The Talented Mr. Ripley: A Study in Casual Elegance
The Talented Mr. Ripley: A Study in Casual Elegance
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date May 04, 2018
If it weren’t for the wardrobe, we might not remember The Talented Mr. Ripley. The Matt Damon, Jude Law vehicle was well-received at the time but suffers in terms of historical memory because it was released in a particularly strong year for cinema. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, but narrowly missed a Best Picture nomination with a crowded field that included American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, and The Cider House Rules. 1999 was also the year that Spike Jonze and M. Night Shyamalan broke into the public consciousness. In recent years, however, the film has been given a favorable critical examination, largely because of its wardrobe.
At its core, Anthony Minghella’s film is about passing for someone you’re not. This is explored in a number of ways—socially, economically and sexually. But, the central conflict of the film, between Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) this theme is perhaps best examined through fashion. Specifically, Tom clearly wants to be Dickie, and part of that is his deep envy of Dickie’s style. Ultimately, Tom assumes Dickie’s identity, but can never quite ape his unique presence (or, in this context, “look”). At face value, the film serves as a primer on breezy mid-century Italian style. However, the film incidentally shows how to build a personal style that can’t quite be replicated, as well as a thematic examination of how personal style can expose a man’s broader personality.
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Tom Ripley is a cipher. He is an expert at becoming other people: Looking like them, writing like him, playing the instruments they play and even taking their lovers. But, when he is revealed to be someone other than he says he is, it is almost always because of taste. In the plot of the film, he learns to speak and write like Dickie. He even ends up looking a bit like Dickie, but ultimately, he can’t quite fake Dickie’s unique panache, and that ultimately drives Tom to a dark place. The depths of his inner anguish come from the inescapable fact that he will always be Tom Ripley.
Costume designer Anne Roth (along with co-designer and longtime collaborator Gary Jones) was incredibly savvy when constructing the world of upper-crust Italian expats in Talented Mr. Ripley. So many stories told around wealth involve people pretending to be something they’re not. Often, this is indicated by a young, low-born man, looking visibly uncomfortable in a suit. Roth understood that to tell an entire story around that idea, it had to be more complicated than that. Formalwear is actually pretty easy to fake; the sartorial expectations for a black tie formal event, for example, means that everyone looks more or less the same. For a film about the gap between Tom and Dickie—and by extension the gap between aristocracy and the rest of us—it had to be more nuanced than that.
Throughout the first half of Mr. Ripley, Tom is constantly reminded that he doesn’t quite fit into this world. Dickie and his compatriots persistently comment on his tattered corduroy jacket or the one dress shirt he constantly wears. Even after Tom takes Dickie’s wardrobe, fellow aristocrat Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can still see that Tom can’t quite look that part. When he says, “The only thing that looks like Dickie is you,” he’s really saying that while he may be wearing Dickie’s clothes, he isn’t wearing them as Dickie would. Roth understood that to make this central tension work, Dickie’s style would have to be flawless, at one once casual and stunning, effortless and carefully manicured. Tom, by contrast, had to look like his style was never quite all there, or rather, he doesn’t have a style of his own.
Roth, with her incredible costume design pedigree, employed a variety of techniques to emphasize this tension that is so central to making the film work.
Be a Man of a Moment
You can’t choose when you are born, unfortunately. However, The Talented Mr. Ripley reminds us that you don’t have to be totally a man of your particular moment. You can draw style inspiration from a variety of places and eras. Rather than totally indulge Italian style, the wardrobe of the film carefully mixes American prep with the looks popular in Italy at the time. This allows for toning down some of the styles of this fast and loose era of that particular Italian moment while deploying a preppy feeling without getting too buttoned up. Gear Patrol diagnosed the look, “the effortless marriage of Italian linen, cotton and Sperry-Topsider CVOs.” Gary Jones himself once said that Dickie’s style “emulates a New York jazz look even in Europe.”
Even with the authentic ’50s wardrobe, Dickie’s style actually pulls from a number of aesthetics and regions but unites them in a cohesive way. While you don’t want to look like a time capsule or relic, you can draw influences from various styles and periods to create something wholly your own.
Mixing Casual and Formal
Mixing formal and casual elements is the key to Dickie’s style. He’ll often wear linen trousers with a knitted polo, or a classy button-up paired with patterned shorts. He even sometimes compliments patterned Bermuda shorts with high-end Gucci loafers. Even when he does wear a suit, he’ll finish it off with a hat or jewelry.
