I finally got a chance to see The Great Gatsby and while I loved the movie I was disappointed by the inaccuracy of the men’s evening wear. Normally I would chalk this up to sloppy research but that doesn’t seem likely considering that the film’s double Academy Award-winning costumer designer Catherine Martin based her creations on the extensive collection of images and products in the Brooks Brothers archives. That leads me to believe that the unorthodox attire was a matter of artistic licence. But to what end?
The Vanity Fair illustration above is a perfect example of prevailing formal wear trends for the summer of 1922, the period during which Gatsby takes place. Clearly Martin has accurately captured the era’s strict black-and-white palette and the single-breasted jacket’s one-button styling. She has also reflected the period’s predominant lapel styles of peaks and shawls – no common notch lapels here.
Where she veers from historical authenticity is in the details of the shirt and waistcoat. While it’s true that some young mavericks of the time were experimenting with soft-front turndown collar evening shirts, this development was generally frowned upon. Vanity Fair was being very forgiving compared to other contemporary authorities when it said of dinner shirts for American summers:
So far as the collar is concerned, either of those shown is correct; it is a matter of which is the more comfortable. Many men find a wing collar, with a very wide opening, as comfortable as the turn-over collar, and it is undoubtedly the most correct for evening wear.
By dressing virtually all the men in turndown collars instead of stiff-front wing-collar shirts, Martin is presenting the opposite of what actually took place. (An archival catalogue illustration of a 1920s Brooks Brothers dinner jacket with turndown-collar shirt has been widely circulated as part of the film’s promotional material and would seem to validate Martin’s choice. In actual fact the illustration dates from the 1950s.)
Granted, this is not a particularly detrimental creative choice and has at least some historical basis. The same cannot be said for the waistcoat styles.
Evening waistcoats at this time were deliberately cut very low so as to not obscure the formal shirt front, making them virtually invisible when the jacket was buttoned. So why is it that all the men in the film sport high-cut models that were worn only with informal suits prior to the 1970s?
Worse than being inaccurate, Martin’s choice of waistcoat styling is inelegant. Considering all the time, money, and effort that was put into recreating the era’s sophisticated cars, furnishings, and clothing, it is a mystery as to why she opted to demote the tuxedos to the level of pedestrian business suits. Instead of the traditionally striking look of a deep “V” of white shirt front framed by the lapels of a one-button tuxedo which mimics the ideal male torso, Martin’s chest-high vests turn the outfits into a monotonous sea of black. And if this was such a good idea, why is it that Brooks Brothers’ very own Gatsby-themed clothing line features a properly cut waistcoat?
(If I wanted to get really picky I would also ask why the Tom Buchanan character was wearing any type of waistcoat with his double-breasted dinner jacket when the whole point of this new type of warm-weather coat was to eliminate the need for an additional layer of wool beneath. And why did Martin completely ignore the period’s distinctively glamorous trend of wearing white waistcoats with black tie?)
Perhaps the special features on the eventual DVD release will reveal how Ms. Martin came to mar her otherwise outstanding costume design with this lamentable decision.
This is a still from the behind-the-scenes video with Catherine Martin showing Di Caprio’s three-button jacket and clavicle-covering vest. In the video she describes Gatsby as “the immaculate dresser. Somebody who bases himself on English royalty”. Apparently Ms. Martin is unaware that English royalty wouldn’t have been caught dead in such an unorthodox outfit after six. In fact, if they were in mixed company the royals would have been dressed in white tie – the way Robert Redford’s Gatsby was in the 1974 version of the film.