As Little Junior Brown, Nicolas Cage puts in the kind of over the top performance that was in vogue during the early nineties (see also Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, 1991). Cage himself admits that muscle-bound gangster Junior is ‘larger than life’, so why not the same for his fashion sense?
Kiss of Death was made in 1993/94 and released in 1995, but even taking this into account Junior’s monochrome wardrobe is still blatantly outdated and vulgar.
For most characters in the movie fashion is dictated by circumstance. Put upon ex-con Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso) wears clothes that are anonymous and cheap. His new wife Rosie (Kathryn Erbe) makes the best of herself but her style is based less upon current trends and more on a generous application of make-up. Of course, this is realistic; these people have very little money, for them self respect through clothes is about making the best of what they have.
Junior however would choose a look based on his own neurosis. Kiss of Death costume designer Theadora Van Runkle put together a combination of loose-sleeved silk shirts (some with etched flower prints), high waisted pleated trousers, muscle vests with deliberate holes, a tracksuit (shellsuit), and lightweight sleeveless denim shirt, even a naff ‘B.A.D’ (‘Balls, Attitude, Direction’) necklace. Practically all of Junior’s wardrobe is white.
This love of white reflects how Junior sees himself – clean and impenetrable. There is no dirt on Junior, there never can be. Moreover he is an obsessive neurotic; note the scene when he beats a man to death wearing a waterproof smock and then complains about a few drops of blood on his new portable stereo.
Junior is childlike too. He would rather stay close to ‘home’ (the Baby Cakes nightclub) and constantly seeks approval from his father. Even for a criminal, Junior barely works. He spends most of his time bench pressing strippers or skipping.
His relaxed sports and leisure wear is a hangover from the mid-1980s, though by the mid-90′s this look had dated somewhat, giving way to seventies retro revival and sloppy grunge. Giorgio Armani pioneered unstructured draping and the return of high-waisted trousers while Ralph Lauren was a fan of white linen. Lauren’s smart American sports style would go on to become one of the most significant design movements of the decade.
The 1990s was also a time of glamour. Big, highly visible couture labels were king with Prada and Gucci proving the most popular. Lead at the start of the decade by Nike and then later Reebok, high-tech sportswear became synonymous with urban (or urban gangster) style.
At the lower end of the market fine fabrics like silk were cost effectively reinterpreted for the high street; soft, easy care viscose shirts and dresses were everywhere by 1994, as was gym narcissism. Although such a preoccupation has become something of a homosexual ‘signifier’, it is unlikely Junior ever intended such intonation. In retrospect however it is difficult to see how a strategically ripped muscle vest could appear otherwise.
Nicolas Cage felt Junior was not afraid of dying, and he wasn’t. But he was afraid of prison. Paranoid and scared of being stranded away from home, Junior had to convince himself he was untouchable. In white slacks, white leather belt and gaudy ‘Miami’ shirt, Cage’s grotesque Little Junior represents the truly ugly face of nineties designer villainy.
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.