Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (1974).
Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes, private investigator and ex-policeman
Los Angeles, September 1937
Last Friday, I covered the charcoal business suit Robert Shaw wears in The Sting. While it’s a terrific suit for the era, it wouldn’t be very comfortable during warm summer months. For a great summer suit with a ’30s vibe, look no further than Jake Gittes in Chinatown.
What’d He Wear?
The Gentleman’s Gazette accurately pegs down how the later years of the 1930s marked the transition into more fickle men’s fashion with trends changing annually instead of every few years:
In 1937, the thirties suit style was fully established. It did not have any resemblance to the suit of the twenties, yet is was distinctly not 1940′s fashion either. Shoulders were natural, drape was omnipresent and trousers were full cut. Although the clothes shown are more than 75 years old, you could absolutely wear these combinations today!
Gittes, a cynical but flashy fashionplate, was the epitome of 1937 masculine style. While white and cream suits can often be called impractical, so are Gittes’ methods. His cream three-piece suit, constructed from lightweight wool, exudes luxury and gives his clients the impression that he is successful – and secure – enough to afford to wear such an impractical suit.
Interestingly, he only wears this suit for days spent in the office; he opts for more traditional business suits in gray pinstripe and check while out conducting his investigations, perhaps aware of the unwanted attention that a cream suit would garner.
The suit also serves to introduce Gittes’ character. The first shot of the film is of his work – an unsavory series of photographs featuring an adulterous wife’s unholy assignation in the great outdoors as her cuckolded husband moans in agony at each image. Gittes sharply eases his customer’s concerns, oozing lines that drip with cynicism as he reclines behind his desk.
This is what a man should look like when he’s at the office.
The suit jacket is double-breasted with a 6×2 button front and 4-button functional “surgeon’s cuffs” on the sleeves. Gittes often buttons his suit, but he typically only fastens the lower button, giving the wide peak lapels a more luxurious roll down the torso. The lapels have a short-seam horizontal gorge that pulls apart, almost resembling a “cran necker” lapel.
The jacket has open patch pockets on the hips and a welted breast pocket, which Gittes always embellishes with a silk handkerchief. In the opening scene, the handkerchief is plain white; a few days later, he opts for one in light blue with a brown border.
Gittes’ jacket is very distinctively a product of the 1930s with its pleated “bi-swing” action back, which keeps the athletic profile of a suppressed waist while allowing relaxed arm movements. The profile is further enhanced by front darts, padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads, and a belted rear.
You hardly see smart features like this anymore. No wonder so many men hate wearing suits these days.
The suit has a matching vest (or waistcoat) that isn’t clearly seen due to camera angles and Gittes’ habit of keeping his jacket closed most of the time. It is definitely a single-breasted vest with no lapels, and it appears to have either five or six buttons down the front. The rear lining is cream silk with no adjustable strap.
Gittes’ cream suit trousers also don’t receive much screen time, but they are likely pleated like his others and in keeping with the era’s trends. The bottoms are plain-hemmed.
The first shirt Gittes wears with this suit, while spending the day in his office with various clients, is pale yellow with large point collars and French cuffs. He pairs it with a striped silk tie with cinnamon red, mustard orange, and taupe stripes in the American right-down-to-left direction.
Note Bruce Glover in the background as one of Gittes’ assistants. Glover had played obnoxiously campy hitman Mr. Wint in the obnoxiously campy Diamonds are Forever three years earlier.
A few days later, Gittes returns to the office after a confrontation at his local barbershop, now wearing a white shirt with dark red stripes. Like the other shirt, it has large point collars with a narrow spread and rounded French cuffs, now fastened with brown oblong cuff links. His tie has a dark – possibly black – ground with brown clusters of red floral patterns.
Like the rest of his lower half, Gittes’ shoes and socks are barely seen outside of a quick shot while he reclines in the barber’s chair. He appears to be wearing a pair of cordovan leather split toe derbies with tan dress socks.
They’re only briefly seen, but Gittes’ cordovan derbies keep everything grounded. Inset is a pair of split toe derbies from Rider Boot’s 2008 collection.
Gittes wears a cream lightweight summer fedora with a very wide striped ribbon in black, dulled green, and lavender. This is an alternative to the more traditional Panama hat or a straw boater, mixing elements of both hats and adding a narrow brim and a tall, pinched crown.
The hat… you can take or leave.
Go Big or Go Home
Like any private eye should, Gittes stocks his office with enough whiskey and cigarettes to temporarily subdue any client’s concerns. His office cabinet has a bottle of Old Crow bourbon and a bottle of Old Overholt rye. Gittes opts for the Old Crow when pouring out a shot for the cuckolded Curly and, naturally, himself.
Correction from the above caption – this is what a man should look like when he’s at the office.
Gittes likes to think of himself as a classy man, so you might be wondering, “Old Crow? You mean that bottom-shelf stuff that goes for $7.99?”
Well, yes. But there are two things to consider here:
1) Curly isn’t exactly Walter Winchell. Serving him bottom-shelf stuff won’t ruin a reputation, plus he’s probably used to it.
2) Old Crow’s pre-Prohibition reputation was similar to that of Pappy Van Winkle these days.
