James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, New Jersey mob boss
New England, Fall 1999
Series: The Sopranos
– “College” (Episode 1.05, dir. Allen Coulter, aired 2/7/1999)
– “Nobody Knows Anything” (Episode 1.11, dir. Henry J. Bronchtein, aired 3/21/1999)
Creator: David Chase
Costume Designer: Juliet Polcsa
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.
So preaches Hawthorne, seemingly speaking directly to Tony Soprano, in the denouement of the classic episode “College” (Episode 1.05) from the first season. Positioned as Bowdoin College’s most famous alum as Tony brings his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) to visit the campus, Nathaniel Hawthorne also acts as a moral anchor to our protagonist after an unprecedented act of violence.
The fall 2020 semester will be a surreal experience for many returning to school across the United States as colleges adapt to remote learning or limited exposure in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, making the expected “back-to-school” keggers and social functions a relic of a not-so-distant past.
More than twenty years ago, audiences joined Meadow for her own surreal college experiences with a university tour with her father reveals more about him to her—and to the audience—than one would expect of the canned campus orientation. On August 22, the date established in-universe as Tony Soprano’s birthday (and creator David Chase’s actual birthday), let’s take a closer look at these pivotal scenes from the series’ first season.
“College” remains not only one of The Sopranos‘ finest episodes but also arguably one of the greatest hours ever presented on TV. It’s a perfect execution of the medium at its best, a self-contained story that can be enjoyed on its own while also neatly fitting within the context and arcs of the continuing series.
The episode set a new standard for what audiences could expect not just of The Sopranos but of television and narrative fiction for the new millennium. Walter White, Vic Mackey, and other TV anti-heroes influenced by Tony Soprano over the last 20 years have desensitized viewers to protagonists committing murder, to the point where I was actually surprised when Mad Men‘s run completed without any intentional blood on our hero’s conscience (Private Dick Whitman’s accidental ignition of Lieutenant Don Draper notwithstanding.)
In their masterful volume The Soprano Sessions, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall write about what they describe as the “seismic” effect of Tony committing on-screen murder in this episode: “Four episodes in, viewers had seen murder and violent death attributable to negligence or incompetence, but Tony didn’t commit any of the acts, nor was he directly responsible for their occurrence… And although it seemed unthinkable that he’d go through the series without ordering at least one person’s death—he’d toyed with the idea—a killing like this seemed equally unthinkable, because TV protagonists didn’t get down in the muck like that. That was what henchmen and guest stars were for.”
Unfortunately for reformed rat Fred Peters, née “Febby” Petrullio (Tony Ray Rossi), Tony Soprano isn’t willing to bend to the accepted mores of TV protagonists that had been established over a half-century. Spying the informant now living la belle vie as a half-assed realtor in Maine, Tony has a code to follow that overrules the desires of censors, advertisers, and HBO executives: you turn on the Mafia, you pay with your life.
In a way, Febby serves as an on-screen representative for an audience with old-fashioned sensibilities. Surely, Tony won’t actually kill him… he’s with this daughter, after all! And Febby himself, armed with a .22 target pistol and fueled by Fig Newtons, shares that he spared Tony’s life after seeing that he was with his daughter! But Tony extinguishes Febby’s life with uncompromising brutality and almost frightening glee that, had Dr. Melfi seen it, she would have known much sooner that her most menacing patient was truly sociopathic and beyond the scope of her abilities to treat and redeem.
“The scene lasts much longer than you expect, until the audience feels assaulted as well,” write Seitz and Sepinwall of Febby’s actual execution, commenting on the double-faceted shock of the murder deriving both from Tony committing it between bonding on a father-daughter road trip as well as “the way [Tony] seems to trade depression for euphoria when hurting people… he’s never been scarier.”
The act completed, Tony has effectively snuffed out Febby’s life and the relative comfort a viewer would have had in standing in his corner. He stands alone, allowing the viewer to decide: will you keep watching? What will it mean if you do?
What’d He Wear?
Aside from his dark suit and tie for a dressy dinner, Tony’s wardrobe for his New England college tour with Meadow consists of patterned polo shirts and pleated trousers, essentially the same as he wears for day-to-day life in Jersey.
On the morning that he executes Febby Petrullio, Tony dresses in a short-sleeved cotton golf shirt with a brown two-toned repeating chevron pattern that zig-zags across the shirt. The mini birdseye-patterned collar and bands at the end of each elbow-length sleeve are solidly shaded in the lighter of the two browns on the shirt, aside from the edges piped in the darker brown. The shirt has a three-button “French placket” at the top.
My friend who runs the @tonysopranostyle account on Instagram has suggested that the shirt was most likely made by Axis, the menswear brand that made many of the polos and button-up shirts James Gandolfini would wear across the series’ entire run. Searching eBay, you can find similar shirts from Axis such as these, neither an exact match but both available and affordable as of August 2020: (Shirt 1) (Shirt 2)
After his unprecedented act of violence in “College”, this shirt reappears in “Nobody Knows Anything” (Episode 1.11) when Tony is faced with another point-of-no-return decision regarding violence as he authorizes the murder of one of his closest friends, Pussy Bonpensiero, now suspected to be an informant. Tony’s famous impulses yield to reluctance when it comes to Pussy, though this is one case where he would have been wiser to listen to his subconscious; there must have been a reason he picked that shirt—which we last saw him wear while executing another “rat”—on the day that he chooses to make his decision about Pussy. (A season later in “Funhouse”, Tony’s subconscious grows impatient with subtlety, and he finally gets the message after a fever dream or two.)
