Warren Beatty as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, “celebrity” gangster and casino builder
Los Angeles, Spring 1945 and Las Vegas, Fall 1946
Release Date: December 13, 1991
Director: Barry Levinson
Costume Designer: Albert Wolsky
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Everybody deserves a fresh start once in a while.
At least three times while wearing this outfit alone, Warren Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel pontificates on the power of fresh starts. While the real Siegel may not have been quite as forgiving, Beatty plays him with the actor’s characteristic charisma to better communicate to audiences how a violent gangster could have charmed the stars of “golden age” Hollywood.
The real Benjamin Siegel was born 115 years ago today on February 28, 1906, under the sun sign of Pisces that—among other things—has been described as the dreamer of the Zodiac.
“Benny’s always been a dreamer,” his pal Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) offers to fellow mob leaders, and it’s this signature trait that Bugsy leans into, resulting in the ultimate manifestation of our protagonist’s dream as he sinks six million in the mob’s ill-gotten cash into building the Flamingo Hotel and Casino and, in turn, establishing the once-quiet desert berg of Las Vegas into America’s bustling adult playground with the help of his adversary-turned-advisor Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel).
Our constant dreamer also refuses to let his own marriage—or the lack of interest on his new suitee’s part—get in the way of his attempted courtship of the vivacious Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), illustrated early on via a montage set to Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive.” This ode to optimism could sum up Siegel’s general approach to life as his constant dismissal of obstacles as “no problem” would surely align with Mercer’s demand that we “eliminate the negative [and] latch on the affirmative.”
Mercer co-wrote the song with Harold Arlen, recording it for Capitol Records with the Pied Pipers and Paul Weston’s orchestra in October 1944. It would become one of the first major hits of 1945, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song as it was featured in the Bing Crosby flick Here Comes the Waves and would be recorded by many popular artists of the day, including Crosby, Kay Kyser, Artie Shaw, and Dinah Washington.
“Accentuate the Positive” endures as one of the most popular post-World War II songs, not just for its enthusiastic sound but also its frequent use in movies—often to juxtapose the image of postwar prosperity with the realities of the era—such as L.A. Confidential and Blast from the Past, the latter incorporating Perry Como’s rendition.
What’d He Wear?
Bugsy represents the real Ben Siegel’s taste for expensive clothes with Warren Beatty’s well-tailored screen wardrobe. Beatty’s Bugsy arrives from New York dressed in businesslike gray double-breasted suits, but he soon adopts a more sporting look for life on the more casual West Coast, pairing colorfully checked sport jackets over silk sport shirts accented with the occasional day cravat or fashionable sunglasses.
One of the more frequently seen items rotated through Bugsy’s wardrobe is a houndstooth sports coat with a softly napped finish that suggests cashmere or a cashmere and wool blend. (If you want to know why this weave is called houndstooth, ask your dog’s dentist; if you want to know why it’s sometimes called pied-a-poule, ask a Gallic gallinaceous podiatrist.)
The base check is a medium-scaled black and cream houndstooth, offset by a scarlet red overcheck that creates a 20-by-20 square; each resulting square is, in turn, bisected by a sage green weft and a cornflower blue warp that adds a subtle complexity.
Likely acquired from Western Costume Co. like most of Beatty’s costumes in Bugsy, this two-button sport jacket is elegantly cut in accordance with mid-1940s trends, the shoulders straight and padded out to the roped sleeveheads while the body of the jacket is fitted with darts and fitted around the mid-section with a ventless back. The patch pockets on the left breast and hips dress it down further, and the sleeves are finished with three-button cuffs.
The Los Angeles Look
As Bugsy establishes himself in Hollywood, he also realigns his criminal associations, partnering with the volatile Mickey Cohen rather than the old-school Jack Dragna. His turbulent relationship with Virginia has been settling into something resembling domesticity… at least as domestic as a mobster and his ashtray-flinging moll can get, scarfing down scampi over accusations of assignations with matadors, musicians, and mafiosi.
Bugsy the born-and-bred New Yorker happily leaves the sartorial trappings of the Big Apple behind to embrace life in the land of leisure, appointing his everyday looks with a colorful day cravat worn inside his shirt, perhaps serving the practical purpose of catching the sweat from his neck (and thus preserving his silk shirt collar) while certainly affecting a cunningly continental appearance. With this particular outfit, he wears a burgundy foulard silk cravat patterned in an alternating arrangement of elaborate beige circles and blue squares.
