The Cotton Club: Gregory Hines Dances in Houndstooth

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)


Gregory Hines as Delbert “Sandman” Williams, affable and ambitious dancer

Harlem, Spring 1929

Film: The Cotton Club
Release Date: December 14, 1984
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero


One of the most celebrated tap dancers of all time, the multi-talented Gregory Hines died 20 years ago today on August 9, 2003. His charismatic performance as “Sandman” Williams in The Cotton Club remains a highlight from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, an ambitious and controversial part-musical, part-mob drama that producer Robert Evans spent five years bringing to the screen.

Centered around the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, the movie boasts all the ingredients to entertain: an evocative Prohibition-era setting at an iconic nightclub, a pitch-perfect period soundtrack from John Barry that replicates the sounds of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and a talented cast that includes then-rising stars like Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Grey, James Remar, and Gregory and Maurice Hines.

The characters include many actual gangsters connected with the club; Remar terrifies as an appropriately erratic Dutch Schultz, Joe Dallesandro cameos as the smooth Lucky Luciano, Bob Hoskins portrays the Cotton Club’s British-born manager Owney Madden, and Fishburne appears as “Bumpy”, inspired by the real “Bumpy” Johnson he would portray a decade later in Hoodlum. Gere’s mobbed-up trumpeter-turned-movie star Dixie Dwyer reads like a conglomeration of Bix Beiderbecke and George Raft, while Nicolas Cage plays his brother Vincent, standing in for the real-life gunsel Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. As Dixie’s love interest, Diane Lane’s jazzdoll-turned-nightclub hostess recalls Texas Guinan. The Hines brothers drew on their natural talents to portray the Williams brothers, inspired by the famous Nicholas brothers who had indeed danced at the Cotton Club in their youth.

When it was finally released in December 1984, The Cotton Club failed to recoup even half of its inflated $58 million at the box office. Reception was scattered, with Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as well as a Razzie. The violence may not have been limited to the mobsters on screen, as the May 1983 murder of show business promoter Roy Radin was dubbed “The Cotton Club Murder” due to a drug-fueled connection to the film’s financing. The behind-the-scenes drama and box-office failure took a toll on the reputations for most involved, including the film itself.

Coppola took a shot at redemption in 2017 when he premiered The Cotton Club: Encore, a director’s cut more aligned with his original vision and structure before the distributors were involved. Many reviewers agree that the enriched cut adds life to the story, giving more breathing room to the excellent performances including a romp from Jackée Harry that had initially been left on the cutting room floor. The Cotton Club Encore also gives Hines more deserved time in the spotlight, including the previously unseen “She’s Tall, She’s Tan, She’s Terrific” number he performs for the benefit of singer Lila (Lonette McKee) at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

What’d He Wear?

The increasing informality of the roaring ’20s saw the rise of men’s sport jackets, previously reserved solely for outdoor sporting pursuits—as their nomenclature implies. “By the latter part of the twenties, the sporting jacket, trimmed of its countrified detailing and worn with separate trousers in contrasting fabrics such as flannel or gabardine, became the ideal expression of casual elegance for competitors and spectators alike,” writes Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man.

Among my favorite aspects of sporty tailoring from this era are “action-back” jackets, so named for the strategically placed pleats that would allow a wearer a greater range of movement without compromising the overall silhouette. Tailors desiring to appoint their jackets accordingly could choose from the bi-swing bellowed pleats behind each armhole and/or a center pleat vertically between yoke and waist, where either a full- or half-belt restrained the excess fabric of the upper half to retrain the desired silhouette.

Sandman’s action-back sport jacket features the bi-swing shoulder pleats and an inverted center pleat that aligns with the long single vent, bisected at the waist by a half-belt.

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

Sandman’s action-back jacket allows for his type of action: extensive tap-dancing.

Woven in a black-and-cream houndstooth check, the single-breasted jacket has notch lapels that roll to a two-button front. Sandman wears both light-brown buttons fastened, typically a sartorial no-no (never button the bottom button!), though it may be intentionally done to keep the jacket close to Gregory Hines’ body as he dances without the quarters flapping around. The three buttons on each cuff match the two front buttons.

Consistent with the countrified weave and action-back details, the breast pocket and hip pockets are all sporty patch pockets with an inverted box pleat.

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

Sandman wears a white cotton shirt with a point collar, front placket, and double (French) cuffs. His pointed butterfly-shaped silk bow tie is abstract-checked in black and cream, neatly coordinating with his jacket.

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

Sandman contrasts his houndstooth jacket with tan-on-cream striped trousers in a pattern that reminds me of the black-and-gray “cashmere-striped” trousers associated with traditional morning dress. The double forward-pleated trousers have an appropriately long rise to Gregory Hines’ natural waist, which flatters his lean 6’0″ frame, particularly as he’s dancing in the Hoofers’ Club without his jacket on.

