Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, eagerly romantic millionaire and bootlegger
Long Island, New York, Summer 1922
Film: The Great Gatsby
Release Date: May 10, 2013
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
On the eve of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, let’s look at the most recent major adaptation of his most famous work, The Great Gatsby. Fitz’s 1925 novel had been adapted for the big screen at least four times before Baz Luhrmann directed his colorful spectacle during the past decade.
Nine months ago, Instagram was ablaze with my friends posting photos from New Year’s Eve parties, toasting to the dawn of the new “roaring ’20s”… unaware that this also meant the spread of a global pandemic not unlike the Spanish flu that may have killed up to 50 million between 1918 and 1920, infecting at least ten times that number. While it’s too soon to definitively compare the new coronavirus with that unusually deadly flu outbreak, the months under quarantine suggested just why those denizens of what Fitzgerald dubbed the “Jazz Age” were prone to such famous parties: reveling in the relief that it was once again safe to congregate and celebrate.
“Partying like Gatsby” has become modern shorthand for these bacchanalia, though the pendant in me is compelled to comment that all those Forever 21-esque tees should really be encouraging one to party like Gatsby’s guests as the reclusive host explains to his neighbor that he doesn’t care much for parties himself, only hosting such lavish events at his West Egg mansion in the hopes of attracting the interest of his lost love.
Thanks to decades of high school curricula, most of us are already well aware of the plot, themes, and characters of The Great Gatsby as well as the symbolism behind his yellow car, et cetera, et cetera… and this familiarity as well as the already existing adaptations provided Luhrmann with a relatively free reign to tell Trimalchio’s tale in his own style, retaining the central characters, narrative, and setting, but seeking relevance for this modern audience with a contemporary soundtrack infused with popular artists like Beyoncé, Fergie, Jack White, Jay Z, and Lana Del Rey rather than exclusively featuring the more historically correct strains of “Ain’t We Got Fun?”, “The Sheik of Araby”, and “Who?” that scored Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation. (Though, to the artist’s credit, will.i.am’s “Bang Bang” during the first party does sample a version of the ’20s dance hit “Charleston” as featured during Gatsby’s first party.)
Wisely retained by Luhrmann from Fitzgerald’s novel is the announced “jazz history of the world” against a backdrop of fireworks at Gatsby’s first party, allowing Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue” to hit its most dramatic moments while Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is formally introduced to both Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and the audience as the hero of our story.
What’d He Wear?
Proponents of the classic men’s tuxedo have the 1920s to thank for its popularity and enduring elements. Perhaps a decade before The Great Gatsby was set, the newly emerging dinner jacket may have still been too informal for an evening party on Long Island, even among the young and fashionable set. After decades in slow development and adoption, the black tie dress code had emerged to some degree during the Edwardian era, but the loosening formalities that followed the first world war found the more comfortable dinner jackets eclipsing full white tie and tails as the expected evening wear for most gatherings by the time the next world war started.
Nowhere was this more true than in the United States, already a less formal culture than much of Europe though still primarily taking its lead from English fashions. The “dinner jacket” first appeared in English print in 1887, and the Americans weren’t long to embrace the dressed-down dinner attire, providing the “tuxedo” nomenclature the following year in reference to Tuxedo Park, an elite enclave in New York state’s Hudson Valley where the dinner jacket became a familiar sight. (The term “black tie” in this context would not appear in print until at least 1926, as determined by Gentleman’s Gazette.)
While the ubiquity of dinner jackets at Jazz Age jamborees is accurately captured in Luhrmann’s Gatsby adaptation, I suggest that we’re seeing a degree of historic license exercised by many of the gents in Gatsby’s coterie, most notably in the case of the enigmatic host himself.
As stated earlier, the early ’20s was still a transitional period for men’s evening attire with the black tie dress code taking its cues from the more formal white tie dress code as opposed to the business-oriented lounge suit. This meant essentially replacing the tailcoat and white tie with a shorter single-button dinner jacket and black bow tie but generally retaining the wing collar, low-cut waistcoat (in white or black), and high-waisted trousers.
So why the inaccuracies in a film based on possibly the most famous fiction about the roaring ’20s? One could argue that Luhrmann and company were presenting a modern “fantasy” of the 1920s, designed to specifically appeal to audiences of 2013 by infusing the music, clothing, and dialogue with enough of a contemporary touch that audiences can balance relating and retreating into the escapism of Jazz Age glamour.
