Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic drifter-turned-carny
Rural Kentucky, Summer into fall 1939
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley was first adapted to the screen in 1947, just a year after its initial publication, via Edmund Goulding’s classic noir starring Tyrone Power. Guillermo del Toro’s newly released version is a less a remake of Goulding’s movie and more a reimagining of the source material from a screenplay he co-wrote with Kim Morgan, presented as a vividly stylish Gothic quasi-horror that landed a quartet of worthy Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.
Our journey is baptized in flame as we meet our protagonist in the process of lighting a fire that consumes a ramshackle hilltop home… and a yet-unidentified body loosely mummified beneath its floorboards. With only a small suitcase and a radio to his name, Stan Carlisle hits the road to his next opportunity on a Greyhound bus that lands him in the middle of a neon-lit nowhere—a sheriff’s badge would later inform us that we’re likely in the vicinity of Jessamine County, Kentucky, though we’re not there yet.
Stan catches sight of a mustached man of small stature and follows him to the commotion of a carnival, where he learns the man is “Major Mosquito” (Mark Povinelli), an entertainer at the ten-in-one that includes a range of attractions like the lovely Molly (Rooney Mara), who immediately draws Stan’s eye and draws the audience by her electrifying act. Stan finagles his way into a job working for strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) and learns the ropes through first-hand lessons provided by Clem (Willem Dafoe), who specializes in handling the sideshow’s resident geek… thus allowing our protagonist a more prescient look at his future than any of the false prophecies he would later grow famous for expounding.
What’d He Wear?
Stan Carlisle’s sartorial journey follows him from rags to riches (and back to rags), but before we see the well-tailored suits and elegant white tie and tails dressing his successful life in Buffalo, we begin with our protagonist with little more than the oversized clothes on his back.
“Everything he wears at the carnival is sagging and threadbare,” costume Luis Sequeira explained to Vogue of Stan’s earliest-seen costumes. “He has a finite wardrobe, so we wanted to create a kind of capsule collection for that first part of the film: a couple of pairs of pants, some shirts, and a jacket.”
Sequeira has frequently worked with del Toro, including his Oscar-nominated work in The Shape of Water, so the two were well-equipped for a conducive collaboration in what has been described as 242 costume changes among its principal characters that ranged the scrappy sideshow atmosphere to the sophisticated city life.
“At the beginning, the fit was looser, saggier, very well worn; which gave him a foundation of character,” Sequeira elaborated in conversation with Slash Film. Indeed, Stan’s distressed and baggy clothing seems to reinforce his poverty as he alights from that bus in the unidentified berg, inadequately clothed and underfed.
Sequiera mentioned during his appearance on The Art of Costume Blogcast that the “quintessential plaid jacket” was among the items included in Bradley Cooper’s initial costume fitting. This multi-colored plaid double-breasted coat that anchors Stan’s first screen-worn costume shares similarities with the traditional mackinaw jacket.
Named for the French pronunciation of the Mackinac region of present-day Michigan, the mackinaw jacket was developed to fulfill British Army Captain Charles Roberts’ request in late 1811 for heavy wool blankets to be reconfigured as outerwear for his soldiers at Fort St. Joseph to combat the cold, wet winter along the St. Mary’s River. Fur trader John Askin Jr. enlisted his wife Madeleine and a group of local Métis women to sew the coats. The design was intentional, as the long skirts of classic great coats were incompatible with snow so they were cut to a pea jacket-length, but the classic colors evolved by accident as there wasn’t enough material to support the request for blue coats so the majority of those eventually produced for the troops were either red or red-and-black plaid, establishing the pattern that would follow for centuries.
The mackinaw coat soon spread from its military origins and became a favorite among loggers, hunters, and outdoorsmen on both sides of the Canadian-American border, spreading through the Midwest as a workwear staple and even embraced as “lumberjack chic” sportswear over the latter half of the 20th century. In a 1912 issue of Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine, A.F. Wallace opined that “in no other garment is there so much all-around common sense for outdoor work in cold weather.”
The jacket’s Canadian origins are consistent with the Ontario production, suggesting that Stan’s story may begin somewhere in the Midwest before he travels to the carnival. Wherever he is, a mackinaw would hardly be an ideal jacket for summer, which we can assume this is since Clem makes specific reference to learning about Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland when he and Stan drop the geek off outside the Salvation Army shelter which, as it happens, is also the last time we see this coat on screen.
