There is a man on Boardwalk Empire with even more sartorial presence than Steve Buscemi’s saffron silk gangster Nucky Thompson. Whereas Nucky may stop at red plaid suit and homburg, this man will brave a red topcoat with fur collar and leather buttons, red plaid suit and a bow-tie; he is the man to teach us all that colour and pattern are not only masculine, but the most masculine. He is Chalky White.
Known to many for his career defining turn as Omar on The Wire, in Boardwalk Empire, Michael Kenneth Williams plays a gangster even shrewder and perhaps even more capable. Certainly he is better dressed. Williams’ prohibition era hood does not say much; instead he lets his clothes do the talking. 1920/21, Atlantic City was a time of factions: Irish, Italian, African American, Ku Klux Klan; each division sporting their own uniform or style. Evidently, Chalky is head of the African American criminal community, a statuesque figure dressed by costume designers John Dunn and Lisa Padovan in multi-width checks with blends of dazzling colour.
Compared to Nucky, county treasurer and controller of the AC bootlegging industry, Chalky’s outfits are even fussier and forward-thinking; jade green and orange silk shirts, for example, or peaked lapels on single breasted suits, yet with an eye to formalities of the period such as high and always white, detachable stiff collars. If restoration of the stiff collar is perhaps an ambitious plea then we can at least embrace wider peak lapels.
With the 1960s Mod revival done to death, it is surely time for the seventies vibe of clashing checks and heavyweight double breasted or 3 piece suits to make a return. The 1970s was the era for re-working past trends, with the twenties an esepcially popular decade to plunder. Early on, before ‘dressing soft’ became mantra of the young with their attached, turndown collars and open neck shirts, the 1920s was still longer line suit jackets, slim fitting and sometimes double breasted suits, featuring high fastening 6 on 3 button configurations (six buttons, three fastening).
It is obvious why Chalky has to dress in such a visible way; more than any other division leader he must be seen. Chalky only extorts a new car from Nucky in return for support during the re-election campaign (season 1) because he clearly needs no help with his tailoring. Chalky’s ensembles are always a flawless, subtle subversion of traditional Edwardian values. By wearing ‘their’ suits ‘his’ way, just a fraction louder, just a fraction brighter, Chalky is sticking two fingers up to the prejudiced, far right white environment that suppressed his youth and, as we come to discover, murdered his father.
Chalky White’s look is forerunner to the wild seventies street style as seen in ‘Blaxploitation’ films Shaft (1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and also on present day ‘African dandies’ living in the Congo who openly challenge traditional indigenous dress by wearing expensive designer suits in bright pink and purple, bow ties and bowler hats. Many of these dandies live in poverty yet still aspire to dress like kings.
Hard as iron and an astute opportunist, Chalky may be a criminal but he does have a refined taste in clothes, which is something we can all take inspiration from. Dressing soft is for the idle rich or those with little ambition; to really make an impression we need to re-appropriate the disciplined, formal and urbane.
Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire began in the U.S. on 25th September and in the UK on 8th October.
© 2011 – 2013, Chris Laverty.