Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather will go down as one a staple of cinematic greatness – hopefully forever. However, it is not only because of sensational acting or memorable one liners (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli”) that this is the case; The Godfather is also a monument in menswear, a capsule of a time period when suits were compulsory, and an example of how a man dressed told stories about himself, the message he was trying to share with the world, as well as what was expected of him due to societal norms during the time period.
I prefer to focus on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) when I think about sartorial influence in this film. The reason for this is that Michael’s garments are a story in transition, as his role in the family from Ivy League pretty boy shifts to that of a stoic and murderous kingpin, we see dramatic changes in the way he dresses – offering the full gamut of sartorial styles for the time period.
Take Michael’s early style choices, a brown corduroy jacket paired with charcoal flannel pants, an off-white oxford shirt and striped tie. This look is unmistakably Ivy, we can assume he has spent some time at any of the New England’s more privileged institutions. What defines the “Ivy look” is the degree of casual flair in line with formality – it is all about making it clear that you come from money, but not being as put together as your father would be in the same social setting. Within this style, the viewer can look for patch pockets, patched elbows and thicker fabrics of corduroy and tweed suited to the Northeaster weather, as well as contrasting-coloured trousers and the ever-present oxford shirt. Michael uses this look to establish that he comes from a strong institution -but he isn’t in charge (at least not yet).
As the film progresses, a significant shift in power occurs. We see the Don himself (Marlon Brando) pass leadership of the family business on to Michael, which then allows him to dress down into knit cardigans suited for spending most of his time at the family’s spacious upstate estate. Michael takes this time to update his wardrobe, specifically by upgrading to wider lapels and high-cut vests in charcoal and black.
The significance of the wide lapel in positions of power is unmistakable. Simply enough, it accentuates a “V” shape in the upper body, broadening the shoulders and giving a sense of status and confidence in the wearer. Scenes throughout the movie show most members of the crime family adorned in it, but it is also a feature that was widespread at the time, so what makes Michael’s distinctive is the adherence to details: high quality of fabric, well-placed accessories (every tie is worn with flair) and a sense of swagger that has a lot to do with the way he looks when he sits.
The dramatic conclusion of the film sees Michael drift fully to the “dark” side of the family business, ordering murder and shifting power with apparent ease, all in a suit that fits the “mafioso” image to a tee. The dark gray double-breasted wool three-piece suit worn became emblematic for is powerful look, and it does this because of how it fits Michael’s character. The suit is stoic, commanding, but still slightly understated. With wide (but not too wide) peak lapels and a high-cut seven button vest, the suit isn’t outlandishly done or overly detailed. This was something notable considering that, during the immediate post WWII era of relative excess and frivolity (after a period of time where fabrics and stylistic choices were limited for rationing sake), it was permissible for well-to-do men, especially those involved in “less-legitimate” business to wear louder colours. Look only to Moe Greene and Michael’s brother Fredo Corleone for this, both feature bright fabrics, oversized shirt collar and cravats fit for the Las Vegas sun.
In conclusion…this is why I love watching old movies set in this era, or any era when menswear was the norm (think Mad Men, Peaky Blinders, or Italian neorealism from Fellini and De Sica). It’s fun to realize certain styles making a comeback in the contemporary scene, and with the entire history of menswear easily available to us through film with on-demand streaming, it may not be too hard to implement some of these topics into your wardrobe.