Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic carny-turned-nightclub mentalist
Buffalo, New York, Winter 1941
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the eve of the 94th Academy Awards, I wanted to revisit the “golden era” style of quadruple-nominee Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s evocatively photographed adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name.
The story was first adapted for the screen by Edmund Goulding starring Tyrone Power and remains an acclaimed, if offbeat, example of classic film noir. Though he’d seen the original movie, costume designer Luis Sequeira had no problem following del Toro’s direction to forget about the look of the earlier 1947 movie—as he explained to L’OFFICIEL—when drawing upon his own vast research to design the costumes in the two separate worlds of a dusty, Depression-era carnival and a glitzy urban atmosphere on the eve of World War II.
“Guillermo and I spoke at the beginning about creating these two polar-opposite worlds with distinct palettes and textures,” Sequeira told Vogue. “Most of the characters in the carnival are past their prime, so I wanted a lot of the costumes to look aged and worn out to show that history. Then once we moved into the city, it was all about dressing the characters in clothes that were of the moment. The fashion is brand new, and everything looks very slick and monochromatic.”
Sequeira’s costume design was a significant factor in the overall visual style that led to Nightmare Alley‘s nominations for Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography (Dan Laustsen), and Best Production Design (Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau), not to mention an overall nod for Best Picture.
“It was almost like working on two films,” Deverell elaborated to the New York Post. “From the carny world where everything had a faded patina and was a little rough around the edges… to high society, where we wanted everything to be really rich and sumptuous and enticing.”
Having left the carnival behind, the ambitious Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) absconded with the sweet-natured Molly (Rooney Mara) and has spent two years growing his success as the nightclub-headlining mentalist “Master Stanton”. While the rest of the nation braces for war, Stan finds himself in a battle of wits against a darkly alluring guest in the audience, revealed to be the cunning psychologist Lillth Ritter (Cate Blanchett)… and I was only momentarily distracted by the presence of a cold, slick-suited mental health professional named Lilith who isn’t married to Frasier Crane.
Suspicious of Stan and Molly’s routine, Lilith skirts their stage-perfected process and directly challenges the blindfolded Master Stanton to not only identify her gold handbag… but also the “small pistol… nickel-plated, ivory-handled” inside it. Of course, being a natural con artist with a gift for instantly reading people, Stan rises to the challenge, later explaining to Molly that “she came after me… I had to take her down.”
What’d He Wear?
After spending nearly the first half of the movie in a threadbare rotation of fraying and oversized workwear, the newly mustached Master Stanton makes his dramatic debut to the audience while performing in full evening dress. This elegant ensemble provides the clearest sartorial contrast against Stan’s clothes at the carnival, instantly illustrating the depth of his newfound wealth and success. Sequeira has theorized in several interviews that Stan would have burned all of his clothing from the sideshow, incinerating any of this connection to the past as he now exclusively swathes himself in nothing but the finest tailored wool and silk.
“At the beginning it was all about fit, the changes in fit, the changes in color palette, the changes in old versus new, worn versus completely fresh, tweedy versus slick,” Sequeira shared with Slash Film. “At the beginning, the fit was looser, saggier, very well worn; which gave him a foundation of character. And then when he moved to the city, it was abandoning everything from that earlier part of the movie and creating this new character with only the finest in tailored garments, and ties, and silk, and hats. And so, that was wonderful to put together, what I would say, a collection of costumes that felt cohesive to this new person.”
The central attraction consists of the elegantly attired Master Stanton standing in the center of a nightclub, appointing his full evening dress with a black satin wraparound eye mask—detailed with a gold-stenciled eye to suggest his mythical sense of second sight—as he
decrypts Molly’s intricately coded language communicates with otherworldly spirits to discern the meaningful objects volunteered by the audience.
“The king of all male civilian garments is the civilian tailcoat,” wrote Alan Flusser in Style and the Man, adding that “its long tails confer dignity while its starched white expanse of piqué waistcoat, shirt, and tie flatters even the most rubicund of faces.” Granted, Stan Carlisle’s appearance already benefits from his being portrayed by Bradley Cooper, but such elegant garmenture instantly conveys Stan’s elevated status since we last saw him and Molly driving away from the carnival, humbly dressed in the cockpit of a Dodge truck.
