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Reservoir Dogs: Gangster Silhouette

Betsy Heimann’s costume design for Reservoir Dogs (1992) spawned a legacy in pop culture and fashion that is still being felt today. Heimann and director Quentin Tarantino determined a cinematic sub-genre by redefining the appearance of the petty gangster. From shambolic to symbolic; a man in a black suit, white shirt and black tie walking in slow motion is possibly the single most memorable costume image of the nineties.

Here talking exclusively to Clothes on Film, Ms. Heimann describes how the Reservoir Dogs look came together:

I am very pleased that the narrow silhouette I created influenced and still influences men’s fashion” she offers. “I think that Quentin is responsible for the pop culture legacy of the film. The characters and the mood are contagious, just like Quentin’s enthusiasm for filmmaking.”

Quentin Tarantino’s design for Reservoir Dogs was specific. Every camera position and movement, music and passage of dialogue was clear in his head. An actor did not understand a line, a scene; he could go to Tarantino for an immediate answer. This adherence to an explicit vision also applied to costume, which is widely acknowledged as the director nodding to his love of French New Wave cinema. Heimann remarks, however, that the dark suits were always a collaborative effort:

Quentin wanted to pay homage to French New Wave films. He also wanted the robbers to have certain anonymity. When he showed me some film clips, I remarked that the men were all wearing dark suits with white shirts and dark ties. This provided the anonymity we were looking for.

In addition to the ‘cool factor’, i.e. that attiring any man in a black suit will instantly add gravitas, having each member of the heist team appear to be dressed the same means the characters are, in effect, wearing a costume. There are subtle ways in which to tell them apart, but these are only for us, the audience, not within a story context. Heimann expands this concept:

In my mind, these guys had been in/were just released from prison, which would leave them without many choices of clothing. If their instruction was to wear the dark suit and tie, they could put that together easily and for very little money at a thrift store. That is how the concept came together.

This of course is where the idea of six guys in apparently identical black suits gets really interesting. “Only Harvey Keitel and Quentin are wearing suits” reveals Heimann. “My budget was $10,000, and I needed four alike for each character, as well as the rest of the costumes. We couldn’t afford to buy suits.

Indeed, even without knowing not all of the ‘Dogs’ are wearing full suits there are still hints at their dissimilarity. The jackets are all relatively slim, although Mr. Brown’s (Tarantino) is far more built up in the shoulder. Also Mr. White’s (Keitel) is ventless with two buttons on the cuff, while Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) wears a double vented jacket with three cuff buttons; Mr Pink’s (Buscemi) is in a fine rib fabric with a single vent. These subtleties help differentiate character, as do Mr. Blonde’s cowboy boots signifying he is something of a rockabilly, although were primarily a production consideration. Heimann explains:

Harvey had a relationship with Agnes B, and he didn’t need a multiple, so the designer gave us a suit. Quentin didn’t need multiples ether. I found his suit on a shelf in a warehouse downtown. Mike Madsen wore trousers from C&R Clothiers and a black suit jacket. Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth were another matter. I needed four suits for each of them. I found a cache of 1960s dark navy, charcoal and black jackets; all alike just different colours. I paired them with black jeans and boots.

So, both Mr. Orange (Roth) and Mr. Pink wore jeans. Why? Budget obviously, and because it did not matter. Their silhouette is the important factor. Providing all the team appeared to be in full suits, it is not essential that they actually were. The identical black suits ensemble so beloved by fashion spreads of the mid-1990s was created out of myth which eventually became reality. This is not a lie; this is moviemaking. Even so, Heimann had to be sure exactly how they would appear on screen, “I brought one of each colour jacket to the Director of Photography (Andrzej Sekula), and he assured me that they would all photograph black.

Reservoir Dogs creates the unruffled gangster image in its first scene with the guys’ famous slow-motion strut, then with comparable ease it dismantles this illusion by casing each character in blood and sweat. In other words the more soiled the costume, the worse their situation. Evidently Mr. Orange is in trouble early, whereas Mr. Blonde keeps clean up until the moment he is shot dead. Sticky red blood on pristine white cotton shirts is symbolic that nobody in this situation could keep their hands clean forever.

The shirt and necktie worn by each Dog may appear to be the same, but on closer inspection is purposely matched to each actor playing the part. Heimann continues:

Each had a different shirt with a collar that worked well with their neck. I also chose different widths of black ties for each one. As long as they all looked like they were wearing a black suit, white shirt and tie, it didn’t need to be an actual suit. The narrow silhouette fit their body types and the nervous quality of their characters.

Away from black suits, we have aged criminal Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) who organises the heist and his son/right hand man ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). These men play no part in the robbery itself so do not need a uniform, or for that matter a codename, e.g. Mr. White, Mr. Blonde. Eddie wears a track top and jeans, Joe generally a lightweight polo shirt, or at one point a pink shirt and lounge suit. Joe is wily but comparatively relaxed. He knows his importance while Eddie is twitchy and immature.

Chronologically when we first meet Mr. White, or ‘Larry’ at this juncture, he is dressed in a red Lacoste polo shirt. This is not his costume; in these brief minutes, along with Mr Blonde, aka Vic Vega, wearing a Johnny Cash-esque outfit of black jacket and short sleeve shirt with rever collar and trousers, we learn about these men away from the job itself. Out of all the Dogs, Mr. White is perhaps the most dangerous because he seems so normal; we do not expect the violence within. “It is always important to be true to the character, and every character is an individual” Heimann confirms.

Reservoir Dogs gave lounge suits their cool again. Certainly from the point of view of cinema, suits had become synonymous with villainy (Die Hard) or corruption (Wall Street), and while the Dogs are nobody’s heroes they are aspirational as single minded men on a mission. A suit is the Dogs’ costume just as it became ours, playing dress up for Halloween or stag parties. Betsy Heimann and Quentin Tarantino made a black suit, white shirt and black necktie more than just funeral attire, even if in context the suggestion of death is unavoidable. They made it iconic.

With thanks to Betsy Heimann.

© 2012 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Jordan

    Huh! I learned a great deal of new information about one of my favorite films from my childhood.

    Heimann is one of those amazing experts in her field, and I’m not sure I have ever found a single nit to pick regarding her work. Reservoir Dogs is no exception, as the iconic shot of the cast walking in unison would have likely carried less visual weight had they not all been clad in suits.

    God, I remember when my friends and I would try to mimic that swagger everywhere we went. I’m sure we looked ridiculous, but we felt every bit as cool as the Dogs themselves. Ha ha.

  • Jovan

    Interesting. I think Tarantino’s jacket looks the most thrifted, because of how ill-fitting it is. Look how the shoulders are practically dropping off the end of his actual shoulders.

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