“Mackinaw cloth” specifically refers to the dense, heavy wool used for these blankets and jackets, typically treated to be water-repellent, as depicted on screen as Stan pulls on the coat for protection during stormy nights at work.
“Wools were much thicker back then, so I searched the world for great fabrics that would represent that,” Sequiera explained to Slash Film. Consistent with his initial concept, the thick wool coat that Stan wore on screen was patterned in a black, red, and yellow shadow plaid.
The coats were made by Sequiera’s team, as illustrated by a photo at WWD featuring a completed jacket and a bolt of the plaid fabric used to make them. The thigh-length cut follows the mackinaw tradition but also resembles contemporary car coats and pea jackets.
The ulster-style lapels recall the mackinaw’s original development as a shortened military greatcoat, with a 6×3-button double-breasted wrap that—when closed—allows more insulation and warmth. The jacket has two columns of three large recessed black sew-through buttons, with another set of buttons at the neck should Stan choose to fold up the lapels and close the jacket over his chest.
In addition to the slanted welt-entry hand pockets over each side of the chest, there is a straight pocket over each hip covered with a squared flap.
Perhaps picked up secondhand or “borrowed” from his father like the old man’s gold watch, Stan’s mackinaw jacket is clearly oversized with the tops of each set-in sleeve falling off his shoulders. Each sleeve is finished with a pointed semi-strap that closes through a single button. The back has a belt that secures to a button on each side of the waist, with a buckle that can cinch how tightly the jacket fits, particularly when worn closed in the front.
Stan arrives wearing a stone-colored shirt that appears to be made from a lightweight cotton rather than the heavier-weight cottons and flannels he would wear once he’s more integrated with the carnival crew. The shirt has tan buttons fastened up the plain front with a light reinforced stitch to create the effect of a placket. The barrel cuffs close through a single button, and he wears the point collar open at the neck to show the top of his sleeveless undershirt.
Apropos any brooding noir hero, our protagonist’s face is shadowed by the brim of his hat. At the outset, this is a dark brown felt self-edged fedora with a tonally coordinated brown grosgrain ribbon. Sequeira explained to Below the Line that Cooper’s hats were purchased from Milano Hat Company.
Stan’s gray flannel trousers rise to Bradley Cooper’s natural waist, with double forward-facing pleats that are era-correct while also providing a bagginess consistent with the oversized jacket, presented through the loose-fitting legs down to the full break of the bottoms, finished with turn-ups (cuffs) that gather over his shoes.
Stan rotates through a few sets of suspenders (braces) with his carny garb in Nightmare Alley, and this first set echoes the colors of his jacket with the tan base, dark edges, and burgundy bar stripe down the center. The hardware is a dulled brass, with tan leather hooks connecting to the waistband in the front and back and a matching tan leather back patch where the two shoulder straps intersect over a single strap extending down the center back.
In addition to his suspenders hooked onto buttons along the inside of his waistband, the trousers have buckle-type side-adjusters rigged toward the back of each side of the waist. There have side pockets and set-in back pockets covered with narrow scalloped flaps.
Stan wears russet brown leather cap-toe ankle boots, derby-laced through four sets of eyelets. These boots are appropriately sturdy, with the leather uppers showing plenty of patina from working in the dirt and rain but without losing their durability. (For some of the carnival labor, Stan also pulls on a pair of dark russet leather three-point gloves.)
One of the most crucial pieces of Stan’s wardrobe is his wristwatch, which we learn he stole from his dying father and would be the only piece from his carnival kit that he would continue wearing after finding success as a mustached mentalist among the Buffalo elite.
Property master Maria Simonelli confirmed to Hodinkee that the watch was a vintage Hamilton Hastings that would have been around a decade old by the time the first act was set in 1939. GQ shared that Cooper had personally chosen the watch, and his interest was validated in a story that Simonelli shared with Hodinkee when the actor recognized when he was given one of the three backup watches after the original watch’s crystal was cracked during a cleaning accident.
