The Godfather at 50: celebration of elegant, character-appropriate and anachronistic fashion

Marlon Brando is the sleek, perfectly attired head of the family.
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The Godfather’s costuming succeeds in three major ways, as shown through three of its most popular characters. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Genevieve Nardella reports.

Fashionable cinematic men come in a variety of forms, but one kind that never goes out of style in Hollywood is the slick guy in an equally slick suit.

Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas and Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans series are just a few examples of this look over the last few decades.

While all are masterclasses in cool clothes, one giant looms over them: The Godfather. Set in the decade after the end of WWII, it tells the story of the Corleone family, headed by Vito (Marlon Brando), and shows the transformation of the youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), into a ruthless new head of this Mafia family.

While this movie has been rightfully praised in all aspects, its costumes, designed by Anna Hill Johnstone, are an especially important aspect of its appeal. Elegance, character development and styles from different decades blend into a glorious mixture that endures well.

The Godfather at 50: celebration of elegant, character-appropriate and anachronistic fashion
Michael Corleone’s character development shows in his clothing, including his time in the simple clothing of rural Sicily.

All the movies listed above – and many others with similar audiences – centre around criminals. Aside from the fact crime movies typically feature large male ensembles, there is also an aspirational element to the characters’ clothes.

The characters in these movies do terrible things, but they are also like their audience in many ways: they eat, laugh with friends and listen to music.

But they have privileges (and money) that the average viewer doesn’t, like access to fancy clothes. The Godfather’s clothing isn’t always fancy – Michael’s Sicily getup, despite looking great, isn’t super flashy – but it often is, especially for the titular Godfather, Vito Corleone.

The Godfather at 50: celebration of elegant, character-appropriate and anachronistic fashion
Clothing was formal and elegant for The Don.

Vito is the Don, the boss, so he sports the most elegant and sleek fashions of the family. His wedding day ensemble includes touches which elevate it to iconic heights: a winged collar, simple black bowtie and vest – although his bib shirt front is more akin to ’70s styles than ’40s, which would’ve likely called for a pleated front.

In terms of character development through costume, the film abounds with it.

With Michael Corleone, Hill Johnstone outfits Michael according to changes he undergoes, from a civilian in military green-brown and relatively light colours to a powerful force in dark suits.

This colour progression is also evidence of him falling deeper into the crime world, resembling Vito more closely with each costume change.

The Godfather at 50: celebration of elegant, character-appropriate and anachronistic fashion
Al Pacino’s military outfits are an integral part of his character development.

Another factor which made the movie’s costumes so attractive to audiences was their anachronisms, including those in Fredo Corleone’s (John Cazale) costuming in Las Vegas.

Despite the scene in question being set in the mid 1950s, his yellow blazer getup is ’70s through and through. The long point shirt collar, neck scarf and checked pants all echo trends which were either already popular or would rise during the decade. His aviator sunglasses were commonly worn in the ’50s but would make a comeback in the ’70s.

It’s tempting to accuse a filmmaker of historical inaccuracy, but the sleazy look perfectly suits Fredo’s character.

The Godfather at 50: celebration of elegant, character-appropriate and anachronistic fashion
Fredo’s clothing was sleazy and anachronistic.

When you put all of these elements together, it becomes clear why audiences have gravitated towards the styles from this movie for the last 50 years. They are pleasing in different ways, so they scratch every possible itch.

The elegance of the Don’s tuxedo was a welcome change for the ’70s audience of men, who were then wearing the gaudiest of suits, and for a 21st century audience perpetually in casual clothes.

Michael’s visual character development excites the film buff scouring each corner of the movie for masterful touches. Even, and especially, the anachronisms have their audience, as ’70s moviegoers could see themselves in Fredo, and 2020s viewers can indulge in a hybrid nostalgia for both the ’50s and ’70s.

The Godfather’s storied reputation extends to its costumes, deservedly so. Of course, there are nods to the 70s here and there, and not everything is accurate, but the wardrobe – as well as the movie itself – still comes across as the best possible version.