Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, debonair vampire
Transylvania to London, Spring 1930
Release Date: February 14, 1931
Director: Tod Browning
Costume Design: Ed Ware & Vera West (uncredited)
With Halloween less than two weeks away, embrace spooky season through Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance as Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal horror classic Dracula.
Though several great actors from Christopher Lee to Gary Oldman (and, as of last year, Nic Cage) would sink their teeth into the role over the decades to follow, it was arguably Lugosi’s characterization that remains the definitive Dracula performance. As Dale Nauertz’s excellent 2019 Letterboxd review begins:
Quick, do your best Dracula impression. Okay, did you try to affect a Hungarian accent? Did you turn your hand into a crude claw-like shape? Did you turn your “w”s into “v”s? That’s how deeply Bela Lugosi put his stamp on this character.
Born 141 years ago today on October 20, 1882, Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó had been acting on stage in his native Hungary since 1902, around the time he adopted his stage name from his birth city of Lugos. The rechristened Bela Lugosi was forced to leave Hungary after the failed 1919 revolution and ended up in the United States, where he first portrayed the vampiric count Dracula in 1927 when Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula was adapted for Broadway.
During the subsequent tour across the country and along the west coast, Lugosi performed Dracula on stage nearly 1,000 times before he settled in Hollywood and reprised his star-making role for the silver screen—re-imagining the grotesque vampire of Stoker’s novel and F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu to now be a charismatic and debonair but no less dangerous villain in this atmospheric and creepy pre-Code classic.
(Thank you to BAMF Style reader Darius for the suggestion that informed today’s post!)
What’d He Wear?
After the opening credits set to Tchaikovsky’s haunting theme from Act 2 of Swan Lake, Dracula begins with the lawyer Renfield (Dwight Frye) arriving in Transylvania, where the locals—their superstitions heightened by Walpurgis Night—warn him against the vampiric presence at Castlevania. In his sharply tailored three-piece suit accompanied by fedora and striped tie, the dandy Renfield’s costume visually informs us that the action is set in the then-present day, circa 1930, reinforced by the presence of motorcars once the action shifts to London where Dracula encounters the sanitarium chief Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), his lovely daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and the count’s eventual nemesis Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan).
The enigmatic Count Dracula regularly dresses in a white tie ensemble that remained as fashionably formal in 1930 as it would have been a half-century earlier, helping him fit in among London’s high society.
Dracula’s formal tailcoat is perfectly tailored to meet the expectations of full evening dress that had been established since the mid-19th century. (Some have discussed Lugosi’s “tuxedo”, though it’s more accurate to describe his eveningwear as “full evening dress” or “white tie and tails” rather than the less formal “tuxedo”, which refers more specifically to the black tie dress code of a dinner jacket.)
Likely made from a black barathea wool (though midnight-blue was also increasingly common, thanks to then-Prince of Wales, Edward VIII), Dracula’s dress coat has the traditional double-breasted arrangement of six buttons—three on each side—which taper down toward the waist, designed not to actually button but to present an elegant symmetry. This symmetry is broken only by the addition of a welted pocket over the left breast, which Dracula dresses with a white linen kerchief. Unlike less formal dinner jackets and suit jackets, there are no other visible outer pockets on the traditional evening tailcoat, though many have inner pockets—Dracula’s is no exception, as we see.
The fashionably wide peak lapels feature the requisite silk facing, with a buttonhole through the left lapel—though Dracula foregoes wearing any sort of boutonnière, even after he is so kindly offered one by a future victim (Bunny Beatty) on the streets of London.
The shoulders follow the natural “pagoda” shape that emphasizes the concave lines of Lugosi’s shoulders, and the sleeves are finished with three-button cuffs. The jacket is designed to squarely cut away at each side, resulting in a waist-length front and knee-length back. Though some evening tailcoats may differ regarding revers, pockets, and buttons, their essential defining characteristic is the presence of two long tails in the back, each detailed at the top by a decorative button.
