Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini, playboy gossip journalist
Rome, Spring 1959
Film: La Dolce Vita
Release Date: February 5, 1960
Director: Federico Fellini
Costume Designer: Piero Gherardi
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The two headlining stars of Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita would have celebrated their birthdays this week—Marcello Mastroianni tomorrow (September 28, 1924) and Anita Ekberg the following day (September 29, 1931)—and watching these two Libras glide together through the Trevi Fountain at daybreak has become one of the most enduring images of Italian cinema.
“If, as some critics claim, La Dolce Vita is about the death of hope, bone-deep cynicism never looked so damned seductive,” wrote Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza in Four-Star Movies: The 101 Greatest Films of All Time, the book whose lavish photographs and descriptions first introduced me to Fellini’s masterpiece.
Though named in an ode to “the sweet life”, a more apt title might have translated to “Ennui, Italian style” as we follow Mastroianni’s disenchanted journalist Marcello Rubini through a series of surreal, sexy, and ultimately sad episodes that reflect comedy, drama, and romance, perhaps most famously in the segment where Marcello escorts the Swedish bombshell Sylvia (Ekberg) through an increasingly lonely night in Rome that culminates in the centuries-old Fontana di Trevi.
Filmed sometime between January and March of 1959 (sources vary), this iconic scene was far from the free-spirited romp depicted on screen. Instead, Mastroianni recalled that his wetsuit still wasn’t adequate protection from the chilly fountain water, so he fortified himself with enough vodka that he was completely smashed by the time he finally stepped into the fountain to take the voluptuous actress into his arms.
What’d He Wear?
Knowing that I wanted to pay tribute to the stylish Marcello Mastroianni for his birth month, I held an Instagram poll asking my readers to vote between his threads in 8½ or La Dolce Vita, both directed by Fellini and winners of the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (Black and White) in their respective years. Needless to say (if you’ve already read this far), most of you voted to see La Dolce Vita, and thus we’ll proceed with one of Marcello’s most celebrated and frequently worn outfits.
Otello Martelli’s iconic black and white cinematography neatly coordinates with our protagonist’s wardrobe, which consists almost solely of sleek suits, shirts, and cravats in high-contrasting black and white, whether it’s his debonair dinner suit, his iconoclastic black suit worn at any time of day, or when he inverts his own formula by movie’s end with a white linen suit over a black polo shirt and scarf.
But first… let’s go back to that black lounge suit. Most traditionally minded fashion experts would advise against investing in a black suit, at least not before the basics are introduced, arguing that the only true daytime use for a black suit is a funeral (where somber tones like charcoal gray are already effective) and that most evening occasions calling for black are better served by a tuxedo anyway. Of course, our poet laureate of mid-century Roman nightlife is hardly a traditionalist!
Marcello Rubini’s job is to cover the hottest events in Roman society, needing to be ready at a moment’s notice to follow the day—or night—wherever it may take him, using riding along next to a beautiful blonde until ending up in a mysterious castle or a legendary fountain. It would be presumptuous and impractical for Marcello to dress in a dinner suit 24/7 and instead adopts a more convertible style of “business-wear” that befits the fluid hours and situations where his occupation takes him.
You could argue that Marcello offsets the funereal connotations of a black suit by opting for one in a more fashionable, nontraditional suiting. The cloth shines by day or night, suggesting the likelihood of silk or at least a silk-and-wool blend. As suggested by Eugenia Paulicelli, Grailed, NW Film Center, and The Oregonian, Mastroianni’s suit was almost certainly tailored by Brioni, the legendary and innovative tailoring house that has operated out of the same boutique at Via Barberini 79 in Rome since its inception in 1945.
The single-breasted suit jacket has wide, soft shoulders with medium padding and roped at the sleeveheads with a touch of the con rollino shoulder bump associated with traditional Neapolitan tailoring, building up the shoulders and chest and fitting closer around the mid-section for a sleek, dashing silhouette. The notch lapels gently roll over the top of the three-button front for what has been described as a “3/2.5-roll” stance, and the sleeves are finished with three buttons on each cuff.
The welted breast pocket has a slight curve to it, though it isn’t the most dramatic example of the rounded Italian “barchetta”-style pocket, so named for its resemblance to a small boat. The long double vents and the jetted hip pockets sans pocket flaps are typical of Italian suits from the era.
Marcello keeps the jacket fastened and in place throughout his exploits, revealing no more of the trousers than their turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms, though they’re likely styled with pleats and worn with a belt like his other suit trousers.
For Marcello’s evening out with Sylvia, he wears a hairline-striped white shirt detailed with point collar and double (French) cuffs that he dresses with his usual obscenely massive cuff links, in this case a set of large metal discs etched in the centers and so large that they not only collide with the ends of his jacket sleeves but occasionally envelop them.
