Quentin Tarantino's Love Affair With the Black Suit
Quentin Tarantino's Love Affair With the Black Suit
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date August 7, 2017
“We had ten grand for the entire [wardrobe] budget. We knew these characters had probably just gotten out of jail. They wouldn’t have any money. So I said to Quentin, ‘Everybody can afford to go to a thrift store. And no one could describe them if they’re all wearing this uniform of black suit, white shirt, and skinny black tie.’” — Betsy Heimann, Reservoir Dogs costume designer
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity can also change the face of fashion. Costume designer Betsy Heimann’s thrifty costume design on Reservoir Dogs played a part in changing the face of modern fashion. Due to budgetary constraints, only two suits used in the film were actually suits. Designer Agnes B. furnished Harvey Keitel’s suit because, as Heimann explained to the The Daily Beast, “Harvey’s character is the boss, so he would have had more money.” Michael Madsen’s suit came off the rack from C&R clothiers, the Men’s Wearhouse or Joseph A. Bank of the day. The rest of the wardrobe was mixed and matched at Hollywood thrift stores. Some actors are actually wearing navy pants; Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) are wearing jeans.
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Coming out of the '80s, boxy, stiff suits in the style worn by Wall Street “suits” predominated. Going with thrift store looks allowed Heimann to achieve a slimmer, more elegant fit for her Dogs. Rather than the banal evil of the boardroom, Heimann wanted to evoke a slick, energetic danger worthy of a gangster. She explains, “But why they look good is that each character’s ‘suit’ is tailored to fit his body. The secret of the whole look is the collar. If there’s even a half-inch between a man’s neck and the shirt collar, it’s not flattering. We worked very seriously on those collars. You’ve got to think about the chest and the the tie width. Each guy had a different tie corresponding with the width of his chest.”
Why were Reservoir Dogs’ suits instantly beloved? The short answer is “they fit.” Vishaal Melwani of Combat Gent notes that the film’s look is reminiscent of “British menswear, almost feminine menswear. Reservoir Dogs was the first time men were seen in really fitted suits. The 80s suits had big pleated pants, and the 90s classic suiting was even more oversized. Reservoir Dogs did a great job of being masculine clothing with a feminine silhouette.” This classic look was no mistake. Tarantino set out to make Reservoir Dogs partially as an homage to the French New Wave. What Tarantino couldn’t have known was that the rest of the world was ready to return to a suit that was more “lounge lizard” than “hedge fund manager.”
Heimann and Tarantino decided to go with a similar look in Pulp Fiction. This time, rather than show the uniformity of the slick black suit, she focused on how small differences can offer nuance. Heimann dug into the subtle differences between Vincent’s (John Travolta) and Jules’s (Samuel L. Jackson) suits in an interview, “I felt that Jules was like a preacher and so I wanted to do a smaller, very tight-to-the-neck collar on him...Then I thought that Vincent was more of a mess and so I suggested a linen suit so that it could get all wrinkled and rumpled and kind of add to the laissez-faire quality of his character.” Pulp Fiction went on to be an even bigger hit than Reservoir Dogs, taking in $213 million worldwide on an $8 million budget, further cementing Tarantino’s suits in the zeitgeist.
“It’s perennial. Although recently you see the gangster style demonstrated in an upsurge of Savile Row suits that are clearly inspired by Reservoir Dogs.” Andrew Bolton, associate curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in 2002, as he reflected on ganger style a decade after Reservoir Dogs was released. Here we are another fifteen years later and this is still true. Scroll through any men’s blog archives and you will find pieces titled “How to Get the Reservoir Dogs Style” or “A Pulp Fiction Style Guide.” Films like Men in Black, The Matrix, and The Transporter have borrowed heavily from Tarantino’s signature look. The skinny suit revolution couldn’t haven’t happened with Tarantino alone, however. Designers had to come along and bring the pulp auteur’s style to the runway.
Helmut Lang and Jil Sander paved the way for the skinny suit revolution when they brought a sense of minimalism to their 90s collections, offering a stripped-down take on the suit. Thom Browne debuted his first collection of short suits shortly thereafter. It was ultimately Hedi Slimane who offered the iconic slim suit that would become one of the twenty-first century’s major fashion statements. When Slimane went to work for Christian Dior in 2001, he produced a super slim line of suits for Dior Homme. The trend blew up. Bands like the Strokes and brands like Topman quickly took to Slimane’s aesthetic. Before you knew it, coats were tighter and ties were slimmer in shopping malls and in wedding parties all over the country.
Heimann’s crisp black androgynous looks also had an impact on women’s fashion. Mia Wallace’s (Uma Thurman) outfit in Pulp Fiction isn’t actually far off of Vincent and Jules, and her “suit” became a fashion trend in its own right. This was intentional on Heimann’s part; she referred to Ms. Wallace as a “reservoir dog” in her designs. Crisp white collars coupled with black pants or skirts have shown up on female runway models a number of times in the last two decades; often the model wears a short bob in a nod to Thurman’s character. As the world marked Pulp Fiction’s twentieth anniversary in 2014, designers took note. While Jil Sander’s show delivered the most direct homage, a number of designers hinted to the film in their male and female collections that year. To this day, fashion blogs still venerate Thurman’s character as a style icon.
The skinny black suit (SBS) look is only now starting to die down. One recent article on the history of the necktie argued that Reservoir Dogs marked a total sea change in men’s neckwear. The author was motivated to write the piece because he saw J. Crew’s decision last Fall to widen their ties by ¼ inch as the canary in the coal mine for a slim trend that enjoyed a long shelf life. Only now are ties starting to widen again and suits are bulking up a bit with them.
As the fashion world starts to look away from the skinny suit, it only cements the role of the SBS in fashion history. Designers are now reacting to a trend that defined more than a decade in men’s style. Some are rebelling against it, others are honoring it, but no one can quite escape it. For example, Savile Row designer William Richard Green designed an update on the Reservoir Dogs look, ahead of the film’s twentieth anniversary. Green’s take on the secret of the suit’s popularity is that the unity of the black suit offers an unshakable sense of confidence.
We can debate the reasons Tarantino’s suits caught on. But, whatever the reasons, their appeal is undeniable. For decades, women have had the little black dress. Without Tarantino, you have to wonder if men would have the skinny black suit.