Full evening dress trousers match the tailcoat, from the black barathea cloth to the black silk double-striped galon covering the side seams. Consistent with proportional tailoring of the era, a gentleman’s trouser waistband and suspension method—be this side adjusters, suspenders (braces), or both—would be fully covered by the waistcoat.
Dracula’s formal trousers have elegant double reverse-facing pleats, side pockets positioned just behind the galon, and the requisite plain-hemmed bottoms as cuffs were considered unsightly for formalwear.
By the early 20th century, the white formal waistcoat (vest) was firmly established as the preferred choice for full evening dress, with the black waistcoat relegated to the newer “semi-formal” black tie dress code. Lugosi’s Dracula wears two different white waistcoats: a more off-white, self-striped waistcoat while at home in Transylvania and an appropriately dressier white piqué (marcella) formal waistcoat in London.
The Transylvania waistcoat has a narrow shawl collar framing the low V-shaped opening, with four dark recessed buttons closely spaced above the notched front. The London waistcoat has fuller-bellied revers—possibly peak lapels, rather than a shawl collar—and only three buttons to close. Both waistcoats have long notched bottoms under the button closure, and Dracula always wears a pocket watch tucked into his left waistcoat pocket—in Transylvania, he keeps the chain exclusively on the vest’s left side, but he wears it in the elegantly symmetrical “double Albert” style in London.
Both waistcoats illustrate the ideal proportions of full evening dress, with the cutaway front of the tailcoat neatly covering the waistcoat on each side so that the white waistcoat cloth doesn’t show between the tailcoat and trousers.
The long-prescribed shirt with full evening dress is a white cotton dress shirts, with all visible elements—the standing collar, single cuffs, and front bosom—made from a stiff piqué or marcella that matches the waistcoat and tie, while the rest would typically be a lighter-weight broadcloth or voile cloth for the wearer’s comfort beneath the heavy wool tailcoat. (You can read more about the history and proper execution of white tie dress shirts at Gentleman’s Gazette.)
Dracula attaches a wing collar, perhaps the most acceptable collar in addition to the now-outmoded stiff “poke” collar. Single cuffs are exactly what their nomenclature implies—functionally similar to the now more common double (French) cuffs but with just a single layer of fabric, fastened with links. The boiled bib-shaped front bosom presents a military-like stiffness, with two studs showing between the collar and waistcoat. Dracula always wears spherical studs—plain metal studs in Transylvania and dressier pearl studs in London.
The “white tie” dress code is named for its neckwear, differentiating it from the less formal “black tie” prescribed for dinner jackets and tuxedoes. The traditional white bow tie is made of white cotton piqué, as Dracula wears in London, though he opts for a less formal self-striped linen or silk white while home in Transylvania. This neckwear should always be of the self-tied sort, especially as the wing collar reveals the entirety of tie.
Another aspect unique to Dracula’s at-home white tie wardrobe in Transylvania is the aristocratic addition of a medal round his neck. Though the provenance of the screen-worn medals is likely lost to history, Elizabeth Joy Glass wrote for The Art of Costume that “it it thought that prop-makers at Universal used medals from the Ottoman Empire or the Kingdom of Afghanistan” to create the ornate six-pointed star that Dracula wears suspended from a wide, dark silk ribbon around his neck.
Dracula wears a very large ornamental ring on his left hand, though it’s not the more ornate carnelian ring that would eventually be associated with the character.
A gunmetal ring with a matching crested mounted on an oval carnelian stone is much-publicized as the Count Dracula ring, definitely worn by Bela Lugosi in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and similar—if not identical—to rings worn by Lon Chaney Jr. in Son of Dracula (1943) and John Carradine in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Lugosi’s ring was one of the actor’s prized possessions, eventually gifted to his friend Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman had multiple replicas of the ring cast, including one given to Christopher Lee in the ’60s, when he started wearing them after his second portrayal of the count. This is the most replicated ring for Dracula costumes (e.g., Amazon) and understandably so, with its dramatic filigree and blood-red stone.
