Never since Bonnie and Clyde have gangsters looked so chic. Sharp three-piece suits, oversized coats, combat boots and the iconic caps are all staples at the BBC2 Drama “Peaky Blinders”, which follows the rise and fall of the eponymous Birmingham gang. Set in the late 1910s and early 20s, the series introduce us to the turmoils of Tommy Shelby in his quest to build and maintain the group.
The dramatic plot is based on real historic events in Birmingham back in the late 19th century. The emergence of similar gangs was triggered by the excessive poverty work class people lived in. Back then violence was the only form of protest against the unfairness of the social hierarchy. According to historian Paul Thompson their common activities would include to “attack a drunkard and probably leave him insensible in the gutter” using “knife, poker, fork or anything”.
The gang owes its name on its most distinctive feature- the cap. More than a simple finishing touch, it had “blades sewn in to rob people. When they hit someone, it would cause their victim temporary blindness.”, says historian David Cross. He adds: “They would target anybody who looked vulnerable, or who did not look strong or fit. Anything that could be taken, they would take it.”
Even though the setting looks as authentic as possible, there are still some historic discrepancies, as pointed out by Birmingham historian Professor Carl Chinn, author of The Real Peaky Blinders. “There was no real Tommy Shelby and the Peaky Blinders were around in the 1890s, not the 1920s. As for the razor blades? Any hard man would tell you it would be very difficult to get direction and power with a razor blade sewn into the soft part of a cap. It was a romantic notion brought about in John Douglas’ novel, A Walk Down Summer Lane.” Still, he does not deny the entertainment value of the production: “It’s really interesting to look back at the mythologised version of the story and the reality.”
The series owe part of its appeal to impeccably recreated costumes, credited to costume director Stephanie Collie. Her objective was to create a timeless look, which would look as good now, as it was back then. She said: “I would never use anything historically wrong, but we heighten things to make them more relatable. Everything had to be sharp and smart for us. We wanted to exaggerate [the look] slightly.” Each costume was fitted to the actor’s features and the character’s personality. “Normally, a man would have always worn a tie with a stiff collar, but we thought with Cillian Murphy especially that we would keep everything sort of paired down, plus he’s got that beautiful face – what else do you need?!”
Murphy does not wear a bow-tie which suggests that “Tommy is the power behind the throne”. His position is reflected in his Gatsby newsboy-style hat, which is slightly bigger than the others’. The suits were hired from Angels and Cosprop, while the haircuts were inspired by a book on Australian convicts called Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle.
Her tip on how to dress like a modern Peaky Blinder? “It’s all about wearing a good suit with confidence and not being afraid to be individual, to add little touches. Three-piece suits look good on everyone. High-waisted trousers are the best thing a man can ever wear.”
Even in the men-centred world of early 20s Birmingham, women had their fair share of fashion moments. According to Paul Thompson the go-to outfit of a Peaky Blinders girl-friend includes: “lavish display of pearls, the well-developed fringe obscuring the whole of the forehead and descending nearly to the eyes, and the characteristic gaudy-coloured silk handkerchief covering her throat.”
From May Carleton (Charlotte Riley) disheveled take on Bonnie’s classic look, to Aunt Polly’s (Helen McCrory) classic take on tailoring, women’s style often competed with men’s on the screen. Unarguably, one of the major awe-inspiring outfits was the red velvet Grace Burgess (Anabelle Wallis) wore at season one. Stephanie Collie recalled that the colour of that outfit was an object of discussion: “The original dress was actually blue but we knew we wanted it red for that scene – she was the scarlet woman.”
The New York City skyline was the inspiration behind another unforgettable outfit: turquoise satin dress. Lorna Marie Mugan, who created the costumes for season two, recalled: “The design should echo a modern woman who had been influenced by her new home in America, so I looked for inspiration from Deco jewellery and Manhattan skyline. I stitched small glass beads in a similar colour to the lace randomly all over it to catch and reflect the light.”
With exquisite tailoring and opulent details, Aunt Polly’s sartorial elegance became one of the talking points on the show. As the alpha female on the show, her clothes had to command respect of her male companions. Stephanie Collie said: “We wanted a slightly mannish quality to her. Her look is from slightly earlier – Edwardian. The dresses were actually quite long.” With Aunt Polly’s character it was all about being polished yet pragmatic. Many items she wore had more than one function, from the pin in her hat to her handbag attached to her belt. Stephanie Collie recalled: “I liked the idea of her wearing the belt over the suit, and then after we were looking at handbags and I thought she would always be fiddling about with it. I was looking at Cosprop and all their bags and I saw it and thought “ooh, that would be interesting.”
Since its start, The Peaky Blinders captivated the audience with its haunting atmosphere, mesmerising performances and impeccable costumes. The series introduced an era of the history of Birmingham and finally gave Britain’s second city the attention it deserves. Its traditional approach to male fashion quickly became one of the most coveted looks of the season. To recreate the look, opt for sophisticated three-piece suit and an oversized coat. Keep the style clean, and add personality through the details. However, do not get carried away: the Peaky Blinders outfit is all about comfort and the liberty to embark on your next adventure with style to match.
Written by Dilyana Glindzhurska