Dressing ‘The Irishman’: How Sandy Powell Created a Gangster Epic Without Mob Movie Costumes

Dressing De Niro (more than a hundred changes in all), Pacino, and Pesci across five decades was a sprawling challenge for costume designers Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson.
"The Irishman"
"The Irishman"

From the outset, Martin Scorsese steered away from a “Goodfellas” wardrobe for the legendary Robert De Niro (hitman Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa), and Joe Pesci (Philly crime boss Russell Bufalino) in “The Irishman.” That’s because the characters had to fly under the radar in this zigzagging mobster epic spanning five decades about the intersection of crime and politics.

“These guys don’t dress to be noticed — you know, the peacock variety of those gangster guys,” said costume designer Sandy Powell. “Yet we had to distinguish them from each other [with their own defining silhouettes].” And the sheer volume of clothing and multiple fittings each day (De Niro required more than a hundred wardrobe changes) demanded that the three-time Oscar winner (“The Young Victoria,” “The Aviator,” “Shakespeare in Love”) promote her assistant, Christopher Peterson, to co-costume designer.

“One of the real challenges as part of the design brief was that we were dressing men as younger men who were not young,” Peterson said. That’s where the experimental, innovative, VFX de-aging came into play by Industrial Light & Magic. And to help accommodate that, the selection and boxy shape of the clothes allowed room for slight weight modifications. The actors also had an onset movement consultant to instruct them on adjusting their posture and stride whenever possible.

“The Irishman”Netflix

“And so while Russell and Hoffa and capos from the Bufalino family wore a certain kind of armor, we tried to put Frank in a younger man’s wardrobe at the beginning of the film,” added Peterson. “And eventually, as he rose in power in that Bufalino family, he started adopting the same kind of look. But he had a leather jacket early on that grew a bit out of a uniform that Teamsters wore at the time along with their caps.”

Sheeran, the unflappable, methodical killer, starts out with a natty blue suit in the ’50s and then progresses to a series of sharkskin suits with mod lapels in the ’60s. The standout is the gold suit that he dons as head of his Teamsters local.

Bufalino, the oldest, was also the sharpest dresser. Although he displayed a quiet and understated temperament, he had a special affinity for patterned ties, at Pesci’s insistence. “The very first time that Frank meets him in the ’50s [at the gas station besides Stuckeys], he’s got one of those loud ties,” Powell said. “And when we get to the ’70s, he still has interesting ties.”

"The Irishman"
“The Irishman”Netflix

Added Peterson: “Generally speaking, we chose to make him quite dark in tone. There was that beautiful gun metal and black check jacket that he wore when he first met Frank. Just sharp.” But in the ’70s, Bufalino lags behind the prevailing fashion, sticking with narrower lapels and ties.

Hoffa, though, was a careful dresser. Not loud but formal. He was all business but adhered to his working class roots and bought his suits off the rack. In fact, one of the most hilariously absurd moments occurs when Hoffa meets with gangster Tony Pro (Stephen Graham) in Miami and takes him to task about his loud Hawaiian shirt and shorts. It’s an intentional sign of disrespect that really gets under Hoffa’s skin along with Pro being late for their meeting.

“The Irishman”Netfllix

However, Hoffa had a few quirks which the costume designers culled from their research: a fondness for white socks, a red Elmer Fudd hat, and blue PJs. “My favorite scene is Hoffa and Sheeran in pajamas, just as a complete contrast to their normal, daily life,” Powell said. “I think it’s funny and intimate sitting there and having conversations in their pajamas.” Peterson even fantasized about doing a “Pillow Talk” moment with one wearing the top and the other wearing the bottom.

But the image of the 80-something Sheeran narrating his bittersweet life of crime in a nursing home provided another indelible costuming moment: “The track pants that come up to his arm pits are my favorite,” Powell said.

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