Old Crow is one of the oldest continuing Bourbon brands in the U.S., originally distilled by Scottish immigrant Dr. James C. Crow in the 1830s. Before his death in 1856, Dr. Crow used his twenty years of distilling to develop new procedures that revolutionized whiskey making and “Crow” – soon known as “Old Crow” – became the preferred whiskey of American badasses like Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Clay, and Mark Twain. The popularity of the whiskey led to W.A. Gaines and Company keeping the name after Dr. Crow’s death, manufacturing it according to his original recipe.
Fred Minnick managed to sample some original Old Crow, distilled in 1908 and bottled in the spring of 1925, at a Filson Historical Society tasting in 2013. Accompanying the Old Crow was a bottle of Broad Ripple from the 1930s and a “newer” bottle of Old Rip Van Winkle from the ’70s.
An Old Crow ad from 1939, before it was purchased by Jim Beam (now Beam Suntory).
Excerpt from Fred’s site:
…Old Crow was the whiskey by which all others were judge. Since then, Jim Beam purchased the brand, where it plays second or third fiddle to the company’s flagship whiskey. “Jim Beam should be put on trial for what they did to Old Crow,” [Bourbon historian Mike] Veach says. In this 17-year-old version, we see why Old Crow was such a big deal. The complex nose is rich with caramel, toasted pecans, vanilla, cigar box and raisins. A few minutes later the whiskey opens up and the caramel becomes more pronounced with new hints of walnut, tobacco and toffee. The nose just didn’t quit, and prepared me for a whiskey that starts right on the tip of your tongue with spice and just trickles back, lining every inch with the expected notes we found in the bouquet with apple and dried apricot joining the party. After a great two-minute or so finish, I don’t want to move onto to the next whiskey. I wanted to sit by a fire and talk with my friends, Veach, and Josh Durr about why this whiskey is so awesome. Could it change as it opens up? Should we have decanted this? Alas, we cannot stay with this whiskey forever. We must move on to Broad Ripple.
According to Minnick, the Old Crow and Old Rip Van Winkle maintained their quality, but the Broad Ripple – one of the last “medicinal whiskey” bottles from the Prohibition era – wasn’t as pleasing to the palate:
The taste sent Broad Ripples of old cough syrup down my throat. I gave the taste one more shot, and I can’t lie, the whiskey tasted exactly like a Moth Ball cake with Robitussin icing.
Fred concludes, as I paraphrased earlier, that:
Pappy Van Winkle is the Old Crow of its time. Let’s hope it doesn’t fade in time like Old Crow.
In 1937, Old Crow likely would’ve had the same reputation and taste that it was so proud of before Prohibition. Thus, Gittes’ proud ownership and consumption of Old Crow makes sense.
Gittes maintains his manly habits by going to a barber for his cut and shave, where he reads the paper, hears dirty jokes, and isn’t afraid to get into a fight or two. The joke that Gittes overhears is a special highlight of the film, especially given the poor context of his retelling:
So there’s this guy, Walsh, do you understand? He’s tired of screwin’ his wife. So his friend says to him, “Hey, why don’t you do it like the Chinese do?” So he says, “How do the Chinese do it?” And the guy says, “Well, the Chinese, first they screw a little bit, then they stop, then they go and read a little Confucius, come back, screw a little bit more, then they stop again, go and they screw a little bit… then they go back and they screw a little bit more, and then they go out and they contemplate the moon or something like that. Makes it more exciting.”
So now, the guy goes home and he starts screwin’ his own wife, see. So he screws her for a little bit and then he stops, and he goes out of the room and reads LIFE magazine. Then he goes back in, he starts screwin’ again. He says, “Excuse me for a minute, honey.” He goes out and he smokes a cigarette. Now his wife is gettin’ sore as hell. He comes back in the room, he starts screwin’ again. He gets up to start to leave again to go look at the moon. She looks at him and says, “Hey, whats the matter with ya? You’re screwin’ just like a Chinaman!”
How to Get the Look
A cream three-piece summer suit will definitely get attention. Just make sure you have J.J. Gittes’ confident swagger before wearing it out into public.
No one plays cheeky as well as Nicholson.
- Cream lightweight wool three-piece suit, consisting of:
- Double-breasted jacket with 6×2 button front, peak lapels, welted breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 4-button “surgeon’s cuffs”, padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads, and pleated “bi-swing” action belted rear
- Single-breasted vest with 6-button front and no adjustable rear strap
- Pleated trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Pale yellow or white-and-red striped button-down shirt with large point collars and double/French cuffs
- Silk patterned necktie, either:
- Cinnamon red, mustard yellow, and taupe R-down-to-L stripes
- Dark ground with brown and red floral clusters
- Cream summer fedora with a wide striped ribbon and narrow brim
- Cordovan leather split-toe derbies
- Tan dress socks
Do Yourself a Favor And…
Buy the film.
All right, Curly. Enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds; I just had them installed on Wednesday.
In case you’re curious, Gittes’ unfiltered cigarettes are Lucky Strike. This is seen in a quick close-up of him smoking when the accurately pre-war gold “Lucky Strike” lettering is visible.