Golden Twenties

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Old 10-Feb-2011
Golden Twenties

UNP ImageThese days, it's not water cooler TV just because you talk about it at the water cooler. Oh no. Post Mad Men, the rule is that at least two people in your office need to be directly referencing the show via their clothing for it to count as epoch-defining telly.

From where I'm standing, the flapper-dress-and-pearls count is zero. Boardwalk Empire, it seems, is not immediately going to turn our wardrobes upside down. After all, even the most fashion-forward nut would be hard pressed to put together an office-appropriate outfit based on the pilot. The women are either near-mummified from neck to wrist to ankle in heavy, scratchy-wool skirts and coats, like poor Margaret Schroeder, in colours that make Little House on the Prairie look like a Technicolor vision of Oz; or, like Lucy, they are wandering around half naked in silky dressing gowns, trying and failing to secure the attention of men who hop straight from an afternoon in bed to cutting deals over a decanter of (illegal) whiskey.

For the 21st-century woman, there is not a great deal to work with here.

The men, on the other hand, look incredible. Nucky Thompson, in his stiff white collars and bright check three-piece suits and co-ordinating cashmere coats, accessorised with a red carnation and a blue Rolls-Royce, is a vision.

Thompson is shown getting a wet shave and a shoe shine. Image matters. But dressing like this takes guts (this is one of the points Thompson is making) and if your name isn't Kanye or Andre, you might feel a red carnation is pushing the envelope a little too far.

In future episodes, from what I've seen, things get a bit better for the ladies. Margaret gets a few nights off from wringing her hands in her lap, and goes out in a nice frock, which is cheering. Lucy the saucy girlfriend gets to wear clothes for whole scenes at a time. It's not quite the having-it-all dream of modern womanhood, but hey, it's progress from the Madonna/whore template of episode one. There are cream-puff gold-diggers with squeaky voices and white fur jackets, but also husky-toned nightclub hostesses with top hats adding a Weimar-ish androgyny to their platinum curls.

‘Sociological dig'

John Dunn is the show's chief costume designer. Along with associate costume designer Lisa Padovani, he leads a team of more than 35 people. The costume department is one of the largest, on the set of what is being billed as the most expensive TV show ever made. Dunn describes the process of costuming the show as "almost like a sociological dig", involving studying endless photographs of what people wore in 1920, and then using written accounts to add colour and detail to what can be seen in black-and-white photographs.

Dunn and Padovani were very strict about using accurate clothing for the opening episodes, which are set in 1920, before the Roaring Twenties had got going. Dunn has described himself as a "fanatic" about making sure every detail was accurate to what would have been available then; the lower-class characters, who would not have had new clothes, are dressed, for accuracy, in the clothing of the 1910s.

Prohibition-era fashion is a complete contrast to the Mad Men look. The era of the corset is ending, but the art of brassiere engineering is in its infancy; as a result, the silhouette is rectangular, with emphasis on the shoulders and back, and very little on the waist or breasts.

Because there is minimal construction of silhouette, the fabrics can be beautifully light, and designed to move — so as the series hots up we can look forward to layers of chiffon, beaded hems and fringing.

The magnetic forces of fashion work in mysterious ways. When Miuccia Prada sent out a dramatic, full-breasted, 50s-influenced collection at the height of Mad Men fever, she swore she had never seen the show.

Prohibition-era eveningwear

Last October, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton was already pushing deep V-necked, fringed silk evening dresses — totally Boardwalk Empire — for this spring. And at the couture shows in Paris recently, the European broadcast of the show was pre-empted by powdery colours of Prohibition-era eveningwear: peach, apricot and silver, in contrast to the Joan Holloway lipstick reds and Betty Draper sherbet lemons we saw last year.

But most tellingly of all, what should I spy when taking a turn around the Zara menswear floor yesterday? A petrol-blue shirt with a wide, white collar: pure Nucky Thompson. The Boardwalk Empire look may have begun quietly, but the '20s could yet come roaring back.

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