Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy, square-jawed detective
“Homeville”, December 1938
Film: Dick Tracy
Release Date: June 15, 1990
Director: Warren Beatty
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
Ninety years ago today on Sunday, October 4, 1931, Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy premiered in the Detroit Mirror, introducing the world—or at least Detroit—to the determined detective in his trademark yellow coat.
Despite the strip’s longevity and popularity, attempts to adapt it for the screen never came into fruition for nearly six decades until the blockbusting success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 proved to studios there a profitable market for comic book adaptations. Bringing Dick Tracy to Hollywood became a passion project for Warren Beatty, who starred as the title character as well as producing, directing, and attracting a cavalcade of stars to portray the colorful—and colorfully dressed—figures of the mysterious Chicago-like city where Tracy faced off against gangsters and gun molls.
The resulting film remains one of the most confidently ambitious yet curious comic adaptations to date, also considerably violent given its PG rating, a reflection of the surprisingly violent strip itself.
Even if some have criticized the measures to which he’s gone to retain the rights to all Dick Tracy-related content—including a curiously conceived in-character special with Leonard Maltin in 2008—Beatty clearly has a passion for the character and presenting his world in a manner authentic to the original comics, including the film’s adherence to a bright but limited color scheme that ultimately creates a uniquely surreal experience for the viewer. As Emily VanDerWerff wrote in her excellent Vox retrospective for the film’s 25th anniversary:
[Beatty] collaborated with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of three Oscars for other films and a nomination for this film) and his top-notch design team to create a world that existed primarily in the brightly hued splashes of the Sunday paper’s comics page.
This is a world swathed in red and green, in purple and yellow — a look that newspaper publishers adopted in order to print color as cheaply as possible. But Beatty went way, way over-budget trying to capture the lush look of Chester Gould’s old comic strips.
Every single scene is bathed in luminescent tints, and the film frequently pauses to take in the colorful grandeur of its fictional universe. If there’s one reason to revisit Dick Tracy today, it’s that the movie’s visuals are wholly different from those of any comics-based movie of today.
What’d He Wear?
Given Beatty’s obvious passion for the finished film to resemble the limited colors of the original comics, costume designer Milena Canonero brilliantly approached the assignment to ensure that each character—from Dick Tracy himself to the background extras—fulfilled their role in fitting into the vivid tapestry, receiving an Academy Award nomination for her unparalleled work. Unlike Batman, where the Joker’s loud, purple-hued attire distinguished him as the quintessential comic-book villain against the backdrop of gritty Gotham City, everyone in Tracyville completes the intended palette of a vivid world that had once only existed in cheaply printed newspaper comics.
Under his memorably bold coat and hat, Tracy wears a surprisingly conservative suit, shirt, and tie, again all pulled straight from the decades of Gould’s comic strip. After his clothes are ostensibly ruined by Big Boy’s “bath”, Tracy asks his fellow detectives to launder them before changing into… an identical suit, shirt, and tie.
The pitch-black wool suit has a double-breasted jacket with broad shoulders and wide, full-bellied peak lapels that were characteristic of the era’s tailoring. The lapels elegantly sweep across Tracy’s torso to the top of the 6×2-button configuration, and he typically wears both of the functioning buttons fastened. The ventless jacket also has three-button cuffs, a welted breast pocket, and jetted hip pockets.
While black business suits are rarely advised in real life outside of funerals, evening events, and well-dressed assassinations, there’s little of Dick Tracy that attempts to reflect realistic sartorial practices, instead leaning heavily and joyfully into the limited palette of the “golden age” of newspaper comics. The illustrated Dick Tracy was always portrayed wearing black suits which—with his conservative white shirt and red striped tie—project the image of a serious man who takes his serious work very seriously, particularly when opposed to the brightly dressed gangsters he has vowed to remove from his city.
Tracy wears white cotton shirts styled with a sharp point collar reflecting the fashions of the period. The shirt has a plain (“French placket”) front and barrel cuffs that fasten with a single button on the cuff and an additional gauntlet button over each wrist. His rich scarlet tie is patterned with “downhill”-direction black stripes that alternate between narrow stripes and slightly wider bar stripes. The length is also consistent with neckwear of the late ’30s, with a shorter blade that corresponds to a higher trouser rise and also the philosophy that—between closed jackets and waistcoats—the bottom of most gents’ ties wouldn’t be seen anyway.