He holds the trousers up with suspenders that connect to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband via brown leather hooks. The tan cloth suspenders have two black bar stripes, continuing the color scheme seen on his jacket and bow tie. The trouser waistband closes through an extended button-through tab and also has slide-through side adjusters, positioned a few inches below the waist on each side. The trousers also have straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

Not long after the style emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, two-toned spectator shoes were often considered to be tasteless footwear, particularly in the UK where they gained the moniker “co-respondent shoes” from their association with the caddish third-party co-respondents in English divorce cases. As the Jazz Age took hold through the 1920s, spectator shoes shook off some of their gauche connotations, especially in the United States, where they were increasingly spotted at summer soirees, where revelers enjoyed raucous dance crazes like the Charleston, Black Bottom, and Lindy Hop. In time, this led to two-toned shoes being associated with professional hoofers like Fred Astaire, already a dapper dresser who further cemented the association between dance and spectator shoes.

Sandman may or may not have been expecting to dance when he stepped into the Abyssinian Baptist Church that spring morning in 1929, but his feet were certainly dressed for the part in black-and-white spectator shoes that continue the black-and-cream themes of his outfit.

Due to a slight continuity error, Gregory Hines actually wears two different sets of black-and-white spectator oxfords for this sequence, first a set of semi-brogue shoes (characterized by their straight cap-toe) followed by a slightly more worn pair of wingtip full-brogues in the next scene. Both sets of shoes follow the same color configuration with the toe-caps, oxford-style lace panels, and heel quarters all in black while the rest of the shoes are white. However, the cap-toe shoes are regular oxfords with hard leather soles while the wingtips are actually tap shoes with metal tap plates under the toes and heels.

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

The close-ups reveal the difference between Sandman’s black-and-white spectator oxfords: more structured semi-brogues at the church (left) and slightly more worn-in wingtip tap shoes at the Hoofers’ Club (right).

Sandman’s ivory socks have broken broken stripes, continuing the leg-line of his trousers into his shoes.

He tops the outfit with a solid black felt fedora with a black grosgrain band and the brim worn turned up.

Lonette McKee and Gregory Hines in The Cotton Club (1984)

“I like it that you’re taller than me!”

Sandman wears a gold rectangular watch with a long, elegant Deco-style case, gold rectangular dial, and black leather strap. (The watch can best be seen here in this later scene during an argument at the Williams family dinner table.)

How to Get the Look

Gregory Hines as Sandman Williams in The Cotton Club (1984)

Even when not dressed for the stage in a dinner jacket and tap shoes, Sandman wears sporty clothes from the era that accentuate his athletic abilities, specifically a handsome houndstooth “action-back” sports jacket, high-waisted trousers, snappy spectator shoes, and a bow tie.

  • Black-and-cream houndstooth single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, inverted box-pleat patch pockets, 3-button cuffs, and “action back” with bi-swing shoulder pleats, center inverted box-pleat, half-belted back, and single vent
  • White cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and double/French cuffs
  • Black-and-cream abstract-checked silk pointed butterfly-shaped bow tie
  • Tan-on-cream cashmere-striped double forward-pleated high-rise trousers with extended waistband, side-adjuster tabs, belt loops, straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
  • Tan and black-striped cloth suspenders with brown leather hooks
  • Black-and-white leather semi-brogue spectator oxfords
  • Ivory and brown-striped cotton lisle socks
  • Black felt fedora with black grosgrain band
  • Gold Deco-style rectangular wristwatch with gold rectangular dial on black leather strap

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

You can also check out a selection of films starring the Nicholas Brothers today on TCM as the show-stopping dance duo are featured as part of the channel’s “Summer Under the Stars” series.


  1. Wolf

    On the buttoning of the bottom button, the “sometimes, always, never” convention hasn’t always been followed, of course. The reasons for it appear to be to make it look less formal than a uniform (where buttoning all the buttons is generally required) and the fact that tailors, awRe of the convention, cut jackets so that the quarters start to open out before the bottom button. Some people aren’t aware of the convention, however, and some deliberately ignore it (think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief in blazer and flannels). Some two button jackets are designed to be worn with both buttons closed – “paddock jacket”.

    The paddock cut was particularly popular in the 20s and 30s and had a bit of a renaissance in the 60s, as best I can tell. The buttoning point for the buttons is higher than normal: effectively the bottom button of a three button fronted single-breasted jacket is left off, as opposed the more conventional two button front which omits the top button. The buttons here aren’t perhaps quite as high as you might expect on a paddock jacket but I wonder if that look might have been in the costume designer’s mind.

    The buttons on this coat are a lhigher than on many jackets. The top button is above, rather than at, the waist; the lower button just below the waist. The positioning of the buttons means that button the bottom jacket looks better when done up: it isn’t pulling or straining much. I own a jacket with a higher than normal buttons and I have found that wearing the bottom button open can sometimes look strange as the jacket then starts to open above the waist. Sometimes buttoning both, what we might be told is “wrong”, looks better.

    As for the movie itself, it’s been a while since I saw it, and I haven’t seen the new director’s cut, but it did feel a very disjointed collection of occasionally excellent parts. Hines’ was a character who shined in the moments he got but I could have done with less of Gere and his rather duller character.

  2. Tony Volkas

    I remember that man dancing so cool when I watched “The cotton club”! Didn’t know the story about the murder behind the film… But Sandman’s movesssss! His style, oh my god! Amazed me so much so i remember it like i watched the film yesterday. Those pants and boots… Yeah, iconic. Couldn’t say less. As we know, the fashion repeats itself, so maybe one day his style will become popular for men, that’d be nice to see. Anyway y’all, wear what you wanna wear, care less about teh opinion of others and maybe even go start learning the tap dance!

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