Denzel Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, laid-off 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!
Like a man told me once: you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?
With its dark themes and moral questions, film noir emerged as a cinematic sanctum for depicting the struggles of returning World War II veterans. Movies like Crossfire (1947), Act of Violence (1948), and Thieves’ Highway (1949) showcased the psyche of servicemen who had been to hell and back, depicting them not solely as one-dimensional heroes but as three-dimensional humans whose postwar life requires them to come to terms not just with the trauma encountered overseas but also the impact of returning to a changed home. (I recommend reading more about the connection between veterans and noir in James Barber’s recent article “How the Struggles of WWII Veterans Came to Life in Film Noir” for Military.com.)
Protagonists made cynical by their experiences continued as a theme through the development of neo-noir, whether that’s J.J. Gittes trying to put Chinatown out of his mind or Easy Rawlins, whose lifetime has seen his mother’s early death, his father forced to leave, racial inequities, the scars of wartime service, and—where we find him at the start of Devil in a Blue Dress—just having lost his job at the Champion Aircraft assembly plant.
Walter Mosley had already written four novels centered around Rawlins before the first, Devil in a Blue Dress, was adapted into a movie starring Denzel Washington. We meet Easy in the long, hot summer of 1948, three years after he’s returned from the war but still looking for work. Though cut from the same literary mold as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and Lew Archer, Easy has no serious experience as “a private dick” at the time of his introduction, when he’s enlisted by the shady racketeer DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman named Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), who—as you guessed—is eventually revealed as the eponymous devil in a blue dress.
What’d He Wear?
Though the majority of Devil in a Blue Dress takes place after he’s lost his job at Champion Aircraft, Easy continues wearing the badged waist-length jacket that had evidently been part of his work uniform, perhaps still finding comfort in uniform-like garb just a few years removed from his Army service.
Easy alternates between this stone-colored cotton work jacket and a darker taupe “civilian” windbreaker, both gabardine but the work jacket is most significantly differentiated by the blue, oval-shaped “Champion Aircraft” embroidered patch rigged high on the left breast. Both jackets could be classified as windbreakers, particularly as they were known in the 1940s when the term was trademarked by John Rissman & Son in Chicago to describe its then-revolutionary line of casual gabardine zip-up jackets.
Easy’s Champion Aircraft jacket has a brass zipper that runs up from the waist hem to the neck, where it closes at the shirt-style collar. The two chest pockets are covered with scalloped button-down flaps, with the company badge stitched in place above the left pocket, as described. Does the positioning of the triumphantly named company placed over Easy’s heart subliminally remind us that he has the heart of a Champion?
The set-in sleeves are reinforced around the back of each forearm from the elbow to the cuff, where the sleeves fasten over each wrist with a single button on a pointed semi-tab. Two adjuster tabs are positioned toward the back on each side of the waist hem, fastening through one of two buttons to tighten the fit as needed.
We get a sense of how the jacket would have been worn during a typical day at Champion Aircraft during the flashback to Easy’s dismissal, when he wears it with a khaki cotton shirt—likely long-sleeved and detailed with a front placket—that he tucks into his khaki trousers.
As with the other windbreaker, Easy often wears his Champion Aircraft jacket as an over-shirt, the only layer over his undershirts. For chillier evenings, Easy adds the intermediate layer of another shirt, such as the light-blue denim-like cotton shirt that he wears when he meets with DeWitt Albright to discuss tracking down Daphne Monet.
Though not a mil-spec garment, Easy’s shirt evokes the blue chambray work shirts that had been part of the U.S. Navy work uniform since the early 20th century, growing increasingly visible and popular in the years following World War II. The shirt has front placket with smoke-gray sew-through buttons that Easy buttons up to the neck at the point collar. The long-sleeved shirt also has button cuffs and two chest pockets.
Another night, DeWitt calls Easy to request a meeting at the Fisherman’s Pier in Malibu. Upon returning home, Easy is promptly arrested and learns that his friend Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson), and the source of his intel about Daphne, has just been killed. After his release from custody, and meeting mayoral candidate Matthew Terrell (Maury Chaykin), Easy gets back home… only to be lured back out of bed by a call from the mysterious Daphne.
Through all this, Easy wears a long-sleeved sports shirt consistent with the casual-wear that was growing increasingly popular in the years following World War II. Patterned with a large-scaled beige graph check against a tan ground, the shirt has a loop collar which Easy buttons to the top, thus concealing the fastened neck button under the right collar leaf. The rest of the shirt has mixed tan four-hole sew-through buttons through horizontal buttonholes up the plain (French) front, sans placket, and the sleeves fasten over the wrist with single-button barrel cuffs. The two open chest pockets are non-matching, positioned so that the angle of the check pattern contrasts against the body of the shirt.
