The Newton Boys: Matthew McConaughey’s Gray Pinstripe Suit

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys (1998)


Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton, good-natured Texas-born outlaw

Toronto, Summer 1923

Film: The Newton Boys
Release Date: March 27, 1998
Director: Richard Linklater
Costume Designer: Shelley Komarov

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


One hundred years ago today, the Newton Gang—a quartet of Texan brothers best known for their nighttime bank burglaries and the occasional train holdup—attempted a daring yet disastrous heist of pedestrian bank messengers in downtown Toronto. Though financially successful as it netted the gang around C$84,000, the July 24, 1923 robbery tarnished their reputation for nonviolence when a physical altercation resulted in Willis Newton wounding two messengers during his struggle to get away.

Among Richard Linklater’s diverse filmography that includes the poignantly romantic Before trilogy, nostalgic stoner comedy Dazed and Confused, and ambitious coming-of-age epic Boyhood is this star-packed chronicle of the real-life Newton brothers, presented as an affable outlaw story with plenty of charm even if it otherwise misses the narrative mark.

All hailing from Uvalde, Texas, the eponymous Newton brothers are the natural leader Willis Jr. (Matthew McConaughey, also from Uvalde in real life), the easygoing war veteran Jess (Ethan Hawke), sensitive youngster Joe (Skeet Ulrich), and the tough ex-con Wylie, aka “Dock” (Vincent D’Onofrio), the latter being the only one who really fits the prototypical criminal profile. Together with their safecracking accomplice Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam), the brothers formed a tight-knit gang that specialized in breaking into banks at night, specifically targeting those with older safes with rectangular doors more vulnerable to nitroglycerin, working from a list provided by a corrupt Texas Association of Bankers insurance official. With the communication lines cut by Willis, the brothers would then blow open the safe, bag the contents right down to the last coin, and then speed away from town in fast Cadillacs and Studebakers.

Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Dwight Yoakam, and Vincent D'Onofrio in The Newton Boys

From their red Studebaker touring car with Joe at the wheel, Willis, Jess, Brentwood Glasscock, and Dock survey the plan for Willis’ “lead-pipe cinch” of an open-air heist in downtown Toronto.

“If there are any bank robbers you’d want as family members, it would be the Newton Boys,” author Duane Swierczynski writes in This Here’s a Stick-Up: The Big Bad Book of American Bank Robbery. “Unfailingly polite, nonviolent, and professional heisters, the boys had the smarts to pull over 80 bank heists in 10 states and two countries without getting caught.”

Their methodical, non-confrontational tactics allowed them to succeed for years, though the boys should have learned their lesson from the Toronto mishap. Nearly a year later in June 1924, the gang teamed up with a crew of racketeers to rob a postal train. As Willis and Jess took over the train and forced it to stop near Rondout, Illinois, Glasscock mistook Dock Newton for an armed postal employee and shot him five times with a .45. The high-profile nature of the $3 million heist and Dock’s desperate need for life-saving medical attention resulted in the gang’s undoing as they were all swiftly rounded up and arrested, including the cowboy Jess lured back across the Mexican border by Texas Ranger Harrison Hamer, brother of the famous Frank Hamer who would later lead the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde.

All four Newton boys were eventually sentenced to prison terms, but their demeanor—both during their crimes and the trial—resulted in relatively light sentences. The Newtons would be occasionally jailed again over the rest of their long lives, enjoying longer and more peaceful lives than those in their profession. That said… in 1968, the now-septuagenarian Dock was again arrested for bank robbery in Rowena, Texas (Bonnie Parker’s hometown), but the charges were reduced due to his age, and he died six years later at the age of 83. Jess had already died more than a decade earlier, and Willis would live to be 90 years old, dying in August 1979. After a relatively law-abiding life that included a cameo in the Texas-filmed 1955 western The Last Command, youngest brother Joe died on February 3, 1989 at the age of 88.

I had watched and enjoyed The Newton Boys a few times in my younger days, drawn to it given my interest in bank robbers of the 1920s and ’30s. Now more familiar with Richard Linklater’s filmography, it was interesting to rewatch it through what I now know to be Linklater’s deliciously sentimental lens—what I had once liked as a fun take on a real-life crime saga, I could now appreciate even more as a chronicle of four brothers making the most of their limited time together in the prime of their lives. That may be giving The Newton Boys too much credit, but I’ll never not be able to see this fun little flick through rose-colored lenses—and/or those little golden tea shades that D’Onofrio wears during the Canadian heist)—plus the soundtrack by Bad Livers and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band is one of the best to recreate an authentic ’20s sound.

What’d He Wear?

