Gangsta Chic

The criminal underworld has always had an exquisite sense of style, and now its dress codes are found in all the best post codes. Harry Mount takes style cues from friends in dark places

April 21 2020


As I walked down the elegant, Edwardian, Piccadilly Arcade recently, I saw a set of hats that took my breath away.

They were in the window of Swaine Adeney Brigg, one of the smartest shops in town. Founded in 1750, over the past 270 years the firm has made, among many other things, James Bond’s briefcase (in From Russia with Love) and six postilion whips for Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. And here were the hats worn in Peaky Blinders, the hit TV series about 19th-century Birmingham gangs.

Displayed prominently was the flat cap worn by the show’s star, Cillian Murphy, though his character and his fellow gangsters liked to customise the peaks of their caps with razor blades, to slice them across enemies’ eyes. Thus the name, Peaky Blinders.

You can also buy, for £450, the ‘Peaky Domino’ hat – a black, rabbit-fur bowler, with black and white domino pattern, worn by the character Polly Gray (played by Helen McCrory, queen bee of the Peaky Blinders).

Has it really come to this? The chicest shops in St James’s selling gangster clothes? In fact, it isn’t that odd. For over a century, gangsters have imitated St James’s styles. That gangster clothes now appear in the Piccadilly Arcade just shows how well-dressed the original Peaky Blinders were.

From 1890 to 1910, the Peaky Blinders dominated Birmingham crime, controlling gambling and influencing politics through violence and robbery. They wore waistcoats, tailored jackets, overcoats set off with silk scarves, and those caps. Some say that ‘blinder’ was actually slang for a natty dresser, not a hidden blade, because detachable blades, made by Gillette, only debuted in 1903.

At the same time, a female gang, known as ‘the Forty Elephants’ (from their Elephant and Castle base in South London), dressed beautifully to shoplift from the grandest shops. From 1873 to the 1950s, the Forty Elephants stole from those shops and dressed up as maids to steal from their rich employers.

They wore fashionable coats, skirts, and hats, set off with muffs and cummerbunds; their clothes featured extra pockets to hide their swag. One gang member, Lilian Goldstein, was nicknamed ‘the Bobbed-Haired Bandit’, thanks to her hip hairstyle.

Even when gangsters weren’t disguising themselves as rich people to steal from them, they wanted to look like them to show they had made it out of the ghetto and to command respect.

The same happened in America, where Bonnie and Clyde reaped murderous havoc through the South and Midwest from 1931 to 1934, killing nine policemen and four civilians. Much of their misguided glamorisation, revived by the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, was due to their clothes: in photos found at their hideout, Bonnie Parker smokes a cigar, holds a gun, and wears a long, black flapper’s dress with a black beret set at a rakish angle. In another photo, Clyde Barrow wears a banded hat, three-piece suit and tie, with a razor-sharp crease to his trousers.

Al Capone also favoured three-piece suits with wide lapels and ritzy ties. His parents were born in Italy. That background lent Italian gangsters in America a European look (so perfectly captured by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the Godfather series, and their new film, The Irishman). It also offers another explanation for gangster chic: Goodfellas wanted to show they’d made it in the country where their parents had arrived with nothing.

The Italian-American gangster style caught on among wartime spivs in Britain – note Private Walker in Dad’s Army, who’s keen on wide-collared, double breasted suits, wide, glitzy ties, and lashings of Brylcreem.

That American-Italian gangster influence can be traced in the Kray Twins. Reggie Kray wore single-breasted dark suits with a white shirt, black tie, and pocket square. The chubbier Ronnie Kray plumped for a double-breasted suit – wise for a larger gentleman.

I once met Frankie Fraser, the violent thug who tore enemies’ teeth out with pliers, who worked for the Richardson Brothers, the Krays’ rivals. He was terrifying (“Don’t write anything rude about my book,” he said, as I bought Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime) but wonderfully kitted-out in a black suit, white shirt, floral tie, and razor-sharp parting.

As sartorial standards have declined over the past 50 years, so, too, has the gangster look, but elements survive in Terry Adams, 65, head of the North London Adams Family. Jailed for money laundering in 2007, Adams is trim and immaculately dressed in tailored suits, velvet-collared overcoats – and a Peaky Blinder.

Harry Mount is the editor of The Oldie and author of How England Made the English (Penguin)