An added touch of significance emerges in Tony’s dialogue with Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), the trusted soldier he selects for the assassination. “You waited a long time for the stripes,” Paulie reminds Tony of his new elevated position in the DiMeo crime family. In criminal parlance, earning one’s “stripes” refers to rising to a position of leadership similar to a sergeant in the military, a rank denoted by a series of three chevrons—or “stripes”—on each sleeve. Only costume designer Juliet Polcsa can answer if it’s coincidental or meaningful that Tony is visibly sporting his “stripes” via his chevron-patterned shirt as Paulie reminds him of the perks of his leadership.
From the beginning of the series, Tony almost exclusively wears pleated trousers (or shorts, despite Carmine Lupertazzi’s word of sartorial warning), a style consistent with fashions of the show’s production timeline as well as a more flattering, comfortable option for a larger man like James Gandolfini. Tony’s trousers tended to be products of Italian label Zanella, which had expanded into the North American market during the 1970s and would rise to prominence during the pleat-happy era from the late ’80s through the ’90s when full cuts were especially fashionable.
In “College” (Episode 1.05), Tony wears triple reverse-pleated trousers almost certainly from Zanella in a light taupe wool, styled with straight side pockets, jetted back pockets with a button closure on the left, and turn-ups (cuffs). Coordinated with his shoes, his belt is black leather with a squared steel single-prong buckle.
Tony wears black leather tassel loafers, an appropriately casual and comfortable shoe for his dressed-down outfit, though his misadventure with the doomed Febby Petrullio submerges his shoes in mud to the extent where he needs to scramble for an excuse to Meadow. Tassel loafers were innovated by Alden Shoe Co. and Brooks Brothers in the 1950s, a time when American business dress began trending toward the informal.
Tony’s moc-toe tassel loafers are additionally detailed with fringed “kiltie” flaps, a detail that had long been an element of Scottish golf shoes before it also became a mainstream addition to loafers in the ’50s. In December 2017, Brian Sacawa of He Spoke Style published a celebration of the kiltie tassel loafer’s return to fashion.
Allen Edmonds would eventually be established as Tony’s preferred footwear brand, and his kilted tassel loafers in “College” may also be a product of this venerable Wisconsin-based shoemaker. Tony wears his with plain black ribbed cotton lisle socks.
In “Nobody Knows Anything” (Episode 1.11), Tony wears his brown chevron-patterned shirt with different trousers, shoes, and belt. The charcoal trousers are styled differently from the earlier pair, fashioned with double reverse pleats (rather than triple) with the belt loops spaced to coordinate with the pleats in the front rather than equidistant around the waistband. Otherwise, they have a similar pocket layout and cuffed bottoms.
Tony wears split-toe derby shoes in a medium brown, coordinating with the leather of his brown leather belt with its squared, gold-toned single-prong buckle.
Tony wears all of his usual gold jewelry, including the St. Jerome pendant worn on a thin chain under his shirt and the bracelet on his right wrist which @tonysopranostyle describes as the ostensible result of “a Cuban curbed link chain and an Italian Figaro link chain with a twist.” Also on his right hand is the gold pinky ring with its ruby and diamond bypass settings.
On the opposite hand, Tony wears his gold wedding band and 18-karat yellow gold Rolex Day-Date “President”, identified as a ref. 18238. The executive appellation traces its origins back to the introduction of the Day-Date in 1956, when the unique “President” or “Presidential” semi-circular three-piece link bracelet was concurrently presented and—befitting its name—would indeed be worn by several who were elected to the highest office in the U.S.
What to Imbibe
In “Nobody Knows Anything” (Episode 1.11), Tony drinks and smokes alone in the main lounge of the Bada Bing, contemplating his next move. The Scotch is nothing unexpected, as that had been his crew’s favorite ever since we saw a fifth of Cutty Sark in the pre-credits sequence back in “46 Long” (Episode 1.02), though this makes the series’ first appearance of Johnnie Walker Black Label, which we would see Tony drink and keep on hand in his home and office for every season to follow. Black Label, a smooth blend of Scotch whiskies aged no less than 12 years, is a decent bridge between the lower-shelf blends like Cutty Sark and J&B and the more premium single malts like Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet that Tony would graduate toward over the course of the series.
We sense Tony’s anxiety over his decision regarding Pussy as he’s foregone his trademark cigars in favor of cigarettes! Aside from bumming one of Christopher’s Marlboros in the fourth season, we almost never see the Skip lighting a cigarette unless he’s at his most stressed. In this instance, he’s nervously working through a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes, later to be depicted as the favorite of the chain-smoking New York boss Johnny Sack.
The events of the next episode, “Isabella” (Episode 1.12), only serve to exacerbate Tony’s anxiety, and we see him take a Natural American Spirit from the yellow pack supposedly belonging to Dr. Melfi’s son during his late night emergency session in her Saab.
How to Get the Look
This may be a run-of-the-mill outfit from early in The Sopranos‘ run, when Tony was still dressing down in polo shirts with greater frequency than the boldly printed silk button-ups we would see later in the series, but it packs significance for the pivotal scenes where James Gandolfini wears it.
- Brown chevron-patterned cotton 3-button polo shirt with solid brown collar and banded elbow-length sleeves
- White ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt
- Taupe wool triple reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather moc-toe kiltie tassel loafers
- Black ribbed cotton lisle socks
- Rolex Day-Date “President” 18238 self-winding chronometer watch in 18-karat yellow gold with champagne-colored dial and Presidential link bracelet
- Gold curb-chain link bracelet
- Gold pinky ring with bypassing ruby and diamond stones
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold open-link chain necklace with round St. Jerome pendant
Do Yourself a Favor and…
What’d you guys do for 12 hours, play Name That Pope?