloth, a pile woven cotton also known as “toweling” for its prevalence in bath towels.
The terrycloth detail is often missed by purveyors offering inexpensive “replicas” of the shirt, ostensibly for Halloween costumes, such as thecostumebase or Largemouth. Terry shirts are indeed seeing a resurgence thanks to the tasteful products of companies like Busbee McQuade, Dandy Del Mar, and Orlebar Brown, though I imagine those seeking to crib that chaotic Gonzo look would need to look to vintage wares. The closest equivalent I’ve seen to a well-made terrycloth shirt with aloha sensibilities are the unique “High Water Hawaiian” shirts by California Cowboy, consisting of cotton-lyocell tropical-printed shells and the brand’s proprietary terrycloth lining. In fact, California Cowboy has cited Thompson’s book and personal style as the inspiration for its “High Water” line. If you want to pay tribute to Duke’s look without following the toweling route or getting a costume-like replica of the shirt, I can personally recommend the “Island Monarchy Yellow” Hawaiian shirt by Aloha Republic, via Aloha Funwear.
In addition to being at its most fashionable during “this doomstruck era of Nixon”, terry toweling shirting would be ideal for the good doctor of journalism as Thompson noted elsewhere in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in that “I tend to sweat heavily in warm climates. My clothes are soaking wet from dawn to dusk.”
While photos of the real HST in this shirt aren’t as easy for me to find as some of him in that famous patchwork jacket, this screen-worn item was undoubtedly one of the man’s own famed Acapulco shirts, and I believe it’s the one reflected in one of of Ralph Steadman’s iconic illustrations of the writer.
Depp wears a dark brown leather studded cuff bracelet on his right wrist, inspired by one the real Thompson had been frequently photographed wearing. The owner of Leatherpunk researched the wristband before developing his own replica and determined that, while Thompson’s black leather cuff closes through two snaps, Depp wore a brown leather bracelet with a single-prong buckle closure. His site currently offers reproductions of both.
On his left wrist, Depp wears a steel watch with a black bezel and black dial, worn on a period-correct black leather rally strap. As opposed to the “skeleton-face Accutron” Bulova that Thompson described in his book, the screen-worn piece has been identified by the users at OmegaForums.net as an Alsta Nautoscaph, the same diver that Richard Dreyfuss wore in Jaws (1975), four years after Thompson’s savage journey to the heart of the American dream.
Duke dresses his dome with a fisherman’s bucket hat in off-white canvas, detailed with green canvas under the full brim.
In yet another extension of the real Thompson’s style, Depp wears gold-framed aviator sunglasses with yellow tinted lenses and the round ring between bridge and top bar suggesting the Ray-Ban Shooter Aviator frames. In addition to what Ray-Ban calls the “vanity bullet hole”, the Shooter aviators are designed with a reinforced acetate “brow bar” (or “sweat bar”) above the top bar as also seen on the Outdoorsman frame, originally designed to keep sweat from clouding a pilot’s vision.
While I don’t believe the yellow tinted lenses are commercially available with the currently offered RB3138 Shooter Aviators (via Amazon or Ray-Ban), there are plenty of budget-friendly alternatives from costume outfitters like Costume Agent (via Amazon) to get that yellow-lensed gonzo look. (On the other end of the budget spectrum, L.A.-based eyewear boutique Jacques Marie Mage announced its Thompson-inspired “Duke” shades last year, limited to a run of just 250 and retailing for $850 each.)
Duke staggers around the Shark in a pair of light pink chinos that, in characteristic fashion, clash with the rest of his outfit. These flat front trousers are worn sans belt and have side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms, which hike up high to show his white ribbed tube socks.
Depp also sports Thompson’s favorite kicks, a pair of well-worn Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers with low white canvas uppers, laced with flat white laces through seven silver-toned eyelets, and white rubber outsoles that somehow manage to support him through the “muck” of the Mint Hotel lobby despite his request for golf shoes.
Nearly 50 years since Raoul Duke’s infamous trip and almost 100 years since their introduction to the market, Converse continues to offer its signature basketball shoe (via Amazon and Converse), including the white low-top variety favored by Hunter S. Thompson.
“As your attorney, I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top,” Dr. Gonzo had advised Raoul Duke in Beverly Hills, and the two thus spend their evening “locating a convertible with adequate horsepower and proper coloring” before aiming the famous Great Red Shark due northeast across the desert.
The actual Red Shark from Thompson’s garage made an appearance as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s primary ride from L.A. to Vegas, a bright red 1971 Chevrolet Impala convertible which Depp himself had traded in his own car to drive for months in advance to prepare for the role.
1971 was the first model year for Chevrolet’s fifth generation of the venerated Impala and would become one of GM’s top-selling models for the decade, with a wheelbase elongated to 121.5 inches.
IMCDB users noted that two different cars were likely used in the movie, one a legitimate 1971 model while another—most clearly seen when Duke is being chased by a police officer played by Gary Busey—has white interior door panels from the 1973-1974 models when the convertible was moved upmarket to the Caprice Classic series. (I believe this later model was the ’73 convertible that Thompson would later be gifted from friends… more on that below!)
The IMCDB users also contend that Duke’s Impala convertible was powered by a top-of-the-line 402 cubic-inch “400 Turbo Jet” V8 mill offering 300 gross horsepower and mated to GM’s three-speed Turbo Hydramatic transmission. According to Pawel Zal’s Automobile Catalog, this could push the Impala to a theoretical top speed of 111 mph, though Thompson recalled hitting speeds closer to 120 in the Great Red Shark:
I always drive properly. A bit fast, perhaps, but always with the consummate skill and a natural feel for the road that even cops recognize.
