“Look at you. Swanning ’round like you’re Al Capone” – 1920s/30s costume design in Lawless.

Recently, during the opening trailers at the cinema I’ve noticed this particular film a fair few times – it stuck out to me. Naturally, as you do, I was doing the typical “yes!” or “no!” throughout the opening trailers, deciding whether or not the films look good or bad and/or if I’m going to pay to go and see it. Of course, I’m a huge fan of the prohibition era and having had a sneak peak at the wonderful costume designs during those couple of crucial minutes deciding on whether I am going to spend a few bob at the cinema watching it  – all I could think was – yes, yes yes!

After watching the trailer I thought Lawless had a very Johnny Depp in Public Enemies kinda look which obviously can’t be bad. Also with my one true love Boardwalk Empire also showing strong similarities, in particular the attractive men in swanky, expensive suits living the American gangster lifestyle – all in the name of (illegal) alcohol I knew it would be right up my street.

Before I start expressing my love for the wonderful costume design – let me just say that as a whole this film is brilliant. I left the cinema feeling extremely happy and wanting more, it’s one of those films that I could watch over and over again but do let me know whether you agree or disagree? The film, based on Matt Bondurant’s ‘The Wettest Country In The World’ tells the story of the infamous Bondurant brothers, known to their community as some sort of misunderstood, mysterious superhero trio with such a large collection of legends and myths associated with them that even their grandkids would get a little bored hearing about.

Costume designer Margot Wilson’s previous work on 2009  post-apocalyptic drama The Road despite being brilliant, I can imagine didn’t give much freedom with costumes. Lawless on the other hand set in Depression-era Franklin Country, Virginia with an array of world class actors, all very individual in their characters and the way that they present themselves on screen. Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke – the Bondurant brothers who to me, clearly have some sort connection with ridiculous  rapper 50 Cent – if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

First up, Tom Hardy, aka Forrest Bondurant – the ‘middle’ brother and the leader of the 3 man wolf pack just loves a cardigan and doesn’t care much for the tailored suit wearing people he sometimes crosses paths with, he has far more to worry about than how his clothes are perceived by others – his strong family values in particular. Despite this, the choice of clothes Margot has put him in works perfectly for his build, almost an Incredible Hulk kinda moment – his inner Bane from The Dark Knight Rises is just waiting to be unleashed onto passers by who cause trouble between him, his family, his lady friend and most importantly – his home grown moonshine. Typically seen wearing a well-loved or more appropriately, beaten-up fedora hat, a high necked shirt, an oversized cardigan and some loose fitted trousers his character is perceived well – a laid back, casual approach yet with his hat low and when needed, his intimidating body language in check he has the menacing look down to a t.

Howard, played by Jason Clarke is the mad one of the three – the alcoholic, howling Bondurant brother is a little scruffy in the way that he presents himself physically. Also rocking the beaten up hat look alongside a tatty shirt and a heavy woolen coat his clothes are definitely falling apart and could do with a little wash but are glued to his skin just like a moonshine filled mason jar is glued to his hand. Despite his clothes requiring a few amends, they will no doubt be handed down to the younger brother, the runt of the litter, Jack.

The only one of the three that has a clear transformation costume wise in the film, Jack played by Shia LaBeouf gets thrown a lot of his older brothers hand-me-downs and isn’t happy about it. The baby brother wants to be just like his older brothers and show some sort of authority and intimidating characteristics yet feels a little out of place at the start of the film. From the hand-me-downs leads to wearing his dad’s fancy, tailored suits to impress a girl (Mia Wasikowska) until he gets the money to purchase his own swanky ensembles. After earning some dollar he splashes out on some 3-piece suits and even buys Bertha (Mia) a yellow, floral dress that flows perfectly on her petite frame.

Of course, no prohibition-era based film would be complete without a villain. Rakes, played by Guy Pearce isn’t one of those characters that you love to hate, it’s just pure hatred towards him. The moment he steps on to the screen with his quirky, unusual fashion sense, his ugly hair cut, his irritating voice  and a face you just want to punch you immediately know that he’s trouble. His dodgy deal with the Bondurant brothers doesn’t go the way he liked which spirals out of control into a long feud between the corrupt law and the legendary family. Sometimes he looked like he is dressed for a dinner party in The Great Gatsby with his bow tie and thick, pin-striped suit and other times looking like his just about to wait a table at a restaurant with ridiculous white and black trousers and suit jacket – there is a lot of depth to his wardrobe. Oh and I can’t not mention the gloves that complete his pretentious look and that are always wiped clean from the blood shed at the hands of his annoying character. There’s a clear barrier between Rakes and the Bondurant family – in particular, the colour palettes are completely opposite to each other. The warm tones of the Bondurant brothers – the browns, beiges, greys contrast well against the bold colours that Rakes is draped in.

Not quite as extravagant and luxurious as 1920s prohibition television drama Boardwalk Empire and no one in particular giving Steve Buscemi and his flowered lapel a run for his money, yet the period costumes Margot Wilson has used in the film are used so well between the characters that the difference between each character’s clothes is clear and even those people that aren’t particularly used to paying attention to the costume design in films will probably notice it.

Basically, what I’m saying is – go and see it.

An interview with Boardwalk Empire costume designer John Dunn.

On Screen Fashion had the privilege and honor to have a chat with the genius that is John Dunn – the man behind the beaded flapper dresses, beautifully cut three-piece suits, and that carnation we see on Steve Buscemi’s lapel – the man behind the costumes of Boardwalk Empire. 


