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Saturday Night Fever: More than Just a White Suit

Long before the word metrosexual was coined, there was Tony Manero, primping and preening in his skivvies, styling his formidable raven locks into a pompadour as he prepares for the big event of his week, Saturday night. And when Saturday Night Fever was released on this day in 1977, audiences watched a ripped, half-naked John Travolta (the aforementioned Tony) remove the hair-dryer sitting shrine-like on his bedside table, groom himself and flex his muscles Bruce Lee–style. This was back before one too many Snicker’s bars, when the actor could still wear butt-hugging, flat-front trousers and look good. Well, at least as good as someone can look while wearing stretch polyester.

Burgundy leather platforms strut into the camera to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” as the opening credits roll, and we see 19-year-old Tony walking down the streets of Brooklyn, hips swaying like a metronome and head bobbing like a rooster, as though he has not a care in the world. And he doesn’t, except for his clothes, his hair and his Saturday nights at 2001 Odyssey, the dance club in his Brooklyn neighborhood. As he strolls down the street, he lifts his shoes up to compare them to a window store display and confirms that he is indeed looking sharp, proving him to be a clotheshorse as hardcore as any gal worth her weight in Manolos.

An homage to music, dancing and synthetic fabrics, Saturday Night Fever mainstreamed disco culture while at the same time deftly addressing the difficult and emerging issues of the era. Based on the article by Nik Cohn (who later admitted to taking major journalistic licenses), “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” published in New York Magazine in 1976, the film catalogs social issues in Brooklyn in the late 70s: racism, sexism, pre-AIDs promiscuity and gang violence. This is no fluffy musical, but the spectacular dancing scenes leaven the darker moments of the film.

At 2001 Odyssey, the real-life disco club that underwent a major makeover for the movie, dancers parade around in their subtly coordinated finery. Qiana shirts with mile-wide butterfly collars displaying the obligatory man pelt, vests, bell-bottom pants and swingy Stephen Burrows–esque disco dresses with lettuce hems and every style neckline: plunging V-necks, cowl necks, capelets and skinny scarves blend together on the dance floor amidst smoky dry ice and glittering lights. Amazingly, no one swathed in polyester spontaneously combusts while smoking.

Budget constraints meant that the clothing had to be sourced, rather than made, but these limitations were fortuitous, for they enhanced the authenticity of the characters; young adults who did not have much to spend on clothing, even if most of their paychecks went towards their wardrobes. Costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s clothing choices brilliantly highlight the personalities of all of the characters: Annette in her cheap, Cookie Monster fur coat; Stephanie in soft, sophisticated colors and fabrics; Tony’s family in drab, sloppy garments; and Tony, the transformative character of the film, with a wardrobe that spans the color spectrum from dark to light.

The sartorial shining star of the movie is Tony’s love interest Stephanie, played by Karen Lynn Gorney. She brings a little class (granted, through great effort on her part to escape her Brooklyn roots) to pre-gentrified Brooklyn. Outfitted in chic scarves; high-waisted, wide-leg pants; a thigh-length trench and her herringbone newsboy cap, she could just as easily be seen hailing a cab on the streets of Manhattan today, what with the fashion rehash of the 1970s on the past year’s runways.

Von Brandenstein’s real coup de grace was the black and white suit worn in the final dance scene. You’ve likely seen some poor schmoe at a 70s party, wearing the suit and pulling the unmistakable thunderbolt move. As one of the most iconic costumes of movie history, right up there with Marilyn’s white halter dress and Audrey’s LBD, the suit represents Tony’s transition from ignorance to enlightenment. He no longer wants to be, as Stephanie says, “no place on [his] way to nowhere.” In reality, Travolta wanted to wear a black suit for the final dance scene but Von Brandenstein convinced him to go with white for the disco ball lighting effects. According to Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, a member of the production team commented, “but heroes wear white.” To which Von Brandenstein responded “Exactly.” Like all well-written protagonists, Tony is transformed by the end of the film and, like all genius costume designers, Von Brandenstein created a wardrobe to underscore that transformation. I just wish I could figure out how, after all of that dancing and those life-saving attempts on the girders of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that suit never manages to get dirty. Magic or polyester? —Kristine Lloyd

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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4 Responses to “Saturday Night Fever: More than Just a White Suit”

  • Jenn:

    1977 was a pretty fantastic year. This movie was so fashion and culture forward, Sesame Street released a record called ‘Sesame Street Fever”. The cover featured Grover as Tony and boasted Ernie and Bert in gold chains. Great article – I miss that John.

    • I miss that John, too! He is virtually unrecognizable in the man today—and I don’t just mean the extra 100 pounds.

      Stay tuned for Friday’s post: I’ll be linking to a radio show I taped yesterday where we discuss Fashion In Film for 3 December films: Saturday Night Fever, Out of Africa and Morocco. The segment is about 5 minutes but I seriously talked about SNF for a good 20 minutes. I don’t know how the poor editor will trim it down!

      Oh, and I had the Star Wars Disco album, but not the Sesame Street one :)

  • Fun, to relive that film and its clothes. Completely authentic to a certain type in those N.Y. days.

    Fun, too, to see the old Travolta — REALLY hard to believe it is the same man. Boy, he could dance.

    Thanks. This was FUN!!

    • I highly recommend re-watching this movie. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it the third/fourth(?) time around! The dancing is simultaneously hilarious and spectacular!

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