The arrival of Scarface (1983, directed by Brian De Palma) on Blu-ray grants ideal opportunity to indulge the film’s exemplary costumes by Patricia Norris. In its bogus world of clashing colours and mix fabrics, drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is the model of gangster symbolism, while steely dame Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) has become a pin-up for the disco couture era; both characters are as psychologically screwed up as each other.
Tony arrives in Miami, Florida, 1980 as a refugee from Cuba. His Caribbean heritage and lack of cash is demonstrated by a fondness for loose fitting, short sleeve island shirts. These are so gaudy that during the infamous chainsaw sequence, Tony’s costume is heightened to bright orange with surfing and palms pattern just to retain his position as the focal point. Is it any wonder that as his status climbs, Tony progresses to white, cream and most unattractively, smudgy blue suits, often double breasted and unbuttoned with splayed collar shirts? As companion Manny (Steven Bauer) notes when they are still dishwashing for a living, watching the high rollers driven in fancy cars with conspicuous clothes, it is all about “pizzazz”; you must wear your money.
Despite costumes in Scarface being representative of their setting (and climate), they still echo gangster fashions from sixty years before. Hollywood invented a look that has been referenced and subverted on countless occasions. Tony states that he learned how to speak English from Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies, so it is only natural that during his last coke-fueled hurrah, the “Say hello to little friend!” bloodbath, he is wearing a deep blue pinstripe, three piece suit similar to his mobster teachers in the 1930s/40s. Of course, Patricia Norris ensures that Tony is intentionally loud. With a plain linen shirt and white single breasted linen suit, strangely when Elvira is embarrassed to be seen with him, as Tony’s only real sartorial hit, he is portrayed as someone who could only dress tastefully by accident.
Elvira’s costumes also reference the thirties, with most of her bespoke dresses made to a similar pattern of long, backless halterneck in silk or satin – a low leg swimsuit and pink slip even sharing the same cutaway front. Cold, though not unfeeling, Elvira is a sullen coat hanger for high-end disco designs that suggest the work of Roy Halston. Elvira’s show stopping number is naturally her entrance into the story, modeling a shimmery sea green chemise dress trimmed in gold appliqué, backless with a huge slit up the right leg. Later she dons a crimson-rose pink satin dress, again a backless halterneck, for her initial role as the only woman who can distract Tony’s gaze from his sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Tony liked this dress so much he had Elvira painted wearing it and then hung in a gilt frame inside his gaudily decorated mansion.
Tony’s relationship with his sister is a complex one. Gina is the one female in Tony’s life ever to show him love. His own mother hates him and Elvira was only an outlet for sex, not emotion (could you imagine them cuddling?). A desperate need to be protected has manifested itself as Tony becoming the protector. He has blended his relationship with Gina into that of mother (she praises him), lover (unfulfilled but he is clearly attracted to her) and sister (reassuring, understanding). When Gina is first introduced she is wearing a softly cut lilac and flower print cotton dress; she could not be more asexual. It is Tony who personally places Gina in risqué outfits, including a barely there tie-front dress; it is his confusion that destroys her.
The only major player to escape Tony’s life relatively unscathed is Elvira, although her future does not appear too rosy. Elvira’s combustible relationship with Tony meant she was taking more cocaine than ever. Her mantra of “never get high on your own supply” seemingly requiring too much discipline to enforce. Drugs are Elvira’s undoing. Enviable she may be, emaciated in glittery slips and cat’s eye sunglasses, but her every great moment is capped with a sprinkle of powder. Elvira’s classiest outfit is a beautifully designed white silk and linen suit; padded, roped shoulders with tie waist and just below the knee skirt, a forerunner to Giorgio Armani’s upcoming domination of couture through tailoring. As striking as Elvira looks, all work is immediately undone with two spoonfuls of coke snorted up her nose in a rundown Cadillac with Tony.
Scarface’s costume influence is indisputable. Even if the fashions themselves are rarely revived with much success beyond magazine photo shoots, the concept of conspicuous display remains a sure fire indication of wealth for those not discreet enough to enjoy it privately. Clothes in Scarface, for men and women, are the mark of success, however broadly this may be defined. The more money Tony made the more flamboyantly he had to flaunt it. Although is it really surprising that Tony dressed the way he did? After all, he did have a tiger chained up in his garden.
Scarface is released on Blu-ray DVD on 5th September.
You can watch Al Pacino in Scarface at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.