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The Report

Behind The Seams

Ahead of its final series, MR PORTER meets the makers of Boardwalk Empire – the smartest show on TV

  • From left: Messrs Matt Letscher as Joe Kennedy and Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson in a still from Boardwalk Empire

From the moment we saw Nucky Thompson’s resplendent spectator wingtip shoes on the opening credits of the pilot episode in 2010, it was obvious that Boardwalk Empire would have a major influence on men’s style. For fans of fine tailoring, it is the ultimate costume drama.

“The clothes make the man,” says the man who makes the clothes for the show, costume director Mr John Dunn. “That’s especially the case on Boardwalk Empire where most of the characters are self-made men – whether legally or not – and how they dress tells so much of their story.”

“The clothing on Boardwalk Empire is very specific as to a character’s age, geographical location and social standing,” adds Mr Terence Winter, the show’s creator. “A good example is Lucky Luciano. When we first met him as a younger man, his clothing choices were bolder and flashier; he was a young gangster on the rise, something of a peacock, and he wanted people to notice him. As he became older (and after having been arrested a few times) he wanted to keep a lower profile – he still wore expensive clothing, but looked much more like a successful banker than a gang boss.”

For the forthcoming fifth and final series, the action skips ahead seven years to 1931 when America was in the pit of the Great Depression, the repeal of Prohibition was on the horizon and Mr Al Capone was the most wanted gangster in the US following the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. 

Seven years is a long time in fashion. Mr Dunn and his team had to update their wardrobe to keep up with the changing times – as demonstrated by this still of Nucky and his rival Joe Kennedy.

While the show’s final episode was being filmed last month, MR PORTER was invited to Steiner Studios in Brooklyn to rifle through the show’s wardrobe and talk through these stylistic changes as Mr Dunn commissioned the final looks.

“We’ve produced a one-hour period movie every 12 days,” he says, thumbing through folders of carefully itemised picture research and matching fabric swatches. “Often I’d get a script on a Monday and have to come up with a bespoke outfit four days later. Working on such an insanely tight schedule, the clothing has to be produced locally. When I first went to see the tailor Martin Greenfield he said it would take him five weeks to make a bespoke suit. Now his team can do it in two days.”

Later that same afternoon MR PORTER went up the road to Bushwick to see where Mr Greenfield and his son Jay tailor the suits for the show. “We’ve handmade exactly 622 suits for 168 characters and we’ve just finished the last ones for Nucky and Al Capone,” says Mr Jay Greenfield, consulting the ledger in his office.

Often the Greenfields were asked to make several of the same suit, which gave them some idea of the upcoming plot, usually before the character himself learnt his fate. “The multiple order is always a sign of trouble,” says the younger Mr Greenfield. “We’ve had characters come in to fit their multiples fittings and it gets very dramatic. They’re not just getting killed on the show; they’re losing a job they love. But this being the final season, we’re losing characters left and right. We’ve had some tearful final fittings.”

The final series of Boardwalk Empire premieres on HBO on 7 September and airs on Sky Atlantic from 11 October. 

THE SUIT

“In jumping ahead to 1931 the suit silhouette has changed as you can see here on Joe Kennedy,” says Mr Jay Greenfield. “We’ve gone from a rounded shoulder in the 1920s to a roped square shoulder with a tapered waist. It’s a more powerful shape. The trousers are wider and pleated and by this time zippers had come in so we’ve done away with the button fly. We also introduced some belts in place of suspenders [braces].”

THE SHIRTS

“The shirt is hugely important – it frames the characters’ faces, and you see it in great detail in HD,” says Mr Andrew Kozinn, president of Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors in Manhattan. “In the 1920s, there were a lot of detachable collars – men would wear the same shirt for days but have a fresh collar. By 1931, most collars were attached. Rounded collars were disappearing to be replaced by longer points that needed to be controlled with collar bars.”

THE TIES

Boardwalk Empire has helped to teach men today how to tie a knot – with a pronounced dimple that not only looks good aesthetically but serves the practical purpose of helping to keep the silk locked in place rather than slipping,” says Mr John Kochis, a bespoke tie maker in Manhattan who has handmade more than 1,000 ties for the show. “Tie bars helped to pronounce the knot as well as stop the collars curling. Tiepins kept the back and front pieces of the tie together while also affording the opportunity to show off some status jewellery.”

Pillars of the empire

GET THE AUTHENTIC BOARDWALK LOOK FROM THE SHOW’S LOCAL ARTISANS

01 SUITS
Supplied by: Mr Jay Greenfield, president of Martin Greenfield Clothiers
Contact: 239 Varet St, Brooklyn, NY 11206
“We made suits for the characters playing Meyer Lansky [the ‘mob’s accountant’] and the performer Eddie Cantor – but back in the day they were my father’s customers,” says Mr Greenfield.

02 SHIRTS
Supplied by: Mr Andy Kozinn, president of Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors
Contact: 22 W 32nd St, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10001
“Whether cutting someone’s throat literally as the gangsters do in Boardwalk Empire or metaphorically as people do in business today, people exhibit power by the way they dress,” says Mr Kozinn.

03 TIES
Supplied by: Mr John Kochis, owner of John Kochis Custom Designs
Contact: 237 W 35th St, #702, New York, NY 10001
“The only images we see from the 1920s and 1930s are black and white but in fact it was a very colourful era,” says Mr Kochis who has handmade 1,000 ties for the show. “Putting colours and patterns together was an art form.”

04 HATS
Supplied by: Mr Orlando Palacios, owner of Worth & Worth
Contact: 45 W 57th St, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10019
“Back in the 1920s and 1930s, hats were a social signifier,” says Mr Palacios. “A hat opened and closed doors: if you didn’t wear a hat you wouldn’t get that job or get into that hotel lobby. These days a hat is a statement. People remember you if you have the confidence to wear one.”

05 CUFFLINKS
Supplied by: Mr Michael Rodriguez, owner of The Missing Link
Contact: 40 W 25th St, Booth LL108, New York, NY 10010
“I specialise in the Deco period from the 1920s and 1930s and have supplied many hundreds of pairs to Boardwalk Empire over the past five years from my inventory of 20,000 styles,” says Mr Rodriguez.