Celluloid Style: The Sopranos

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
Image credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela / CC BY 2.0

The early pandemic gave us a number of unusual TV blockbusters. With nearly everyone stuck at home and desperate for something to do, we eagerly turned to shows like Tiger King and The Last Dance for entertainment and distraction as the world outside our homes threatened to collapse. It all made for an odd kind of throwback from our own streaming-dominated present to an earlier point in television history when everyone watched basically the same thing. It meant that Nielsen ratings were considerably beefier back then, since there were a limited number of shows on a small selection of channels and, barring tech like VHS tapes and TiVo, you simply watched what was on at a given time.

The upshot of this restricted set-up was the joy of a shared viewing experience. Sure, there have been a few watercooler shows in recent years (Game of Thrones being the obvious example that comes to mind). But, generally speaking, we’ve all been off working through our own lists of shows solo, only to occasionally bump into another fan of a given programme who is as eager to discuss a particular favourite character or agonising subplot.

It feels appropriate, then, in our communal bit of throwback binging, that so many of us have been turning to The Sopranos. It’s a show that hails from a pre-streaming era, but one that equally seemed to kick off a new chapter in TV history, in which the names of subsequent heavyweights like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and various hits by the nascent streaming giants would also be written.

If you’ve paid any attention to pandemic-era pop culture, you’ll likely have seen The Sopranos popping up all over the place. The initial glut was no doubt sparked by HBO decision release 500 hours of free content during the pandemic. Finally, series veterans and curious newbies alike had all of the time and none of the subscription fees needed to go deep on David Chase’s opus. And, for people already familiar with the show, there’s likely to be little uncertainty as to why anyone would want to burn through all six seasons in quick succession, lockdown or no.

My own first viewing of the show came after its initial heyday but some years prior to the pandemic-era revival. I started watching it at university when I finally gained access to the many HBO shows that had eluded the terrestrial TV of my childhood home. While I quickly became obsessed with all things HBO, The Sopranos, surprisingly, didn’t top the list to begin with. As with Citizen Kane or The Godfather, anything regularly labelled ‘greatest of all time’ can feel pretty forbidding — unappealing, even — to the uninitiated. But from the moment I pressed play and saw Tony Soprano walking down his driveway in that white bathrobe, I was hooked.

The Sopranos cast
Image credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela / CC BY 2.0

For decades, just about every aspect of The Sopranos has been heaped with praise, from the acting and casting to the writing and direction — and rightly so. But it’s only recently that it feels as though the show’s costuming has gotten the attention it deserves. Prior to this, a collective critical blindspot may have been down to the sparkling light cast by the much more overtly fashion-forward Sex and the City, HBO’s glitzier yang to The Soprano’s darker yin in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

But pay attention to the clothing and it’s clear that The Sopranos was no slouch in the wardrobe department. Under the guiding hand of costume designer Juliet Polca, the clothing in the show proved diegetic and aesthetic in equal doses. Polca put together costumes that expertly walked one fine line or another. She conjured gangsterdom without veering into stereotype, she paid tribute to Coppola and Scorsese without feeling derivative, and she managed to create a unified look for the show as a whole while still giving each character their own unique and meaningful mien. Picture Syl’s sharp suits and Paulie’s tracksuits, or Carmela’s flawless manicures and Adriana’s revealing tops. They all perfectly fit the mood of the show while offering valuable glimpse into the characters they adorned. At times, clothing even literally drove the plot, as when Christoper — a character perpetually in search of something better — decided to go to bed with a woman after seeing her in a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Nowhere, however, is the show’s costuming ever better than on the back of Tony Soprano himself. James Gandolfini has often been praised for offering a model of how to dress for a bigger frame and it’s easy to see why. As John Hill put it in Inside Hook, ‘The beauty of Tony Soprano’s wardrobe is how it turns his size into an asset, a reflection of his power and scariness’. Tony is a magnetic presence in the show. Whether he’s shuffling around depressed in his underwear or power suited to the gills, you simply can’t take your eyes off him, in no small part thanks to the physical prowess of Gandolfini’s acting and his lived-in ability to make any piece of clothing work.

Dayna Pink, who dressed Gandolfini in — of all things — a toupe and kimono for 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, said of the actor that ‘He was very thoughtful about his choices for the character. He really did put the time in to think about who that character was and what he wanted him to look like’. The kimono, it turns out, was Gandolfini’s idea.

In The Sopranos we mostly see Tony wearing things like printed resort shirts, knit polos, pleated trousers, Gucci loafers, and lots of jewellery. If it sounds like I’m describing much of the menswear content that has crossed your various feeds in recent times, you’re not alone. Sopranos style has been everywhere lately, no doubt boosted by the show’s recent resurgence. You could easily picture Tony wearing many pieces in recent collections by Todd Snyder, Luca Larenza, or Scott Fraser Simpson. Similarly, menswear heavyweights like BAMF Style and the Throwing Fits guys have been on the Tony Soprano kick for a good while. There’s even an Instagram account documenting every outfit on The Sopranos which boasts more than 60 000 followers.

Tony Sirico and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos
Image credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela / CC BY 2.0

Why exactly has crime boss Tony Soprano become a godfather of style? Who knows. It might be down to the keen and dearly-missed charisma of James Gandolfini. Maybe it’s the inevitable and longstanding attraction we feel to on-screen mobsters and their various, villainous trappings. The crew on The Sopranos certainly feel like the most relatable gangsters you’re likely to encounter in fiction. There’s little of that cinematic glow you find in Scarface, Goodfellas or The Godfather. Instead, as the New York Times described it back in 1999, the year of the show’s release: ‘The Sopranos, more than any American television in memory, looks, feels and sounds like real life’. Everything about the show feels decidedly ordinary, with Tony as the murderous and fallible everyman at the heart of it all.

Or maybe, while we were stuck at home feeling down and donning our own bathrobes, we saw Tony’s killer leisurewear and wanted in on the rest of his wardrobe too. I for one often looked down at my terry-cloth-covered torso and in no time would catch myself idly fantasizing about camp collars and horsebit loafers, wondering all the while: ‘If Tony can do it, why can’t I?’