Editor’s Note: Craigh Barboza teaches film journalism at New York University and writes about race, entertainment and culture.
Martin Scorsese is, by just about any measure, one of the greatest living directors. He makes dark, and often violent films that combine technical brilliance with larger-than-life characters. Many of them, like “The Departed” and “Taxi Driver,” are among the most celebrated in cinematic history. But Scorsese is also a devoted fashion buff whose career offers a fascinating look at Italian American style in movies.
Watching the array of men’s clothes in particular is one of the singular pleasures of the Oscar-winning auteur’s work. When we meet Ray Liotta’s mob soldier, circa 1960s, smoking outside a diner in “Goodfellas,” Scorsese’s seminal gangster film – which turns 30 this month – he is the model of Rat Pack-era masculine cool: leather tassel loafers and a slim-cut sharkskin suit paired with an open-collar cardigan.
It’s not just that Scorsese’s characters look period appropriate. The way they dress (just like the way they talk) is often a key to understanding them. For “The Irishman,” the director’s most recent crime epic which drew a record 17.1 million viewers in its first five days on Netflix, Joe Pesci’s 1970s mob boss was outfitted in dapper suits, complete with a spear-point “capo” collar that was based on a memory from Scorsese’s old neighborhood. (That particular shirt design was the mark of a “made” member of a crime family, Scorsese once recalled in an interview.)
The powerful fusion of style and identity was there more than five decades ago at the very beginning of Scorsese’s career, as made clear by his 1964 award-winning student film “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” The comedy, beautifully shot in black-and-white, opens with the protagonist (a schmuck made good) speaking directly to the camera about his sharp attire. He ticks off the price tag, item by item.
“You see this tie,” he says, motioning for the camera to tilt up to his face, “$20.”
“It’s Not Just You, Murray!,” along with four other early 16-mm films by the director (all fully restored), is included in “Scorsese Shorts,” a recently released Criterion DVD compilation that traces his early development.
“It was apparent early on that Marty had a vast knowledge of fashion history,” said costume designer Sandy Powell via email. The multi-Oscar winner first worked with Scorsese on the 2002 revenge drama “Gangs of New York.” “He has a keen eye for detail and an incredible memory. Not many directors can tell the difference between the width of a sleeve on a man’s jacket from 1830 compared to that of 1850!”
Little Italy on the big screen
Scorsese appears to take great pride in his own wardrobe and has cultivated a certain kind of urban elegance.
For years the director, now 77, shopped at the famed New York department store Barneys. They were the first to carry luxury brands like Giorgio Armani, whose jeans Scorsese collected. Later, he showed a penchant for designer suits by Battistoni, Berluti or Anderson & Shepperd, which he would complement with distinctive ties and accessories, like a watch chain. This is a guy who wore French cufflinks to the original Woodstock festival in ’69.
The fact that style has played such an important role in Scorsese’s films has everything to do with his family. Both parents were first-generation Sicilian Americans who found jobs in New York City’s garment district, which at one point produced the bulk of the clothes manufactured in the United States. In keeping with the era’s gender division of labor, his father, Charles, was a presser and mother, Catherine, worked as a seamstress. Later, they served as wardrobe consultants on “Goodfellas” and “The Age of Innocence,” which won the Oscar for costume design in 1993.
The Scorseses lived in Little Italy on the Lower East Side, home to some of the best old-time Italian bakeries and red sauce joints in the world. But it was also a tough, insular community with a reputation for gangsterism.
Scorsese has often recalled that his childhood neighborhood inspired his breakthrough 1973 film “Mean Streets.” He used to sit on the fire escape or roof of his building and stare down at the crowded streets, where he would see a mix of working-class Americans of Italian descent, street kids and social club patrons, occasionally dressed up in bespoke suits with bold-colored patterns. They donned spiffy shined shoes, jewelry and other aspirational displays of wealth.
“There was an excess beyond what you saw with midtown businessmen,” Sarah C. Byrd, a fashion historian and archivist, said of “Mean Streets.” The film “offers exaggerated notions of masculinity, power, and the suits were likely made by a highly skilled tailor.”
