“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
From The Great Gatsby excerpt above, it would seem the perennial author of the Jazz Age knew that his work would be turned into a piece of cinema that would encapsulate the speed and vivacity that defined 1920s New York. Though the novel has had several incarnations, Australian Director Baz Lurhman and his Production Designer wife Catherine Martin looked to really bring a modern take on the novel. “In reading the book, studying Fitzgerald, talking to a large number of Fitzgerald academics, it became apparent that Fitzgerald’s vision of New York and his world wasn’t nostalgic,” says Martin. “It wasn’t a sepia-toned New York, it was a vibrant, modern New York and this was something that Baz said right from the beginning: ‘I want it to feel as viscerally alive and sexy as New York felt to Fitzgerald back in the Twenties’.”
The challenge of mounting a modern take on what is arguably the penultimate American Classic Novel, was then to make it seem fresh, not to cater to the classic twenties flapper caricatures but still provide the grandeur of Gatsby’s world. “One of the other rules Baz made at the very beginning of the project was that, because the book is set in the summer of ’22, published in ’25, and foreshadows the crash of ’29, we were actually allowed to use the whole decade as a reference base. So that gave us a little bit more scope.” Martin explained that the twenties were a time where Fashion was diverse and creative, “There were oriental-inspired garments, to harem pants, to flowing paisley robes… you have to look beyond what we know and actually discover that virtually every neckline from one-shouldered to strapless, every cut from bias to tailored had all been invented so were all being used at that time,” she explains. Liberties were also taken with the design of the shoes from the 1920s “… [they] tend to have quite a heavy heel and were stumpy and that to a modern eye looks matronly and we wanted to give the audience a sense of excitement about the period and a sense of sexiness.” Martin also decided to give the movie a fresh look and high class design by teaming up with Miuccia Prada, Brooks Brothers & Tiffany & Co. to co-design several pieces for the film. Each of the companies also h ad their own designs from the time period in their archive available to the film, providing an authenticity to the design.
“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
Luhrman’s Gatsby unlike earlier versions also focuses on the sheer scope of the novel, it focus not just on the central characters but gives the audience of the sheer number of people in New York at the time. Martin estimates that over 1,000 costumes were created special for the film, Brooks Brothers supplied 1,200 men’s suits in total, Prada helped out on the women’s side, designing 40 background dresses as well as some of Daisy’s costumes in addition to provided archive designs for principle characters’ shoes and background footwear, accessories, furs and costume jewelry whilst Tiffany’s provided designs for Daisy’s jewelry, more still were provided by costume houses.
“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
Whilst the film actually begins on the disenfranchised Nick Carraway in Rehab his Midwestern sincerity is evident in his clothing throughout the story of his summer with Gatsby. When we see him on crowded street outside his Accounting Firm he blends in perfectly, wearing the same gray suit with a straw boater. His clothes provide him with a sensibility that none of his wealthy counterparts maintain, Gatsby & Daisy planted firmly on the Dandy end whilst Jordan & Tom exude the sleek reserve of being born into power and money.
Nick’s own reservation in clothing style also indicate that much like Fitzgerald himself, he comes from a lesser branch of notable family. He received the same Ivy League education as Tom, and his clothes are tailored enough to show his privilege but next to his peers he seems out of place. (Though not openly implied in the film or spoken about by Martin, many literary analysts argue that Nick is gay or at least bi-sexual in the book. Thus lending to his feeling out of place, but also to his desire to simply blend in and observe events rather than be observed for his own preferences which were taboo especially in high society at the time. The character of Mr. McKee, an effeminate man Nick meets at the party in Tom & Myrtle’s love nest, is actually included for the first time in the film, but their morning after bed talk is excluded. Read Here for more literary analysis on how this effects Nick’s relationship and outlook in the novel.)
Nick even appears to be out of place at the first party at Gatsby’s he attends. Wearing a blue blazer and tailored tan pants despite the glitzy nature of the guests he has been witnessing parade by. Also representing how he deserves Gatsby’s favor, bringing along the invitation and genuinely searching for the host.
Even Nick’s relaxed state still has a sense of reserve to it, the most colorful piece of clothing he wear throughout the film is a green sweater paired with a plaid green bow ties showing color for his only real moral mis-step in the film in helping set up his married cousin with a former admirer. The outfit also seems young, a bit too collegiate on the almost 30 year old war Veteran, representing his naiveté in the situation which will unfold during the summer months ahead.
Nick’s style begins to mirrors Gatsby’s in some ways, they are both relaxed in sweaters enjoying the comforts of sports and leisure’s and money together with Daisy. Dressing more appropriately in a tux for his second Gatsby party. He then begins to descend back into sensibility after its events, Going back to brown with a flat cap for his disastrous birthday outing.
“Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body…it was a body capable of enormous leverage–a cruel body.”
