Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, vengeful oceanographer and documentarian
Mediterranean Sea, Fall 2003
Film: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Release Date: December 25, 2004
Director: Wes Anderson
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Much as action movies through the ’90s were often pitched as “Die Hard on a…”, the plot for Wes Anderson’s cult classic The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou could be overly simplified as “what if Moby-Dick was about Jacques Cousteau?” though fans know there’s so much more to it than that!
With Bill Murray’s characterization weaving between homage and affectionate parody, Zissou was clearly Anderson’s ode to the iconic oceanographer and diving pioneer, right down to the red ribbed beanies worn by the crew of Zissou’s research ship Belafonte. (Even the vessel’s name—a tribute to calypso singer Harry Belafonte—is a nod to Cousteau’s ship, Calypso.)
Anderson makes no secret of Zissou’s connection to Cousteau—who was born 111 years ago on June 11, 1910—ending the film with a dedication in Cousteau’s memory.
Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach co-wrote the movie with Murray in mind, with Anderson later explaining that it “could have been no one else.” Indeed, Murray sunk himself into what would become one of the signature roles of his prolific career, eventually certified as a diver with more than forty hours logged. The experience made him considerably more credible as an accomplished (if eccentric) adventurer who would be just the man to hunt down the fabled (and fictitious) “jaguar shark” that killed his colleague.
Neither critics nor audiences embraced The Life Aquatic en masse upon its release, though the years to follow have been kinder in establishing this offbeat original as a modern cult favorite. Though it had always been on my cultural radar, I wasn’t yet enveloped into the mythos of Zissou until my first visit to my now-favorite neighborhood tiki bar—Hidden Harbor—which has an entire wall in the restroom painted with Zissou’s face and the quote that sums up his mission:
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone who wants to tag along is more than welcome.
What’d He Wear?
Milena Canonero deservedly received the Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Costume Design for a Contemporary Film for her work on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, creating an instantly iconic look for “Team Zissou” that drew inspiration from the real Jacques Cousteau and his globally recognized getup of a blue work shirt and pants, topped off with a bright red knitted watch cap.
The red ribbed beanie was integrated as a crucial part of the Team Zissou image, despite the journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) writing that she finds them “contrived”. Contrived or not, beanies, toques, and watch caps (admittedly in more subdued colors) have been trusted headgear among salty dogs over centuries at sea.
Each member of the team wears caps in a slightly different style, with Steve—obviously the group’s leader—favoring a high-topped beanie with a narrow folded-over cuff, keeping a basket full of them in his quarters.
Red beanies knitted in everything from warm wool to cotton or cheaper acrylic are widely available across the web from retailers like Amazon, though LQD put effort into recreating the Zissou cap in the same shade of red, same ribbed texture, and same structure right down (or up) to the slightly extended top.
When providing Jane with “stock dialogue” in response to her probing introductory interview questions, Zissou offers that his favorite color is blue, a not-surprising choice for a man who lives and works at sea. Day by day, Team Zissou is outfitted in light blue uniforms, which—like their caps—differ slightly in their details.
However, the standard Team Zissou shirt like the one Steve himself wears daily is made from a misty cyan-colored blend of polyester and spandex, likely crafted and chosen for its water-resilient properties. (The exact material is described as a “polyblend spandex” in this Prop Store listing for the uniform worn by Niels Koizumi’s stuntman.) The breast pockets are detailed with the Team Zissou insignia—er, I mean patch—consisting of the white-and-yellow embroidered “Z” logo above a white rectangle with “TEAM ZISSOU” embroidered in black.
These shirts feature contrasting cornflower-blue strips on the front placket and across the shoulders and down each short sleeve, cut off by the self-cuff around the bottom of each sleeve. These blue strips are accented by three parallel lines of light blue thread that echoes the body of the shirt.
The placket has seven mint-green four-hole sew-through buttons up the front to the point collar, and Zissou wears the top button open at the neck to reveal the crew-neck of his white cotton short-sleeved undershirt. Each of the shoulders has a pointed strap (epaulette) that’s secured at the set-in shoulder seam and fastens a few inches shy of the neck through another mint button.
Like so many classic seafarers, Zissou also has a favorite sweater to pull on for chilly nights on the water. As worn by Zissou and issued to the rest of the team, this rich navy blue knitteed sweater has a short ribbed shawl collar, set-in sleeves, and a white “Z” embroidered onto the upper right chest.