The Suit

Willis Newton arrives in Canada dressed for business in a dark gray three-piece suit, constructed of a plain blue-gray diamond-shaped weave against a charcoal ground, patterned with white pinstripes. The screen-worn suit was included (but not sold) in a 2017 Prop Store auction, with photos and a description currently hosted at an iCollector listing that indicates the suit was rented from storied Hollywood warehouse Western Costume.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

Note how the pinstripe of Willis’ suiting subtly follows the waves in the diamond-patterned weave.

The details of the single-breasted jacket are consistent with suit design from the early 1920s, including the softened notch lapels and neo-Edwardian gauntlet cuffs (or “turnback cuffs”). Rather than being a merely ornamental addition to the traditional sleeves as worn on screen by Steve Buscemi in the Prohibition-set series Boardwalk Empire and several incarnations of James Bond, Willis’ gauntlet cuffs have a single button that goes through them.

Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Margulies in The Newton Boys

Willis and Louise ride through Toronto.

The rest of the three-button suit coat follows traditional men’s lounge jacket design, including flapped hip pockets and a welted breast pocket that Willis dresses with a white display kerchief for the heist. The shoulders are straight and wide out to the roped sleeveheads, and there is no vent. The cut follows and flatters Matthew McConaughey’s frame, just generous enough to allow for a shoulder holster where Willis carries his large, 7.5″-barreled Single Action Army revolver.

The suit’s matching waistcoat (vest) is also single-breasted, with four welted pockets, no lapels, and a six-button front that fastens high on Willis’ chest.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys (1998)

The flat-front suit trousers rise appropriately high to McConaughey’s natural waistline, where they are held up by black cloth suspenders (braces). These suspenders have gold-finished adjuster hardware on the front straps, a Y-shaped back with a tan leather connector and white back-strap. He attaches the suspenders to small buttons along the outside of his waistband, including on the “fish-tail” notch positioned just above the cinch-strap in the back. The trousers have slanted side pockets and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

Dressed down to just his open-necked shirt, braces, and trousers, Willis enthusiastically briefs his brothers on his impulsively conceived “lead-pipe cinch” of a plan to rob the Imperial Bank of Canada.

Shirts, Collars, and Ties

Willis often wears the typical dress shirts of the era, characterized by a plain neckband that would have a separate collar attached to it. This allowed shirts and collars to be laundered separately, specifically valuable so that these collars—which were both the most visible and also most subject to dirt from rubbing against the neck—could be starched to a crisp and clean appearance.

Detachable collars were most popular through the early 20th century, before the younger generations of the roaring ’20s embraced informality and the comfort and practicality of softer shirt collars. The Great Depression arguably hammered the final nail into the coffin of the detachable collar, which remained en vogue only among older gentlemen and/or the ruling class.

For much of the Toronto sequence, Willis wears a plain white cotton “neckband shirt”, which has a full button-up front placket and double (French) cuffs that he closes with gold links.

Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Margulies in The Newton Boys

While riding to Toronto with his brothers and Brentwood, Willis wears a detachable collar that follows the point collar shape, albeit with rounded ends. His wide dark brown tie is diagonally striped in the “downhill” direction with narrow tan stripes, bordered with beige stripes, and he secures the tie at mid-chest with one of his signature gold stickpins that Willis encourages his brothers to wear to bribe their way out of small-town jails.

Skeet Ulrich, Matthew McConaughey, and Dwight Yoakam in The Newton Boys

For the actual robbery, Willis wears another detachable collar but in a much different shape, with a wider spread. He wears another striped tie, this one with a more subdued black-and-maroon “downhill” stripe design against a burgundy ground.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

Willis had earlier worn the same tie when he was out with Louise, spotting the “two Canucks and a bag of money” that gives him the idea for the robbery in the first place. Instead of a white shirt and detachable collar, he wears a multi-striped shirt that appears to have an attached—albeit handsomely starched—semi-spread collar. The shirt is striped in tan and brown against a white ground.

Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Margulies in The Newton Boys

Everything Else, From Head to Toe

Willis rotates through a pair of hats during the Canadian sequence, beginning with a gray felt homburg (detailed with a black grosgrain silk band and edges) while out with Louise. For the robbery, he wears a darker brown felt Lord’s hat, a cousin of the homburg characterized by its unbound brim and a fedora-like pinched crown that reduces the formality.

Willis loads his left hand with plenty of gold jewelry, including a square-cased watch on an expanding band and a trio of rings on his last three fingers—a tiger’s eye ring on his middle finger, a plainer wedding band on his ring finger, and a chunky pinky ring studded with seven diamonds.

