Devil in a Blue Dress: Denzel Washington’s Gabardine Windbreaker
Denzel Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, former aircraft mechanic and World War II veteran
Los Angeles, Summer 1948
Film: Devil in a Blue Dress
Release Date: September 29, 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
#Noirvember continues with Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted from Walter Mosley’s excellent 1990 novel of the same name introducing readers to Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an Army veteran making his way in postwar Los Angeles. Though he would later transform into a full-time private detective, Devil in a Blue Dress establishes Easy as a neo-Hitchockian hero, an everyman who finds himself at the center of a dangerous mystery after losing his job at an aircraft assembly plant.
Down on his luck after the loss of his job, Easy agrees to take on a job for DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), a slick racketeer who tasks the former mechanic with tracking down Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals). He begins his search at John’s, a backroom nightclub where he finds a lead from the loose lips of his flirty friend Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson). However, Easy’s investigation takes a deadly turn as many of his leads end up murdered and he reluctantly calls for assistance from his volatile, gun-toting pal Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle).
Though not a professional investigator, Easy’s intuitive skill and wartime experience allows him to rise to the occasion and take care of himself in dangerous circumstances. Understandably mistaken for “a private dick” on several occasions during his work in search of Daphne, Easy is inspired by the end of the story to hang his own shingle as a private eye.
What’d He Wear?
With a few exceptions, most of Easy Rawlins’ costuming in Devil in a Blue Dress consists of warm neutral tones: taupe tops and trousers ranging across the sepia spectrum, not unlike the colors he would have worn while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He’s not the flashiest or best-dressed character in the film—a title that his slick pal Mouse would likely grab from sartorial runner-up DeWitt Albright—but Easy makes the most of his limited wardrobe by sporting period pieces with a modern and practical sensibility.
Easy’s go-to garment for much of Devil in a Blue Dress is a waist-length windbreaker in a taupe brown gabardine with a gentle puce sheen under some light. Unlike the modern definition of the “windbreaker” term frequently associated with the nylon shell track jackets, the term originated during the 1940s when it was trademarked by John Rissman & Son in Chicago to describe its then-revolutionary line of casual gabardine zip-up jackets. For a period, the terms “gabardine” and “windbreaker” were used almost interchangeably in marketing shortcuts.
In another connection to hardboiled fiction, Raymond Chandler describes a shady deputy sporting one of these jackets toward the end of The Long Goodbye, confronting Philip Marlowe while wearing “a dark brown gabardine-type windbreaker and the zipper was open almost to his waist.”
Unlike Chandler’s mysterious deputy, Easy alternates between wearing his windbreaker completely unzipped or zipped up almost to the neck, particularly when he wears it in lieu of an overshirt.
This “hero” windbreaker is a more fashionable variant of the work jacket that Easy wears toward the start of the film, emblazoned with the Champion Aircraft logo on the left breast but otherwise similarly colored and styled.
Easy’s personal windbreaker has a flat, shirt-style collar and two patch pockets over the chest with rounded bottom corners and flaps (sans buttons). The edges of the collar and pocket flaps are detailed with a non-contrasting stitch. The shoulders are wide, and the sleeves are finished with a squared cuff that closes through one of two buttons. The back is shirred under a horizontal shoulder yoke, narrowly ribbed across the back of the waist hem.
While Easy wears the windbreaker over just his undershirt for the later scenes in Devil in a Blue Dress, the jacket makes its first appearance layered over a mustard yellow sports shirt that appears to be made from rayon gabardine, a tightly woven fabric that was touted during the era as “artificial silk” for its soft feel and drape. The shirt has a plain “French placket” with horizontal buttonholes, button cuffs, and a loop collar that Easy wears buttoned to the neck, affecting the look of a long point collar. The mixed brown buttons have two holes, through which they’re sewn to the shirt via white thread. Edge-stitched in a contrasting brown thread, the shirt also has two chest pockets with non-buttoning flaps, mimicking the windbreaker he wears over it.
This shirt style was popular in the postwar years as American menswear continued to embrace informality; vintage examples still exist (like this shirt previously sold through Rusty Zipper) while London-based outfitter Scott Fraser Collection offers a luxurious retro-inspired Cuban collar shirt in a slubby yellow “ochre” cotton/rayon fabric.
With this shirt, Easy wears a set of brown suspenders (braces), patterned with two tan bar stripes and detailed with gold-toned hardware and tan leather patches and hooks.
As the action picks up, Easy just layers his windbreaker over his undershirt in the manner of a shirt-jacket (or “shacket” if you will). His sleeveless undershirts are white wide-ribbed cotton and—for the latter part of the action—worn with dark brown suspenders patterned with what appears to be a bar stripe through the center but is actually a set of four stone-colored hairline-width stripes, shadowed on each side by a thicker navy stripe. These suspenders have silver-toned adjusters (with thin diagonal ridges) and tan leather patches and hooks.
