It starts with a story of three jackets. As the film opens, our eponymous protagonist, Tom Ripley, is playing the piano at a rooftop party in New York, wearing a navy blazer with the Princeton crest on its outbreast pocket. The blazer is meant to signify ready acceptance among high-society audience. But, as we quickly learn, the prestige does not belong to Ripley — this is not his world.
Once the blazer is returned to the pianist he briefly replaced, Tom enters the bowels of the hotel, slipping into the white jacket — red collar and gold buttons — of a bathroom attendant. He brushes down the midnight-blue tuxedos of hotel guests as they wash their hands, hoping for tips. Finally, the next day, he dons his corduroy jacket — the jacket that will come to symbolise his straitlaced conservatism; the jacket that will only be replaced once he has completed his transformation into a jet-set brat, which is to say, into another man entirely.
It’s hard to overestimate the role of apparel in The Talented Mr Ripley, the 1999 film by Anthony Minghella and starring Matt Damon and Jude Law as the two male leads. There is the dressing up, the swapping of rings, the sharp contrast of Italian and American style. But it is more fundamental than that: the clothes displayed throughout the movie are inextricably linked to the narrative, more so than in any other film of the past 20 years — and it is for this reason that it commands so much sartorial analysis.
The one who had put it all together was Ann Roth, a celebrated costume designer for both stage and screen. Roth came to Ripley following her win at the Academy Awards for her work on Minghella’s previous film, The English Patient. Ripley, however, had a particular appeal for her, because it was a period she remembers very well. “The ’50s were, for the most part, very dull visually,” Roth told Live Design in 2000. “In the ’40s, we had the restrictions of the war and limited fabric. After the war, Dior came with the New Look and that was very interesting, with the use of more fabric, the bigness of men’s clothes, the double-breasted jackets. When we went into the ’50s, there was this aspiration to look like a solid citizen… Then, the jet-set thing started to happen — Italians, the Riviera, Brigitte Bardot and the Mambo Kings… There was a certain air about town, which had to do with Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, and dancing all night. And I was right there.”