Like many others who were (or still are in some cases) stuck inside during this strange summer, I have immersed myself back into the world of cinema. Personally I’ve been enjoying working my way through Spike Lee’s early “joints” (I lost patience after Chi-Raq whilst Da 5 Bloods only just managed to hook me in). As I rewatched a few favorites and ticked others off the list, I suddenly realized something; the sense of style in these films is actually on point. From Mookie’s Dodgers jersey in Do The Right Thing to Delroy Lindo’s shirts in Crooklyn, his characters have got a natural sense of game that just blends into the overall experience.
To really get what I mean, you need to watch Mo’ Better Blues, Spike Lee’s fourth “joint”. Focused on trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (played by Denzel Washington)’s struggle to balance his ego, a fragile love triangle, and a band I was hooked from the synopsis alone. With the focus being on jazz musicians, naturally the influence for the creative team and these characters would be the 1950’s heyday of the genre. So we’re talking about wide legged trousers, sharp double breasted suits and boxy shirts.
However, this movie is set in 1990. The plan wasn’t to make a period piece, so it fell to Spike Lee's longtime collaborator, the costume designer Ruth E. Carter, to parallel the jazz influences with the contemporary. Luckily for her, as most of us know, the 90's was all about louche tailoring. Armed with designers such as Giorgio Armani, whose suits leaned towards the boxy 50’s style, Yoji Yamamoto, a Japanese designer known for very simple and elegant lines in his tailoring, and Saville Row tailor Ozwald Boateng, Carter merges the two eras seamlessly. Whilst there is a notable change of energy from highly stylized scenes in the nightclub to Bleek’s home in New York, the consistent through line is the clothes.
Bleek’s garments are for the most part subdued and strong, reflecting his serious nature when it comes to his music. Other members of his band focus a lot on accessories (there's an earring with a chain and pair of spectacles on the end just to give you an idea), but Bleek keeps things simple. Preferring strong broad shouldered tailoring with a nipped waist in dark and neutral colors, he lets his trumpet do all the speaking for him. He does, however, have brushes with the avant garde, opting for loose mandarin pullovers when at home and donning an updated Mao suit in blood orange when ranting at his audience about the overabundance of love songs on the radio. For the most part, color is not a big part of Bleek’s wardrobe. With his rival, saxophonist Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes), it is the complete opposite. There is still an emphasis on louche tailoring, but Shadow prefers to play with colours donning a red roll neck under a royal blue single breasted jacket. Not only does it make him the centre of attention as he rips through a solo, but it also offsets any assumptions about his person through his name.
It is through gambling addicted manager of the band, Giant (Spike Lee) that we see the most eclectic and expressive clothes of the entire film. Spike Lee wanted his character to have Sammy Davis, Jr. levels of exuberance with the way he dressed. Taking inspiration from the Zoot suits of the 30’s (reflecting how out of touch he is), Giant limps through the streets of New York with an uneasy gait, oversized jackets hanging off his diminutive frame in glen checks and varying shades of brown, maroon and electric blue. With the pork pie hats and the dark circular glasses it gives the manager a sense of presence to make up for his lack of charisma and his oft abused stature.
Fashion and style are cyclical, so it should come as no surprise that the 90’s continue to bleed back into our current world. Just look at how many people went on about Michael Jordan’s suits after watching The Last Dance. As we can see from Mo’ Better Blues this was still the case, just trade MJ and Scottie Pippin (the real MVP by the way) for Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan.