Charles "Lucky" Luciano peering from a window of the criminal courthouse on
Centre Street during his trial on prostitution charges,
sporting his preferred 6x2 DB with the lower button fastened.
As many of you know, one of the original aims of my nocturnal ramblings was to highlight those forgotten style icons from the golden age of men's style - the racketeers. I initially focused on sartorially inclined gangsters such as Joe Bernstein from Detroit's Purple Gang, Jack "Legs" Diamond, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll and others. My efforts were not entirely in vain, as later on I was able to shine a light on the Broadway stylings of George Raft and the sinister suave of Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss in the pages of The Rake.
With the recent flurry of racketeer-related projects such as HBO's Boardwalk Empire, or more interestingly, Ralph Lauren's purchase and use of Australian mugshots from the 1920s as inspiration for the RRL 2011 lookbook, there is certainly a heightened interest in and recognition of the criminal element of the 1920s and 1930s as purveyors and trendsetters in the world of men's fashion during that era. But it seems the misleading term "gangster fashion" continues to be bandied about to describe some kind of terrible sub-genre of men's clothing. So "gangster style" remains something of a misnomer. There was classic men's style, and the racketeers were almost slavishly devoted to its rituals and practices. To the extent some of the styles of that era are being revived today, the clothes worn by the racketeers are receiving equal attention.
I was thinking of this when I came across an homage somewhere to the ever-stylish Ralph Lauren. This particular piece went into some detail regarding Lauren's fondness for the double-breasted suit. Generally speaking, Ralph Lauren's entire vision of what men's style can aspire to seems to be firmly rooted in classic men's clothing of the 1920s-1940s, as seen through the prism of the golden age of Hollywood or the twilight of the British empire (or perhaps even an amalgam ot the two: the golden age of Hollywood's view of British nobility between the wars - see his son's recent comments regarding Chariots of Fire as inspiration for the 2012 US Olympic Team outfits). Lauren's broad-shouldered double-breasted suit is a fashion statement unto itself, but he often elaborates upon this personal sartorial statement with a bold chalk-stripe.
In a recent issue of The Rake, G. Bruce Boyer pointed to the British royal family's penchant for double-breasted suits. Most of the royals wore the suits with the "traditional" button placement, although Boyer points out that Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, began buttoning the lower button on double-breasted suits of the 4x2 and 6x2 configuration in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The lower button fastening is said to produce an elongating effect - however, whether the Duke favored the look for this reason is unclear, although the lower button fastening clearly became his preferred style. With that in mind, its not hard to imagine why an unabashed anglophile like Ralph Lauren adopted the look.
In 1936, one Salvatore Lucania, more infamously known as Charles "Lucky" Luciano (or Charley Lucky to his friends) was in the process of being sent up the river on vice charges by that tenacious prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Before he had the book thrown at him, Luciano made a habit of coming to Centre Street every morning in his finest custom suits. According to photographs taken at the time, Luciano clearly preferred the 6x2 double-breasted with the lower, rather than middle button, fastened.
One can certainly speculate and interpret this in several ways. Perhaps the Duke (the Prince of Wales at that time) was reading his morning paper one day in 1936, saw a few images of Charley Lucky looking a bit taller in his 6x2 DBs and decided to give it a go. Perhaps someone slipped Luciano the paper one morning in his cell and he thought the lower button placement looked just grand on the Prince. Its also possible that the lower button stance was already widely popular. In addition to their other vices - no pun intended - both men were unapologetic clotheshorses. The Duke needs no introduction in this regard but Luciano became quite stylish under the tutelage of Arnold Rothstein - Charley Lucky would reminiscence years later about the bolts of silk from Sulka that The Man Uptown gifted to him.
Regardless how it all played out, we are left with an indelible image of Luciano, clad in custom cloth and dressed in a style preferred by the preeminent English dandy of the era and heir to the British Empire. 80 years later, the double-breasted is back and no less an authority than America's current (arguably)preeminent style icon - not withstanding his recent shall-we-say "controversial" decision to outfit the 2012 US Olympic Team in French berets - has revived the look of the lower button stance to breath new life into the 6x2 DB.
"Gangster fashion", indeed.