Easy’s trousers look like the service khakis he would have gotten used to wearing during his wartime service. Made from a khaki cotton twill, these heavy-weight trousers have belt loops, side pockets, and jetted back pockets with a button through the back-left pocket. The stitching is exposed along the seams and around the plain-hemmed bottoms, characteristic of hard-wearing work trousers. He holds them up with a well-worn dark brown leather belt that closes through a gold-finished rectangular single-prong buckle.
Easy’s burnished dark brown leather ankle boots incorporate the plain toes and derby lacing that resemble the russet service shoes he would have been issued in the Army, worn in civilian life with white socks.
Easy often dresses to beat the heat by stripping off his outer layers and sitting on his porch or the back room of his favorite bar in his white sleeveless undershirts, detailed with banded neckholes and armholes with wide-ribbed bodies aside from the narrowly ribbed sections extending down from each shoulder strap.
Known as the “athletic shirt” or “A-shirt”, these sleeveless undershirts were introduced by Jockey in the mid-1930s and had thus been produced for more than a decade. (The A-shirt had obtained its unfortunate “wife-beater” nickname in 1947, the year before Devil in a Blue Dress was set.)
At the beginning of the story, Easy appears to still be wearing his mil-spec A-11 field watch, characterized by a busy black round dial against a steel case. Easy wears his on a worn brown leather strap that has silver-toned metal grommets matching the single-prong buckle that fastens through them.
As Devil in a Blue Dress continues, Easy transitions to a gold tank-style watch, more likely his “civilian watch”, with its tan rectangular dial and dark brown leather strap.
What to Imbibe
Like the archetypal heroes of classic film noir, Easy fuels his “case” with plenty of whiskey… in this case, bourbon. He’s imbibing from the start of the story, when Joppy the bartender (Mel Winkler) pours out shots of Old Fitzgerald for Easy and DeWitt, though Easy just dips his fingertip in and licks it. That night, DeWitt pours another glass of Old Fitz each of them to drink neat, though I believe this had been Wild Turkey in Mosley’s book.
Old Fitzgerald certainly earns the first word of its appellation, having originated around 1870 when John E. Fitzgerald distilled it specifically for rail and steamship barons tippling at southern-based private clubs. By the start of the 20th century, Old Fitzgerald’s market had expanded to the rest of the United States as well as exportation to Europe. The brand produced, uh, “medicinal” whiskey to survive Prohibition, during which time it was sold to Pappy Van Winkle, who developed what has become Old Fitz’s signature flavor profile by swapping out some rye for more wheat in the grain recipe, ultimately creating a soft and smooth taste and finish.
While not as popular as it had once been, Old Fitzgerald lives on as a legacy brand produced by Heaven Hill, who purchased the brand in 1999 and continues to produce it at the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville.
When Daphne leads Easy to her room in the Ambassador Hotel, she offers him more bourbon, to which he responds: “Please! Straight up.”
What to Listen to
In addition to Elmer Bernstein’s evocative score, Devil in a Blue Dress‘s excellent soundtrack incorporates plenty of jazz, blues, and R&B contemporary to the late 1940s setting, the characteristic swinging sounds in these scenes broken up only by “Parlez-moi d’amour”, the French torch song made famous by Lucienne Boyer’s 1930 recording, heard when Easy is riding in Matthew Terrill’s car.
How to Get the Look
Even after his discharge from the Army—and his dismissal from the aircraft assembly plant where he found postwar work—Easy finds comfort in wearing clothes with hard-wearing military sensibilities, such as his work-issued windbreaker, khaki trousers, service boots, and field watch.
- Stone-colored cotton gabardine waist-length work jacket with brass zip-up front, shirt-style collar, two chest pockets (with scalloped button-down flaps), set-in sleeves (with reinforced forearms and button-fastened pointed semi-tab cuffs), and button-tab waist adjusters
- Tan checked long-sleeve sport shirt with loop collar, plain front, two chest pockets, and button cuffs
- Khaki cotton flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark brown leather belt with gold-finished rectangular single-prong buckle
- Dark brown leather plain-toe derby-laced ankle boots
- White socks
- Steel military-style field watch with round black dial on brown leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Now, when somebody tells me “ain’t nothin’ to worry about,” I usually look down to see if my fly is open.