Michael Douglas as Richard Adams, idealistic TV news cameraman
Outside Los Angeles, Spring 1978
Film: The China Syndrome
Release Date: March 16, 1979
Director: James Bridges
Costume Designer: Donfeld (Donald Lee Feld)
Nearly a decade before he would win an Academy Award as the sharply tailored yet unfathomably unscrupulous financier Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Michael Douglas starred as the arguably more altruistic cameraman in The China Syndrome. Adapted from an Oscar-nominated original screenplay by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges—who also directed—this nuclear thriller proved frighteningly prescient less than two weeks after its release when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, 43 years ago today.
Centered around a nuclear power plant supervisor trying to make the public aware of the safety violations, The China Syndrome had been scathed by the nuclear power industry upon its release, such as Westinghouse executive John Taylor describing it to the New York Times as “an overall character assassination of an entire industry.” Ten days after Taylor’s criticism was published, a series of mechanical failures at Three Mile Island released large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant into the air… and plenty of egg onto the nuclear industry’s face.
While I’ve read that there were no direct casualties from the Three Mile Island accident—though there may be a different truth somewhere in the murky world of conspiracies and cover-ups, which is beyond the scope of this style blog—the incident and its billion-dollar, decade-long cleanup did seem to validate the dangers of neglecting safety when harnessing such titanic power as nuclear energy.
What’d He Wear?
Richard’s appearance visually codes him as a rebellious maverick, with his longer hair, beard, and working-class wardrobe of flannels, tweed, and corduroy, rugged fabrics that allow him to comfortably withstand the rigors of his work in the field, indicating his focus more on capturing the truth than chasing ratings.
His most offbeat outfit layers a corduroy sports coat over a brightly printed aloha shirt, topped with a tweed cap, adding some spring-inspired sensibility to an otherwise quintessential summer leisure kit.
Richard’s single-breasted jacket is made from a tan corduroy with a narrow wale (meaning a higher number of corduroy’s distinctive ridges per inch), the earthy corduroy possibly suggesting his philosophical unity with crusading nuclear supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), who wears an olive corded jacket when reporting his reporting his findings.
Richard’s jacket has two woven leather shank buttons on the front, similar to the three-button cuffs, though the missing button on his left sleeve adds some verisimilitude to the scrappy character. The jacket’s soft padded shoulders are double-stitched around the sleeve-heads, echoing the sporty welted “swelling” along the edges of the wide notch lapels and pockets. In addition to the welted breast pocket, the jacket has large patch pockets on each hip that close with squared flaps. The back is split with a long single vent, and each sleeve has a tobacco-colored suede elbow patch.
Richard’s unexpected aloha shirt may or may not be of genuine Hawaiian provenance, but it mirrors the bold patterns of garments from America’s tropical paradise with its large-scaled all-over print of stenciled white leaves, smaller golden leaves, and red fruits against a forest-green ground. The short-sleeved rayon shirt has the requisite camp collar, fashionably wide for the era with a short loop on the left side that could presumably button under the right collar leaf. The shirt has five white plastic buttons up the plain front (no placket) and a non-matching breast pocket.
Richard indeed looks dressed for vacation in the white flat front wide-legged trousers that he wears with his untucked aloha shirt, the shirt’s straight hem covering the top of the trousers that are likely worn with a belt. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) that break at the top of his tan napped leather sneakers with heavy brown rubber outsoles, worn with dark brown socks.
Decades before Peaky Blinders and hipster culture marked the renaissance for flat caps, Richard showed he was ahead of the trend—or merely didn’t care about trends—by wearing an old-fashioned flat cap made of brown herringbone tweed, guaranteeing that even his headgear would keep his attire looking avant-garde.
A newsboy cap may have been appropriate to signal his profession in the news industry, but the lack of a top button and paneled crown means our hero wears a simple flat cap, also known as a “pancake cap” or “paddy cap”, depending on which side of the Atlantic you buy your hats. (Wherever that is, I recommend this classic-inspired Brixton “Hooligan III” cap.)
Richard wears a thin gold necklace that rests at the base of his neck, visible with any of his open-necked shirts unless he’s also wearing a T-shirt. His only other visible accessory is the black watch on his left wrist, finished with a silver-toned fixed bezel and a black-finished link bracelet.
How to Get the Look
A decade before setting a standard for sharp workplace tailoring with as the contrast-collared, suspender-wearing Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Michael Douglas exemplified a more radical—and leisured—approach to dressing for the office in his offbeat and totally original combination of a sporty tan corduroy jacket with a boldly printed aloha shirt, white trousers, and tweed flat cap.
- Green tropical-printed rayon short-sleeve aloha shirt with wide camp/loop collar, plain front, and non-matching breast pocket
- Tan pinwale corduroy cotton single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped patch hip pockets, suede elbow patches, 3-button cuffs, and long single vent
- White flat front wide-leg trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- Tan leather sneakers with brown rubber outsoles
- Dark brown socks
- Thin gold necklace
- Black wristwatch with silver-toned fixed bezel and black-finished link bracelet
- Brown herringbone tweed flat cap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.