Being the Ricardos: Desi Arnaz’s Real vs. Reel Blue Suit
Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Cuban-born bandleader, actor, and TV producer
Los Angeles, September 1952
Film: Being the Ricardos
Release Date: December 7, 2021
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Costume Designer: Susan Lyall
I grew up watching I Love Lucy, my childhood punctuated by many memories of me channeling inordinate levels of anxiety at Lucy’s antics into pacing around my grandmother’s kitchen while the decades-old drama unfolded in black-and-white from the small TV tucked on a corner countertop. Almost thirty years later, I still can recollect Lucy pitching Vitameatavegamin or stomping grapes with better clarity than anything I may have binged on Netflix over the last year.
As the real Desi Arnaz was born 105 years ago today on March 2, 1917, let’s take a look at Javier Bardem’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Desi in Being the Ricardos. (Bardem just celebrated his own birthday yesterday, born just one day shy of 52 years after Arnaz, on March 1, 1969.)
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Being the Ricardos fictionalizes a week in the production of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi’s hit sitcom. Aside from flashbacks to the couple’s first decade of marriage, the action is centered through five days in September 1952, during which Lucy and Desi are bombarded with news gossip of her one-time registration with the Communist Party, his alleged affairs, and overall tumult behind the scenes of the I Love Lucy from Lucy’s frustration with the writing to the mutual resentment between co-stars Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons).
Kidman remains a top contender for Best Actress while the 94th Academy Awards odds for Best Actor don’t favor Bardem, though I found his performance effectively communicated the real Desi Arnaz’s charisma if not much physical resemblance.
For the sake of drama, Sorkin took liberties with the timelines so that the Red Scare gossip in September 1953 and production of the first-season episode “Fred and Ethel Fight” now aligned with when Lucy and Desi announced that they were expecting their second child in the fall of 1952 and were planning to defy network expectations by writing her pregnancy into the show’s narrative. Despite some of this dramatizing, Being the Ricardos maintained several incidents that really happened… including Desi’s vindication via Philip Morris chairman Alfred E. Lyons’ confidential memo giving the star carte blanche: “To whom it may concern: Don’t fuck around with the Cuban!”
The tensions come to a head on the night of Friday, September 12, as Lucy and Desi are faced with newspaper headlines declaring LUCILLE BALL A RED, threatening their careers and reputations. Fed up with being forced on the defensive, Desi takes the risk of addressing the issue head on, marching out for his regular pre-show audience warm-up—aware of the press sitting among them—with the damning newspaper under his arm… and an ace in the hole.
What’d He Wear?
Costume designer Susan Lyall dressed the cast of Being the Ricardos in a realistic mid-century wardrobe for how all would look at work and at play, not restricting them to how we’re used to seeing them in front of the cameras on I Love Lucy. However, the scenes depicting the filming of an actual episode illustrate the extent to which Lyall and her team understood the proverbial assignment, bringing Desi Arnaz’s characteristically sharp style to colorful life.
Lyall shared with The Credits that the favorite of her 21 outfits designed for Desi was this vivid dark sapphire-blue suit seen during the dress rehearsal on Thursday and the following day’s taping of the episode. “It’s a mixture of mohair and wool that was very popular in the ’50s, a kind of blue that is really hard to find,” she explained. “I worked with a tailor who’s very good at fabric history.”
Javier Bardem’s single-breasted suit jacket shares many characteristics with the one worn by Desi Arnaz while filming “Fred and Ethel Fight”, including a ventless back, notch lapels rolling to a two-button front, and straight, well-padded shoulders that project a strong silhouette, emphasized on Bardem’s suit jacket with heavily roped shoulders. The sleeves are finished with four-button cuffs (in contrast to the three-button cuffs worn by the real Arnaz.)
Bardem’s jacket is tailored with a closer cut than the ’50s drape evident on the real Arnaz’s suits, with a raised button stance consistent with contemporary fashions. The welted breast pocket and jetted hip pockets differ from the patch pockets on the jacket actually worn in the episode, but Bardem’s Desi accessorizes similarly with a white linen pocket square neatly folded into the breast pocket.
Bardem’s white cotton shirt reflects the uniquely incongruous detailing favored by Desi Arnaz on screen, with a widely spread button-down collar and double (French) cuffs, in addition to a breast pocket and front placket.
Choosing the formal dissonance of a casual button-down collar and dressier double cuffs indicates a wearer who has likely studied convention and made the conscious choice to carve his own preference-based sartorial path; indeed, Arnaz’s contemporaries in the FCBD realm include arguably well-informed dressers like Cary Grant, Gene Barry, Tony Curtis, and Frank Sinatra, though the style seems to have generally fallen out of favor even among these icons by the late 1960s.
Also aligned with what the real Desi Arnaz wore while filming “Fred and Ethel Fight”, Bardem wears a dark navy knitted silk tie, hanging from its oft-loosened Windsor knot like a straight and narrow strip finished with a square bottom.
Off-camera, Bardem’s Desi often pulls out his reading glasses with tortoiseshell wayfarer-shaped frames.
The pleated suit trousers are held up with a black leather belt that closes through a silver-toned single-prong buckle. The trousers have side pockets, and the bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) that break over the tops of his black leather cap-toe oxford shoes. These aren’t just any oxfords though, as they have the slightly raised Cuban heels that the Santiago de Cuba-born Arnaz favored in real life.
“She was hesitant at first, knowing they’d make Bardem look taller than Arnaz,” Chris Koseluk wrote for The Credits of Lyall’s decision to use these footwear. “But they were a staple of Arnaz’s wardrobe and she felt it would help Bardem find his inner rhythm. As soon as he put them on, she knew she had made the right choice. ‘He just immediately got light on his feet and started dancing around the room,’ she says. ‘He loved them. We basically put them with every costume.'”
Both off-screen and in character as Ricky Ricardo, Bardem follows the real Desi Arnaz’s example of staying light on jewelry and accessories, wearing only a gold wedding ring on his left hand and an elegant gold round-cased dress watch on a black leather strap.
How to Get the Look
Earlier this year, Saks Fifth Avenue featured a number of designer-anchored outfits inspired by scenes from the movie, including a Zegna suit, Eton shirt, and David Donahue tie echoing Desi Arnaz’s suit through the final act. That may call for a steeper budget than many who aren’t the head of a major TV production company would hope to spend, but you can follow the philosophy of simple elegance driven by attractive fabrics and flattering fit.
- Dark-blue mohair/wool-blend suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with edge-stitched notch lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with spread button-down collar, front placket, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Navy-blue knitted silk tie
- Black leather belt with silver-toned single-prong buckle
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark blue dress socks
- Tortoise-framed reading glasses
- Gold wedding ring
- Gold dress watch on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, exclusively streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Patronize me again, and I’ll stick my hand down your throat and pull your fucking lungs out.
Excellent post! My tailor, Antonio Gasbarri, out here in Los Angeles, made most of what Mr. Arnaz wore in “I Love Lucy”, along with Bogie’s white dinner jacket in “Casablanca”! He told me Desi used to call him “Antonio Spaghetti”! To be dressed by the same hands/eyes/cutter that did up those wonderful clothes Ricky Ricardo wore, in a show I have always loved, was, in a word, INCREDIBLE.