Marcello wears his usual black knitted silk tie, finished with a flat bottom rather than a pointed blade. He knots the tie with a Windsor knot that looks more subdued due to its coverage by the shirt’s substantial point collar and the tie’s light structure preventing augmentation at the neck. The texture dresses the tie down to the appropriate level for a man who wears his suit and tie not to conform to any office dress code but rather to fit it among the beau monde and bellwethers of Roman nightlife.
Favored by Ian Fleming’s literary James Bond, the versatile black knitted silk tie remains a timeless menswear staple and can be found in a range of prices from purveyors like Drake’s and The Tie Bar.
Marcello wears single-strap monk shoes, again a fine selection for a man whose attire bridges between casual and conventional dress as monks, while technically loafers, are dressier than most slip-ons without being as formal as classic oxfords. These were a favorite of Marcello Mastroianni both on- and off-screen during this time, as seen in his films like Ieri, oggi, domani. Worn with black socks (what else?), Marcello’s black calf cap-toe monks each have a single strap that closes through a silver-toned single-prong on the outside of each instep.
Both actor and character would likely approve of these cap-toe monks in black leather from Leonardo Shoes of Florence, though you can also test your toes with these wares from Allen Edmonds, Clarks, Cole Haan, La Milano, and Stacy Adams. Just be sure to follow Marcello’s example and slip them off before stepping into a body of water, be it the Tyrrhenian Sea or the Trevi Fountain.
Marcello’s sizable cuff links steal any attention his wrists may receive, so his watch slips into anonymity under his left shirt cuff, barely to be glimpsed to show any more detail than what appears to be a round, light-colored dial.
This suit and tie becomes something as a uniform for Marcello, whether he’s covering a sham sighting of the Madonna by local children by day or impulsively following Nico (playing herself) to a mysterious castle party by night. For both of these occasions, he has changed into a more boldly bengal-striped shirt and supplemented his look with his favorite wide-framed tortoise Persol sunglasses, identified by the Turin-based brand’s signature sword-inspired “silver arrow” on the temples.
Mastroianni would further his role as Persol’s unofficial brand ambassador by wearing a pair of PO649 sunglasses in Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style (Divorzio all’italiana) the following year.
While covering the “miracle”, Marcello layers for the rainy evening in a dark trench coat with a napped, suede-like shell. Aside from this nontraditional cloth, the knee-length double-breasted jacket appears to be detailed like the classic military trench coat with its double-layered shoulder straps (epaulettes), storm flaps over the back and right shoulder, broad lapels with a double hook over the throat, belted sleeve-ends, and a full belt with D-rings around the back. The coat has an additional tab that wraps around the collar with an extended tab on the left that ostensibly connects under the right collar for added throat protection.
For a gathering of intellectuals hosted by his morose pal Steiner (Alain Cuny), Marcello wears a plain white shirt and a polka-dotted tie, the most significant variation from the suit’s usual striped shirt and knitted tie accompaniments.
Marcello is back in the bengal-striped shirt and dark knitted tie when he receives the depressing news that Steiner has killed his children and himself and is thus tasked with informing Steiner’s wife, a series of events that sends Marcello into orgiastic despair by the film’s end.
I don’t believe this is the same suit that Marcello wears with his more medium-toned shirt and tie during the prologue, chapel, and seaside restaurant intermezzo as that suit appears to be made of a heavier and more traditional worsted cloth that doesn’t shine.
How to Get the Look
A black suit? In this economy? Few can truly get away with one, especially with such day-to-night frequency as Marcello Mastroianni’s hipper-than-hip society writer in La Dolce Vita, where he wears his silky black continental suit the base of an ostensible uniform with striped shirt, knitted tie, monks, and oversized accessories like cufflinks and shades.
- Black wool/silk Italian-tailored Brioni suit:
- Single-breasted 3/2.5-roll suit with notch lapels, curved “barchetta” breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, “con rollino” roped shoulders, 3-button cuffs, and double vents
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White hairline-striped cotton shirt with point collar and double/French cuffs
- Round oversized etched cuff links
- Black knitted silk tie
- Black leather belt with single-prong buckle
- Black leather single-strap monk shoes
- Black socks
- Persol tortoise sunglasses
Curious about if you should wear a black suit? Learn more about them in a cinematic context with an exploration of 007’s black suits by Bond Suits and then follow Primer’s flowchart: Should I buy a black suit? before making your ultimate decision.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, considered one of the greatest of all time.
She’s right, I’ve had it all wrong. We’ve all had it all wrong.