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The Roaring Twenties: John Dunn Talks ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ Fashion

The costume designer discussed the ins and outs of wardrobing the HBO show and how the Twenties-inspired characters are influencing men’s fashion.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 04/05/2012

No matter how many times he sees his name roll with the credits, costume designer John Dunn considers himself to be a storyteller first and foremost.

This story first appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Having worked in film, theater and TV since he graduated from the University of Illinois, Dunn has been suiting up Steve Buscemi’s character Nucky Thompson and the rest of the cast of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” for nearly three years. He and co-designer Lisa Padovani oversee every last outfit, from head to toe, for all the men, women and children who appear on the show. That is no small undertaking, but Dunn honed his skills working for William Ivey Long, Eiko Ishioka and Rita Ryack, among others, as well as such directors as Martin Scorsese, Sam Mendes and Jim Jarmusch.

During a Q&A with WWD men’s fashion director Alex Badia, Dunn discussed the ins and outs of wardrobing the show, how the Twenties-inspired characters are influencing men’s fashion, and his own wardrobe. Spoiler trend alert: Look for Nucky in a new suit in season three — a double-breasted vest with a single-breasted jacket.

Rather than scout out a new project, Dunn has stayed with “Boardwalk Empire” because it is so “complex and interesting.” He said, “First of all, we’re telling a story. A lot of what we are trying to present goes back to storytelling.”

He immerses himself in the Twenties by reading and researching as much as he can, and can often be found at his desk, poring over books about tailoring that were published in the Twenties. Ensuring that the fabrics, colors, textures and fits are true to that time period is essential for Dunn. In the early Twenties, the rise on men’s trousers was quite high, all the men wore suspenders, their flies were all buttons and they also had a shaped back with a belt, Dunn said. The clothes for Buscemi’s character are loosely based on the Prince of Wales, who was “sort of one of the first media stars. He knew what to be photographed in. He knew what he looked good in.”

While extras can get away with wearing vintage looks, Buscemi and other cast members with speaking roles rely on customized looks manufactured by Martin Greenfield Clothiers. Aside from having to buy footwear, he has all of their clothes made in that Brooklyn factory, where he can be heavily involved in the design process and be certain of a quick turnaround. (Some characters in the mob-centric show require multiple suits of the same style because bad things tend to happen to them, Dunn explained.)

Although the show is set in Atlantic City, all filming is done in New York. “We can actually see the Empire State Building from our set,” Dunn said of the Steiner Studios set in Brooklyn.

Dunn is also intent on keeping as much of his production local. In addition to Martin Greenfield, he has lined up another New York-based manufacturer, Worth & Worth, to provide most of the hats. He also buys a lot of the fabric here for the customized suits. That said, a good deal of those fabrics are actually made in Scotland and England. “It’s just the weight of those wools. I can’t find them with American fabrics,” Dunn explained.

Dated as that might be, Dunn said he thinks it is wonderful that shows like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men” (which he worked on the original pilots for), as well as Baz Luhrmann’s yet-to-released “The Great Gatsby,” are showing young men a greater variety of decades they can draw clothing from. “There is a generation that is not used to dressing in clothing like this — three-piece suits. We’re talking about those in their mid-20s who are fresh out of university, so that’s exciting,” Dunn said. “And because the show is shown in so many countries, the trends are all happening simultaneously.”

And as Twenties-inspired fashion has become more mainstream, Dunn has noticed the cross-pollination between Rag & Bone, Freemans Sporting Club and the other collections that Martin Greenfield’s produces no longer look entirely different from the clothing it makes for “Boardwalk Empire.”

“I will look across the room and see back belts and pocket detailing, which are completely Twenties, but they have applied it to contemporary clothing. It’s wonderfully exciting to see fashion kind of reinventing itself.”

Working with round-collar shirts, hats, collar bars and suits have affected his style as well. “I myself wear vintage clothing, but I would never walk out in a complete 1920s outfit. On a normal day, I’m in a pair of jeans, a vest from the Sixties, I’ve got a lovely tie from the 1930s. I have found my look just by putting together these different elements,” he said. “What I’m finding is that young men are also latching onto this idea that they can absorb pieces from these different periods and honor things like tailoring. This and many of the other period shows that are out are helping to open up young designers to the possibilities.”