For more expert commentary that delves into the specific inconsistencies between Gatsby’s wardrobe and historical record, I invite you to read this post from the Black Tie Blog published shortly after the film’s release in 2013. You can also explore this decade-by-decade breakdown of acceptable evening dress codes at Gentleman’s Gazette.
The First Dinner Suit
Both dinner jackets that Leonardo DiCaprio prominently wears in The Great Gatsby are similarly cut and styled, shaped with front darts for a close fit suggested to be more contemporary to the film’s production than its 1920s setting. The narrow shoulders are accented with roped sleeveheads.
These single-breasted jackets have a full three-button front, consistent with the jackets of business suits and lounge suits rather than traditional evening wear, with all three buttons covered with black silk to match the satin facings on the broad peak lapels. The straight hip pockets are flapped—another detail more consistent with informal lounge suits—and both jackets have a center-slanting welted breast pocket, which Gatsby dresses with a silk pocket square to coordinate with his neckwear.
DiCaprio’s first on-screen dinner jacket is black with a subtle sheen suggesting silk or mohair, a theory supported by the wool and mohair blend construction of the dinner jacket included in Brooks Brothers’ “The Great Gatsby Collection”, released to coincide with the movie in 2013. The ends of each sleeve, adorned with four silk-covered buttons, are further detailed with silk “gauntlet” cuffs. This neo-Edwardian detail has been sporadically revived throughout the 20th century, particularly in the early ’60s as seen on some of Sean Connery’s dinner jackets as James Bond or even Joe Pesci’s suits in Goodfellas.
The wing collar was still the most accepted style for shirts to be worn with dinner jackets in the early 1920s, when turndown collars with black tie were still primarily the dressed-down domain of jazz bands as illustrated by the publicity photos of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from the period. Turndown collars would gain more general acceptance with dinner suits during the following decade.
Gatsby’s white formal shirt is rigged with a point collar, gently rounded on the points. The razor-thin pleated front has a unique “French placket”, distinctive as it only includes stitching along the edge of the shirt and not on the other side to the left of the buttonholes, fastened with black-filled studs that are threaded to the shirt like buttons rather than removable studs but often covered by the too-high rise of Gatsby’s waistcoat. The silver-toned metal framework of these buttons coordinate with the round etched silver cuff links worn in Gatsby’s double (French) cuffs, which are textured with a subtle rib.
One of the most unique aspects of an already unorthodox black tie kit is the tie itself, a black thistle-shaped bow tie with white piping along the edges. This neckwear pushes the outfit into the more creative realm of evening-wear, appropriate for a man who likes to draw attention to himself via lavish parties, a gleaming yellow touring car, and eye-catching threads like that famous pink suit.
While much of Gatsby’s divergences from then-accepted evening-wear standards can be excused as “creative black tie” choices, I would argue—in agreement with the knowledgable author of this Black Tie Blog post—that his choice of a high-fastening waistcoat transcends into the world of anachronism, particularly as we see this style practiced by other characters though Tobey Maguire’s Nick likely took his sartorial inspiration from Gatsby himself.
To the best of my knowledge, high-fastening waistcoats as seen with business or lounge suits were generally not worn with black tie until a half-century later. Considering the disco era’s embrace of powder blue tuxedoes, frilly shirts, and jumbo-sized bow ties, the higher-fastening fancy waistcoats may be the least egregious of the bunch, but they also influenced generations of formal-wear to follow as many modern rental houses and prom photos suggest chest-high vests in an array of colors, fabrics, and patterns to be de rigeur for evening dress. (Indeed, even yours truly wore a burnt orange waistcoat as part of my rented prom kit back in 2007!) Despite this trend, the traditional waist coverings for gents in black tie remains either a cummerbund or a low-fastening waistcoat, typically black though white adds a vintage-inspired touch.
During his first on-screen party, Gatsby wears an all-black silk waistcoat with vertical satin stripes. The single-breasted waistcoat has five black buttons, a notched bottom, and four pockets. His choice is made additionally surprising as the high-fastening, full-backed waistcoat would add another layer that could get warm during his summer garden party.
The Last Dinner Suit
By late summer, Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) are deep into their rekindled romance, five years after they had last met before he went to war and returned to make a fortune. Complicating their “happily ever after” is Daisy’s husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), a gruff hypocrite whom Gatsby can’t help but to irk with snide remarks and innuendo when the Buchanans join Nick at what would be Gatsby’s last soiree of the summer.