Bugsy calls out the sage check present in his jacket by favoring shirts in shades of green, beginning with this rich teal silk sports shirt. The broad collar has a loop extension from the left to connect with a button under the right collar leaf. There are two chest pockets, each covered by a non-buttoning flap with the left flap monogrammed “Ben” in a low-contrast green thread, a subtle reminder that he prefers his given name to the entomological moniker he earned on the streets.
The shirt fastens with large mixed green urea two-hole buttons up the plain “French placket”, and each cuff closes with a single button. Edge-stitching is present along the collar and pocket flaps.
Bugsy’s wool trousers are also a shade of green, albeit a darker forest green. These trousers are detailed with double forward-facing pleats on each side, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs). He wears a dark brown leather belt with a gold-toned enclosed square buckle that appears to be engraved, likely monogrammed.
A casual outfit calls for a casual shoe, so Bugsy leaves those calf leather oxfords in the bottom of his closet and struts around Los Angeles in a pair of rich chocolate brown suede lace-ups—likely derbies—with hard black leather soles, worn with dark brown socks.
Bugsy arrives in Los Angeles with a pair of monobrowline sunglasses that would be his go-to shades for the first half of the film, styled with tortoise frames and a gold-toned chassis with exposed rims around the bottom of each lens.
Browline eyewear is often associated with retro fashion thanks to its mid-century popularity among everyone from LBJ and Malcolm X to Vince Lombardi and Colonel Sanders. Indeed, the real Bugsy Siegel—who was killed in June 1947—may have lived to see Shuron Ltd. launching the Ronsir in 1947 as the first true browline frame, but it’s not likely that he would have been wearing these glasses two years earlier upon arriving from New York.
Even less likely would be that Bugsy’s yet-to-be-designed browline glasses would have sunglass lenses, as it wasn’t until the ’80s when these would be mass-produced, popularized in the wake of Bruce Willis sporting a pair of tinted Ronsirs on Moonlighting. Ray-Ban capitalized on the situation, introducing sunglass lenses for its Clubmaster (which Tim Roth would bring to the screen in Reservoir Dogs) and the Wayfarer Max, a monobrowline fusion that blended the browline sensibilities with the solid top half of the Wayfarer’s more contiguous frame.
While one could argue that seeing postwar-era browline glasses in scenes set across 1945 and 1946 is forgivable, Bugsy wearing sunglasses that wouldn’t be developed for another four decades suggests a more substantial anachronism.
A Tie at the Train Station
Bugsy’s romance with Virginia heats up to the degree that he’s resolved to return to New York—on his daughter’s birthday, of all occasions—to ask his wife for a divorce. (Spoiler: it’s going to take a little more time than this!) As he sits with Mickey Cohen at Union Station, Bugsy sartorially signals that he’s headed back east into the cold world of commerce by buttoning the loop-collar on his silk sports shirt up to the neck and tying on a Deco-printed silk tie of irregular gray-and-navy squares bouncing against a scarlet red ground. Like his similar green shirt from the earlier outfit, this eggshell-white silk shirt has two pockets and subtly contrasting edge-stitching.
It’s a transitional look, as Bugsy hasn’t yet returned to the fully wrapped confines of his gray double-breasted suits and dress shirts that he wears in New York, but he’s bringing a more businesslike touch to his colorful West Coast appearance.
Bugsy condenses much of the action into a two-year period between early 1945 and Christmas 1946, though the real Siegel had actually arrived in southern California in the late ’30s. The end of World War II informs much of the movie’s chronology, with the frequently seen prop newspapers usually adding support; for instance, the earlier-described scene of Bugsy arguing first with Virginia and then with Jack Dragna has a newspaper clearly dated Friday, March 9, 1945. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it continuity error, the newspaper seen several scenes later as Mickey and Bugsy discuss Harry Greenberg’s betrayal is dated March 30, 1944, almost an entire year before the scene was set.
Buttoned Up in the Mojave Desert
A year later, Bugsy Siegel’s world has considerably changed. He’s finally divorced from the long-suffering Esta, Harry Greenberg is dead, and he’s moved his center of operations from L.A. to Vegas, where he’s overseeing development of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. While Bugsy fusses with the placement of the swimming pool and signage of his desert oasis, Mickey Cohen has a few concerns about how Virginia is managing the millions they’re being lent by the Mafia. He shares his suspicions with Bugsy, who’ll hear nothing of it, even after Virginia resumes her hobby of throwing heavy home decor at his face.
