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SILVER SCREEN REVISITED – The Great Gatsby (1974)

by

Bob The wardrobe builder

As much as any film I have ever seen, the 1974 screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece does almost perfect justice to the novel. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that The Great Gatsby is my favourite work of fiction. And this film, therefore, ranks right up there in my list of top movies. 

The film and book take place in the summer, and most of the gents’ outfits consist of lightweight, warm weather suitings and, set in the 1920s, that post First World War, pre Great Depression, Prohibition vibe is ever-present and well-captured by Ralph Lauren, who did the mens’ wardrobe for the film.
From a classic menswear perspective, Lauren’s clothing for the film was immaculate. My favourite character is the narrator Nick Carraway (played by the excellent Sam Waterston). Throughout the film, Nick portrays that easy, natural patrician elegance – confident yet understated – that comes from old money (well the American version of it), and his clothes evoke just that: He wears striking multi-striped shirts and lovely ties with small patterns (all of which seem about 9cm-9.5cm wide, which is the perfect width). His shirt collars are tight and straight, not unlike Mogg’s #ZeeJermanCollar (and therefore very stylish). Shirts are frequently worn with collar bars. As for suits, Nick mostly wears single breasted ones, often in linen and almost always with two buttons, with what I would describe as “very present” capacious lapels, sometimes three piece, sometimes two piece. 

My least favourite male character in the film is Tom Buchanan, played by Bruce Dern. Tom is a wealthy, oafish, uninspiring man, who nonetheless dresses quite correctly and stylishly, in keeping with the era. Like Nick, he wears a lot of single breasted suits with the expected detailing of the period, and mostly striped shirts which look great, often with contrasting collars. Tom sometimes wears a club collar, and almost always with a collar bar. He’d be elegant and memorable if his character wasn’t so unlikeable. He fares badly in comparison with Nick (who is very sympathetic) and Gatsby who is, naturally, the star of the show.

And what to say about Gatsby? Played superbly by the inconceivably handsome Robert Redford, Gatsby cuts a very dashing figure indeed. Gatsby is in love with Tom’s wife, Daisy, with whom he had a short, intense relationship many years before. When we first meet Gatsby in the film (at one of his notorious parties), he is dressed in black tie, looking quite resplendent, but I guess Redford is so good-looking he would appear amazing in anything (the bastard!).

Any discussion of the film needs to say at least a few words about Gatsby’s parties. They are held at his sprawling estate on Long Island, and the get-togethers were wild and raucous, with hundreds of guests, just as we all imagine those of the Jazz Age to be. At the parties, you see lots of black tie, some lounge suits, and the occasional gent in white tie. The “come as you wish” nonchalance makes sense in a way, given that the parties were so over the top and had an “anything goes” atmosphere.

So, what of the rest of Gatbsy’s wardrobe? One of his most striking outfits is a chocolate brown pinstripe, accompanied by a white shirt and a gorgeous brown tie with a small subtle pattern comprised of what look like spots and rectangles. If we’re being super picky (which we obviously are at Mogg Towers!), we’d rather Gatsby wore a cream-coloured shirt, but the plain white one looks great on him (again, the bastard!). 
In another scene, he wears a light pink suit (!), a two-button, single-breasted, three-piece with a double-breasted waistcoat, white shirt and a sky blue tie with a small pattern. As it is summer, Gatsby wears white suede bucks with this outfit and looks, unsurprisingly, eminently well-dressed. Very cool in the summer heat, as Daisy remarks in this scene.
One of the most dramatic passages in the film is when Gatsby finally meets Daisy again after all those years. For this fateful occasion, he wears a white, three-piece single-breasted suit, which has a double-breasted waistcoat, paired with a blue silky-looking shirt and a gold-coloured tie. Very charming, very stylish, and supremely elegant. 

This all leads up to the highlight of the film for all of us classic menswear geeks. So many of you will already know the passage of the film I am about to refer to, but for those who don’t, I’m referring to “the shirt scene.” 
One of the reasons The Great Gatsby is my favourite novel is because of Fitzgerald’s elegant, evocative prose. A passage from the book is probably the best way to illustrate the beauty of the author’s words, and why the “shirt scene” is so memorable:

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall,” said Gatsby.
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, shirts of sheers linen and thicks silk and fins flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral ad apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to try stormily. 

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds .”It makes me sad because I have never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.”

In the film, the shirts are folded in a closet we would all die for (described by Fitzgerald in the book as “two hulking patent cabinets”). Stacked high and wide — described by Fitzgerald as “piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high” — there are scores of amazing shirts in stripes, checks, and solids, in the most amazing colours. Pinks, blues, lilacs, yellows, greens — they’re all there! And, the filmmakers made no secret where the shirts came from, with an obvious and conspicuous collection of Turnbull & Asser boxes in the closet. And, having looked through the cloth books at T&A over the twenty years I was a bespoke client there, several of the stripes and checks on Gatsby’s shelves looked very familiar, so the fabrics all seem genuine and legitimately from the corner of Jermyn and Bury Street! 

If all the above piques your interest, I’ve done a good job of picking out the highlights and done justice to what is an outstandingly stylish film. But, as we always do in our movie reviews, there are things that could be changed. Regular readers will know I love a single breasted suit, but I would prefer to see more three button fastenings or one button (with a high stance, natch) fastenings. And while the shirt collars are all very stylish and appropriate (especially for the 1920s), I would love to see Nick or Gatsby wearing full cutaway-collared shirts (a la Mogg St James style). And, although most of the suits had pockets with generous flaps, I would have loved to see those pockets slanted, and with ticket pockets too.

Nonetheless, the film is one of the most stylish, period-appropriate adaptations ever made. Ralph Lauren nails it, and the film is a must-see for any fan of classic menswear. It’s also worth reading the book, which is as good as any novel you’ll ever read. In his introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel, Malcolm Bradbury says “The Great Gatsby in fact tells in its finest form a story that Fitzgerald would tell many times.” It is indeed a very fine story, the best this accomplished author ever penned, and the film is every bit as fine as the book. BTWB/MM/YS