The second season of the TV series, Boardwalk Empire is currently in full swing in the US, and although it has been subject of popular discussion on the internet and elsewhere, not too
much has been said about the men’s costumes. Therefore, in coming weeks, we want to focus on the fantastic period dress of the male characters in the series. Although often different, each gentleman’s wardrobe has its own highlights.
Setting of Boardwalk Empire
The story of Boardwalk Empire is based on the novel, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, by Nelson Johnson. Interestingly, there used to be a Nucky Johnson in Atlantic City who was clearly the model for the main character, Nucky Thompson. Terence Winter, the screenwriter of The Sopranos, adapted the book for the HBO TV Series, Boardwalk Empire. The first season begins in early 1920. WWI is over, the soldiers have returned, and the Volstead Act just initiated the prohibition era, but women do not yet have the right to vote as they await ratification by the states.
The first episode of the first season starts off with a group of people robbing an illegal alcohol transport. The second scene shows the treasurer, Nucky Thompson, three days earlier, giving a speech in front of the members of the Women’s Temperance League, a women’s association. He tells a short story about his childhood, which quintessentially damns liquor and praises prohibition (which will be enforced the day after) as progress that will prevent fathers from becoming alcoholics. Upon leaving the building, Nucky says to his mentee Jimmy Darmody: “First rule of politics kiddo: never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” while he drinks out of a flask. This ironic scene clearly sets the tone for the rest of the series and what is to come: gambling, corruption, violence and of course, lots of liquor… and that’s just the beginning.
Men’s Clothes in Boardwalk Empire
Throughout the series, you will notice that the combinations and outfits are all meticulously put together, and each character’s wardrobe expresses more or less the rank of the wearer in society. John Dunn was responsible for creating these detailed costume designs and he certainly did a commendable job.
The suits for the male actors were tailored by Martin Greenfield from Greenfield Clothiers. John Dunn approached this tailoring establishment with lots of period photos, and even mug shots of 1920’s gangsters. Moreover, he presented them clothing catalogues from 1917 and 1918, since in 1920 most men would probably wear suits they purchased back then. Only a few could afford to buy the suits that were currently in fashion. Since these old publications often provided little cloth swatches, they had a good idea of what to look for. Back then, the finishing of cloth was not as refined as it is today and most fabrics were considerably heavier, and consequently, draped nicely. The cloth for all Boardwalk Empire suits was sourced from the Isles Textiles Ltd. in England.
The cut of the clothes is certainly different. Suits were fitted snugly around shoulder, and had little to no padding. The trousers were much slimmer than in the 1930’s, and did not have pleats. Unlike today, though, they had a high raise and were, of course, worn with suspenders.
Tomorrow, I would like to start with the main character Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, as personified by Steve Buscemi, so check back!