For what is certainly the best remembered costume in Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Travolta as Tony Manero wears a brilliant white 3-piece suit to dazzle the disco dance floor. His look defined an era: smart, yet somehow scruffy; classy yet somehow cheap.
To keep costs down the film’s director John Badham insisted costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein procure all outfits off the peg and not make them from scratch. Furthermore this added to realism as Tony could never have afforded bespoke.
Interestingly despite the pristine first appearance of Tony’s suit it never really looks clean. Just like the disco scene itself his costume is sullied from the sweaty self-indulgence of its environment:
White polyester two-button single breasted suit with matching waistcoat; wide jacket lapels and flared trousers. Black with white broken line stripe shirt, single cuff, pointed collar, no necktie. Two tone black and grey lace-up leather brogues with stacked heels.
On first glance John Travolta’s suit with its long tails and loon pants is characteristically 1970s, yet it draws influence from much earlier in the twentieth century.
White or beige was a popular colour choice for gentleman’s resort wear in the 1920s. The wide lapels, not to mention the combination of dark shirt under light suit, was more typical of the 1930s, particularly thug level gangster chic. From the waist down it has a military look of sailors’ bell bottoms. The spread-eagle shirt collar however is derived entirely from the street.
With Tony’s face bashed up from fighting, Travolta’s costume is a deliberately awkward fit from the start. As tragic events of the finale unfold his suit becomes ever grubbier; deconstructing further and further until the haunting image of Tony slumped in the subway train smoking becomes as iconic as him gyrating on the dance floor.
Visually the suit works better this way, more representative of the anti-hero (which Tony most definitely is). Hiding alone in the carriage he is trapped at the bottom of the heap; his only choice now is to crawl out and start again. Compare this to flawless Tony swaggering through Bay Ridge in the opening titles; to really make something of himself Tony had to hit a wall. Only then, with his facade completely destroyed, could he begin anew.
John Travolta is a mesmerising presence in Saturday Night Fever. Unfairly dismissed at the time for playing characterture, his performance is since regarded as one of cinema’s greatest debuts.
The white suit was a star from the outset however. It adorned publicity material, kick-started a trend and just three years later in Airplane! had already become parody. Though maybe in movie language it is this and not imitation that constitutes the sincerest form of flattery?
© 2009 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.