20 years later the style of The Sopranos is being celebrated, not laughed at.
The Sopranos and the appropriation of working class garms
Words— Marc Richardson
The fashions of Sex and the City have, rather predictably, aged well. When it aired, the show was synonymous with fashion—clothes and sex were the leading storylines. Its HBO sister show, The Sopranos, was, at the time of its original airing two decades ago, seen somewhat as the antithesis of whatever Sex and the City was. It was serious, vulgar and definitely not a treatise on the styles of the time—and it was set in New Jersey, not New York, which is, apparently, a super important distinction. It would come as no surprise to learn that Sex and the City is now the object of fan tribute Instagram pages, but The Sopranos? The mafioso-focused show doesn’t have a fan tribute page—it has many of them… dedicated to the show’s fashion, no less.
When The Sopranos first hit the airwaves, the fashion was not universally derided—it’s wasn’t a focal point of the show per se, so it was just seen as tacky. It was emblematic of the garish, brand-driven fashion favoured by the so-called nouveau riche that wanted to flaunt their wealth without any appreciation of aesthetics.
For the characters on The Sopranos, it was not about what the clothes looked like, but rather about what they represented. They symbolized a belonging of sorts—a certification of having made it, be it as a made man or consigliere (tracksuits) or a boss’s wife (fur coats). When Christopher Moltisanti decides to sleep with a woman wearing Manolo Blahniks, he does so, at least in part, because of what Manolo Blahniks represented at the time: They were worthy of—for lack of a better expression—a Manhattan girl and not a Jersey one.
Such infatuation with brand names may have once been seen as gauche; today, of course, it’s one of the defining trends. Logo-driven maximalism is the name of the game thanks to everyone from Vetements to Nike and Balenciaga to Supreme. So too are ironic stylish choices like ostentatious French tips or meta-referential outfits. It’s a trend referred to as “camp”, named after an influential but under-appreciated Susan Sontag essay. It’s also the theme for the upcoming Met Gala. But I digress!
Should it really come as a surprise that 20 years on, we’re celebrating A.J.’s graphic tees? Or Carmela’s French tips? Or Paulie’s tracksuits? Or even Tony’s shirts? Camp or no camp, is it shocking that what we once dismissed as the maladroit fashion of the nouveau riche is now very much fashionable?
No, not really.
Sopranos style fetishism and the fact that it now sits within the boundaries of what’s considered “good style” are but more examples of how fashion perennially turns to quote-unquote working-class styles for inspiration.
The industry, as a whole, does very little in the way of innovation. From a macro perspective, it’s a rather slow-moving industry; jeans, which are a relatively recent addition to our wardrobes, are older than the humans walking this earth. Instead of developing new things, we tend to revisit the styles of yore. Fashion, as they say, is cyclical and trends inevitably return decades later. But that’s also true of things that are not “trendy”—like The Sopranos garish garms.
Time and again, the fashion cognoscenti have developed a fascination with the uniforms of those outside the fashion world—and then brands have capitalized on them by selling similar getups for astronomical markups.
Junya Watanabe is a sterling example. The designer habitually bases his collections around traditional working-class fashion. Most obvious is his fascination with workwear—chore coats, wide-legged pants—which he revisits almost every season. But he’s also penned less obvious love letters, like a collection seemingly inspired by custodians and janitors, while collaborating with the brands that are canonical when it comes to the wears of workers: Levi’s, Converse, The North Face, Carhartt.
Speaking of Carhartt, what started as an American brand adored by construction workers, farmers and painters has become emblematic of fashion’s co-opting of blue collar styles. Its unique crossover appeal to construction workers and gentrifying hipsters alike has become something of a meme.
Designers, like Heron Preston, have made no secret that they’re inspired by the way blue collar workers dress. Preston’s collaboration with Carhartt was inspired by art handlers and the New York-based designer has teamed up with New York’s Department of Sanitation on an upcycled collection. Fashion’s obsession with working clothes knows no bounds.
While the links between Carhartt and Levi’s and DSNY uniforms are rather obvious, equating them with Furio Giunta’s silk shirts or Carmela’s fur coat may seem like a stretch. But, while they aren’t cut from the same cloth—quite literally—they are, in many ways, similar.
The track suits favoured by the likes of Silvio were ubiquitous in the predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood of Bensonhurst—so much so that they became known as Bensonhurst tuxedos—and, in that respect are very much part of the working class uniform in the Tri-State area.
Even Furio, Carmela and Tony’s gaudier luxury items were worn in a way that was more middle class. Working class clothes don’t necessarily have to be clothes that one works in. Even some luxury brands, like Burberry and Stone Island, owe much of their popularity to the fact they were favourite “Sunday Best” brands among working class soccer fans. And like the Burberry, Armani, Aquascutum and Stone Island worn on terraces, the clothes worn by characters in The Sopranos were often showpieces and status symbols, meant to project importance and wealth. They were clothes that were meant to gain one entry to the higher echelons of society—to a world filled with Carrie Bradshaws and Manolo Blahniks.
Ultimately, though, it becomes an oft-repeated trope, particularly in gangster movies and TV shows: The nouveau riche try to emulate the entrenched bourgeoisie, but they always stand out; they pick the “wrong” pieces and make it too obvious. Watch Narcos or Peaky Blinders and you’ll see the same scenario play out time and again—albeit with different labels and pieces and styles.
But where all of the trends and working class garments come together—be they Versace silk shirts, fur coats, Carhartt overalls, pocket protectors, boiler suits or even Stone Island—is that, eventually, they become signs not of the nouveau riche, but of the established bourgeoisie and the fashion cognoscenti. Think paint-splattered jeans or designer tracksuits—or even Balenciaga’s office-ready runway pieces.
So while the tribute pages that pop up for Sex and the City may be rather predictable homages to a show with evergreen style highlights, what our current infatuation with the garb of The Sopranos ought to teach us is that even the styles we snicker at will one day come to shape the way we dress. It’s just a matter of the fashion world coming to grips with it and deciding to co-opt it.