On Screen Fashion: I have read that you custom-make nearly all of the costumes for Boardwalk Empire – is that a difficult task?

John Dunn: The truth of the matter is that a large share of the clothing you see in Boardwalk Empire is authentic vintage clothing and clothing from the Hollywood costume rental houses. The number of costumes required for the large crowd scenes you see on the show make it impossible to manufacture everything in the time we have to prep an episode. That said, we make as much as possible for our principal characters in our on-site costume shop. That way we are able to capture the right mood and detail for our lead characters. We make dresses, lingerie, blouses, hat and coats for the female characters. At other workshops, we make suits, shirts, ties and hats for the male characters.

OSF: If you are sourcing items it must be hard to find something from the 20s that is in wearable condition – have you ever found anything that’s in near immaculate condition?

Dunn: Occasionally we will find an accessory or hat in pristine condition, but in general the real clothing we deal with is quite fragile, especially the women’s dresses. A large part of what our in-house costume shop does is re-enforce and restore authentic clothing so it is sturdy enough to withstand an entire day of filming. And unfortunately, we are often the last resting place for some pieces which are sometimes unusable after we complete filming. We’ve had some dresses and lingerie literally self-destruct in the middle of filming. It did make me a bit sad but now I think when that happens we have at least captured them on film instead of them disintegrating in an attic or musty basement somewhere.

OSF: Are you copying a look from the 20s or are you redesigning from that period to make it slightly modernised?

Dunn: We try to be as authentic as possible; this is for several reasons. I like to help the actors to submerge themselves deeply into the period so we like to keep the clothing as “real” as possible. Of course we do some adaption. For instance, our Al Capone is physically quite different from the historical person so we have to adjust for that. Also, I’ve seen way too many period films re-interpret a period to ill-effect. I try to avoid an egotistical “look at me” approach to period design and instead try to give the audience a visual portal into the period.

OSF: What excited you most about working on season 1 and 2? What do you have planned for season 3?

Dunn: We’ve laid a groundwork in season 1 and 2 to show the changes in clothing and style to come. For most decades in the twentieth century, the signature silhouette of the period does not emerge until the middle of the decade. Season 3 will reflect the coming definitive 20s clothing – rising hemline, cloches, etc.

OSF: I have read that you have one of the biggest television costume teams and while being on one of the most expensive television shows ever made – what proportion of the budget is costume? It must be difficult to stick to a budget with such beautiful vintage costumes to buy or to make…

Dunn: We have a large team as everyone who appears on the show comes for a proper costume fitting and their clothing is made to look as if it’s really theirs. This makes for a lot of detailed work and requires many hands. Tailors, drapers, stitchers, milliners, cobblers, dyers, dressers and design assistants. And the logistics of moving the clothing to the various sets requires additional wardrobe positions. I cannot estimate the proportion of the budget as I am only given information about my department’s budget. It is certainly an expensive costume undertaking but HBO is invested in maintaining the highest quality. We do, however, like all the other departments have to carefully budget and analyze the script to determine what we can and what we cannot achieve given the financial and schedule limitations.

OSF: Today we live in a world when if you were walking down the street and you saw two well dressed individuals – it would be hard to tell if they had bought their outfit from a high-street shop or designer shop – whereas in Boardwalk Empire it’s clear who is rich and who is poor (yet still remaining stylish in my opinion) – what’s your opinion on this? Was it hard to make the poor look poor and the rich look rich?

Dunn: On a personal level, I look forward to a time when everyone in the world has access to the same elements of fashion to express themselves as individuals. But Boardwalk Empire is set in a long gone time when the markers of station and position were clearly demarcated in fashion. And shifts in one’s economic situation were accompanied by major shifts in appearance. Now mostly everyone around the world has access to variations of the same fashions. Today, almost everyone rich and poor in Western culture wears some version of t-shirts and jeans. In Nucky and Margaret’s time, people of their position would never appear in public so casually attired. Even appearing out of doors without a hat was just not done. A certain amount of style has been sacrificed in the name of equality.

OSF: We see huge costume transformations in some characters – in particular Margaret Schroeder and Jimmy Darmody which shows how different your appearance can be with money and power – do you prefer them this way or did you like it more when they were working class?

Dunn: I love being able to help tell the story visually; as in life, some people better themselves and others slide into difficult circumstances.  Portraying these changes for the audience are the nature of what good costume design will achieve.

OSF: Nucky is based on a real person – Enoch Nucky Johnson – how accurate did you try and make the outfits similar to his back then? I’ve searched for photographs and they are mostly black and white – was this a challenge?

Dunn: As Steve Buscemi, the actor playing Nucky, is so different from the real Nucky and the real Nucky’s historical appearance is not widely known, we decided to exercise free rein in designing his clothing. We wanted to capture the spirit of the character without creating a carbon-copy.

OSF: Nucky’s statement item is the carnation pinned to his suit – was it a deliberate decision to not have the stem of the flower going through the button hole of the lapel? If so what was the reason?

Dunn: Oops! You caught that!

OSF: How much involvement does director Martin Scorsese have with the costumes?

Dunn: Mr. Scorsese was initially involved and approved all the costumes for all characters in the pilot episode. We’ve used that as a costume template for the entire series as it continues.

OSF: Beauty pageants were a big thing in 1921 Atlantic City – will we be seeing any in Season 3?

Dunn: It’d be great! I’d love to recreate an early beauty pageant. Unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait and see how the story continues to unfold.

Many thanks to John Dunn. 

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