Brooks Brothers Won’t Cut It

by Calum Marsh

i.

In David Fincher’s The Social Network, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, played by Armie Hammer in a dual role, stride into the centuries-old offices of Harvard dean Larry Summers, played by Douglas Urbanski, and find him on the phone, precisely as described in the book on which the film is based, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the book, gives Summers a mordant insult not found in the source material to quip to the person on the other end of the line: He has a meeting with students, he tells the listener. Undergraduates. What do they want? “I don’t know,” he says. “From the looks of it, they want to sell me a Brooks Brothers franchise.” 

About a year after the movie came out, the real Larry Summers addressed a crowd at a tech conference hosted by Fortune magazine in Aspen. Asked about the meeting with the Winklevoss twins as dramatized in The Social Network, he made a crack about their suits. “One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o’clock, there are two possibilities,” he said. “One is that they’re looking for a job and have an interview. The other is that they are an asshole.”

ii.

Have you ever seen a picture of Christopher Nolan at work? He always seems to be wearing the same thing, like a uniform. Light blue Oxford shirt. Navy blue blazer. Pressed tan slacks. Perhaps a vest beneath the sportcoat when it’s chilly, or else a kind of jaunty scarf. There are pictures of him wearing this exact outfit on the set of Inception, on the set of Interstellar, on the set of The Dark Knight, and on the set of The Dark Knight Rises. On Dunkirk and The Prestige, which were shot in the winter, he wears a heavy wool topcoat, but underneath it’s the same ensemble. 

Most directors on feature film productions wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing—cotton t-shirts and baseball caps, worn-in Nikes and relaxed-fit jeans. A typical day on set, for most members of the crew, begins at dawn and ends sometime in the evening, and naturally, people want to feel at ease. But Nolan never looks at ease. He looks like he’s headed to Claridge’s for tea. “I went to boarding school where we had to wear a uniform, and I got used to using the pockets in my jacket,” he explained several years ago in an interview. “I dress the way I would for a day at the office. It’s just what I’m comfortable in.” 

iii.

The first promotional image Warner Bros. released for Nolan’s Tenet showed the thriller’s stars, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, standing on a rooftop, talking and looking grim. Washington wears a dark grey sportcoat cut in the trim, boxy English fashion, while Pattinson, the roguish fop, wears a lighter grey jacket with the collar turned up, the cut looser and less structured, in the Italian style. 

It was not a very promising still. On Twitter, people derided the outfits as bland and mundane-looking, like the kinds of suits you’d find at a department store. One critic, on the basis of these outfits, called the movie “Uniqlo Miami Vice.” It didn’t seem to help that Pattinson, for some reason, is pictured with his hands stuffed deep inside his suit jacket, stretching out pockets that are traditionally intended to be cosmetic rather than functional: the effect was ungainly and gauche. For Nolan, the well-known perfectionist, the clothes seemed oddly careless. And they didn’t make you think what you’re supposed to think when you see handsome movie stars on screen wearing expensive suits: you didn’t think they looked cool.

The suits in Tenet were designed by several Savile Row tailors under the guidance and supervision of Oscar-winning costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. Washington’s suits were designed to create “a more fitted look,” Kurland told Esquire in the fall, while Pattinson, in keeping with his character, was outfitted to look “a little looser, still quite elegant, but much more free and moveable.” They cycle through about a dozen different suits throughout the film, and it was Kurland’s intention that these suits look different, to help better differentiate the leads. “I needed to separate the characters,” he said. “So that it wasn’t just a bunch of suits walking around.”

Of course, they do look like a bunch of suits walking around. Some of the suits in the movie proper fare better than those featured in the promotional stills—one, a double-breasted suit in pinstripes worn by Pattinson during an elaborate art heist in the middle of the film, is particularly exquisite—but they do little to convincingly establish a sense of the personalities of the men wearing them. 

“In the case of the characters in Tenet,” Teo van den Broeke wrote in GQ, “there’s just not enough meat on the bones to get away with some of the outfits.” The off-the-rack quality of the tailoring makes the whole film “even less plausible than it is already,” while Washington’s wardrobe choices, especially, “look as though they’ve been pulled straight from the essentials section on mrporter.com.” 

iv.

