Romeo + Juliet’s Sonnet of Style
Romeo + Juliet’s Sonnet of Style
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date July 06, 2017
As a black town car skirts to a halt, a freshly incarcerated Benvolio pleads with his aunt and uncle that he alone can handle his dear cousin. The camera pans right, and we are introduced to a love-torn Romeo. Perched on top a wall overlooking the desolate Verona beach—a hotbed of organized crime and violence—the disheveled youth, casually wearing what must be a wide-spread peak lapel Tom Ford-era Gucci tuxedo and mismatched unbutton dress shirt, scribbles away at his notebook. A zoom and the unmistakable jawline of late 90’s Leo comes into clear view. Unable to rid his mind of fair Rosalind, Benvolio insists Romeo vacate to a local watering hole, aka a pool hall.
Far from Shakespeare’s original work, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 cult classic, Romeo + Juliet is one of the most under-appreciated style bibles in recent cinematic history. Before Luhrman achieved super-stardom with Moulin Rouge!, and mere months before DiCaprio became the star of what was until recently the highest grossing film in history—Cameron beat his own record with Avatar—the duo attempted to sell the MTV generation on a live-action, modern-day rendition of Shakespeare in the original text.
The product achieved mixed results. Critical reception was so-so. Box office results were solid, $145 million against a $14.5 million budget. The impression it left on early millennials? Unmatched. The unrequited love of a newly discovered Leo and young Claire Danes captured the hearts of teens across America. The sheer visual impact of the film, what would later be considered definitive Baz, was massive.
Still a relatively unknown name, Luhrmann's previous film, Strictly Ballroom, his first, was an Australian romantic comedy focused on the world of competitive ballroom dancing. With Romeo + Juliet, however, he truly came into his own. Working with now longtime collaborator Catherine Martin, who oversaw production design on both Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, the team attempted to recreate Italian Verona as a melting pot of Los Angeles, Miami, and Mexico City (where the film was predominantly shot).
The resulting mixture was the blood-thirsty Verona Beach, where modern day crime boss Montague and Capulet are at each other's throats, with their family quick to bear arms—or in this case, Glocks and 12-gauge shotguns. In true mob fashion, the bosses and their wives don the most louche suiting possible—YSL, naturally. The younger generation, however, embodied their rebellion through, obviously, they way they dress.
Most evident is Tybalt. Played by John Leguizamo, The Prince of Cats’ daily fit of black velour, leather gun holster, Cuban-heel boots, and Virgin-Mary embroidered Kevlar vest speak volumes. In fact, Tybalt’s entire posse wears custom-made DG, the now defunct Dolce & Gabbana diffusion line. Modeled after the Latin gangs that ran rampant both in 90’s LA and Mexico City, the Capulets were portrayed as ruthless and aggressive, with no desire for peace. Their gaudy, oversized accessories—sterling silver belt buckles, heavy chains, and so forth, are a clear sign of their ostentatious excess. Tybalt’s opening line, “Peace, I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee,” is perfectly encapsulated in the way he dresses.
Kym Barrett, the genius costume designer who brought Dolce to Verona, envisioned the Capulet foes as the Irish Mob to their cartel. Before she dressed Keanu Reeves in head-to-toe leather for The Matrix, Barrett got her start pimping out Shakespeare's most famous families. Her vision for the Boss Montague was classic mob and all business. His son and cohort, however, are anything but—Mercutio’s iconic drag scene, with crystal embroidered bra and skirt, is far from subtle. Romeo’s friends drink, smoke, crash parties, take ecstasy, and drive around in a drop-top Jeep blaring punk and new-wave. Their uniform of bold Hawaiian shirts, baggy cargo pants, Converse, and neon-dyed hair, almost invites conflict.
Easily the most pervasive trend of the past few Spring/Summer seasons, the Hawaiian shirt has proven to have near infinite staying power. Apart from retired white men claiming to be “native Hawaiians,”—no disrespect to Dale Hope—and Elvis, where did the trend really pick up steam? Some two decades ago, the original squad to end all squads roamed Verona Beach. Decked in lavish prints and emblazoned Glocks, the Montagues held shit down.
While Mercutio’s sheer silk white button up may be the ultimate summer maneuver, his best friend Romeo is the group's undefeated style champion. From the aforementioned tux to his custom Hawaiian shirts and boxy suiting, Romeo’s look was surprisingly ahead of its time, and eerily prescient. In the infamous wedding scene, Romeo is dapper as can be in a custom three-button Prada suit—Miuccia had just launched Prada menswear in 1993, and made the suit specifically for DiCaprio—and flower print silk tie, a look that, scratch the three button, would not look out of place on a Dries runway today.
In all of Luhrmann's films, the wardrobe is a critical component of the director's visual language. From the gaudy bejeweled corsets of Moulin Rouge! to the incomparable glitz and glamor of Gatsby—another collaboration with Miuccia, this time she provided wardrobe for the entire picture—Luhrmann always ensures that a character's outward appearance adequately reflect their inner monolog. In the case of Romeo, the love-struck teen wears the finest clothes with reckless abandon. His key accessory a cigarette, Romeo finally manages to straighten out his rough edges for the pivotal wedding scene. Not a button out of place, the dramatic wardrobe change signals an emotional breakthrough, courtesy of his star-crossed lover. The floral tie, however, acts as a subtle nod that traces of the maverick remain.
In the midst of a full 90’s revival, look no further than Demna’s dad corporate and Prada’s long line of comic book inspired jumpsuits, it’s no surprise that DiCaprio's Marlon Brando meets Kurt Cobain look continues to strike a chord. The inherently disheveled yet bold style is not only consistently cool, but all the more appropriate in an age when an older generation reigns supreme, and the youth is looking to make a big statement. Romeo wore his emotions on his sleeve—and his Glock underneath his left shoulder. Perhaps bold Hawaiian prints and fitted trousers will allow you to do the same.