We are first introduced to the world of West Egg and its wealth and splendor when Nick visits his cousin Daisy and her husband fellow Yale alum Tom Buchanan. Amidst the wide shot of the grounds of their mansion we see Tom in his full glory, playing Polo in tight fight riding clothes and polished boots, his hair falling perfectly in his face from exertion. He instantly draws your eyes, and the hall of trophies in his large mansion instantly draws you in despite being simultaneously repulsed by privilege and arrogance. “Tom’s clothes signaled the new modernity of sportswear, a rejection of the stuffiness of Europe. And at the same time, polo clothes at dinner ‘showed you were of the better classes, that you had enough money to participate in sport’” Martin explained.
Tom’s color palette is reserved as well, dark blues, grays and blacks are preferred over the brighter shirts of Gatsby and the warm tones donned by Nick. His wealth is secured and will always be he doesn’t need to show off. We only see Tom in a hat once, a straw boater almost identical to Nick’s and worn to signify his own attempt at going incognito to pick up his mistress. Tom’s looks draw the viewer’s eye into his chest, tailored to look as though he could burst out of them with sheer masculinity. “Tom Buchanan was meant to have this cruel body. He was supposed to be an athlete almost bursting out of his clothes, so [Joel Edgerton’s] shirts were always a little too tight to help feel his physicality” Martin explains. Martin also carefully designed each of the male character’s shirts to have a specific collar and ties designed to them.
Further character details are also hidden in Tom’s costumes, skulls and bones insignia were added to the lining of his suit jackets, alluding to his inclusion in the exclusive club during his Yale days. Additionally Tom is the only character to wear the actual Brook Brother’s archived tie designs which “… took English Club ties and swapped the direction of the stripes so you weren’t trying to ape that you belonged in Europe. You were now an American with your own Ivy League style,” Martin says.
“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.”
The elusive Jay Gatsby finally appears with a bang in very center of his notorious parties and instantly captures the viewers and Nick’s attention. “Evening clothes were so important for Gatsby, the parties define the world he inhabits. We had perfectly tailored suits,” Martin says. Even his classic tuxedos have a touch of modern flair in their fit but also in their fabric use. The collars are of satin in one suit and in the other a satin striped vest is evident beneath. Additionally the notion of a wearing a formal white tie is ditched entirely to show both the ditching of previous societal formalities but also to cater to modern preferences.
Gatsby’s next meeting with Nick into the city is more relaxed, a brown suit and straw boater that actually mirrors Nick’s style. It serves as a representation of his own humble beginnings but also an attempt to convince Nick of his worthiness of a meeting with Daisy despite the ever growing evidence of his shady business practices.
When it comes time for Gatsby to finally meet Daisy over the arranged tea at Nick’s cottage, he dons and crème suit with a cool blue shirt, brown vest and yellow tie and pocket square, the ultimate Dandy. Even his silver collar pins and cufflinks are larger than usual and noticeable from afar to show off his new wealth to Daisy. “When Gatsby reunites with Daisy, he’s trying to be at his most handsome, most irresistible, most Dandy. And Gatsby, being an extremist, made choices that were possibly a little too extreme to show her how successful he’s become. The emotions overcome him and he goes in the rain; I suppose that’s the symbol of him being a pure spirit—he’s trying to do one thing, but in the end, love and his emotions are king,” Martin says of the look.
“I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
Now together at last with his true love Daisy, Gatsby’s style significantly changes, becoming more relaxed he is seen in the most casual state out of all the characters. In simple rib knit sweater and pants, whilst throwing his colorful shirts about Daisy. Another scene depicts him in only a luxurious robe in his dim lit mansion awaiting his tryst with Daisy.
“An Oxford man! Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
Finally he is a Dandy once more on the fateful summer day when Gatsby convinces Daisy to tell Tom of their affair and leave him once and for all. Donning a pink striped tapered leg suit paired with a pink and burgundy stripe tie and square, gold collar bars and white spectator shoes paired with a straw boater whilst driving, looking akin to a cold drink of pink lemonade on the hot day. The color of the suit itself was important, although pink was not considered a girlish color as later was in the century, bright colors represented socio-economic class and signaled lower class individuals who were trying to show off new found wealth or freedom with elaborate displays in dress. “For me, it represents Gatsby’s innate romanticism… We needed desperately to find a period reference that justified to us how this pink suit could be. We went to Brooks Brothers and looked through all their catalogues. You couldn’t have him looking ridiculous, it had to be plausible but on the edge.” Martin explains. “That suit is such an integral part of the storytelling — it speaks to Gatsby’s complete romanticism, his ability to play the gentleman. On the one hand, it’s the most endearing thing and on the other, it’s uncomfortable. His anger and the huge amount of masculinity and raw power he exhibits even though he’s in this slightly effeminate pink suit, is an illustration of that I think.”
“His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps, and I thought of the night when I first came to his ancestral home, three months before. The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption – and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-by.”
“He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is…”
Gatsby’s final scene awaiting Daisy’s call for him by the pool dresses him at his most vulnerable, in a black swimsuit that shows off his physique and ultimate only offering to Daisy, himself. His death in the slick black suit in the cool blue waters of the pool also help remove the grotesque nature of his actual death and make it appear more aligned with his own vibrant vision of how his life should turn out.
Stay Tuned for part two of my analysis of The Great Gatsby-The Women