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Dressed to Type: The Men of The Great Gatsby

by Michael Morco
31 Jul 2017 | 2:10 PM

Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby may not be an unequivocal success as a film adaptation, but like his Moulin Rouge, it gave his wife/collaborator, designer Catherine Martin, the platform to showcase her extravagant gifts for costume design. Martin understands the power of clothing to convey not just social status but personality. In Gatsby, the stylish young women unvaryingly dazzle in beads, fringes, and feathers. The men, on the other hand, wear clothes that clearly reflect their disparate backgrounds and personalities.

Jay Gatsby is the newly-rich "striver" with deeply held romantic notions. He styles himself after English aristocrats, but is undermined by self-consciousness and a lack of restraint. On a drive to the city, he wears a light brown three-piece suit (peaked-lapel jacket) over a linen shirt, orange tie with abstract pattern, gold collar pin, silk pocket square, boater hat, spectator shoes. It is an effete ensemble, made egregious by Gatsby carrying a black cane.

Even for afternoon tea at his neighbor's cottage, Gatsby is irrepressibly foppish: completely accessorized and still carrying a cane, he wears a white linen suit with a brown vest. 

To the climactic showdown with his nemesis, Gatsby wears a pinstriped pink linen suit (faithful to the novel). It is frankly immodest for its time, and he is strongly derided for it. When, in the same scene, his long-time love, Daisy, blurts out "You always look so cool in your cool shirts, like the advertisement for the man in Times Square," it is not mere useless flattery, but damning, backhanded praise. Gatsby's clothes are but glaring advertisements for his lack of class.

In contrast, Gatsby's nemesis Tom Buchanan is a moneyed scion of the Old Establishment. He is also a dullard and a prig. Reflective of his disdain for vulgar colors and flair, Buchanan's suits are navy pinstripes or grey, with too-buttoned-up vests (six buttons, or collared and double-breasted). They are shorthand for conservatism and power, and Buchanan wears them as someone used to effortlessly wielding it.

Between Gatsby and Buchanan stands the narrator, Nick Carraway. Yale-educated and in possession of some connections to the establishment, he is a keen observer moving among the observed. The fresh college graduate retains most of his college style: tweed suit vests, navy blazers, contrast club collar shirts, striped ties and bow ties. Unpretentious, conservative, but not shabby, Nick Carraway gives off the image of someone who is trustworthy and thoughtful-the traits most desired in a reliable narrator.

With each of these characters, Catherine Martin's meticulous work affirms the power of clothing to speak the very truth of who or what one is. Which proves that in film and in real life, in the Jazz Age and in the age of social media, the clothes make the man.