While it’s likely that his jacket and waistcoat are all pieces from a matching three-piece suit, Tracy appears to only appear one or the other at a time as I was never able to glimpse the waistcoat under the jacket.
The single-breasted waistcoat—or “vest” to us Yanks—has a five-button front that Tracy almost always wears unbuttoned, aside from when he’s cooling his heels in a jail cell. (Interestingly, he had been wearing his double-breasted jacket when he was arrested; perhaps his fellow officers were kind enough to bring his waistcoat.) The waistcoat also has four welted pockets and a strap across the lower back to adjust the fit.
Tracy’s pleated trousers have belt loops, which he wears with a black—or very dark brown—woven leather belt that closes through a gold-toned squared single-prong buckle. The trousers have side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.
Though suspenders (braces) are recommended for three-piece suits—and we do occasionally see Tracy wearing black suspenders—a belt can provide better retention for a shoulder holster, which is Tracy’s preferred rig for concealing his sidearm. He holsters his .32-caliber Colt pistol in a green holster under his left arm, suspended over his shoulders via an adjustable black leather strap system.
The color of Dick Tracy’s hat seemed to vary in the original comics, with some early illustrations featuring green and orange hats, though it appears that our heroic detective had settled on a yellow fedora to coordinate with his coat by the 1950s.
Beatty’s Tracy tops his look with a yellow self-edged, snap-brim fedora, the crown proudly pinched like the prow of a triumphant ship above the black grosgrain band. The recognizable hat has been auctioned by Bonhams—and also featured at The Golden Closet and iCollector—with the listing describing its size as 7 5/8 and the inside stamped: “Golden Coach / by Dobbs / Genuine Fur Felt.”
Arguably the pièce de résistance of Dick Tracy’s massive overcoat, a yellow woolen twill double-breasted coat provided by Hollywood’s venerable Western Costume Company, according to the tag described in the Bonhams auction listing that also provided its measurements of a 42″ chest and 18″ from shoulder to shoulder.
So why yellow? The most obvious answer would be that it was part of the successful attempt to reflect the look of the comics… and Gould had likely drawn his Tracy in a yellow coat to reflect the more common khaki or tan coat that would have required a more expensive ink to accurately portray within his strip.
Tracy’s screen-worn yellow coat has wide peak lapels with swelled edges and a buttonhole through each. The shoulders are wide and padded and the excessively long coat extends below Beatty’s knees, adding to the image of Tracy’s coat as his heroic cape. Like the double-breasted suit jacket under it, the coat has a 6×2-button configuration, reinforced by a full belt rigged with D-rings like a classic military trench coat. Also cribbed from trench coat stylings are the fully belted cuffs to adjust the tightness of each set-in sleeve over the wrists. The coat also has flapped patch pockets over the hips and a single vent.
Tracy wears black leather cap-toe oxford shoes with black socks, the most reasonable combination that good taste dictate be worn with a black suit.
Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of Dick Tracy’s habit would be his two-way wrist radio, the innovative gadget that predated the Apple Watch by nearly 70 years! With input from wireless innovator Al Gross, Gould introduced Tracy’s wrist radio in the comic strip that ran on Sunday, January 13, 1946, an in-universe invention by industrialist Diet Smith’s son Brilliant that was eventually upgraded to a wrist TV in 1964. Martin Cooper, the engineer who pioneered the handheld mobile phone while working for Motorola in the 1970s, later cited Dick Tracy as the inspiration for his world-changing technology.
Even though Dick Tracy is set leading up to New Year’s Eve 1938, the movie retcons Tracy’s adoption of the watch by featuring the invention nearly seven years before Gould himself had added it. (Of course, it would be almost unthinkable to bring Dick Tracy to the big screen without it!)
The screen-worn wrist radio, which was among the other items from the film auctioned by Bonhams, has a rectangular 1¾”-long stainless steel case with a crown coordinating to the flattened tonneau-shaped pearlized analog dial with its black Arabic numeral hour markers and an additional pusher that coordinates to the gilt metal mesh-covered portion that’s evidently both speaker and microphone for the two-way radio capabilities. Tracy straps it to his left wrist on a black crocodile leather strap that closes through a gold-toned single-prong buckle.