In 2008, in the lead-up to the release of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a series of print ads ran in men’s magazines advertising suits by acclaimed Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. They showed Christian Bale in black and white in half-profile, wearing a simple, elegant two-button charcoal blazer. “Hand Made to Measure: Giorgio Armani for Bruce Wayne,” the ad copy read. At the very bottom, in tiny type, the ad continued: “The Dark Knight: Only in Theatres July 18th.”

It was a clever advertisement. Giorgio Armani did in fact design the suits worn by Bale’s Bruce Wayne throughout The Dark Knight, in collaboration with costumer designer Lindy Hemming, and the ad called to mind Armani’s most famous work in film, the iconic loose-fitting suits he created for Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. But the ad also proposed an intriguing notion: that it existed, simultaneously, within the world of the movie. In other words, that worldly and stylish Bruce Wayne really did, in the world of The Dark Knight, have his suits made by Armani.

As menswear collaborations go, Nolan hiring Armani for Batman was a tasteful if somewhat unfashionable choice. In the 1980s, Armani’s extremely casual takes on luxury suiting were a revelation, and their prominent display in American Gigolo helped make Armani himself an international superstar. By 2008, the influence of Armani’s brand of tailoring was so widespread that it was almost conservative, and off-the-rack Armani suits were primarily worn by high-end nightclub doormen and men in business-to-business sales. Would Bruce Wayne, a glamorous billionaire, really wear Armani? And why did Nolan, the consummate debonair Englishman, not hire a major English designer—Paul Smith, say, or Alexander McQueen?

When Wayne approaches his own suit designer, Lucius Fox, about devising a new, more durable Batsuit, Fox has a quip ready. “Yes,” he says drolly, fondling a piece of Wayne’s jacket between finger and thumb. “Three buttons is a little ‘90s.” I’ve often wondered whether Armani was asked expressly to design an unfashionable suit for this scene, or whether, having designed a three-button jacket, the line was ad-libbed as a comment on the style. 

The fact is, all of Wayne’s suits throughout The Dark Knight, largely pin-striped and charcoal, feel slightly out-of-date. And it would only be a few years later, in 2012’s Skyfall, that Daniel Craig would reinvent the action-hero suit in a striking, wide-collared navy two-piece. It was Tom Ford for James Bond. Almost a decade later, we’re still seeing the lingering effects of that collaboration. Step into a Nordstrom or Saks today and Ford for Bond is the presiding influence.  

v.

Early in Tenet, the unnamed protagonist, played by John David Washington, meets Sir Crosby, a British spy handler played by Michael Caine, for lunch at Crosby’s exclusive London social club. “If you’re going to be claiming to be a billionaire,” Sir Crosby advises him gravely, “Brooks Brothers won’t cut it.”

Washington blames his suit on a feeling for economy: he’d thought better of spending more than necessary. Crosby urges him to spend what it takes. In the very next scene, Washington arrives at the front door of a high-class art dealership: in the interim he has changed. He now wears a bright grey three-piece sharkskin suit, delicately cut and, if nothing else, clearly not from Brooks Brothers.

But the Brooks Brothers suit was not a Brooks Brothers suit either. “I have to say, it was bespoke,” Kurland confessed in an interview. “I didn’t want to all of a sudden throw a ringer in there. I want continuity. Even though that suit is supposed to be lesser quality and less impressive, I knew I could create that, and still have John David not look like Trump.”

The striking thing about this sequence, I think, is that Washington’s bespoke silver suit is actually rather tacky—certainly less fashionable than the ersatz Brooks Brothers he wears in the scene before—with an unattractive sheen and paired, for some reason, with an ugly plum-coloured tie. The suit is tailored to flatter John David Washington, and it fits him better than a suit would off the rack, to be sure: it fits him so well that you have to wonder where he found a tailor in London with same-day turnaround. But it doesn’t look like the suit of a billionaire. It doesn’t look like the suit of a cool super-spy, either, like Daniel Craig in Tom Ford.

It looks like what you’d wear to a job interview, or to a day at the office. It looks safe and bland and mundane. It looks like what you’d wear if you were an asshole.


Calum Marsh is a writer in Toronto.