Despite Pete (David Strathairn) reading that the case is “brass, not gold,” the screen-worn Hamilton was indeed plated in 14-karat gold. The squared off-white dial has gold-filled numeric hour markers, except for the 6:00 position where the dial is inset with a large square sub-register. Pete does correctly deduce that the watch has a “leather band”, as Stan wears it strapped to his left wrist on a textured brown leather bracelet.
The plaid mackinaw jacket makes its final appearance when Clem recruits Stan to help him dispose of their despairing geek, followed by a late meal of steak and eggs washed down with beer at a local diner. Stan wears the plaid coat over a pair of undershirts, with his off-white crew-neck T-shirt providing the base layer under a heathered ecru cotton long-sleeved henley that has a round banded neck and a short three-button placket.
Sequeira has theorized in several interviews that, following Stan and Molly’s decision to leave the sideshow life behind, Stan likely burned all of his clothing and effects—aside from that watch, of course—as he adopted a more smoothly tailored wardrobe that signified his success in the city.
How to Get the Look
Stanton Carlisle has nowhere to go but up at the outset of Nightmare Alley, with his attire indicating his readiness to work as needed to get ahead in his plaid mackinaw coat that signals Midwestern hardiness, simply but ably worn with a neutral-toned shirt, flannel slacks, sturdy leather boots, and the dark fedora that was de rigueur a noirish anti-hero.
- Black, red, and yellow shadow plaid wool mackinaw coat with ulster-style lapels, double-breasted 6×3-button front, slanted chest pockets, straight flapped hip pockets, single-button semi-strap cuffs, and belted back
- Stone-colored lightweight cotton shirt with point collar, plain front, and button cuffs
- Gray flannel double forward-pleated trousers with buckle-style side-adjusters, side pockets, scallop-flapped back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Tan (with dark navy edges and burgundy stripe) cloth suspenders with brass hardware and tan leather accents
- Russet-brown leather cap-toe derby-laced ankle boots
- Dark brown felt fedora with brown grosgrain band
- Off-white cotton sleeveless undershirt
- Hamilton Hastings 14-karat gold wristwatch with round tan dial (with gold-filled numeric hour markers and square 6:00 sub-dial) on textured brown leather strap
As costume designer Luis Sequiera’s team specifically made Stan’s jacket for the movie, you’d likely have the most luck searching for true vintage pieces from the era like this similarly shaded and styled coat featured at Vintage-Haberdashers. Older jackets like this are often appearing online, but you may need to search for “plaid pea coats” in addition to the more accurate “mackinaw” moniker.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Given Nightmare Alley‘s star-studded prominence, emphasis on style, and Oscar buzz, there are plenty of outlets where you can read more about the costume design, most of which were sourced in some extent for this post:
- The Art of Costume Blogcast — “Nightmare Alley with Luis Sequeira” by Spencer Williams
- Below the Line — “Nightmare Alley Costume Designer Creates Period Dress for Guillermo del Toro Again” by J. Don Birnam
- Grazia — “Nightmare Alley: 242 Costume Changes, ONE Production Shut Down and an All-Star Cast” by Rebekah Clark
- GQ UK — “Bradley Cooper’s vintage Hamilton Hastings watch steals the show in Nightmare Alley” by Alfred Tong
- Hodinkee — “Bradley Cooper Wears A Hypnotic Gold Hamilton In Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley'” by Danny Milton
- The Hollywood Reporter — “How ‘Nightmare Alley’ Production Designer Created a Traveling Carnival and The Elite World of High Society” by Carolyn Giardina
- L’OFFICIEL — “Costume designer Luis Sequeira speaks to L’OFFICIEL about outfitting Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and more in this period thriller” by Sophie Shaw
- New York Post — “Bad dream couture: How noir ‘Nightmare Alley’ got its carnival look” by Raquel Laneri
- Slash Film — “How Nightmare Alley Costume Designer Luis Sequeira Brought Vintage Fashion Back To Life” by Hannah Shaw-Williams
- Variety — “Crafting a Noirish ‘Nightmare Alley’ Through Costume and Production Design” by Jazz Tangcay
- Vogue — “Creating the Costumes for the Charlatans, Hustlers, and Con Artists of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley” by Keaton Bell
- WWD — “Costume Designer Luis Sequeira on Creating the Sartorial World of ‘Nightmare Alley’” by Kristen Tauer