For rainier occasions, the team protects themselves with waterproof zip-up hooded windbreakers, made in the same light cyanic shade of blue as their uniforms and detailed with Team Zissou patches on the front. Zissou’s jacket, lined in white mesh, has narrow ventilated storm flaps on the chest, a vertical-zipped pocket lower on the right breast, and straight hand pockets. The hood closes with a sea-blue drawcord.
Zissou’s team has pale blue cotton-stretch trousers—or, in Klaus Daimler’s (Willem Dafoe) case, shorts—to match the uniform shirts, detailed with the same cornflower blue tape down over the side seam of each trouser leg. These flat front pants have a squared extended tab to close over the front of the waistband, plus slanted side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms.
The trousers have wide belt loops, with the blue side tape integrated over the belt loops on each side of the waistband. The cotton or nylon web belt is patterned in nine narrow stripes alternating between navy, sky-blue, and white, closing through a small silver-toned sliding buckle.
To carry their issued Glock pistols, Zissou and his team have black drop-leg holster rigs. The holster itself is made of Kydex with a snap-closed thumb break, secured in place by a velcro-fastened black nylon strap around his right thigh, with a supporting vertical black nylon strap that loops over his belt.
As Zissou’s team conducts their operations at sea with few around that wouldn’t be well-informed of the nature of their work—or who aren’t aggressive pirates—they have no need to try to conceal their weapons, favoring easy access over concealment.
Within the fictional Zissou-niverse depicted on screen, our hero had reached such a level of fame that Team Zissou was actually sponsored by Adidas, right down to the sneakers they customized for Team Zissou with the brand’s trademark three stripes shaded in blue to coordinate with the team uniforms.
“They made these for about three and a half years before they terminated my sponsorship,” Zissou explains to Jane, pulling a nearly pristine-looking pair from an unmistakably Adidas-branded blue shoebox. The shape of these low-profile sneakers with their suede T-toe and soft gum rubber wedged-bottom outsoles are clearly inspired by the Adidas Rom running shoe, which the German outfitter had originally developed in tandem with the 1960 Olympic summer games in Rome. (It may be just coincidence, but it seems fitting that Team Zissou would be wearing a shoe known as the “Rom runner”… which could sound an awful lot like “rumrunner” after too much Campari.)
Adidas evidently modified their Rom for Team Zissou, most obviously by the gold-printed “ZISSOU” replacing “ROM” on the sides just behind the three stripes, now running parallel in blue, sky-blue, and blue, with the heel tabs also blue to match the two outer stripes. The uppers are a white supple leather, and the suede T-toe made from a slightly warmer shade of beige. Bright yellow flat laces are pulled through the seven eyelets, adding the third primary color to complete Team Zissou’s red hats and blue uniforms. Steve tends to wear plain white cotton crew socks with his sneakers.
It took more than a dozen years before Adidas finally responded to waves of fan interest to release a limited run of Zissou-branded sneakers inspired by those seen on screen, as reported by Jake Woolf for GQ in 2017. The shoes sold out fast, but you can still find Adidas’ officially reissued Rom runners on Adidas or Amazon, among other retailers.
I find it interesting that, despite his more unorthodox sartorial tendencies, Zissou would favor such the eyewear associated with heroes of the American establishment from aviators to astronauts. Perhaps, for all his quirks, Zissou mistrusts anyone in offbeat eyewear… such as his nemesis, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who peered back at him from the distinctive custom frames that were made in real life for Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh, who also composed The Life Aquatic‘s score.
Zissou’s gold-framed aviators are the wider 55mm size, detailed with AO Eyewear’s signature “bayonet temples” that were designed to be easily worn with military pilots’ headgear when the glasses debuted in the late ’50s.
Team Zissou appropriately equips themselves with dive watches, chosen more for function than form given how frequently their professions find them submerged; the exception proves the rule as the latest member of the team, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), wears a Rolex GMT Master that would have served him well as a commercial pilot for Air Kentucky.
So what dive watch did our fearless leader choose? One of the prestigious Rolex, Omega, Blancpain, or Doxa models as favored by his real-life counterpart Jacques Cousteau? Not quite.