Ackerman’s original Lugosi ring was auctioned by Profiles in History in spring of 2009, attracting enough attention that Jason De Bord extensively researched the provenance of Dracula’s rings for an Original Prop Blog post—setting the record straight and confirming that Lugosi’s screen-worn ring in 1948 was almost certainly the one originally made for Carradine in ’44 and was the very same one from Ackerman’s possessions that was sold at auction more than 60 years later.
Of course, that’s all tangential to the 1931 film Dracula, in which Lugosi clearly wore a much simpler ring with a smooth surface—said by some to be black onyx.
Black patent leather footwear is proper with full evening dress. The most traditional selection is low-vamped court shoes (also known as “opera pumps”), typically detailed with black grosgrain bows that echo the silk detailing on the tailcoat and trousers, but Dracula opts for plain-toe oxfords—a formal style considered increasingly acceptable for white tie by the early 1930s.
And now perhaps the most iconic part of Dracula’s attire—his dramatic black opera cape. This piece of Dracula’s visual identity was cemented when Hamilton Deane’s play Dracula—adapted from Stoker’s novel—premiered on the London stage in 1924, starring English actors Edmund Blake and Raymond Huntley. It was this stage characterization that transformed the count from the grotesque monster of Stoker’s novel and Murmau’s Nosferatu to the dapper gentleman in white tie, tails, and—indeed—cape, though Lugosi would be enduringly associated with this look following his screen portrayal.
Made of heavy black fulled wool, Dracula’s opera cape extends below Lugosi’s knees. Though soft and unstructured, the cape has a tall standing collar that builds a bat-like silhouette. Interestingly, no visible cord or fastening method closes the cape around his neck, relying on gravity and Dracula’s slow, steady movements to keep it on his shoulders.
It’s possible that more than one cape was featured on screen in Dracula, as the Transylvania scenes appear to feature an all-black cape while the cape he wears in London—specifically during the finale at Carfax Abbey—has a contrasting lining.
Dracula’s infamous bloodlust and the drama of the color have resulted in the cape’s lining often depicted as a deep scarlet red, even in Dracula‘s contemporary colorized promotional artwork. However, the screen-worn cape—as extensively photographed and described when put up for auction in 2011 (it didn’t sell) and donated by Lugosi’s family to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures eight years later—clearly has a taupe-colored silk crepe lining, which likely also provided a better contrast during the darkly lit black-and-white photography of the finale.
After Dracula arrives in London, he dresses for the symphony by complimenting his usual white tie ensemble with a black silk top hat, white leather three-point dress gloves, and a monocle worn on a dark cord around his neck—dangling low on his torso with the lens near his waistcoat buttons.
Lugosi’s full evening dress and cape remains the quintessential Dracula costume nearly a century later, despite Christopher Lee’s protest when dressing for his own portrayal in 1958. As Lee shared in an interview with Leonard Wolf for A Dream of Dracula, he “was always against the whole tie and tails tradition… surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes, and a full cloak.”
Perhaps it is ridiculous… but perhaps that’s also what makes it work so well.
What to Imbibe
Dracula never drinks… wine.
How to Get the Look
Bela Lugosi’s cape-covered white tie and tails may be one of the most enduring and iconic costumes in horror cinema history, cementing Count Dracula’s cinematic reputation as a dashing, quasi-romantic villain.
- Black wool knee-length opera cape with tall standing collar and taupe silk crepe lining
- Black barathea wool dress tailcoat with silk-faced peak lapels, decorative double-breasted 6-button front, welted breast pocket, 3-button cuffs, and two rear tails with two decorative back buttons
- White cotton evening shirt with detachable piqué wing collar, boiled piqué front bosom, and squared single cuffs
- White cotton piqué self-tying bow tie
- White cotton piqué formal waistcoat with lapels, 3- or 4-button front, hip pockets, and notched bottom
- Black barathea wool double reverse-pleated dress trousers with double black side-braiding, side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black patent leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Large ring with smooth black onyx oval surface
- Aristocratic six-pointed star medal on wide dark scarlet silk ribbon
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
There are far worse things awaiting man than death.