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For three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, working with director Martin Scorsese (seven times and counting with Killers of the Flower Moon in preproduction) comes with its own creative shorthand. From Gangs of New York and The Aviator (which won her an Oscar) to the upcoming Netflix saga The Irishman, trust and familiarity go with the territory.
For the looks of The Irishman, the directive from the master of the gangster genre was simple. “Marty told us very specifically these guys are not flashy gangsters and not the ones we are used to seeing. They are much quieter and not as intimidating, and they have to blend into the background and not stand out. The tone of the film needs to be understated,” she says. “This is not Goodfellas and it’s not Casino.”
A tale of organized crime in post-war America as told through World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the film deals with all of the essential mob themes — organized crime and politics and loyalty and rivalries. Set against five decades (1949-2000) and the reign of Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) and mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), their relationship with Sheeran is at the heart of the story.
Pacino tells The Hollywood Reporter of working with Powell: “She’s an artist that is very subtle. Her contribution to a film is so effective, it can heighten whatever the other participants are doing without it even being recognized. In a sense, her work can almost be taken for granted because it doesn’t show itself, yet it has an effect on the film in different ways. Sandy simply does that. She enhances whatever is there and connects the audience to it, brings out the undercurrent.”
Winding down from her work on the films The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns, coupled with the sheer weight of the project (6,500 items for the extras alone), Powell enlisted the help of costume designer and collaborator Christopher Peterson. “Everything we did on this film, we did together, and it’s a total collaboration,” he notes, having previously worked with both the designer and the director on The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street. Armed with research on everything from the book I Heard You Paint Houses about Sheeran, the Mafia and the Teamsters, to archival footage of Hoffa and Robert F. Kennedy, the pair first scoured the costume shops, acquiring as much as possible from each decade.
As Peterson details from the “design brief” with Scorsese, the characters are “all regular neighborhood guys, and what informed all of them is they grew up poor with not a dime to their name. While he didn’t know them, these are people he saw growing up on (Little Italy’s) Lower East Side.” As a result, the clothing determined the character development, differentiating each actor, and showing the passages of time. “You have these five decades (the action takes place primarily in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s),” notes Powell, with details such as the silhouette, cut of the suit, ties and lapels being the common denominator.
“Lapels were wide in the middle ’50s and got narrower in the ’60s and wider again in the ’70s,” she explains. “Ties were similar and skinny in the ’60s and widest in the ’70s.” Peterson concurs, noting, “The ties were tied and met the belt of the pants in a certain way depending on the period. Ties in the ’50s were from the ’40s hangover, more wild, figurative, and bold. After [John F. Kennedy]’s trip to Europe, the whole continental skinny suit was popular, and in the ’70s, the ties suddenly felt like having a dinner napkin wrapped around your neck in polyester.”
The whole process was detailed from the start, as the designers looked at hundreds of ties. “It was a difficult process to recreate the ties and neckwear of any period and one big treasure hunt,” Peterson says. “It became a chess game of ‘this one gets the dice tie, this one gets the figurative tie,’ etc. The color palette also denoted the eras, as the ’50s were all about blues and grays; the ’60s greens, mustards and browns; while the ’70s were all browns and burgundies.”
Powell notes the most important part of the character’s persona happened during the fitting: “We would have these fittings with piles and piles of clothes and went with what works. And it seemed to be a natural way of letting them choose their own wardrobe.”
The designers got a break when Sheeran’s family provided photo albums of his childhood to his days as a soldier in World War II and up to his death. (His granddaughter Brittany Kate Griffin even worked as assistant costume designer for a period during the film.) “We had extraordinary access through the family’s cooperation, and they provided us with a Liberty $3 coin ring and an engraved Tissot gold watch that we were able to recreate. It’s one of those touches you can’t make up and pull out of thin air,” details Peterson.
While Sheeran and Hoffa both grew up poor and bought clothes off the rack, their suits were primarily custom made by the designers, with De Niro having 102 wardrobe changes in all. “Hoffa was working-class and never really left that,” says Powell. “He was always very pulled together in a precise military sort of way, even his haircut.”
Peterson even added a quirk to the ill-fated president of the Teamsters, accessorizing his “very neat and tidy of-the-rack suits” with white cotton Carter crew socks. Bufalino was the most tailored of the three; because he is older, he was still wearing ’60s suits in the ’70s, as he could not be bothered to change his style. The wives followed suit, wearing clothes on a road trip in the ’70s “from their heyday in the ’60s” that translated into colorful polyester ensembles. Powell even added digital floral-print skirts and scarves to match the vintage shop swimwear.
One of the designers’ favorite costumes bookended the film. “The ‘final act’ of Bob’s costume tracksuit was entirely made up of thrift shop and found pieces of clothing, with the exception of the Teamsters baseball cap with the pins on it, which was reproduced faithfully from Sheeran’s personal cap. The fleece sweatpants were more like $2.50. It was one of his jackets that we ‘splurged’ on and spent about $10!” says Peterson. “It’s really funny when you first see Bob in the chair with trackpants, dress shirt and a vest as we spent the rest of time making him look great in his suits, and in the end, he is sad and lonely,” reflects Powell.
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