Talking Film Costume: Richard Gere in “American Gigolo”

Richard Gere's style American Gigolo
“I have found myself in the position of a revolutionary. A revolutionary who has always defended the right to be normal, as an extreme mooring of sophistication, a point of arrival in which the details, above all, are important. Thus operating by substraction, by removal, using ordinary elements, I have, they say, turned around the very concept of elegance. My revolution has not always been evident to all, perhaps because it was not as dramatic as most revolutions imagine themselves to be, but over time it has proven to be much more incisive.” (Giorgio Armani, Emporio Armani Magazine n°14, 1995)

Giorgio Armani, who has recently turned 80, indeed revolutionized fashion and it was Richard Gere’s wardrobe in the film American Gigolo (1980), where he plays male escort Julian Kaye, that launched the designer’s career. Since then on, menswear has not been quite the same. Talking about his designs, Armani stated that his notions of deconstruction were even political in as much as he was advocating a change to the status quo. Replacing the confining traditionally tailored Savile Row suit, Giorgio Armani introduced a notion of fluidity and ease of movement that reshaped the design of formal menswear. He achieved this more relaxed silhouette by knocking the stuffing out, removing the padding and dispensing with the lining. He also lightened the weight of the suit, replacing tweed and flannel with softer fabrics, such as wool crêpe, which resulted in the same ease of wear and free-fitting as could be found in a knitted cardigan. Linen and silk suiting became part of the men’s wardrobe as well. Armani created an aesthetic of luxurious, soft, understated elegance.
Richard Gere in Giorgio Armani-American Gigolo-2

Richard Gere in Giorgio Armani-American Gigolo-3

Richard Gere's costumes American GigoloAbove, Julian wears a double-breasted light grey flannel jacket with more defined shoulders. This is a semi-formal outfit, where he wears separates instead of a suit, without elegance suffering one bit.
“In 1980, a young director named Paul Schrader contacted me to clothe an actor who was not particularly famous at the time – Richard Gere – for a sensuous thriller called American Gigolo,” Armani recalls his first involvement in cinema as an active participant. “I had no idea what the impact of that movie would be on the spirit of the 1980s, the powerful grip it would have on the public.”

Throughout the film, Gere sports everything from formal to casual attire, from leisure-wear to evening clothing, the complete wardrobe of the modern man – although I should mention that not everything he wears is Armani, but the prominent part is.

The whole style of the film was influenced by Italy, as director Paul Shrader was telling GQ. “Los Angeles is an over-photographed city and has that punishing sunlight. It’s hard to find a new way to shoot LA. I got around that by going to Italy and bringing back Ferdinando Scarfiotti. He had been the art director on Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris and eventually he won an Oscar for The Last Emperor. It was Nando who was the driving visual force for the film.” Maybe it’s the art direction too, but there is definitely something Italian about Richard Gere’s style and attitude.

In the famous scene when he lovingly lays out his suits on his bed, alternating combinations of ties and shirts and then admiring himself in the mirror once he makes his pick, it’s obvious that Julian loves his clothes, and that looks are important to him. This is one film in which clothes themselves, not only in connection with the character, play a major role, and that’s what cemented Armani’s success. “The almost fetishistic sequence in which Richard asa Julian Kay chooses what to wear from a closet filled with my creations was more penetrating and effective than a whole string of ads,” Giorgio Armani notes in his book, Giorgio Armani. It created, at an international level, the legend of Armani, because cinema leaves a deep mark in the imagination of moviegoers, it stirs their hidden thoughts.”

It was also one of the first times when men’s clothing in movies were not shown as unequivocally functional. Julian is counting on his clothes for his image, and that’s obvious not just because of the way he relates to his clothes in the scene mentioned above, but from the way he moves, too. He is displaying his clothes for everyone looking.
Richard Gere in Armani-American Gigolo-1

American Gigolo style
“What would Julian Kay be without his unstructured jacket?”, Armani rhetorically asks in his book. I will nonetheless say that his moves wouldn’t look so lean, so self-consciously attractive but in a linen jacket (ventless and longer than typical in this case), with its unstructured silhouette, which lends the wearer a relaxed yet elegant quality. This ensemble is also an exemplification of Armani’s signature muted colour palette which he created: one ranging from grey, beige and greige, to anthracite and taupe.
Richard Gere's style-American GigoloThe shirt, except when worn with a formal suit, is always unfastened at at least two buttons. As a rule, the maximum number of undone buttons allowed, on any given hot summer day, is three.

Richard Gere's style in American Gigolo

Richard Gere's style in American Gigolo-1
The Armani sunglasses are a nod to the 1950s Ray-Ban Wayfarer style, except that these come with larger frames and in a lighter tortoise-shell finish. It was the ’80s when, thanks to films like American Gigolo, Risky Business (Tom Cruise wears the classic Wayfarer style there) and Top Gun (here is my article on the film), the eyewear was again elevated to legendary status. The ’60s were probably the only other decade when sunglasses made such a style statement, thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s Oliver Goldsmith iconic pair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (follow the link to read more about her costumes) and Steve McQueen’s Persol shades in The Thomas Crown Affair.

The fitted, retro style blue jeans are probably the only item from Richard Gere’s wardrobe that I wouldn’t care to see revived today. But they are still better than the skinny jeans so many men wear nowadays. The overall look however, completed with an open neck shirt and blazer, is worth taking note from. The Italians have this look perfected to a science.
Richard Gere in Giorgio Armani-American Gigolo

Richard Gere's style American Gigolo-2

Giorgio Armani style-American GigoloThe streamlined simplicity of the black evening suit.

Richard Gere-Giorgio Armani-American Gigolo

Richard Gere American GigoloShawl neck cardigan worn with linen pants, fitted shirt (which is usually in contrast to the loose shape of the jackets, or cardigan in this case) with short collar points, narrow patterned tie and thin leather belt (the only kind Julian wears).

Richard Gere's style American Gigolo-1
To please my film costume-set mind (that costumes have a narrative role as well), I will note that at the beginning of the film, Gere is meticulously pressed, but as the film evolves and the plot darkens, his clothes become wrinkled and “worn”, reflecting the changes his character goes through. Regardless of this aspect however, the Armani wardrobe in American Gigolo represents one of the biggest influences on fashion. “Starting with American Gigolo,” Armani would remark, “these men and women turned to me with a kind of intuitive understanding of how the natural, essential elegance of my styles would help them maintain their status of stars without everything turning into some sort of circus, which is the way it used to happen – and I say thins without passing any judgement on Old Hollywood, whose potent imaginary world I have always admired and whose power of seduction enmeshed and surprised me as a young man. But times change.”

Note: This article was originally published in July 2014 and has since been updated


bibliography: Giorgio Armani, by Giorgio Armani | Fashion: The Whole Story, by Marnie Fogg | Fashion Now, by Terry Jones | GQ magazine

photos: stills from the film, captured by me from this DVD edition

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