Jake Lacy as Richard Semco, affable painter and Navy veteran
New York City, December 1952
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
It takes a lot for new movies to break through the cinematic ice to enter people’s Christmas viewing rotations. For decades, there were the classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas, then a boom through the late ’80s and ’90s with newer entries like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and—yes—Die Hard. After Elf and Love Actually were released in 2003, it seemed like the proliferation of Hallmark holiday movies so saturated the market that it would be nearly impossible for a modern movie to make its yuletide impression… let alone an adaptation of a book published more than a half-century earlier about a fictional lesbian romance. Enter Carol.
Seventy years ago, suspense writer Patricia Highsmith followed up her debut novel—the smash-hit Strangers on a Train that had already been adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock—with The Price of Salt, chronicling the relationship between aspiring set designer Therese Belivet and housewife Carol Aird, whom Therese meets working at a Manhattan toy store in the days leading up to Christmas, inspired by a brief encounter that Highsmith experienced while working in Bloomingdale’s toy department during the 1948 holiday season. Due to the impact that the novel’s sapphic content may have had on her career, Highsmith was credited under the alias “Claire Morgan” when The Price of Salt was first published in 1952.
Surprisingly, there was an attempt to adapt The Price of Salt for the screen not long after it was published, but the tight restrictions of the Production Code immediately enervated the script, which was renamed Winter Journey and centered around Therese’s romance with a man named… Carl. Luckily, wiser minds evidently prevailed and allowed for the first major screen adaptation to be Todd Haynes’ thoughtful Carol in 2015 starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, respectively.
We meet Therese while she’s working at the fictional Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan, casually dating her cordial co-worker Richard Semco (Jake Lacy). A Navy veteran with artistic aspirations, Richard has grand plans for his future with Therese, even if she doesn’t outwardly share his enthusiasm. Unfortunately for Richard, his dreams of marriage, shared holidays, and European travels with “Terry” are increasingly dashed after she meets the elegant and enigmatic Carol while working at the toy counter.
After a pair of misplaced gloves and some creamed spinach over poached eggs, Therese makes a plan to visit Carol at her home in the country, scheduling it in her calendar for Sunday, December 21, 1952, seventy years ago today, and—in the years since the movie’s release—December 21 has become an unofficial celebration for fans celebrating “Carol Day”.
What’d He Wear?
When I first posted about Richard’s wardrobe on my Instagram last Christmas Eve, I was pleased to receive a comment from Jake Lacy himself that described how costume designer Sandy Powell and her team approached Richard’s costume, including his attractive plaid coat:
Sandy is nothing short of a genius in her field. She and her team custom built this coat. They it based off a half-dozen vintage pieces they had pulled from costume warehouses. They wanted Richard to be dressed mostly in drab grays and browns in order to show him as a part of the world she’s leaving behind. The vintage ones the pulled all had brighter coloring or some tonal warmth to them. And so they built and aged this one.
Richard’s thigh-length belted coat follows the design of traditional hunting jackets popular through mid-century. The material is a heavy taupe-brown woolen twill, patterned across the front in a charcoal plaid. Three dark brown woven leather shank buttons fasten up the front to mid-chest, with an additional button at the neck should Richard want to close it. While the bottom half of the lapels are plaid to match the front of the jacket, the long-pointed collar is the same solid taupe as the body of the jacket.
The set-in sleeves are also solid taupe, each finished at the cuff with a short strap that fastens through a single button. Flapped pockets are positioned below the belt on each side of the front, providing handy storage for Richard’s tan knitted gloves.
“Therese’s ostensible boyfriend Richard offers a large, domineering silhouette in his scenes with her,” observed Tom + Lorenzo. “Richard’s shape is distinctly masculine, with exaggerated shoulders paired with a tightly defined waist, fedora, and a high collar. While he’s mostly presented as jovial, clueless, and entitled, his presence always buzzes with an underlying threat or sense that things could turn dark on a dime. This is helped along by the clashing plaids of his outfit and the way Therese’s own clash of stripes and plaids speak of her mindset when she’s around him: overwhelmed, confused and discordant.”
The coat has a full fit through the chest, aided by inverted box pleats that extend down from the horizontal yoke across the front of the jacket and down the center of the back. The silhouette tapers from the broad shoulders to the suppressed waist, emphasized by a plaid self-belt around Richard’s waist, pulled tight through a gunmetal-finished buckle. The ventless back keeps the fit close around his hips.
Consistent with the hat-positive decorum of the early ’50s, Richard never ventures outside without his usual fedora, made from a slightly darker taupe-brown felt than his jacket and detailed with a pinched crown, self-edged brim, and narrow black grosgrain band.
The most color in Richard’s wardrobe comes from his neckwear, dressed for the Manhattan winter in a soft woolen twill scarf with parallel twill lines in white and yellow criss-crossing to form a wide-scaled grid-check that separates the body of the scarf into squares in different shades of red including scarlet, burgundy, maroon, and wine.
Powell’s costume design illustrates Richard’s lack of creativity as the brown suit and red tie effectively mirror the jacket and scarf he wears atop them. Little can be seen of the suit, but the suiting is a slightly warmer shade of brown and the tailoring demonstrates the usual excess of ’50s menswear with a full-fitting double-breasted jacket with wide, padded shoulders and broad peak lapels.
Richard even wears more red neckwear with white and yellow accents in the form of his scarlet silk tie with its sets of abstract-looking gradient streaks in white and yellow.
Later, after Therese informs Richard that she’ll be missing his family’s Christmas celebrations to join Carol on the road, he’s wearing his usual white cotton dress shirt, red patterned tie, and brown suit trousers but with the additional layer of a shawl-collar pullover sweater.
