GQ, November 1988: "Stars in Stripes"

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Since they appeared in Wall Street, horizontal stripes have become a power look for those who think the shirt makes the man.

By Debra Wise

In a pivotal scene in Wall Street, last winter’s paean to the glitter and corruption of the world of high finance, Michael Douglas, as Gordon Gekko, glides into a tony restaurant to do lunch with young Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the up-and-coming broker who covets the great financier’s account. Gekko strolls in, fashionably late, and slides into the booth, silk-smooth in a double-breasted suit, a polka-dot tie, and, startlingly, a self-collared white shirt with black and dark blue horizontal stripes. Gekko has a few words with Bud, then leaves him to eat alone. “And buy a decent suit,” Gekko commands on his way out. “You can’t come in here looking like this.”

The Gekko character was the embodiment of the Boesky-esque, “greed is healthy” wheeler-dealer of the eighties. Machiavellian to the core, Gekko nevertheless exuded a seductive power and elegance. “Gekko conducted his business somewhere to the left of unconservative,” says designer Alan Flusser, who produced most of Douglas’s wardrobe, including that unmistakable trademark shirt. “[Gekko] had an attitude that we wanted to incorporate into the clothes he wore,” adds Ellen Mirojnick, the film’s costume designer. “He was a shark,” she continues. “You never knew where he’d strike next. This shirt was also unexpected, something you’d probably never find in the store — and Gekko certainly wasn’t of the ilk to buy his clothes off the rack.”

When Mirojnick and Flusser were planning Gekko’s wardrobe, they kept in mind that the character was somewhat eccentric but had the best of taste. According to Flusser, Douglas loved the shirt, which worked so well in the film because it matched the character’s powerful, arrogant style. “Neither the shirt nor the man is something that you’d see walking down the street everyday,” Mirojnick observes.

Until Flusser featured a horizontally striped dress shirt in his 1983 collection for B. Altman & Co., the shirt was strictly custom-made. And although the shirt got a few sideways glances, it proved to be so popular that Flusser subsequently featured at least two models in each season at his store. But it was after Wall Street that orders came pouring in from across the board(room).      

A variety of non-Wall Street types, from doctors to entertainment people to lawyers to fight promoters, called Twentieth Century Fox to find out where they could buy the shirt and were directed to custom shirtmakers. “These were mostly young guys on the move who I suspect were attracted by the fact that this was something they had taken for granted — traditional shirt stripings — used in a different way,” Mirojnick says. She adds that she thinks the wearers hope to achieve the sort of status and power that the shirt bestows. “And I think it’s terrific. Maybe they’ll present themselves differently when they’re wearing it and really change their image.”

Mirojnick isn’t the only one who received calls from those who sought the shirt. Carol Konop owns the Shirt Store, a small Manhattan shop that sells both made-to-measure and ready-to-wear cotton shirts. Some months ago, one of her customers came in to ask her if she has seen the wonderful shirt Michael Douglas wore in Wall Street. She hadn’t, so she saw the movies and decided to offer the shirt in her store. In addition to providing made-to-measure shirts, Konop decided to manufacture some versions — most notably a white shirt with quarter-inch black stripes —  in stock sizes. She displayed one shirt in her window with a sign proclaiming “GEKKO.” Soon after, the custom shirtmaker up the block had put two in his window.

Although novel to most of Wall Street’s audience, the horizontally striped dress shirt is not a new creation. Custom shirtmakers have been making them for a few particularly dashing figures since the 1920s. “I know a couple of old tailors who wear this shirt everyday.” Flusser says. “I don’t know where they got it, maybe the old country.” According to Flusser, the shirt originated as a stiff striped bib front, which shirtmakers would turn horizontally for flair. Unlike the shirts in Wall Street, these custom-made models had horizontal stripes that were confined to the front, with the remainder of the shirt either vertically striped or solid. This was because more fabric must be used to match horizontal stripes, making the shirt more expensive.

Douglas’s shirt was also unusual in that it has a self-collar and horizontally-striped cuffs. The collar and cuff of most horizontally striped shirts are plain white or, less often, vertically striped. “The self-collar is quite strange, but within the realm of good taste.” says Flusser. He adds that the shirt looks wonderful with a double-breasted suit because both bring the eye across the body, and the stripes complement the cut of the lapels.

The movies offer us idealized visions and characters that personify unforgettable images, and their effect on what we wear is often profound. But beware. It is worth noting that Ivan Boesky, who is said to have inspired the Gekko character, these days is still wearing horizontal stripes, but few people seek to emulate him.