Warren Beatty as John Silas “Jack” Reed, radical journalist and activist
Provincetown, Massachusetts, Summer 1916
Release Date: December 4, 1981
Director: Warren Beatty
Costume Designer: Shirley Ann Russell
Whether it’s because Labor Day is considered by some sartorial purists to be the last acceptable day for wearing summer whites or because the holiday originated to recognize the American labor movement, it feels appropriate for today’s post to explore Warren Beatty’s off-white summer suit as labor activist Jack Reed in his 1981 historical epic Reds.
Reds won three of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Beatty for Best Director, Maureen Stapleton for Best Supporting Actress, and Vittorio Storaro for Best Cinematography, though it had also been nominated for Best Picture and—of significant interest for this blog’s focus—Best Costume Design.
Over three hours in length, Reds‘ unique structure follows the action-packed last five years of John Silas Reed’s life, interspersed with snippets from interviews with 32 “witnesses”—real-life contemporaries of Reed who provide much insight and context into his life as it’s being presented on screen.
The narrative begins in 1915, when Reed meets the married suffragist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) following a lecture in Portland, Oregon. After an all-night interview discussing international politics that’s likely more intimate for these two intellectuals than any sort of sexual encounter, Bryant leaves her husband to join Reed and his radical Greenwich Village coterie of activists and artists, including playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton).
Reed and Bryant move to Cape Cod (actually filmed in Surrey), where they settle in a beachside cottage near the then-“very conservative” fishing village of Provincetown and spend idyllic days writing and getting involved in local theater. However, Reed soon finds art to be too much of a distraction to his global-minded work and departs to defend Woodrow Wilson’s anti-war stance at the 1916 Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, leaving Bryant in Provincetown… and among O’Neill’s romantic advances.
What’d He Wear?
More than a century after these Cape Cod scenes are set through the summer of 1916, Jack Reed’s white linen summer suit, tan oxfords, and open-necked shirt have a timeless relevance, with nary a detail needing to be changed to look contemporary in 2023. This theme echoes through Shirley Ann Russell’s Oscar-nominated costume design for Beatty’s characterization—rooted in post-Edwardian fashion but with a modern-informed sensibility of open-necked shirts, sport jackets, and sweaters that could have been realistically compiled at the time and was certainly on trend by the time Reds was being made, circa 1980.
True, Reed wears stiff detachable club collars and neckties when he needs to make his case to a public who only accept a man dressed with decorum, but Russell’s costume design shows a man more interested in dressing for function than form—portending how menswear would indeed de-formalize over the course of the 20th century. Thus, Reed often wears shirts with attached collars (open at the neck, no less!) and trousers held up by belts, all of which existed at the time but wouldn’t be mainstream for at least another decade until technological advances and the Great Depression hastened the standardization of men’s clothing closer to what most men wear today.
Reed dresses comfortably—but not unstylishly—for his Provincetown summer, typically clad in an ivory off-white linen suit. Consistent with the summer-weight fabric, the suit is loosely structured to keep it light and breathable. The single-breasted jacket has a three-button front, an arrangement flatteringly balanced by Warren Beatty’s 6’2″ frame.
The lapels are designed with wide, sharp notches—combined with the unstructured fit, the jacket could look like a waiter’s or steward’s uniform coat when orphaned, but Reed always smartly wears it with matching trousers. The jacket also has long double vents and patch-style hip pockets with large rectangular flaps (but no breast pocket.) The sleeves are vented at the cuff but without the conventional buttons.
The flat front trousers have a medium rise, lower than they would have been conventionally worn during the 1910s, but this again could be argued as consistency with a forward-thinking dresser who cares more about function than form. Rather than suspenders or self-suspending side tabs, Reed holds his trousers up with a dark leather belt that fits through belt loops around the waistband as found on most modern off-the-rack trousers produced in the last 80-odd years. Reed’s suit trousers have side pockets (but no back pockets) and a comfortably full fit through the legs down to the plain-hemmed bottoms.
Reed wears tan leather cap-toe oxfords that nicely harmonize with the light, warm shade of his suit without the harsher contrast of a darker leather shoe. His dark brown cotton lisle socks may be darker than some men would choose with such a light-colored suit, but the color is still tonally compatible with the rest of his outfit.
On the beach and for Reed’s departure, he wears a white cotton shirt with a point collar, front placket, and button cuffs. At the time these scenes were set around 1916, most men’s dress shirts were configured with a collarless neckband, onto which men would attach a stiff separate collar to be worn with a necktie. Before modern laundry, this allowed shirts to be more vigorously laundered without damaging the collars (often the only part of the shirt that prominently showed) and also allowed a gentleman to refresh his appearance mid-day by merely changing his collar.
Two years after Van Heusen patented its “self-folding” shirt collar in 1919, mass-produced men’s shirts with attached collars were introduced to the public and eagerly accepted by young men through the roaring ’20s who preferred the comfort of softer collars and the ease of less garments to launder. By the end of the decade as the Great Depression informed a more practical sense of dressing without fussy detachable collars, attached-collar shirts were the new standard.
Reed also cycles through an ivory-and-brown striped shirt styled like the other shirt with an attached soft point collar, front placket, and button cuffs. The stripe pattern is actually sets of three mid-brown stripes—one thin center stripe flanked on each side by an even narrower hairline stripe of the same color, against an off-white puckered cotton ground.
Reed’s cotton tie for his departure and arrival from the Cape Cod cottage is taupe-brown with a mini beige birdseye design.
At the 1916 DNC, Reed wears this same brown-on-ivory striped shirt but with a dark forest-green knitted silk tie and a stiff sennit straw boater, detailed with a wide black grosgrain band. Also known as a “skimmer” (as Paul Newman refers to it while being chased by Joe LeFors in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), these flat-crowned, flat-brimmed hats were ubiquitous through the warmer months of the early 20th century, earning its nomenclature through an association with water sports and seaside leisure.
Considered old-fashioned by the 1930s, Reed’s boater may be the most outmoded aspect of his wardrobe, though he clearly wears it to fit it amongst his politically minded colleagues during the hot summer convention in St. Louis. Indeed, political rallies are among the few places were boaters are still regularly worn, though they’re typically of an expensive faux-straw or styrofoam variety—a nod to the early 20th century tradition of political parties adorning these hats with slogans around the bands and given out to supporters to wear at these conventions, which were often held during muggy summers when these hats would have been in fashion.
How to Get the Look
Jack Reed dresses simply for his idyllic beachside sojourn in an off-white linen suit, open-necked shirt, and tan oxfords—a timeless combination that was ahead of its era in 1916 but would still be appropriate for nearly any summertime occasion today.
- Ivory linen suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with wide notch lapels, flapped patch-style hip pockets, and long double vents
- Flat-front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Dark brown leather belt
- Tan leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark brown cotton lisle socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.