Knitted from an almost electric lime-green fabric with a napped charcoal contrast ribbing throughout that creates an almost iridescent finish, the sweater’s appearance recalls the very similarly colored and styled roll-neck that Therese wore when she first met Carol at the counter at Frankenberg’s. Tom + Lorenzo observe that this provides “a visual callback to what [Richard] sees at that moment as the source of his problems, as well as a character motif that places him as another person obsessed with Carol and what she means.”
Whether he’s wearing the jacket or not, Richard regularly wears the pleated trousers of his brown suit, though little details can be discerned aside from the generous fit aided by the pleats and the full-break bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs), all characteristic of the era.
The full trouser break that typically engulfs his shoes even still manages to cover the top of them while he’s bicycling with Therese to work. The shoes are dark brown leather long-wing derby brogues.
Patricia Highsmith rarely described much of Richard’s wardrobe in her novel The Price of Salt, aside from the occasional mention of an overcoat, though Therese does go into some detail when describing Richard in the second chapter:
There was a new charcoal smudge all over one knee of his tan cotton trousers. He wore a shirt inside the red and black checked shirt, and buckskin moccasins that made his big feet look like shapeless bear paws.
In the movie, most of our time with Richard is spent adjacent to work, which calls for a dressier shirt and tie than the casual wardrobe outlined by Highsmith. However, we do catch up with Richard at a party months after Therese’s experiences with Carol ended her relationship with him. She spies him across the room, clad in a red-and-green tartan plaid woolen flannel shirt with a white double-lined overcheck, styled like the classic Pendleton “Board Shirt” with a broad camp collar and two flapped chest pockets. His pleated slacks may be the same brown suit trousers he often wore in the earlier scenes, and the large swath of a white cotton T-shirt visible under the open collar of the shirt reflects the undershirt described by Highsmith.
We can’t see his feet to know if the somewhat warmer weather has called for the book-described buckskin moccasins, which may have looked incongruously unseasonal and undressy with the somewhat more professional clothing that the cinematic Richard wore while working at Frankenberg’s.
What to Imbibe
“I drink to forget I got to get up for work in the morning,” Richard groans over a lineup of spent Rheingold Beer bottles while drinking with Therese and their friends.
“Rheingold Beer was once a top New York brew, guzzled regularly by a loyal cadre of workingmen, who would just as soon have eaten nails as drink another beer maker’s suds,” described the New York Times of the venerable beer in 2003, long after it was no longer produced… an eventuality that would have been shocking to New Yorkers a half-century earlier when the brewery dominated more than a third of the state’s beer market.
The Rheingold story begins in mid-19th century Brooklyn, where German immigrants Samuel Liebmann and his sons Charles, Henry, and Joseph opened a brewery in Bushwick, resuming the business that Samuel had operated back home in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. According to Suzanne Spellen’s history of the beer for Brownstoner, the Rheingold name was coined in 1883 “after a Metropolitan Opera performance of the Ring Cycle. The conductor, taken with the beer, held it up to the light and declared it the color of ‘Das Rheingold.'”
Though many American breweries struggled through Prohibition, Liebmann’s beer almost didn’t make it that far when it was subject to anti-German sentiment during World War I. After barely surviving Prohibition by producing “near beer”, the brewery was rejuvenated with the arrival of Dr. Hermann Schülein, who had overseen Lӧwenbrau in Munich before he traveled to America to escape Hitler’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s. Under Dr. Schülein’s management, the brewery formally introduced the Rheingold name through an extensive advertising campaign that included the highly publicized “Miss Rheingold” contest that launched in 1940 and would run annually for a quarter of a century.
Unfortunately for Liebmann’s Brewery, the growth of national beers massively impacted the sales of regional beers like Rheingold and the brewery ended its operations in the late 1970s, ultimately torn down in 1981.
What to Listen to
In addition to its score by Carter Burwell, Carol boasts an excellent soundtrack of music from the era, including contemporary hits of the early 1950s like The Clovers’ “One MInt Julep”, “You Belong to Me” by Helen Foster and The Rovers, and Les Paul and Mary Ford performing “Smoke Rings” as well as older standards like Billie Holiday’s 1937 recording of “Easy Living” backed by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, the latter becoming a leitmotif for Therese’s relationship with Carol after she plays the song on Carol’s piano and ultimately gifts her an LP that includes the song.
Of course, the Christmas setting also warrants the inclusion of holiday standards like Perry Como’s recording of “Silver Bells” played as the two women embark on their wintry road trip, though I believe this is from his album The Perry Como Christmas Album released in 1968, more than sixteen years after the setting.
How to Get the Look
Even if he’s meant to represent a less exciting alternative than the eponymous Carol for Therese’s romantic future, I have a soft spot for that ’50s-inspired, custom-made plaid belted coat that Richard Semco wears while bicycling—or walking his bike—around New York City at Christmastime, appointing his ensemble with a red checked scarf that feels seasonally appropriate in all the right ways. The coat would probably be cumbersome when worn over a suit jacket as we see Richard do, but the way he wears it over a uniquely ribbed shawl-collar sweater is ideal.
- Taupe-brown (with charcoal plaid front) woolen twill thigh-length 4-button hunting jacket with front and back inverted box pleats, full belt with gunmetal buckle, flapped hip pockets, and set-in sleeves with button-fastened semi-straps
- Brown suit:
- Double-breasted jacket with wide peak lapels
- Pleated trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton dress shirt with point collar and button cuffs
- Scarlet-red silk tie with abstract white and yellow streaks
- Lime-green and fuzzy charcoal-ribbed shawl-collar pullover sweater
- Brown leather long-wing derby brogue shoes
- Dark taupe-brown felt fedora with narrow black grosgrain band
- Red multi-toned soft woolen twill scarf with white and yellow twill check
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I don’t know how you do it… you look like a million bucks first thing in the morning!