Nightmare Alley: Comparing Carlisle’s Cardigans in 1947 vs. 2021
Tyrone Power (1947) and Bradley Cooper (2021) as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic drifter-turned-carny
Rural Kentucky, Summer into fall 1939
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: October 9, 1947
Director: Edmund Goulding
Costume Designer: Bonnie Cashin
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Almost immediately after William Lindsay Gresham published his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley chronicling the grifters, geeks, and gals populating a second-rate sideshow, Tyrone Power asked 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to purchase the film rights.
Power had built his swashbuckling screen image in movies like The Mask of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), and The Black Swan (1942), but—as so many had—returned from his World War II service as a changed man. The decorated Lieutenant Power was released from Marine Corps active duty in January 1946 and, after flying dangerous transport missions during the war, sought roles that would expand his image beyond the romantic hero he had established.
Director Edmund Goulding helmed the production that brought Gresham’s creepy carnival world to life via a working carnival constructed on ten acres of the Fox back lot, even employing actual carnies and more than 100 sideshow attractions to add verisimilitude. The talented cast also included Joan Blondell, appropriately appearing about fifteen years beyond her Warner Brothers heyday as she deliciously dives into the role of the washed-up tarot reader “Mademoiselle Zeena” whom the unscrupulous Stanton Carlisle manipulates into revealing the trick to her successful mentalist act. The married Zeena allows herself to fall for Carlisle’s romantic advances despite being married to her alcoholic stage partner Pete (Ian Keith) and Carlisle’s own obvious interest in the ingenue Molly (Coleen Gray).
Nightmare Alley premiered 75 years ago today on October 9, 1947, with Power’s performance lauded by critics like James Agee, who noted for Time that he “steps into a new class as an actor,” playing against type as Carlisle.
The Nightmare Alley story was recently revived for Guillermo del Toro’s re-adaptation of the novel, reinstating some of the darker components to blend Gothic horror with the noir-ish elements that were also present in Goulding’s film. Released in December 2021, del Toro’s Oscar-nominated Nightmare Alley featured a star-studded cast led by Bradley Cooper as Carlisle, Toni Collette as Zeena, Rooney Mara as Molly, David Strathairn as Pete, and Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter, the mysterious femme fatale who Carlisle meets after escaping the carnival world and re-establishing himself as the debonair mentalist “The Great Stanton”.
What’d He Wear?
Both the 1947 and 2021 versions of Nightmare Alley are structured with a first act in the dusty world of rural carnies, followed by a second act depicting the now-successful Stan and Molly perfecting their stage act in big cities. The films’ respective costume designers (Bonnie Cashin in 1947, Luis Sequeira in 2021) sought to appropriately differentiate the look of each locale, contrasting the sleek suits and formalwear in the latter half against the more hard-worn garb he has to wear while withstanding the rigors of carnival life.
“Everything he wears at the carnival is sagging and threadbare,” costume designer Luis Sequeira explained to Vogue of how he dressed Bradley Cooper in the 2021 adaptation. “At the beginning, the fit was looser, saggier, very well worn; which gave him a foundation of character,” he elaborated in conversation with Slash Film, ultimately theorizing that Stan likely burned all of his clothing before he and Molly began their new life.
A staple of Stan’s carny closet that was represented in both the 1947 and 2021 versions of Nightmare Alley was a variation of a shawl-collar cardigan.
Tyrone Power (1947)
Tyrone Power’s Carlisle wears a waist-length garment that’s more of a cross between a zip-up sweater and a blouson jacket, with a softly structured body of dark suede-like cloth rigged with ribbed-knit cuffs, waist hem, and the shawl collar of a cardigan sweater. The jacket has two vertical-entry side pockets at hand level.
Power’s Carlisle occasionally accessorizes with a dark paisley cotton bandana knotted around his neck and tucked into the top of his T-shirt like a day cravat.
Power wears the sweater-jacket over his undershirts, alternating between a white widely ribbed cotton sleeveless tank top or “A-shirt” (athletic shirt) and a plain white cotton T-shirt with a banded crew-neck and very short sleeves.
Power also alternates his trousers, switching between dark corduroy flat front trousers and lighter gabardine reverse-pleated trousers, both with a full fit and finished with turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. He holds up his trousers with a dark leather belt that has a polished metal single-prong squared buckle. He wears very dark—probably black—socks and brown leather cap-toe oxford shoes.
Power completes Carlisle’s carny outfit with a twill tweed newsboy cap, differentiated by regular flat caps by the cloth-covered button at the center of the soft crown where all the top panels meet.
Bradley Cooper (2021)
Bradley Cooper’s Carlisle had arrived at the carnival wearing a plaid mackinaw coat, giving him a little more variety and thus only reserving his cardigan-and-undershirt apparel for the most casual occasions, wearing it almost like a robe.
Made from a dusty taupe-gray shaker-stitched wool, his is a true shawl-collar cardigan, oversized in a manner that emphasizes Carlisle’s underfed stature, though this also lengthens the raglan sleeves to envelop his wrists, covering the vintage 14-karat gold Hamilton Hastings wristwatch that Carlisle proudly wears on a textured brown leather strap even after the rest of his pride is gone. The sweater has patch-style hip pockets with slanted side entries and four front buttons—though he typically only buttons the top two.
Like his cinematic predecessor, Cooper’s Carlisle wears the cardigan over just his undershirt, another wide-ribbed white cotton sleeveless tank top. He tucks the shirt into his dark taupe flannel trousers, with era-correct double forward-facing pleats that contribute to the overall bagginess of the look. He likely holds up the trousers with some of the striped tan cloth suspenders (braces) he wears through the carnival scenes.
The trouser turn-ups (cuffs) gather over the tops of his well-worn cap-toe work boots, made with russet-brown leather uppers and four sets of derby-laced eyelets.
Rather than Power’s soft newsboy cap, Cooper wears his character’s usual dark brown self-edged fedora with a matching brown grosgrain ribbon, purchased from Milano Hat Company as Sequeira explained to Below the Line.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the 1947 movie, the 2021 movie, and the 1946 source novel.