In the 1974 version of Fitzgerald’s novel, Robert Redford’s Gatsby dressed for the occasion in white tie and tails, but DiCaprio’s Gatsby stays true to his preference for three-piece black tie kits. His dinner suit is nearly identical to the black suit worn for the previous party, albeit constructed from a rich midnight blue silk-blended suiting with all the facings—jacket lapels, buttons, pocket flaps, and trouser striping—covered in a black silk.
On this jacket, the sleevehead roping is less defined with a softer structure almost evocative of the famous Neapolitan “con rollino” shoulder. The most notable difference is the lack of gauntlet cuffs; instead, the sleeves of Gatsby’s dinner jacket are finished with four silk-covered buttons.
Gatsby wears the more traditional neckwear that gives the black tie kit its designation, a plain black satin silk bow tie in a medium butterfly (or “thistle”) shape. Barely contrasting against the dark dinner jacket is his black silk pocket square, worn “puffed” in his welted breast pocket.
Gatsby matches his black silk waistcoat to his bow tie as opposed to the midnight blue dinner suit. Similarly cut and styled with its high, five-button front and four pockets, the waistcoat’s tonal pattern consists more of boxes than the stripes of the earlier waistcoat. The fit can be adjusted around the waist with a half-belt in the back.
Gatsby’s dark formal trousers match the fabrics of his dinner suits, detailed with the standard black satin stripe down the side of each leg. The trousers seem to have flat fronts or at least lack dramatic pleats, and the bottoms are appropriately finished with plain hems that break over his black patent leather cap-toe oxfords.
Seven years after the film’s release, there’s still no definite confirmation on the wristwatch DiCaprio wears as Gatsby. While it may have been inspired by the elegant tank watches popularized through mid-century by Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Longines, the piece has been theorized to be a piece custom-made for the production, possibly through the film’s well-publicized partnership with Tiffany & Co.
Constructed from a silver-toned metal like stainless steel, white gold, or platinum, the rectangular-cased watch has a white rectangular dial with black hands and a unique hour-marking system that spells out “12” and “6” as well as elongated numerals for the corner hours (1, 5, 7, and 11), while the hours in between are all marked with a simple, non-numeric dash.
The Deco-style dial is consistent with the film’s setting, but the metal bracelet could be argued as the anachronism here. As wristwatches grew increasingly common in the years following World War I, most were still strapped to men’s wrists on leather bands, reserving daintier metal bracelets for women’s timepieces. Gatsby may have indeed had access to this more masculine “rice grain”-style bracelet in 1922, but I attribute the choice to wear it here as another element of reinterpreting the roaring ’20s for modern audiences as a man in his position would likely not have worn a metal-banded wristwatch until at least 20 years later (and certainly not with a tuxedo for another 20 years after that when James Bond popularized sport watches with evening-wear.)
Gatsby frequently fiddles with a large pinky ring that gets plenty of attention on screen. Likely made of sterling silver, the chunky ring has a large rectangular surface with an etched “sunburst”.
How to Get the Look
Befitting his persona as a somewhat eccentric and offbeat millionaire, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby infuses forward-thinking fashions and unorthodox details into the three-piece dinner suits he wears for his famous parties, anonymously holding court in what more resembles “upgraded” evening-wear than the era’s traditionally accepted black tie dress.
- Black or midnight blue silk-blend single-breasted 3-button dinner jacket with satin-faced peak lapels, slanted welt breast pocket, straight hip pockets with silk-faced flaps, turnback “gauntlet” cuffs with 4 covered buttons, and double vents
- Black tonal-patterned silk single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with four welted pockets and notched bottom
- Black or midnight blue silk-blend flat front formal trousers with black satin side striping, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton formal shirt with point collar, edge-stitched “French placket”, thin-pleated front, and double/French cuffs
- Round silver etched cuff links
- Black silk butterfly-shaped bow tie with white-piped edges
- Cream silk pocket square
- Black patent leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Silver pinky ring with dark “starbust” face
- Stainless wristwatch with a rectangular white face and stainless rice-grain bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original novel, even if you already did read it in high school! I also enjoyed the graphic novel adaptation by Fred Fordham with illustrations by Aya Morton, released this summer.
Love the songs from soundtrack but still want an authentic Jazz Agee sound for your next Gatsby-inspired shindig? I recommend The Jazz Recordings as recorded by The Bryan Ferry Orchestra… yes, that Bryan Ferry! This “selection of yellow cocktail music” per the album subtitle includes recognizable queues like “Young and Beautiful”, “Crazy in Love”, and “Bang Bang”, but arranged and recorded in the style of 1920s hot jazz bands.
I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love.