There’s never quite been a men’s suit silhouette with the width and cultural scale as the narrow, or what we’d like to now dub “SBS”: the Skinny Black Suit, the modern male answer to the Little Black Dress.
Like the LBD, it’s ubiquitous, no-brow, and never wrong, from the boardroom to the courtroom to backroom of the Coachella stages and the Whitney Museum. That’s because the SBS’s got everything a guy needs: a whiff of danger, gangster, spy—but he can still go to work and be toned down by kicks, boots, sunglasses—you know: daytime.
In fact, this particular 9 to 5 look (9 a.m. to 5 a.m.) has been defining “cool”—proliferating like the motorcycle jacket, its demi-monde-gone-major-monde spiritual twin—ever since the early ’90s, helped along of course by Mrs. Prada and her modern techno fabrics, then later by Hedi Slimane during the Dior Homme days (2000 to 2007), Thom Browne, Dolce & Gabbana, et al.
But its biggest push into the mainstream came from that uncharacteristic connoisseur of men’s fashion, Quentin Tarantino, with his 1992 film debut, Reservoir Dogs. What? The lifer enfant terrible of quasi-exploitation films as anti as it gets (anti-everything, just name it) creating a true fashion wave? Yes, the notoriously undecorated director/writer inadvertently—or possibly, subversively, usually his intent—pretty much created the biggest fashion statement for guys in the last 25 years. That gangster walk to pop music down an L.A. street in black suits and Ray Bans was the Abbey Road street-parade moment of its time.
Co-writing, co-producing, directing, and starring in that dark violence-fest, wearing one of the slim silhouette black “suits” that made his crew of criminal dogs (Harvey Keitel as Mr. White, Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, and himself as Mr. Brown), Tarantino and RD’s costume designer Betsy Heimann (Jerry Maguire, Pulp Fiction) created the later-ubiquitous look by necessity.
“We had ten grand for the entire [wardrobe] budget,” Heimann recalls. “We knew these characters had probably just gotten out of jail. They wouldn’t have any money. So I said to Quentin, ‘Everybody can afford to go to a thrift store. And no one could describe them if they’re all wearing this uniform of black suit, white shirt, and skinny black tie. Quentin never said he wanted black suits. He just showed me French gangster movies and a bunch of disjointed images from his head. We weren’t going for style. We were going for character.”
As for the irony of Tarantino putting color-named characters in monochromatic black and white suits, “Quentin and I had a deep collaboration,” says Heimann. “It was pretty intuitive. We were thinking on a similar aesthetic level.”
“Harvey’s character’s the boss, so he would have had more money,” Heimann says, “and Harvey himself had a friendship with the designer Agnes B., so she gave him a suit. It was a little wider and more unstructured. Michael Madson’s suit came [from] C&R clothiers. Before Men’s Wearhouse, it was one of those cheap suit places in West Hollywood. But the rest—the real irony is—weren’t suits! They were solid black jackets, some navy, two or three button, and a bunch of black jeans and white shirts. That’s what I found, and that’s what I bought. We went to Goodwill on Vermont Avenue. I made sure to ask the cinematographer if the navy ones would photograph black. He assured me they would. I had to have multiples for the characters that get bloody, then bloodier—I combed the racks.
“But why they look good is that each character’s ‘suit’ is tailored to fit his body. The secret of the whole look is the collar. If there’s even a half-inch between a man’s neck and the shirt collar, it’s not flattering. We worked very seriously on those collars. You’ve also got to think about the chest and the tie width. Each guy had a different tie corresponding with the width of his chest. I know Mrs. Prada was inspired by that. But we weren’t setting out to do a fashion movie! That’s the irony. It’s like the goofy gangster look we did on John Travolta as Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. When the president of ICM saw it, he asked me to take him shopping! It was hilarious! I’m really not up on fashion at all.”
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, that something intended as irony became a fashion statement. Bad guys in movies—as in life—always see more action. Up until the early ’80s in New York, “a suit” meant one of two very uncool things: a tailored structured two-piece Savile Row-inspired jacket-and-trousers uniform which connoted authority/formality—a colloquialism for “stiff guy,” or worse, “corporate guy.” The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was hardly having fun, danger, booze, nightlife, dalliances, excitement—and especially not sex.
The skinny suit subverted the Reagan era’s classicism, rigidity, and traditionalism. But it had some earlier incarnations that couldn’t quite catch on till the ’80s petered out. The early ’90s hipsters may or may not have realized they were appropriating some cool from late ’30s jazz players—and neo jazz players. John Lurie formed The Lounge Lizards in 1978, co-opting jazz’s “lounge suit”—skinny ties, close to the body white shirts, slimmer fitting black pants—with a wink of the eye to Charlie Parker. Parker preferred natty suits and ties because he figured out a wrong note from an elegantly attired jazz player might be excused as daring experimentation, while the same note from a scruffy, unkempt dude was just a fuck up. Eighties no-wave visual artist Robert Longo coolly eyed downtown punk musicians like Glenn Branca, turning them into skinny black clad Manhattan demimonders in the iconic Men in the Cities series.
Vishaal Melwani, owner of the company Combatant Gentlemen, (or Combat Gent, as it’s better known), one of the first design-to-delivery brands offering affordable suits, traces skinny suits back to Reservoir Dogs, that on top of “the Beatles, slim lapels, slim ties, slim ankles showing in Beatle boots, British menswear—almost feminine menswear. Reservoir Dogs was the first time men were seen in really fitted suits. The ’80s suits had big pleated pants, and the ’90s classic suiting was even more oversized. RD did a great job of being masculine clothing with a feminine silhouette. It showed off the male physique. There wasn’t a lot of stuff that pushed the limit in terms of suiting till then. Anything Quentin Tarantino looks at, people and the mainstream media notice—it’s always fashion, the more anti the better. The slim fit is still and always our best seller. And now, it’s a little tailored, too. Most of these skinny suits have just been clingy —even shrunken! But shrunken suits encroach on the body. I don’t know many men who want to be uncomfortable, except maybe guys in their 20s who work out all the time and want it painted on them.”
And Hollywood stylist Michael Fisher, who’s dressed Bryan Cranston, Paul Rudd, James Corden, Daniel Radcliffe, Zach Efron, Michael Fassbender, and Jonah Hill, is also still referencing the film. “Reservoir Dogs has become an essential men’s wear reference and a personal favorite of mine in terms of silhouette and its simple, uniform-like style direction. I reference it not only for its utilitarianism as much as I do for the attitude it portrays. It’s the perfect balance of an effortless look while at the same time it shows that you do have a considered sense of personal style.”