True to his idiosyncrasies, Zissou fittingly adorns his wrist with a Vostok Amphibia, a unique Russian-made diver that originated at the height of the Cold War as a surprisingly worthwhile alternative to the well-established—and famously accurate—Swiss brands. Felix Scholz described the Amphibia’s development for Hodinkee in 2012:
In 1967, Mikhail Novikov and Vera Belov, designers at the Chistopol watch factory, had a challenging task: to design and produce a new dive watch reliable to 200 meters and the associated changes of pressure and temperature.
The design team at Vostok decided on the name “Amphibia” as it evoked a watch equally at home underwater and on land. Coming up with the name was the easy part. Producing a watch capable of meeting the needs of the Soviet defense department was the real challenge.
Of course Switzerland was capable of producing watches with such specifications, but according to Novikov… “many [Swiss] designs we could not repeat, because our equipment can not provide the necessary accuracy.” If the quality of the machines available in Russia meant that copying the techniques of the Swiss were out of the question, then Novikov and Belov would have to approach the problem differently altogether.
In his entertaining review of a “Zissou” Vostok Amphibia, Jody of Just One More Watch marvels at the “quirky, fun, and value-packed” watch’s ability to actually grow more water resistant as its submerged in greater depths. In fact, more than 50 years after their introduction, the Vostok Amphibia has retained a strong but loyal following as an affordable, functional, and undeniably distinctive diver still widely available from online retailers like Amazon and eBay. (Before I was even aware of the Zissou connection, I had purchased a submarine-detailed Zostok that, aside from the seemingly flimsy bezel, lives up to the reputation!)
Zissou’s Vostok diver has been identified as a ref. 420526 Amphibia, powered by Vostok’s self-winding 2416 automatic movement and worn on a black ridged rubber strap. The 39mm stainless steel case has a substantial acrylic crystal over the black dial, which is distinctively detailed in Soviet-era nautical iconography from the spoked ship’s wheel at 12:00 to the anchor at 6:00 and the rope encircling it all on the edge of the dial. The 2, 4, 8, and 10 o’clock hour markers are printed in large white numerals, though an inner ring has a white luminous dot for each hour, and there’s a white date window at 3:00.
The bi-directional chrome bezel has non-numeric round markers at each hour position, connected by dashes like Morse code; five of these hour-marker dots from 8:00 to 12:00—and the dashes between them—are filled in red enamel, the rest in black.
“Supposedly, Cousteau and his cronies invented the idea of putting walkie-talkies into the helmet,” Zissou explains. “But we made ours with a special rabbit-ear on the top so we could pipe in some music.” In addition to the celebrated “rabbit ear” antenna that extends rearward from the top, Zissou’s hard plastic diving helmet is equipped with a forward-facing flashlight and his name (“STEVE”) in blue tape just to the left of the light.
The team also dresses in neoprene wetsuits, each somewhat different in color and with slight variations in style; for instance, the legs on Klaus Daimler’s shark gray wetsuit are cut off above his knees to mimic the shorts that are part of his daily uniform. Zissou wears a light seafoam teal wetsuit that has the same black tape over the seams and zipper for increased insulation. Apropos his leadership position, the words “MASTER FROGMAN” are embroidered along the bottom of the round blue Team Zissou patch affixed to the left breast.
The wetsuit covers his body from head to toe, though Zissou—evidently a brand loyalist—slips his wetsuit-covered feet into a pair of black-and-white Adidas slide sandals when he’s back aboard the Belafonte. His usual holster is supported by a yellow double-striped black web belt around his waist, where he also keeps the suit’s matching gloves before donning them when he dives with the rest of his team.
“I’m not even going to ask what you men are doing out here in your matching pajamas,” greets reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) when she encounters Team Zissou late at night on the beach at Pescepada Island. From where she’s standing, it makes sense that the team would look outfitted in matching sleepwear, though there is some variation in styling and stripes from set to set. Zissou’s own puckered cotton PJs are striped in pale yellow and blue, with a six-button long-sleeved top detailed with hip pockets and light blue embroidered “Z” logo over the left breast.
Team Zissou doesn’t just stop at wetsuits and pajamas, as Steve also wears a light seafoam terrycloth bathrobe with a sky blue reverse side also seen along the inside of the hood. In addition to the self-belt and hip pockets, the robe is naturally emblazoned with the Team Zissou patch.