1971 Chevrolet Impala Convertible
Body Style: 2-door convertible
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 402 cu. in. (6.6 L) Chevrolet 400 V8 with Rochester 4-barrel carburetor
Power: 300 hp (223.5 kW; 304 PS) @ 4800 RPM
Torque: 400 lb·ft (542 N·m) @ 3200 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed GM Turbo Hydramatic THM-400 automatic
Wheelbase: 121.5 inches (3086 mm)
Length: 216.8 inches (5507 mm)
Width: 79.5 inches (2019 mm)
Height: 53.4 inches (1356 mm)
The Chevy becomes an increasing liability for Thompson, who describes “a huge Red Shark just outside the door so full of felonies that I’m afraid to even look at it,” so the book depicts him abandoning it in long-term parking at McCarran International Airport before renting a white Cadillac convertible to known forth with as The Whale, though the luxury of GM’s upmarket stablemate to the Impala couldn’t compare to the Shark’s speed and handling.
Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.
Two decades after Thompson’s “strange torpedo” in Sin City, his friends would gift him with the ’73 Chevrolet Caprice convertible that would become a familiar sight on the streets of Aspen and would be lent to the production of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. More than a decade after Thompson’s 2005 suicide, his personally owned Red Shark was part of the inaugural exhibit at the Cannabition Cannabis Museum in Las Vegas.
In case the idea of speeding across the desert to Las Vegas with a trunk full of drugs wasn’t dangerous enough, Dr. Gonzo brings along what the book describes as “a fat black .357 Magnum,” depicted on screen as a Smith & Wesson Model 19 with a police-length 4″ barrel.
The novel clarifies the weapon as “one of those snubnosed Colt Pythons with the beveled cylinder”, passing from Dr. Gonzo’s possession to Raoul Duke’s as he learns to his admiration and horror when he first tries to escape Sin City. He considers that it may not be wise to keep the weapon, “but I wasn’t about the throw the bastard away, either. A good .357 is a hard thing to get, these days.”
What to Imbibe
We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… also, a quart of tequila, quart of rum, case of beer, pint of raw ether, two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.
…you know what, I’m going to save myself some legal trouble and implore my readers not to follow Raoul Duke’s dangerous regimen, especially if you’re going to be hitting the road any time soon. The description is, like much of Depp’s narration, nearly verbatim with Thompson’s written word, though the Budweiser prescribed in the novel is generalized to “beer” for the narration (and portrayed by Regent brew on screen) and the described “tequila” is actually a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. I could dedicate an entire blog, let alone a single post, to Hunter S. Thompson’s famous use of substances so let’s narrow the BAMF Style recommendation to a single concoction here.
“My attorney ordered two cuba libres with beer and mescal on the side,” Thompson writes in the chapter depicting their check-in at the Mint Hotel.
As one may infer from its name, the Cuba Libre (or “Free Cuba”) was developed in Cuba though its exact origins—like many classic cocktails—are less pinpointed. The drink was known to emerge in the early 1900s, following the strong American presence in the island nation during the Spanish-American War and the introduction of Coca-Cola to the Cuban market in 1900. Over the century to follow, the highball became a staple not only in Cuba but spreading its way up through the United States, though an essential ingredient of the true Cuba Libre was often lost along the way as the “rum and Coke” became a popular order in all corners of the continental U.S. Prohibition reportedly eased its popularity, as the strong cola flavor would ideally overpower the lacking taste of bootleg rum when consumers couldn’t easily get their hands on better quality products.
In Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh assures us of the Cuba Libre that “the trick, here, is that this drink is not ‘just a rum and Coke.’ The lime juice changes everything.” Indeed, a simple addition of lime juice—preferably fresh—transforms the drink from what the Washington Post‘s Jason Wilson called “a lazy person’s drink” to a refreshing symbol of revolution.
Haigh’s recipe prescribes two ounces of Cuban rum, the juice of half a lime, topped with Coca-Cola in an iced highball glass and garnished with a lime wedge; Raoul Duke would have certainly favored the oft-referenced Bacardi Añejo for his libations.
How to Get the Look
“Setting aside his odd accessories, one of the reasons that Thompson’s style is so appealing is that it is so completely American. Hawaiian shirts, white Chuck Taylor All-Stars, and Ray-Ban Aviators accompanied by guns, cigarettes and liquor bottles,” wrote Brenden Gallagher in his 2017 retrospective “Going Gonzo” for Grailed.
- Brown (with yellow floral pattern) terrycloth “Acapulco shirt” with notched camp collar and notched short sleeves
- Light pink chino cotton flat front trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star low-top basketball sneakers with white canvas uppers and white rubber outsoles
- White ribbed tube socks
- Off-white canvas bucket hat
- Ray-Ban RB3138 Shooter Aviator gold-framed sunglasses with beige sweat bar and yellow-tinted lenses
- Alsta Nautoscaph stainless steel dive watch with black dial and black bezel on black leather rally strap
- Dark brown leather studded bracelet
In a later passage from the novel, Thompson describes his appearance as equivalent to “some crusty drifter who looks like something out of an upper-Michigan hobo jungle”…
I looked pretty bad: wearing old Levis and white Chuck Taylor All-Star basketball sneakers… and my ten-peso Acapulco shirt had long since come apart at the shoulder seams from all that road-wind. My beard was about three days old, bordering on standard wino trim, and my eyes were totally hidden by Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
We can’t stop here! This is Bat Country.