The blazing sun of the Mojave Desert in mid-afternoon has Bugsy removing his jacket as he takes a hands-on approach to hotel management. He wears another green shirt, this time in a light mint shade and uniquely detailed with wide gray nailhead-textured piping along the front edge of the collar, the plain front, and the top of each of the two set-in chest pockets.
Bugsy wears the shirt with all four tonal indented plastic four-hole buttons fastened up the front as well as the loop collar that secures the top of the shirt at the neck. The sleeves are finished with a pointed tab that also closes through a single mint-hued button.
Midway through Bugsy, our eponymous gangster debuted a second pair of sunglasses that are more consistent with the time period. Indeed, aviator sunglasses had debuted a decade earlier with American Optical’s development of D-1 flight glasses for the U.S. Army Air Corps, soon superseded by the more comfortable AN6531. At least a half-dozen contractors put out their own AN6531 models through World War II, by which time Bausch & Lomb had already introduced the metal-framed Ray-Ban Aviator for the civilian market as well as the Shooter and Outdoorsman variants with their reinforced brow bars.
Beatty’s screen-worn matte silver-framed aviator sunglasses with unique reinforced brow bar may not be exactly the type that was available in the mid-1940s, but they’re at least consistent with a widely offered style from the era… not to mention that the shape of the lenses suggest a somewhat bug-eyed appearance in accordance with Mr. Siegel’s resented nickname.
His dark green wool pleated trousers and dark brown leather belt appear to be the same as when we first saw this outfit in Los Angeles, though his tan suede ankle-high shoes appear to be desert boots, possibly thee same ones he wore with his gingham-checked sports coat when he first “discovered” the future site of the Flamingo in the desert.
Like the browline glasses earlier, desert boots may be flirting with anachronism as Clarks would formally introduced them to the world at the 1949 Chicago World’s Fair, though Jake Gallagher reported for GQ that Nathan Clark had actually encountered a prototype of this crepe-soled boot eight years earlier when deployed in Burma.
Before The Sopranos established pinky rings as the preferred affectation of the American gangster, gents wore their rings on their little fingers to signify wealth and class. While Bugsy Siegel was undoubtedly a mobster (ass the below screenshot illustrates), his decision to adorn his left pinky with a gold ring was likely driven more by mid-century attitudes regarding accessories than a wish to signify his involvement in any criminal organization.
On his left wrist, he wears a gold tank watch with a black square dial on a black leather strap.
The real Ben Siegel dressed his hands simialrly, including an ornately monogrammed gold signet ring on his pinky and an 18-karat gold Bulova wristwatch.
Bugsy is a rarity among the gangster genre in that it features considerably little gunplay; in fact, I pitched it as a romance where the leading character just happens to be associated with the mob when my girlfriend and I were looking for something to watch on movie night. (She liked it!)
That said, Ben Siegel finds his dangerous line of work considerably easier with a rod handy, whether it’s mergers and acquisitions or murders and executions. Like many a movie gangster in this era, he relies on a trusty Colt Detective Special in .38 Special.
Colt introduced the Detective Special in 1927 alongside the full-size Colt Official Police service revolver, intending the snub-nosed Detective Special to serve as a powerful and easily concealed “belly gun” by plainclothes policemen, as its name implies. Of course, it wasn’t just detectives who needed to conceal their firepower and America’s criminal populace quickly took to the six-round revolver with its two-inch barrel.
The Detective Special certainly wasn’t the first of its kind as easily concealed revolvers date back to derringers and the British Bulldog types as used by Charles Guiteau to assassinate President James Garfield in 1881, but the Detective Special blended the best of every element—concealment, capacity, and caliber—into a reliable, mass-produced package that would be a favored gat among gumshoes and gangsters for decades to follow.
How to Get the Look
Far removed from the businesslike world of the New York mob, Bugsy embraces the warmth and leisure of his western hubs in mid-century L.A. and Vegas with green sport shirts and trousers anchored by a colorfully checked houndstooth jacket, suede shoes, and the occasional day cravat.
- Black-and-cream houndstooth (with scarlet-red overcheck and sage-green and cornflower-blue accent checks) wool single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Green silk sports shirt with loop collar, plain “French placket” front, two chest pockets, and button cuffs
- Burgundy foulard silk day cravat
- Forest green wool double forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark brown leather belt with monogram-engraved gold square enclosed buckle
- Brown suede lace-up shoes (either dark derbies or tan desert boots)
- Dark brown socks
- Retro-styled sunglasses (either tortoise-framed monobrowlines or matte silver aviators)
- Gold tank watch with black square dial on black leather strap
- Gold pinky ring with dark stone
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.