Dick Tracy may be outfitted with the latest in mid-century wireless technology, but his chosen sidearm would have been more than a generation old at the time of the movie’s setting. Despite its age though, the ergonomic design of the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless as well as the semi-automatic pistol’s more modern connotations vs. the traditional police revolver make the weapon an appropriately sleek choice for the detective to slip into his shoulder holster.
The almost-perfectly named weapon was introduced by Colt in 1903, popular for its covered hammer and compact size that allow it to be more easily carried in one’s pocket without fear of it snagging on clothing. The “Hammerless” part of the designation refers more to the fact that the rear of the slide completely shrouds the hammer; unlike contemporary semi-automatics like the 1911, there was no way to de-cock an engaged hammer unless the pistol was fired. Thus, Colt designed the Model 1903 with a relative abundance of safety mechanisms, from a manually engaged thumb safety to a “lemon squeezer” grip safety lifted from earlier Smith & Wesson revolvers. Later pistols also incorporated an additional safety mechanism that wouldn’t fire if the magazine wasn’t firmly in place.
Colt offered its Pocket Hammerless pistol in two of the most common smaller calibers of the day, .32 ACP and .380 ACP; pistols chambered for the latter were technically designated the “Model 1908” and had a seven-round magazine capacity as opposed to the eight-round magazines of the .32-caliber models.
Almost immediately popular with civilians who sought pocket-ready personal protection in a world that was advancing from the holstered six-shooters of the old west, the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless eventually proved to be popular on all sides of the law. Lawmen like the aging Bill Tilghman were known to appreciate their easily concealed reliability while criminal desperadoes like John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow—whom Warren Beatty had famously portrayed a quarter-century earlier—employed them as handy pocket pistols for their vast arsenals. (Beatty would also use one while playing another famous gangster in the extended version of Bugsy the following year.)
Of course, eight shots from a .32-caliber pistol would hardly be enough when taking on a dangerous villain like “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), so Dick Tracy also utilizes the classic Thompson submachine gun for heavier-duty work.
The “Tommy gun” had been developed in response to infantry needs recognized during World War I, though its extended development under the supervision of Brigadier General John T. Thompson meant that first combat his portable, blowback-operated .45-caliber submachine gun would prominently encounter was the famous Beer Wars across big cities in Prohibition-era America. However, the Thompson had also proven its military value during Irish Civil War battles of the early 1920s, and it was formally authorized for service by American police and military forces in the decades to follow.
The first major produced version of the Thompson was the M1921A, which boasted the recognizable configuration of the vertical foregrip, drum magazine, and full stock. Five years later, the addition of a Cutts compensator muzzle brake resulted in the M1921AC that has become almost universally recognizable as the “Chicago Typewriter” favored by gangsters of the roaring ’20s.
As usage of the Thompson increased among military and police forces, its development skewed toward field-ready requirements, such as a simplified horizontal foregrip and box magazines that more reliably fed its .45 ACP rounds. By World War II, the profile and reputation of the Thompson had evolved from gangland massacres to battlefield infantry.
How to Get the Look
Dick Tracy may be the only person in his world to wear a relatively “normal”-colored suit, but he makes up for it with a bright yellow fedora and overcoat that present like a superhero’s cape over his black double-breasted suit. While the total image would be best reserved for cosplay or Halloween parties, the base outfit with his timeless tailoring and strong colors can continue to provide inspiration more than 90 years after Chester Gould first introduced us to the determined detective.
- Black wool suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with full-bellied peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with four welted pockets and adjustable back strap
- Pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with point collar, plain “French placket” front, and button cuffs
- Scarlet-red silk tie with “downhill”-direction black stripes of alternating widths
- Dark woven leather belt with gold-toned square single-prong buckle
- Green leather shoulder holster with black leather straps
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black socks
- Yellow fur felt self-edged fedora with black grosgrain band
- Yellow woolen twill double-breasted 6×2-button overcoat with swelled-edge peak lapels, flapped patch hip pockets, belted cuffs, full belt (with D-rings), and single vent
- Stainless steel “wrist radio” with small analog dial and gilt-mesh two-way radio
The yellow coat and hat would almost immediately launch any attempts to recreate Dick Tracy’s costume into the realm of cosplay, but you can more subtly incorporate Tracy’s style with Magnoli Clothiers’ faithful replica of what they market as the “Tracy Tie”.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.