Style Crimes: The Enduring Appeal Of Gangsters

Author: Beth McLoughlin

In The Italian Job, the first thing Michael Caine’s cockney gangster Charlie Croker does when he gets out of prison is visit his tailor. He then puts together a plan to steal $4 million worth of gold. Smooth, audacious and a hit with the ladies, Charlie comes from a long line of well-dressed lawbreakers who have captured our imagination, both real life and fictitious. They may be a menace to society, but criminals of all kinds have an ambiguous allure for us. From Little Caesar to Peaky Blinders, the right clothes are accessories which are as essential for a gangster as guns and broads, and their antics may be ruthless but that doesn’t stop us from admiring their chutzpah and maybe even wishing a little bit we could be like them.

A line-up of leading male characters in Hollywood from its golden age to today would include its fair share of wise guys, crooks, baddies and villains. Though cops get their own shows and movies of course, stylish detectives such as Chinatown’s Jake Gittes are in the minority. But what drives our fascination with sharp-suited gangsters and the criminal lifestyle?

Dr Hannah Quirk, reader of criminal law at King’s College, London, points out that not all criminals are created equal. “There is a hierarchy in prison, and armed robbers are at the top of the tree,” she says. Just as these types of criminals are the most admired by their own kind, the heist movie is the one which perennially dominates our screens. Those at the bottom of the pile - child killers, or miserable drug addicts committing burglaries to feed their habit, for example - do not usually get to see their life story acted out by the screen idol of the day.

Advances in technology have rendered armed robberies all but obsolete as they become trickier to pull off without detection. The spoils are still tempting for those with the nerve however. This year’s movie King of Thieves fictionalised the daring 2015 Hatton Garden safety deposit robbery, which took place yards from the T.M.Lewin headquarters. Meticulous planning and audacity were not enough for seven of those involved to avoid time in the Big House. Yet what attracts us to the figure of the armed robber, Dr Quirk says, is his heroic attempt to get one over on authority. “They are like the little guy who challenges the system in some way,” she says. The maverick rebel, often though not always acting alone, is a character who repeatedly appears in our fictional accounts of crime, from Scarface to Goodfellas. Though he may fail, he won’t go down without a fight, iconoclast to the last.

This is in contrast to that other staple figure of crime drama: the organised criminal. As part of a strict hierarchy with its own code of conduct, these gangsters can never act entirely alone but the pleasures and rewards of succeeding are innumerous. “It’s a world most people don’t know anything about, so it’s anthropologically interesting,” Dr Quirk says. So Don Vito Corleone says in The Godfather, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” and we are privy to one of the many laws and rules, spoken and unspoken, that make up the life of an Italian mobster. Our immersion in this world invites us as viewers into this secret society, as honorary guests.

Misha Glenny investigated international crime networks for his non-fiction work McMafia, which later formed the basis of the TV drama of the same name. From observing the foothold Yugoslavian organised crime bosses gained in the region and beyond in the 1990s under the fog of war, he gained an insight into the way these gangs gain and keep hold of their power - and why this might be so compelling for the rest of us.

“When you go to Medellin in Colombia, you’ll find amongst the lower classes a huge affection for Pablo Escobar, just as when you go to the most miserable parts of Romania, you will still find nostalgia for Nicolae Ceausescu. Most organised crime groups have a dual support: one is they exploit the absence of the state. The other is they get support from their local community. Of course what they are is entirely unaccountable,” he says.

And it is that very lack of accountability which is so appealing for those of us who are constrained by regulations and demands on all sides, be they from our spouses, employees, or councils and governments. Crime bosses only have to worry about the cops, their competitors, and betrayal from their immediate entourage. “It reduces power to its essence of personal control,” Glenny says. With the right combination of intelligence and muscle, you can get anything you want.

“People are always fascinated by those systems where the animal in you is permitted to overcome the rational, and also the warmth and solidarity you feel with other human beings is something you no longer have to consider, you are just going for your own,” he says.

But while our fixation with gang bosses may reveal the darker side of human nature, the ones we love the most - at least on screen - gain our sympathy with their familiar foibles. “Increasingly I realise what succeeds about these shows is not actually the criminal aspect, it’s the character aspect,” Glenny says. Our fondness for Tony Soprano comes not from the brutal violence he deploys throughout all six seasons of The Sopranos, but from his middle-class family life in New Jersey which may not be too dissimilar to our own. “Tony Soprano is going through middle age, and grappling with the futility of life. Which we can all relate to a lot, and he happens to be an organised crime boss, so that makes that futility of life more intense and interesting,” he says. That we can understand the complexity of Tony’s character also flatters the viewer, Dr Quirk says. While outsiders may see an ageing thug, we can see the hidden sensitivity and inner conflicts.

It is something Glenny considered when creating the character of Alex Godman, played by James Norton, who is conflicted between his Russian gangster identity and a British classist one. But although the viewer may be drawn to this cool, perfectly turned-out figure, Glenny stresses how important it was to show the reality behind the glamour, including a brutal storyline based on real events about trafficking women, for example. “I think there is quite a strong literary and filmic tradition of 'lovable' gangsters. But it is fundamental that by revealing those accurate stories about the trafficking in women, we highlight the hypocrisy by exposing that upon which the criminal wealth is built,” he says.

Fundamentally, it is the pursuit of wealth which attracts people to a life of crime, points out menswear writer Eric Musgrave, and spending on fancy clothes is another way of showing off your affluence. This is the glamorous side of the gangster life we want to emulate, if not the violence which got them there. Musgrave, former editor of Drapers and author of the book Sharp Suits, a history of men’s tailoring, says looking the part is critical for the criminal class, many of whom come from humble beginnings. “Dressing well, with taste and elegance, is a status symbol. It is not surprising that people who are not born into it want to adopt the uniform of the establishment,” he says.

This uniform can also serve as a kind of disguise. It makes even the most deadly gangster appear respectable. Musgrave points out that heads of state known for their strongarm tactics such as Putin or Assad usually adopt business dress, a code which communicates to us that they are trustworthy and legitimate. The suit has been the uniform for fictional and real life criminals and bad boys from the Krays to The Bodyguard’s Richard Madden. “A tailor once said to me nobody wants to do business with a beggar,” Musgrave says. Perhaps no one embodies this slick corporate anonymity as well as Marty Byrde from Ozark. He could be any successful CEO in his blue shirts and tailored trousers, but behind that facade he launders money for a Mexican drug cartel.

Of course, smart respectability can veer into flashy ostentation in the underworld. In The Godfather movies, impetuous Sonny and weak Fredo adopt big lapels and loud suits, notably during Fredo’s stint in Vegas. In comparison, their brother Michael Corleone has a formal, understated style. “Michael is the steady one, and the successor to his father,” Musgrave says. “He doesn’t have to try too hard. You don’t have to shout, some clothes speak quietly with authority.”

The criminal world may be better experienced at a safe distance, which Dr Quirk suggested is one reason why crime dramas are often set in the past. Conveniently, these were often also times when men dressed to impress. “Recently we’ve had the Peaky Blinders effect,” Musgrave says. “That has directly found its way into retail menswear with their tweedy, three-piece suits. They may not be exact replicas but it’s been a great influence.” With Peaky Blinders back next year, along with second seasons of McMafia and mystery Riviera, the reign of the gangster as style icon looks set to continue.

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