The black barathea wool evening tailcoat shines under the strategically placed lighting of the Buffalo nightclub, particularly over the silk-finished details like the satin-covered buttons and the satin-faced peak lapels, which are fashionably broad with slanted gorges that direct the eye toward the prominently roped sleeve-heads on each shoulder. This delightfully dramatic style was a signature of the late ’30s, as seen by the contemporary white kit kit sported by Cary Grant in his seminal screwball comedy The Awful Truth, produced and released in 1937.
Evening tailcoats are designed to be the most flattering garment a man of any proportions can wear, and Stan’s tailcoat is tailored accordingly with emphasized shoulders and a suppressed waist. The jacket features the characteristic double-breasted configuration with a trio of vestigial silk-covered buttons on each side—never to be buttoned—and a welted breast pocket where Stan wears a white linen pocket square rakishly folded to show several points over the top. Perhaps most importantly, the tailcoat is properly cut with the squared cutaway front following the bottom lines of the waistcoat just enough to properly cover them.
The close fit results from the waist seam, which extends around the back, aligned with the bottom of the cutaway portions in the front. A curved seam extends out and down the back from the center of each armhole, and the two silk-covered vestigial buttons are placed where these vertical seams intersect meet the horizontal waist seam, at the top of the long splits that form the signature shaped tails that give the coat its name, correctly falling to just behind his knees.
The sleeves are finished with four closely positioned buttons that, like those on the front and back, are covered in black silk.
The “white tie” dress code is so designated for the bleached swath of neckwear essential to the ensemble’s execution. The gently pebbled texture of Stan’s ivory butterfly-shaped bow tie indicates that he’s wisely selected one made from the classic cotton piqué.
Stan’s white formal shirt also presents all the appropriate elements of proper full evening dress, particularly the addition of a detachable stiff wing collar held in place via brass studs through the shirt’s neckband. The white-tie dress shirt is designed so all the parts that show when fully dressed appear crisp due to heavy starching so, in addition to the collar, the shirt is appointed with a stiff “boiled” front decorated with two small silver-trimmed mother-of-pearl studs. Rather than the prescribed single cuffs to be worn with white tie, Stan’s shirt has the less formal double (French) cuffs, also piqué-textured and fastened with a set of links matching the studs.
Stan follows the dress code with his low-fastening formal waistcoat made from an ivory cotton piquê waistcoat to match his bow tie. (By this point in the 1930s, black waistcoats had largely fallen out of fashion for full evening dress, now largely relegated to black tie kits.) The shawl collar is squared at the top and bottom, breaking nearly horizontally over the three closely spaced mother-of-pearl buttons that fasten above the notched bottom. The waistcoat is additionally detailed with a narrowly welted pocket set-in against each hip.
Though backless waistcoats may seem like a modern shortcut (similar to the sleeveless semi-shirt he had worn at the sideshow), they actually have a historical provenance given that traditional wearers of full evening dress would have been loathe to remove their tailcoats in any but the most private settings. Per their name, these coats consist of the two front panels that connect with two straps: one at the neck and another above the waist which, as seen on Stan, fastens through an adjustable silver-toned buckle.
As Stan relaxes sans tailcoat and tie in his dressing room with Molly, we see more of this side of the outfit that would served function rather than form, including the white silk suspenders (braces) that hold up his trousers, detailed with gold adjusters on the front, a white leather back patch, and white leather hooks that connect to the buttons along the inside of the trouser waistband.
Black formal trousers were to be made from the same cloth as the tailcoat—in this case, barathea wool—with the black silk side facing to designate their heightened sartorial status; tradition would dictate a double-braid for full evening dress, with the single stripe seen on Stan’s trousers more typical of black tie.