In 1974, Scorsese was coming off the success of his first studio movie, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” when he was offered to direct a documentary on Italians. It was part of a planned television series on ethnic groups. Instead of taking a conventional approach (digging through archival footage for typical stories and hiring a narrator to provide context), Scorsese decided to make a movie about his parents. He called it “Italianamerican.”
The joining of the two words was intended to signify the bridging of two worlds, he has said. Over the movie’s title card, Scorsese used a lively piece of Italian folk-dance music known as tarantella. (Anyone who’s seen “The Godfather Part II,” another paragon of Italian American fashion, might know this is the kind of tune Frankie Pentangeli memorably tries in vain to get a Nevada-square wedding band to play, before they mockingly break into “Pop Goes the Weasel.”)
“Italianamerican,” also included in “Scorsese Shorts,” was shot as a cinema vérité documentary with a small crew over two days at the director’s childhood home on Elizabeth Street. It’s an affectionate, at times hilarious sort of companion piece to “Mean Streets.” His parents, in their 60s, are well dressed in fairly contemporary looks: Charles has a colorful striped shirt with dark slacks; Catherine, a sleeveless pink ruffle dress and crown of purple-grey hair.
The star of the movie turns out to be his mother: a natural storyteller with a crackling wit and blue floral-wallpapered kitchen, where we see her preparing a pasta dinner.
Scorsese asks a few questions, like “How did you learn to make The Sauce?” But more often than not the director (impeccably groomed with a handlebar mustache and beard) just lets his parents talk or react to him, to the crew, to each other. There, in their walk-up apartment decorated with a panorama fresco of Italy and a vinyl-covered couch, we get some family anecdotes and old Italian customs. We also hear about early tenement life and how Scorsese’s parents ended up making clothes.
Being raised by the people who formed the backbone of the fashion industry is no guarantee that your films will be celebrated for wardrobe. But costume designer Powell, who has worked on seven pictures with Scorsese, said his style IQ has helped make him a better filmmaker. “It instilled in him an understanding of both the limitations and heights one can go to in costume design,” she said. For example, one of the first things Scorsese does when an actor arrives on set in a new costume is touch the garment. He inspects them from head to toe, like a tailor checks for size and fit.
Scorsese has often said that “Italianamerican” was the best film he ever made. He credits it with freeing up his directorial style. Soon after the documentary aired on a local public station in New York, Scorsese started taking on some of the boldest, most exciting work of his career.
Like an avant-garde designer reinventing traditional clothes, he set out to smash all the preconceptions of what a film should look like, experimenting with camera and editing techniques that gave the movies a new tone and visual texture. They often featured troubled, compulsively watchable characters.
The first was “Taxi Driver,” a searing update of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground.” Scorsese’s tabloid depiction of urban decay and alienation that erupts in violence won the 1976 Palme d’Or at Cannes. And then there was “Raging Bull,” his gritty period biopic of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta, which earned Robert De Niro a best actor Oscar.
Again, the costumes reflected a lived-in experience. LaMotta, a tortured, driven fighter that practically flattened everything around him, including seven marriages, favored ribbed white T-shirts and pleated slacks outside the ring. “Raging Bull” focuses on the fighter’s second wife, Vickie (newcomer Cathy Moriarty), who he met at a public pool, where she’s lounging in a one-piece swimsuit best described as “1950s starlet.” Before it all comes crashing down, there’s a charming rooftop wedding in Little Italy, just like Scorsese’s parents had for theirs.
For Scorsese, authenticity is always prized above all else. “It’s foundational to his cinema, it’s what makes it so special,” said critic Kent Jones over email. “For years, we saw things like (the crime yarn) ‘Cry of the City.’ It’s a good movie but with a caricatured ‘Whatsamattayou’ picture of Italian Americans. So, I can’t stress enough the double shock of ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Mean Streets,’ one year later.”
“Those films resonated because they were truthful, [not so much] about organized crime, but about a lived experience,” he added. “The way people congregated, the way they hung out, the way they expressed themselves, with the poetry of their whole being.”