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'Tulsa King' Costume Designer on Sylvester Stallone's Gangster Look

Aug 03, 2023Aug 03, 2023

By Matthew Chernov

From Al Pacino's white suit in "Scarface" and Robert De Niro's tortoiseshell sunglasses in "Casino" to James Gandolfini's bowling shirts in "The Sopranos" and Steve Buscemi's Derby hats in "Boardwalk Empire," movie and TV gangsters are famous for their bold fashion sense.

And the latest nattily dressed mobster to hit the screen is Dwight Manfredi, the Mafia capo played by Sylvester Stallone in the Paramount+ series "Tulsa King." Created by Taylor Sheridan, the show stars Stallone as an aging mafioso who's exiled to Tulsa, Okla., by his New York crime family after spending 25 years in prison.

Costume designer Suzanne McCabe created Stallone's wardrobe on the series, and she based many of her designs on the real-life Mafia bosses whose taste in expensive clothing and flashy accessories made them unlikely celebrities throughout the 1980s. "I looked at the Gambino crime family, the Franzese family, and all the usual ones that you always saw in the papers back then," she says.

Her primary influence, however, was a legendary underworld figure whose flamboyant style made him a household name. "John Gotti was definitely a big one," she says. Known for his fondness for hand-painted silk ties, matching pocket squares, brightly polished alligator shoes, and double-breasted Brioni suits, Gotti's sartorial excesses and his love of Italian fabrics earned him the colorful nickname "The Dapper Don."

"Tulsa King" opens with Stallone's character being released from prison after spending a quarter of a century behind bars, so highlighting that extended loss of time was something McCabe wanted to reflect in her costume designs early in the season. "When Dwight first gets out of jail, he really is just wearing those ‘90s suits that were his old things," she says. "That was part of his identity, and it was important that his costumes helped make that fish-out-of-water aspect of the character happen.

McCabe acknowledges that although Dwight is in the mob, he still has a great deal of personal integrity, and since the clothes he was wearing when he went to prison were what he thought looked good at the time, it stands to reason that he’d continue to choose them. "There's even a scene where he goes to a tailor and tells him, ‘I don't care what you want, this is who I am, so just make it fit me,’" she says.

Like much of her work in the past, McCabe's costumes for "Tulsa King" are monochromatic to a large extent. "I tend to think people look better in monochrome, and it's also like an old-time movie thing for me," she says. "I don't really like to see patterns all that much."

For the show's New York scenes, her costumes emphasize dark and deep colors, bordering on black. But once Dwight arrives in Tulsa, she incorporates a range of hues that she refers to as "the Grand Canyon at Sunset." This softer palette complements the landscape's natural beauty. "The dirt in Oklahoma is almost an orange rust color, so I tried to stick to that," she says.

Similar to John Gotti, Dwight is a gangster who truly enjoys dressing to impress, and McCabe attributes some of that attitude to the city the character calls home. "This might sound crazy, but I really think there's a certain New York thing to that," she says. "Also, Dwight is a show-off, which you see clearly during the funeral of his brother, where his sister keeps calling him a show-off and his daughter can't stand the fancy restaurant he takes them to."

The way Dwight deliberately smooths and adjusts each item of clothing provides another psychological key to understanding him. "He does it almost like a punctuation," McCabe says. "Every time he delivers one of his powerful speeches to the guys, he takes his two fingers, with the pinkies out, and straightens himself by pulling on the front of his shirt or jacket."

According to McCabe, the fashionable shoes Stallone wears in "Tulsa King" echo another beloved gangster classic, albeit one with more singing and less bloodshed. "They’re almost like something you’d see in ‘Guys and Dolls,’" she says. "But since you’re not really staring at them, they don't seem totally caricatured. They’re actually George Cleverley spectator shoes that are custom-made for Sly, and they’re amazing."

Along with his impeccable suits and flattering footwear, Dwight is a gangster who knows how to accessorize, and throughout the series he sports a variety of eye-catching bling, including heavy chains and pendants, chunky bracelets, gold wristwatches, vintage Kieselstein belt buckles, and gaudy pinky rings. "Sly just loved having that jewelry to work with," McCabe says. "And after all, showy jewelry is a way that guys like Dwight show who they are."

Dwight's diamond-studded pinky ring, in particular, becomes a significant plot point in the series when he gives it to his driver, Tyson (played by Jay Will). The ring was a gift from Dwight's mob boss, Pete Invernizzi (A.C. Peterson), and symbolizes his allegiance to the crime family. So by giving the ring to Tyson, Dwight signals his break from the Invernizzi organization.

"Once he gave his pinky ring to Tyson, we had to get him some new pinky rings, which Sly was thrilled to get!" McCabe says. "I found some with these giant stones, and he loved them. Of course, a few of them got smashed when he banged his hand on things, so thank God I had a whole bunch of them."

In the final scene of the season, Dwight wears perhaps his gaudiest accessory of all: an enormous Western-style bolo tie shaped like a horseshoe with a massive stone in the center. "I found it on Etsy," McCabe reveals. "At that point in the story, Dwight is a part of Tulsa, so I thought it would be funny if I could find a huge bolo tie for him to wear." Ultimately, she purchased several different bolo ties for the scene and allowed Stallone to choose his favorite. "He tried each one on with the whole outfit, and I loved the one he picked," she says.

McCabe calls Stallone "a dream to work with," and says he was very involved in the costume decisions on the series. "He's from the old days when stars really wanted to live within the skin of their character, not just play themselves." The actor's muscular physique presented a few costuming challenges, however. "He definitely needs mostly custom clothes because he's big on top and much smaller in his waistline," she says. "In fact, we occasionally had to get two of something, so he could have an extra-large on top and a medium on the bottom, because he has a little tiny waist."

With "Tulsa King" renewed for Season 2, the question is, can Dwight Manfredi's killer fashion sense continue to evolve in the future? McCabe believes it's possible. "Yeah, I definitely think so," she says. "But I don't know where the story is going to go from here."