Matthew McConaughey and Skeet Ulrich in The Newton Boys

Though he wears dressier black oxfords before and after the job, Willis dresses for the bank messenger holdup in a set of russet-brown leather lace-up ankle boots.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

The Guns

The Newton Gang typically only carried firearms for the occasional crowd control during their nighttime bank jobs, but a daytime holdup calls for more serious firepower with an aim to intimidate. Willis arms himself with what appears to be a Browning Auto-5, which became the first mass-produced semi-automatic shotgun when it was patented in 1900 and introduced to the market by Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN) two years later.

Designed in 1898 by John Browning, the Auto-5 was so named for its semi-automatic operation that fed from a total of five shells—four loaded into the tubular under-barrel magazine with an additional shell in the chamber. Characterized by its high “humpback” receiver shape, the Auto-5 was predominantly chambered for 12-gauge shells, though variants were also available for 20-gauge and—to a more limited degree—16-gauge shells.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

Willis draws his shotgun on the two bank messengers.

Browning had considered the Auto-5 his finest design achievement to date, though he was rebuffed when he presented it to Winchester, who had produced many of his previous designs, including the venerable Model 1873 rifle, lever-action Model 1887 shotgun, and Model 1897 pump shotgun. After the president of Remington died before Browning could work with him to bring the weapon to fruition, he took the design overseas to the Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale, which had already produced a run of Browning-designed pistols.

FN began manufacturing the Auto-5 in 1902 and would continue to do so for nearly a century, temporarily relocating their own production to the U.S. during World War II while also licensing the popular design to American firearms manufacturers Remington and Stevens throughout the 20th century, resulting in the Remington Model 11 and Stevens Model 720, respectively.

An anomaly in the Remington Model 11 production history includes “The Sportsman”, a variant introduced in 1930 that shortened the capacity to only three total (two in the magazine, one in the chamber) to comply with some states’ hunting restrictions and stamped with “game scene” roll marks on each side. Jonathan Krisko writes for American Rifleman that the Sportsman—initially available only in 20-gauge before 12-gauge and 16-gauge models were introduced—were pressed into American service during World War II, specifically “for training aerial gunners and anti-aircraft personnel on the concepts of lead and follow-through against moving targets.”

As we see “The Sportsman” etched on the bolt inside the ejection port, we can safely deduce that Willis carries not the Browning Auto-5 but instead the cosmetically similar but anachronistic Remington Model 11 Sportsman.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

After Willis fires a warning shot from his shotgun into the air, the shotgun stovepipe-jams on him at a crucial moment… giving the guards an opportunity to fight back.

The stovepipe jam in Willis’ Model 11 Sportsman gives one of the bank messengers the opportunity to wrestle the shotgun from him. In response, Willis draws his blued Single Action Army revolver and wounds the guard with a shot to the shoulder, one of the rare instances of violence in the Newton Boys’ career.

Though newer handguns—including semi-automatics like Dock’s 1911—had proliferated in the half-century since Colt introduced the Single Action Army in 1873, Willis the cowboy would be familiar with the operation of a single-action “Peacemaker”. The standard barrel lengths ranged from the 4 3⁄4″ Quickdraw and 5½” Artillery up to the full-sized 7½” Cavalry model, which is what Willis appears to carry in his shoulder holster.

Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton in The Newton Boys

What to Imbibe

The day after the Toronto heist, Willis celebrates the haul with a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne in his bathtub at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel as Louise reads to him a newspaper account of the robbery.

Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Margulies in The Newton Boys

Willis seems to be doing alright, alright, alright in the aftermath of the daytime heist in Toronto.

How to Get the Look

Willis dresses for business (and banditry) for the heist in a dark gray pinstripe three-piece suit, designed to the contemporary sartorial standards of the early 1920s, from his detachable shirt collars to uniquely detailed jacket cuffs.

Matthew McConaughey and Julianna Margulies in The Newton Boys (1998)

  • Dark-gray pinstripe wool business suit:
    • Single-breasted 3-button jacket with softened notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 1-button turnback/”gauntlet” cuffs, and no vents
    • Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with four welted pockets and notched bottom
    • Flat-front high-rise trousers with external suspender buttons along waistband (including back “fish-tail” notch), back cinch-strap, slanted side pockets, turn-ups/cuffs
  • White cotton neckband shirt with detachable collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
  • Burgundy or dark brown “downhill”-striped tie
  • Gold stickpin
  • Black cloth suspenders with gold-finished hardware and white leather button-hooks
  • Russet-brown leather lace-up ankle boots
  • Gray felt homburg with black grosgrain band and edges or dark brown felt Lord’s hat
  • Brown leather shoulder holster for 7.5″-barreled Single Action Army revolver
  • Gold square-cased wristwatch on gold-finished expanding band
  • Gold ring with tiger’s eye setting
  • Gold wedding band
  • Diamond-studded gold pinky ring

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

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