Look at the way Dickie uses designer pieces. In American culture, and by extension, in films set in America, designer logos are often a symbol of a gauche member of the nouveau riche or an over the top Derek Zoolander-like figure. Here, by contrast, the men understand that you can go designer without being ostentatious. Tom finishes off his style transformation with a Gucci wallet that makes no secret of being a Gucci wallet.
Mixing the high and low, such as pairing a designer blazer with casual linen pants, shows sartorial confidence. Dickie knows what looks good, and he knows what looks good on him, so he doesn’t need the stamp of approval that comes with being able to say everything your wearing cost an arm and a leg. This confidence is not just a key part of Dickie’s look, but also his personality. It’s the reason that everyone he meets—especially Tom—ends up infatuated with him.
The Fit Makes the Man
While Dickie isn’t afraid of the casual, he does have one hard and fast rule: He would never wear something that doesn’t fit perfectly. For Dickie, even his swim trunks appear tailored. The film pays careful attention to tailoring and even sets several scenes in a tailor’s shop. As he completes his transformation into Dickie, Tom and Meredith (Cate Blanchett) stop by Battistoni, a beloved suit maker who you can find on the real-life Via Condotti. In designing the film, Roth practiced what she preached. Roth used John Tudor, a bespoke New York tailor for all of Dickie’s clothes.
As with the other costume design elements, there is thematic resonance to Dickie’s exquisite tailored look. Tom dresses fairly well with his buttoned-up preppy look. But, he is foiled by the fit of his clothes. Even his nicest pieces are baggy and worn. Roth used all vintage pieces for Tom and made sure that whatever tailors worked on them wouldn’t fit them quite to Matt Damon’s proportions. Roth and Minghella worked together to ensure that Tom’s oversized, well-worn corduroy blazer would reappear even after Tom’s transformation into Dickie, as a reminder of his once common tastes and his inescapable upbringing.
You Can Do a Little With a Lot
Roth purposefully limited Dickie’s wardrobe, assuming he was a wealthy heir, but always on the verge of being cut off. As a result, he has to make do with a few outfits that only offer one of two true showstopping pieces. Yet, by mixing and matching his various apparel, it looks like he has an ample wardrobe. While symbolically, this reflects the twilight of a certain American old money bohemian leisure class, it is also a practical demonstration on how to maximize your look, even on a budget.
Roth is quick to point out that she used the same luxurious jacket for several of Dickie’s looks. She also made sure that some of his favorite pieces were tattered a bit around the edges; it was important to her that we see an insert shot of his Gucci loafers worn through. Despite the threadbare pieces, she emphasizes, Dickie Greenleaf still looks like a million bucks.
The less experienced, far less suave, Tom doesn’t have this same contrast in his outfits. When we first meet him, Tom looks like he stepped straight out of a Sears catalog. Everything is plain, workmanlike. When he has access to wealth, he overdoes it—gauche American that he is—with such a posh look that Tom and Dickie’s peers would think it all a bit too much. As the old saying goes: you can’t buy taste, but being rich helps. Ultimately, Tom would have come off more convincing and debonair if he had pursued some of Dickie’s austerity. That’s a lesson to remember the next time you have the impulse to drape yourself head to toe in the hottest brand of the moment.
The Little Things Make All the Difference
While some of Dickie’s clothes are well-worn, he won’t wear just anything. One of the keys to Dickie’s casual look is that he doesn’t settle, even when it comes to staples. At first glance, you could say that when Tom kills Dickie, they are wearing the same outfit. Both wear black shirts and beige pants. But, while Tom wears khakis and a rather dull black top, Dickie wears snazzy linen pants and a sheer black top.
Again, this reinforces the theme and offers a sartorial lesson. The lesson is that there is no such thing as “just a pair of pants.” Whatever the item, at whatever price point, the purchase can be carefully considered. From a thematic point of view, Roth is telling us here that “dressing alike” isn’t actually dressing alike when it comes to Tom and Dickie. Yes, from 20 yards away, they may look the same—but upon close examination, Dickie is the genuine article, and Tom is the poor imitation.
Style and Substance
Some films luxuriate in fine fashion for fashion’s sake. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the style in Ripley is all the more impressive because it is so deeply linked to the story. It’s important that Dickie’s style be so particular so that when Tom takes over his identity (fashion sense and all), he’s going to painstaking lengths to do it. However, this troubling attempt leaves us with the most important style lesson to be cleaned from The Talented Mr. Ripley: You’ll never be able to perfectly imitate someone else’s style, no matter how hard you try. Like Tom Ripley, you can save yourself a lot of pain, if you find a style of your own.