When quizzed about the neck ties in The Irishman – of which there are so, so many – the film's costume designer, Sandy Powell, exhales sharply. “You have to wade through thousands and thousands and thousands of ties to find the right ones for the period,” she says. Dressing a film that spans half a century turned out to be so mammoth a task that she had to promote her long-time assistant, Christopher Peterson, to co-designer. “It’s sort of like finding the jewel in the haystack," he adds, "putting together the puzzle of the tie and the suit and the shirt."
A five-decade-long story means five decades of trends, of fits, of colours and fabrics and cuts, all of which need to be true to their era but also convey something essential about the character who inhabits them. From the boxy shirting of the Fifties, through the retina-scorching prints of the Sixties, to Seventies bellbottoms and beyond, The Irishman is an epic that explores in minute detail the rise, fall and fade of old-time mobsters.
The director – Marty to Powell and Peterson; Martin Scorsese to the rest of us – charged the pair with dressing a film that would oxidise the brass of the cinematic mafia tradition. “One of the things he said on a first meeting was that we weren’t doing the same kind of gangsters as Goodfellas or Casino,” says Powell. “These weren’t flashy peacock looks. We were doing a low-key version. I mean, there are some obvious mafia types in there, but half of that is the way these people hold themselves.”
It was important, too, to think of mobsters before they embraced a life of crime, and what led them there. “If one remembers that these men grew up poor, the Cosa Nostra gave them power and a bit of money,” says Peterson, whose soft-spoken American accent is a counter to Powell, a quickfire Britishness. “But they maintained a certain humbleness to the way they dress. It wasn’t without thought, but it was never the flashiness of Henry Hill, or Ace from Casino. They always maintained their roots, and that’s where the design came from.”
Scorsese has chipped some of the lacquer off the genre he helped define, but that isn’t The Irishman’s sole point of difference. It stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, a mob movie triumvirate with a combined age of 231. Pesci had even retired. And yet Scorsese refused to use stand-ins. All three were going to play their characters at all points in their lives, across half a century.
Thus came a double challenge. First, the complex burden of de-ageing CGI. Then, a wardrobe brief that required men north of 70 to be dressed a lot younger. “The suits of those earlier periods does sort of help, it does sort of help hide body shape, says Powell. “But the most challenging thing was getting the guys to remember to walk and stand like younger people.” Comfort, then, was out of the window, as Peterson explains: “It wasn’t until recent years that jeans and a sports jacket and a casual shirt became OK to wear. It was a bit gauche for a man to do that back then; you wanted to be a man of respect, and you wanted to be well-turned out.” Which obviously meant rigid, mafia tailoring. Lots of it.
In fact, there’s lots of everything in The Irishman: lots of plot; lots of minutes (it runs almost three and a half hours); and lots and lots of costumes. “We had 250 characters and 6,500 extras,” says Peterson. That demanded a level of organisation more akin to war planning. “You need a lot of research, a lot of hard work, and you need to just get down and do it,” says Powell. “You basically have to sort of divide your brain up into those five different decades, and approach it as if there are three or four films in one. You’re filming more than one decade in one day, and that’s when you'd have to really know what you were doing.”
It helps that they get on, too. “It works because we’re really good friends,” Powell says. They know the director's expectations, too, having worked together on numerous Scorsese films, including The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street. “We can have a laugh, and I think the balance is right; there are things I hate, and Chris doesn’t mind, and vice versa,” says Powell. To which Peterson agrees whole-heartedly. “This is going on for a 16-year relationship, and we don’t even think about it in those terms. We share ideas, we agree and share a taste level, but it’s fairly seamless. I just feel like it’s a friendship, and knowing that any problem will get solved." The two even agree on their favourite iteration of Robert De Niro's hitman Frank Sheeran, the outfit he's wearing the first time he appears onscreen: "High-waisted sweatpants in a wheelchair, a bit oversized, and it makes him look so pathetic and small," says Peterson.
Having boxed up one movie's worth of costumes, the pair are already prepping for the next project. “It’s onto another mammoth task for Marty, isn’t it Christopher?” Her colleague agrees, with a light laugh. Up next is an adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, investigative journalist David Grann’s book about the Osage, a tribe of Native Americans who, in the Twenties, became the wealthiest people in America overnight when oil was discovered under the land. Then, they were beset by a string of murders, which went unsolved for almost a century. Heavy stuff, though there is, perhaps, one welcome change of pace for Powell: “No gangsters. This one is totally gangster free."
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