Stan’s double forward-pleated trousers rise to Bradley Cooper’s natural waist, where they are naturally devoid of belt loops or side adjusters as they would have been tailored to fit and flatter Stan, with those white suspenders providing additional insurance. In addition to the vertical pockets set-in along each side, the trousers have a back-right pocket that closes with a button through the pointed flap. The plain-hemmed bottoms break over Stan’s black patent leather cap-toe derby shoes (their open-lacing systems differentiating them from the closed-lace oxford), a functional if less formal alternative to the aristocratic grosgrain-bowed court pumps.
Our glimpses at Stan’s left wrist suggest this may be one of the few times he isn’t wearing his father’s vintage 14-karat gold Hamilton Hastings wristwatch, the only piece of his past wardrobe that he hadn’t destroyed or abandoned before attaining his success in the big city. He does, however, now dress his right hand with a gold pinky ring.
Given the uniformity of full evening dress, its stands to reason that Bradley Cooper’s white tie ensemble would be one of the few times his Stan Carlisle mirrors the fashions worn by Tyrone Power in the 1947 adaptation, right down to the tailcoat’s broad peak lapels, the three-button waistcoat with its notched bottom, and the double reverse-pleated trousers. Perhaps the most significant difference is that that Power’s tailcoat has plastic or horn sew-through buttons rather than the silk-covered buttons of Cooper’s tailcoat.
Lilith’s introduction both to the audience and to Stan Carlisle comes with the revelation that she carries a pistol in her purse, all but guaranteeing that we can count on seeing
Carol’s Gun Chekhov’s Gun again by the end of the film. Having instantly judged the weight of Lilith’s small purse by how she was holding it, Stan knew its potentially fatal contents and used her appearance to determine that it was nickel-plated with ivory grips.
After she confirms his suspicions by handing over the pistol from her purse, Stan displays the ostensibly loaded gun for all attendees to see. The flashy little firearm is one of the then-fashionable .25-caliber pocket pistols—or purse pistols, in this case—that were often marketed for women’s personal protection, with the leading examples being the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket or one of the Belgian variations made by Fabrique Nationale, either the FN M1905 or the later model designated as “Baby Browning”.
The silhouette of Lilith’s pistol, particularly the small bumps indicating front and rear sights, suggests that she carries the latter. The FN Baby Browning was introduced in 1931 as an even smaller and lighter successor to the M1905 and its nearly identical cousin, the Colt Vest Pocket. Like these earlier models, the Baby Browning is a striker-fired single-action pistol that loads from a six-round magazine of .25 ACP ammunition. Though the moniker sounds colloquial, “Baby Browning” was indeed the official name for this pistol, of which FN manufactured more than a half million copies until production ended in 1979.
How to Get the Look
Though the majority of American men would have been sporting black tie for evenings out—as illustrated by nightclub patrons like the gullible judge—Stan dresses even more formally in full evening dress for a presentation that makes him look more respectable than his trickery actually deserves. The result is a period-perfect execution of the white tie dress code, from the tailcoat’s dramatically broad silk-faced peak lapels and roped shoulders to the piqué textured echoed both in his waistcoat and the neckwear neatly tied just ahead of the starched wing collar.
- Black barathea wool formal evening tailcoat with broad silk-faced peak lapels, welted breast pocket, vestigial 6-button double-breasted front, 4-button cuffs, and two decorative back waist seam buttons
- White cotton evening shirt with detachable stiff wing collar, starched bib (with silver-trimmed mother-of-pearl studs), and double/French cuffs
- White cotton piqué butterfly/thistle-shaped bow tie
- White cotton piqué single-breasted backless formal waistcoat with squared shawl collar, three closely spaced buttons, notched bottom, slim-welted pockets, and adjustable back strap
- Black barathea wool formal double forward-pleated trousers with satin side braiding, side pockets, flapped back-right pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White silk suspenders with gold adjusters, white leather back patch, and white leather hooks
- Black patent leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Black dress socks
- Gold pinky ring
- Black satin silk eye-mask with gold-stenciled eye
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
- 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
We give ’em mentalism, they treat it like it’s a dog walkin’ on its hind legs.