Boardwalk Empire: Al Capone’s 1920s Leather Car Coat
Stephen Graham as Al Capone, ambitious but volatile mob enforcer
Chicago, Winter 1920
Series: Boardwalk Empire
– “Boardwalk Empire” (Episode 1.01, dir. Martin Scorsese, aired 9/19/2010)
– “Anastasia” (Episode 1.04, dir. Jeremy Podeswa, aired 10/10/2010)
Creator: Terence Winter
Costume Designer: John A. Dunn
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the 75th anniversary of Al Capone’s death, I wanted to take this blog’s first overdue look at Stephen Graham’s explosive performance as the infamous gangster on Boardwalk Empire. Capone features as an influential if tertiary character to the main drama in Atlantic City, introduced as a smart-talking enforcer to the old-fashioned—and ill-fated—”Big Jim” Colosimo during the series premiere, set in January 1920 when Prohibition became the unpopular law of the land.
Though the series ends in 1931 as Capone reaches his greatest amount of fame and power before he’s carted off to federal prison to serve his stretch for tax evasion, the first season spends considerable time with the ambitious Al while he’s still just a trigger-happy enforcer working for Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), the pragmatic pimp who imported Al from Brooklyn and installed him at his opulent South Side brothel, the Four Deuces.
These basic facts are reflected in the series, introducing the fictional Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) to the action as a war-scarred lackey on the run after he leaves his own boss, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), holding the bag in A.C. after the fallout from Jimmy and Al’s fumbled score. “You know who’s fuckin’ load this is?” one of the mooks asks during the deadly liquor hijacking that bookends the pilot episode.
“Pretty fuckin’ obvious now, ain’t it?” Capone replies as he whacks the man in the face with the butt of his shotgun.
Titled for the contemporary controversy surrounding an imposter claiming to be the Russian duchess murdered during the 1917 revolution, the fourth episode “Anastasia” begins with Capone trudging across a snowy street to the dissonant strains of Billy Murray inviting us to join him in the “very lively atmosphere” of C-U-B-A, perhaps foreshadowing Nucky’s own actions a decade later. Winter in Chicago is hardly Havana, though, and the only place Scarface Al is heading is directly up the stairs of the Four Deuces, to where his new pal Jimmy is sleeping aside the charming courtesan Pearl (Emily Meade). A restless Pearl catches sign of Al as he steps into the room, but Capone silences her with a playful finger to his lips as he pulls his six-shooter and approaches the slumbering Jimmy…
What’d He Wear?
Still a relatively small-time hoodlum at the start of the series, Al Capone has yet to fully embrace the tailored three-piece suits favored by his bosses Colosimo and Torrio, instead dressing for warmth and action in a belted fur-lined leather coat.
Capone’s jacket fits the modern description of a car coat, though the term was more frequently used to describe a longer garment that offered fuller coverage during these earlier days of motoring. As automotive technology evolved over the 20th century, so did the definition of a car coat, which now typically describes a shorter jacket that falls to mid-thigh like what Capone wears in these early episodes. At the time these episodes are set in the winter of 1920, Capone’s coat may have been influenced by the double-breasted wool mackinaw that had emerged as a Canadian work jacket over a century earlier, incorporating the leather shell and fur lining that were found on many contemporary car coats.
The Boardwalk Empire coat has a dark seal brown leather shell, with a shawl collar finished in a natural-hued sheepskin fur that matches the lining. Unlike a traditional wool mackinaw, the coat has a single-breasted configuration with five dark brown buttons up the front; to ease the process of buttoning the coat, there is no fur lining behind the buttons or buttonholes on each side of the front. A belt matching the rest of the jacket pulls through a loop on each side, with the left side of the belt fastening over two buttons on the right.
In addition to the flapped set-in pockets on each hip, there is a hand pocket on each side of the chest with a slitted vertical entry, jetted on the right and welted on the left.
Capone’s coat has set-in sleeves, each finished with a single button at the squared cuff. Two metal eyelets under each armpit ventilate the wearer to prevent overheating in the heavily insulated jacket, as there is no back or side vents. A horizontal yoke extends across the chest and back.
In the pilot episode “Boardwalk Empire” (Episode 1.01) and the first scenes of “Anastasia” (Episode 1.04), Capone wears the coat over an appropriately dressed-down collarless shirt, made from rose pink cotton. The shirt has a front placket with off-white plastic buttons, which Capone fastens up to the neck. Given the shortness of the neckband and the fact that it closes with a button rather than a stud, this is presumably not the type of shirt that could be dressed up with a collar and tie, as was the custom in this era predating the widespread production of dress shirts with attached collars.