Zissou wears his robe over his blu tri-toned swim trunks when his visit to the onboard sauna is interrupted by a gang of pirates. These spandex-and-polyester blend trunks have an elasticized, self-suspended waistband and a short inseam that doesn’t even extend an inch below the crotch, leaving very little of Bill Murray to the imagination.
The trunks were auctioned in 2019 with one of Zissou’s crew belt and holster rigs. The tag seen on the shorts suggests a manufacturer whose name begins “D’Inz…”, though I haven’t been able to figure out more.
Of course, not all Team Zissou casual attire is so devoid of modesty. Steve also pulls on a pale blue cotton crew-neck T-shirt with a large black-stenciled “TEAM ZISSOU” logo covering the front.
Don’t point that gun at him, he’s an unpaid intern.
The life aquatic features more gunplay than one might expect, so Team Zissou arms up with a tried-and-true Glock 17 strapped to each member’s thigh holster. “No exceptions, everyone gets one,” Zissou explains to a reluctant Ned as he issues a pistol to him.
In addition to their celebrated reliability, interchangeable parts, and ease of use, the Glock was a smart choice for our seagoing team as they also developed a reputation for resilience to water, particularly when compared to other semi-automatic pistols that don’t share the Glock’s internal firing mechanisms. For a team that works primarily on the water, this would be a considerable asset to make sure their potentially wet sidearms are functioning properly should they be overtaken by hijackers… or “pirates”, as we call them out here, Ned.
Unfortunately, Steve leaves his piece in his cabin when taking in a steam during the pirate attack, but he summons the motivation to overpower one of the guards, steal his Beretta 92FS, and use it to take back control of the Belafonte until it runs out of ammunition and it tosses it into the water after the retreating pirates. (The scene of Murray battling pirates while his bathrobe flaps around him is made all the better as it’s scored by The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”.)
The Team Zissou pistols also seem to alternate between Glocks and Berettas, more frequently using the latter when they need to be fired on screen, suggesting that the production was more easily able to acquire Italian-made Berettas that fired blanks given that most of the production was filmed in and around Italy.
What to Imbibe
“Hey, intern? Get me a Campari, will ya?” Zissou requests, confirming the intern’s follow-up question that he’d like it on the rocks by wordlessly firing a finger gun back at him. He seems to take the first glass of this bitter Italian apéritif while up in his balloon with Jane, who finishes the dregs when their discussion gets too personal. “You really think it’s cool to hit the sauce when you’ve got a bun in the oven?” asks Zissou.
Back down aboard the Belafonte, Zissou fills that same branded highball glass up to the brim with Campari… and perhaps an ice cube or two.
Invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari, the liqueur remains mostly true to Campari’s original formula of more than 60 natural ingredients and is considered essential for cocktails like the Negroni and Americano.
Beyond Campari, Zissou also nostalgically waxes poetic about “the best Rum Cannonball I’d ever tasted” in the hands of a bartender named Kino once employed by the now-ruined Hotel Citroën in the Ping Islands, a location as fictional as the cocktail in question though several mixologists have taken a stab at developing the recipe for this Zissou-worthy concoction.
How to Get the Look
Strictly translated, dressing like Steve Zissou would make for a great Halloween costume… but Chris Scott’s helpful guide at Primer illustrates how the Team Zissou seafaring uniform can be practically adapted into a functional everyday style.
- Light blue polyester-spandex short-sleeved shirt with point collar, shoulder straps (epaulettes), insignia-badged breast pocket, and blue-taped shoulders and 7-button front placket
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Light blue cotton-blend flat front trousers with blue-taped side seams, wide belt loops, slanted side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Navy, blue, and white multi-striped web belt with small silver-toned sliding buckle
- White leather customized Adidas “Rom” gum-soled sneakers with beige suede T-toe, flat yellow laces, and two-tone blue triple stripes
- White crew socks
- Red ribbed knit cuffed “beanie” watch cap
- American Optical (AO Eyewear) Original Pilot gold square-framed aviator sunglasses
- Zostok Amphibia ref. 420526 self-winding stainless steel dive watch with black dial (with 3:00 date window and Soviet nautical imagery), red-and-black enamel-filled chrome bi-directional bezel, and black ridged rubber strap
- Black Kydex single-strap drop-leg right-thigh holster, for full-size Glock pistol
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Anyway, I’m sorry. I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.