Silk Shirts & Stolen Identity: Revisiting The Style Of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’
— Updated on 28 May 2024

Silk Shirts & Stolen Identity: Revisiting The Style Of ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’

— Updated on 28 May 2024
Randy Lai
Randy Lai

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Volume I of B.H. Magazine. Purchase your copy here.

As well-heeled Aussies trickle back to Taormina, Rome, and the Amalfi Coast in pursuit of yet another European summer, we’re presented with a juicy opportunity to re-examine the cinematic (and sartorial) legacy of 1999’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Adapted for the silver screen by British director Anthony Minghella, it is — by some distance — the most well-known adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s eponymous 1955 novel.

Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (a psychopathic con artist well-versed in “art, music, and occasionally, murder”) has been a subject of enduring fascination amongst 20th-century filmmakers. Alain Delon played the character, famously, in René Clément’s French-language adaptation, Purple Noon.

Meanwhile, Andrew Scott, renowned for his on-stage work at The Old Vic, BBC’s Sherlock, and Fleabag, tackled the role for Netflix; as part of a limited series directed by Oscar winner Steve Zailian, which premiered this past April.

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The Talented Mr Ripley

Against such gravelly company, it can be hard to comprehend why Ripley ‘99 — as it’ll be referred to throughout the rest of our story — is so deserving of singular recognition. After all, the film didn’t always possess the adulation it seems to have attained with the passage of time (least of all in the 90s). 

Critics certainly came to embrace the cinematic merit of Ripley ‘99 gradually. Yet it was apparent, in the months following the film’s release, that it struck an immediate chord with male cinemagoers — many of them young, upwardly mobile Aussies who saw in Jude Law the perfect union of New World swagger and Old World riches. 

In Law’s portrayal of Dickie, Ripley ‘99 locates its most glamorous aesthetic thesis. To consider the clothing this cherub-faced, golden god swans through life in separate from his character, is to wilfully split two halves of a single coin.

At every turn, costume designers Ann Roth & Gary Jones enrobe Law’s boyishly handsome features in apparel that convey his gilded WASP status. William Phung, Co-Founder of men’s footwear label Etymology believes that the “dégagé leisure class allure” of Dickie’s personal style is key to parsing the character’s psyche.

“[Dickie] completely overshadows Ripley,” says Phung. “Everything fits exceptionally, and he’s not self-conscious about his appearance since he’s so insulated by privilege. Ripley’s middle-class uniform — oxford shirts and a baggy corduroy jacket — betray humbler origins: his clothes are hardy and inconspicuous, but he vanishes beneath their respectability.” 

The Talented Mr Ripley

The film’s numerous sequences, where the camera holds lazily upon Ripley and Dickie, make a point of establishing this dichotomy. In an early scene amid the town of Mongibello (one I’ve remembered since I first saw the film in grade school) Dickie appears in nothing more than a pair of thigh-high cream swim shorts. Next to Ripley — a pasty red flag in fluorescent Speedos — the deliciously tan scion might as well be glowing.

Later on, the two travel to Rome together, where Dickie introduces Ripley to Battistoni: a real-life bespoke tailor, located on the legendary Via Condotti. Doubtless aware of the rich subtext costuming can convey, Roth and Jones had all of Ripley’s bespoken clothing altered so “the fit was never quite right” (the sinister connotation being that Ripley is stealing, and gradually swallowing Dickie’s identity whole).

Despite having successfully assumed his friend’s identity in the film’s final act, there’s a fitfulness about the way Ripley dresses that shatters the proverbial grand illusion. 

Even though I wouldn’t recommend you take cues from Dickie in the love and friendship department, you can still benefit from careful study of what this hapless dauphine chooses to wear on-screen. Strip away all of the aloof class-signalling and 27-year-old Jude Law’s matinee good looks; and we’re left with a modular framework, for dressing in the summer, every man (and the man scamming him) can take advantage of.

For Phung, all of Ripley ‘99’s lessons emanate from the ability to “dress up your dress-down” and vice-versa: “Dickie’s outfits always look effortless because his combinations are remarkable, yet straightforward. On-screen, he’ll often wear a knit polo instead of piqué; or a linen shirt and loafers instead of the usual poplin shirt and brogues. These are small touches that make all the difference — nothing’s overdone.” 

Ease of wear and the “ciao, bello” tonality of its costume design have made Ripley ‘99 one of menswear’s de facto mood boards — doubly so where resortwear and summer style are concerned. I recall Scott Fraser began offering a ‘Ripley shirt’ about five years ago: a knitted, fine-gauge reproduction of the designs worn by Law on-set (which have since become a bestseller for the British heritage brand). 

The Talented Mr Ripley

For something a little less cosplay-y (that still channels the insouciance of a sunlit holiday in the Gulf of Naples) Phung has recommendations to spare. “Obviously, on the swimwear front, Orlebar Brown consistently delivers. If you love classic mid-century menswear, L.E.J London does some great directional twists. Closer to home, the Sydney label Commas favours a contemporary approach, drawing on global coastal influences including the Italian Riviera.” 

That a new generation of aesthetes remains transfixed by Ripley ‘99’s surface-level pleasures (clothes very much included) is indicative of the high esteem our culture now holds it in. “With our collective appetite for nostalgia, Ripley is getting a critical reappraisal,” says Phung.

“Yes, it’s a touchstone for guys who’ve grown up around the whole #menswear internet thing, but the film’s preoccupying themes — wealth, jealousy, constructed identity — are, if anything, more pertinent today than they were two decades ago.”

If you enjoyed this retrospective look at the celluloid style of The Talented Mr Ripley, here are a few more choice fashion stories from the world of Boss Hunting:

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Randy Lai
Following 6 years in the trenches covering consumer luxury across East Asia, Randy joins Boss Hunting as the team's Commercial Editor. His work has been featured in A Collected Man, M.J. Bale, Soho Home, and the BurdaLuxury portfolio of lifestyle media titles. An ardent watch enthusiast, boozehound and sometimes-menswear dork, drop Randy a line at [email protected].


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