Capone wears relatively neutral trousers, especially when compared to the bolder tailoring featured on the series. During the liquor hijacking and subsequent drive back to Chicago in the pilot episode, Capone wears warm gray flannel trousers. Throughout “Anastasia” (Episode 1.04), he wears brown plaid flat front trousers. Consistent with prevailing fashions, neither trousers are worn with a belt, held up with suspenders (braces) that remain generally unseen under Capone’s substantial coat.
Both are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms, which break over the tops of his black leather squared apron-toe derby shoes.
Boardwalk Empire makes a point to communicate how hats signified status in the underworld, from Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) advising his Prohibition agents who was worth surveilling in the pilot episode to a Jewish elder commenting to Capone that “you’re a man, yet you wear the cap of a boy!” during a bar mitzvah ceremony later in the season.
Until that conversation leads to Capone adopting the fedoras and homburgs more associated with ’20s gangsterdom, he wears a broken-in brown checked tweed newsboy cap, a variant of the traditional flat cap characterized by its softer paneled construction and the self-covered button atop the center of the crown.
To disguise their faces during the Hammonton hijacking in the pilot episode, both Al and Jimmy cover their faces with a pair of burlap sacks fashioned as masks with eyeholes cut out. The additional burlap around the neck functions for additional warmth as a de facto scarf, particularly after the heist when the men pull down their masks.
As “Anastasia” progresses and Capone visualizes his future in the Chicago Outfit, he dresses to match his ambition while intimidating a Greektown restauranteur by layering the coat over a shirt and tie, his brown plaid trousers, and a waistcoat—or “vest” to us Americans—presumably orphaned from a suit. The gray flannel vest has four welted pockets and six buttons that Capone wears fully fastened, including over the notched bottom.
Capone’s lilac striped shirt coordinates to his burgundy printed silk tie, but he unbuttons the neck of the shirt and loosens the tie, not yet at the level of sartorial sophistication illustrated by underworld superiors like Nucky, Torrio, Colosimo, Frankie Yale (Joseph Riccobene), and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg).
By the episode’s end, both Al and Jimmy would be upgrading their wardrobes to look the part of the flashy and financially secure gangsters they aspire to be, and it’s nothing but three-piece suits from that point forward.
Al Capone may conjure up thoughts of pinstripe-suited gangsters with barking Tommy guns, also known as “Chicago typewriters” due to their expensive use in the Beer Wars waged in the Windy City, but our first glimpse of an armed Capone kicks off the pilot episode as he and Jimmy Darmody storm into the scene with shotguns during their ill-advised hijacking in the outskirts of Hammonton, New Jersey.
Capone carries a Browning Auto-5, so named for its auto-loading operation and the original capacity of five 12-gauge shells (four in the tubular magazine, with an additional shell chambered.) Prolific firearms designer John Browning designed the Auto-5 around the turn of the century, and it broke ground as the first mass-produced semi-automatic shotgun when the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale (FN) introduced it to the market in 1902. Over the fifty years to follow, the design would be licensed to Remington and Savage Arms, who each produced their own versions, though the Remington Model 11 lacked the Browning’s distinctive “humpback” where the receiver drops off before the stock.
Less encountered today, the Browning Auto-5 was a favorite among hunters, law enforcement, military, and—indeed—gangsters through the first half of the 20th century. The pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire features this shotgun in the hands of Prohibition agents and many gangsters, including some of the liquor shipment guards that Capone shoots with his own Auto-5.
For less heavy-duty work, Capone joins many of his fellow gangsters in carrying a Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver. Known as the “Military & Police” model for the first half of the 20th century, this revolver built on Smith & Wesson’s medium (K) frame platform would be renamed the Model 10 when the company switched its nomenclature to numbered models in the 1950s.
This trusty double-action revolver had been introduced alongside the .38 Special cartridge that would quickly become the standard service revolver round for American law enforcement, though Boardwalk Empire accurately depicts its significant usage on both sides of the law.
How to Get the Look
Stephen Graham’s leather and shearling-swathed apparel as a young Al Capone can bring a rugged Prohibition-era flair to your winter kit, rooted enough in timeless tradition that you wouldn’t look as anachronistic as his colleagues in their fedoras and stickpins. (If you want to update the styling for the 21st century while sticking to the same philosophy, consider a henley and dark jeans with well-built leather boots providing better harmony than derbies.)
- Dark brown leather 5-button car coat with shearling shawl collar, full belt with 2-button fastening, vertical-entry chest pockets, flapped set-in hip pockets, and single-button squared cuffs
- Rose pink cotton collarless button-up shirt
- Gray or brown plaid wool flat front trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather apron-toe derby shoes
- Brown checked tweed newsboy cap
- Brown heavy leather work gloves
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the whole series.
You’d piss your pants, if you were wearin’ any!