Easy’s dark brown pleated trousers have a then-fashionably long rise, held up by the aforementioned suspenders and thus the belt loops go properly unused to avoid the redundancy of the idiomatic “belt and braces”.
Not uncommon for the fashionably higher-waisted trousers of the era, the double reverse-facing pleats are “dropped” a few inches below the waistband, the most forward pleat aligned with the first set of belt loops flanking the fly. Voluminous through the hips and wider legs, these trousers also have side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs).
Easy wears his usual well-worn brown leather ankle boots, derby-laced and with a plain toe box not unlike the russet service shoes he would have been issued in the Army.
He finishes the look with a dark brown felt trilby with a narrow upturned brim that affects the look of a porkpie hat though it lacks the porkpie’s characteristic round crown. Indeed, Easy’s hat has a pinched crown and a dark brown grosgrain band.
In earlier scenes, Easy wears what appears to be his mil-spec A-11 field watch from the war, eventually switching to his “civilian watch”, a gold dress watch with a tan rectangular dial, fastened to his left wrist on a dark brown leather strap.
After Daphne reveals the truth to Easy and is swiftly abducted from his house by DeWitt Albright’s thugs, Easy enlists a somewhat sobered Mouse back into service and demands “gimme one of them guns you got,” taking the pearl-gripped Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless for the final act.
As he isn’t yet an investigator, Easy is forced to rely on his pal Mouse to provide the artillery for their investigation… and indeed he does. In addition to his massive .455 Webley revolver, Mouse packs the more compact .32 Colt semi-automatic pistol as a backup sidearm. Easy’s military training would have provided him with enough experience to deftly handle the small-caliber pistol, which he uses to great effect during the finale set in a deserted cabin off Route 9 near Malibu.
Colt introduced the Model 1903 shortly after the dawn of the 20th century (I’ll let you figure out which year) where its ease of use and reliability quickly made it one of the most popular of these early semi-automatic pistols among civilians and criminals alike, reportedly wielded among the latter group by infamous yeggs like John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Bonnie Parker. The pistol was initially introduced in the small .32 ACP caliber with an additional variant chambered in .380 ACP added to the mix five years later.
Despite the Model 1903’s “Hammerless” designation, the blowback-operated pistol indeed has a hammer though it remains covered by the back of the slide to prevent it from snagging on clothing when carried in one’s pocket. Colt manufactured more than than a half million pistols in both calibers through the end of World War II, by which time it was no longer a novelty as scores of other semi-automatic pistols were now widely available in all sizes and calibers.
What to Imbibe
“Get me a setup and a Coke back,” Easy orders once he gets to John’s, an illegal jazz club situated above a grocery store. The “setup” is the bar’s way of serving customers who want to drink, providing only the glass in a bowl of ice… until an independent salesman comes around to the customer’s table to sell spirits—in Easy’s case, a pint of bourbon—from a closed case.
Bourbon is also the liquor of choice when Easy and Mouse drop in on Dupree (Jernard Burks), the laidback boyfriend of the late Coretta. Dupree serves up a bottle of Kentucky Tavern, a venerable brand that began life in 1880 and transferred operations several times during the generations to follow before landing at the Barton Distillery in Bardstown, where it’s currently produced by the Sazerac Company.
Easy doesn’t restrict himself to bourbon as he also enjoys the occasional beer, though he doesn’t touch the Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle he’s given after arriving at Junior’s house earlier that day.
What to Listen to
Devil in a Blue Dress is full of great music, primarily jazz, blues, and R&B from the late 1940s. Easy’s visit to John’s guarantees that this outfit would be accompanied by some energetic toe-tappers and evocative blues from some of the most talented artists of the era.
How to Get the Look
Easy Rawlins makes postwar casual attire look cool and contemporary, his gabardine windbreaker a stylish forebear to more modern shirt-jackets that have been enjoying a recent resurgence.
- Taupe brown gabardine windbreaker with flat collar, zip-up front, two flapped chest pockets, button cuffs, and ribbed back hem
- Yellow rayon gabardine sports shirt with loop collar, plain front, two flapped chest pockets, and button cuffs
- Dark brown double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Brown striped suspenders with tan leather patches and hooks
- Russet brown leather plain-toe derby-laced ankle boots
- Dark brown felt trilby with pinched crown, brown grosgrain band, and upturned brim
- Gold dress watch with tan rectangular dial on dark brown leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and read Walter Mosley’s novel.
See, everybody was in business in Los Angeles.
My favorite Denzel Washington movie. Too bad I live in Maryland or else I’d have the Kentucky Tavern whiskey shipped to me so I could try it. Smh.