Legendary costume designer Sandy Powell is no stranger to period pieces.
In 1998, she won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work on Shakespeare in Love, set London circa 1593. In 2004, she won again for The Aviator, which spanned the first half of the 20th century. In 2010, she scored an Oscar hat-trick with The Young Victoria.
Even the movies for which Powell “merely” received Academy Award nominations—Orlando, The Wings of the Dove, Velvet Goldmine, Gangs of New York, Mrs Henderson Presents, The Tempest, and Hugo—have taken place in the past.
And yet despite all her expertise, Powell was at first a bit perplexed when Martin Scorsese asked her to outfit financial scam artist Jordan Belfort and his sleazy crew of penny stockbrokers in Scorsese’s new movie The Wolf of Wall Street. The reason? Belfort’s rise and fall had taken place in the 1990s—a period that, unlike, say, the 1980s, had rarely, if ever, been given the full “period piece” treatment on screen before. “Recent history is actually very difficult to recreate,” Powell tells The Daily Beast. “We are not far enough away from it to see it clearly.”
Think about it. What did the 1990s “look like?” What did real people wear? Even now, nearly 15 years later, it’s kind of hard to say. There was the grunge trend, of course, and the mainstreaming of hip-hop gear. But for whatever reason the 1990s have proven harder to pinpoint, parody, and put on film than earlier decades. The 1950s? Leave It To Beaver. The 1960s? Mad Men, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The 1970s? A little “Hotel California,” a little Saturday Night Fever. And the 1980s are the easiest of all. “Quite often the 1980s are portrayed as comedy,” Powell says. “It’s always the most exaggerated and ridiculous looks. The ‘80s scenes [at the beginning of The Wolf of Wall Street] were much easier to achieve than the ‘90s.”
But somehow Powell did it. She nailed the 1990s, too.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a lot of things. A non-stop bacchanalia of prostitutes, pills, and midget-tossing. An indictment of the sort of financial chicanery that eventually fueled the crash of 2008. A fine example of American cinema by one of our last living masters.
But Wolf is also the first real period piece about the 1990s—the first major motion picture to distill the decade of Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, and America Online down to its essence and project it back at us, on screen, as if it were as much a part of the past as Elizabethan England. Stylistically speaking, Wolf is a brilliant blast of nostalgia for those who were there, and a terrific primer for those who weren’t.
How did Powell pull it off? She started with the source material. “I actually knew very little about the world this film is about,” she says. “So my initial idea of the ‘90s was completely different.” Luckily, Belfort himself “provided a lot of photographic material of his family and friends, which was incredibly useful.” Powell and her team also dug up old copies of GQ and Arena—“and all the women’s magazines”—for inspiration.
When Scorsese gave Powell the job, he had only one request: make sure “the costumes are designed to help create the characters and tell the story.” Powell had plenty to work with. Belfort was an arriviste in a world that has always been obsessed with status, so he was already inclined to project his personality through his clothing. (As Andre Agassi said in 1990, “image in everything.”) Also, the film covers a big chunk of Belfort’s life—more than a decade—meaning that the evolution of his attire would inevitably reflect the larger tale Scorsese was trying to tell.
As Powell puts it, “it’s all about the suits.” Near the beginning of Wolf, Belfort arrives on Wall Street for his first day of work as an entry-level stockbroker. It’s the late 1980s. His boss, played by a lean, uproarious Matthew McConaughey, is dressed like Gordon Gekko: dark chalk-stripe, double-breasted suit with sizable lapels; striped blue shirt with a white contrast collar; red patterned power tie. But the poor, upstart Belfort—boxy grey suit; off-white shirt; wide geometric tie—looks like a sales clerk at Men’s Wearhouse. “It’s a suit from the ‘80s, which to our eyes now seems too big,” says Powell. “It was meant to convey an off-the-peg, cheap suit, which was all the character would have been able to afford.”
Early on, Powell realized that what we think of the 1980s—all those exaggerated lines and loud colors—actually lasted until about 1995 or so. “Everything about the cut of ‘80s suits was exaggerated, from the width of the shoulders to the number of pleats in the pants,” she explains. “The ‘90s became less colorful and a bit more conservative, with lots of black. The silhouette became more streamlined and longer-looking—less boxy.”
And so as fashions change in the film—along with Belfort’s fortunes—so do his suits. Powell raided the Armani archives—“Armani has a long standing relationship with Martin Scorsese,” she says—to find the right look for Belfort’s ascent: a “jacket silhouette that was fluid and structured at the same time.”
But even those deconstructed Armani suits don’t last long. “Belfort starts off in off-the-peg cheap suits, progresses to an Armani, which is what everyone in the ‘80s aspired to, and then swiftly moves on to bespoke tailored suits which were often made by Savile Row tailors flown in specially from London,” Powell says. “Jordan Belfort actually had his own tailor who custom made everything for him for years.” At the height of his powers, Belfort spends his work days in tailored, single-breasted pinstripe suits, then switches into an unbuttoned Polo shirt, oversized sunglasses, and loose, pleated linen pants to lounge around with a pair of models aboard his yacht. He looks like someone who stepped out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement circa 1996. (“That’s exactly how he was meant to look!” says Powell.)
But while Belfort and his suits are the center of the film, it’s the sea of horribly dated Italian silk ties that really steals the show. They are everywhere—and they are hideous. Squiggles. Squares. Blobs. Diamonds. Hundreds of them, on almost every character, none of which any sane human being would wear today. It’s a remarkable coup on Powell’s part—an instant signifier that we’ve traveled back in time to an era of obnoxious wealth and abundant bad taste. “The tie pretty much can define an era,” Powell explains, so she and her team put a lot of effort into finding actual examples from the period, renting “from costume houses that hold thousands” and “scour[ing] thrift stores and flea markets” for just the right “graphic and geometric” patterns. “I never stopped buying ties!” Powell says.
Another stylistic highlight is Belfort’s wingman Donnie Azoff, played by a riotous, depraved Jonah Hill. In his memoir, Belfort describes Danny Porush (the real Azoff) as a Jewish Long Islander with WASP pretensions. “I think I’ve ended up exaggerating this a little,” Powell admits—“mostly because of how Donnie’s character developed during my fittings with Jonah.” The result is a spectacular mash-up of aspirationally misguided 1990s preppy style. A multicolored pastel oxford-cloth button-down shirt. A cable-knit sweater tied around the shoulders. Tortoise-shell spectacles with clear lenses. Lilac suspenders. And so on. “We arrived at Donnie’s look after trying on various different combinations of things usually bright or pastel colors and not always coordinating,” Powell says. “I wasn’t trying to making him look comedic. But I wanted him to look as if he was really trying hard!”
The result of Powell’s efforts is a seamless depiction of a decade that until now has been all but ignored by Hollywood. It’s almost enough to inspire a broader 1990s revival. Powell, for one, is convinced. Asked if the silhouettes and patterns of the period are due for a comeback, she answers with a resounding, “Yes to all of that!”
We’ll pass on the ties, though.