Humphrey Bogart

Film Noir Detective Style

We all know the image of the film noir detective. The gritty down-to-earth, hardened-by-life, dark and often handsome hero who saves the day from a downtown office while wearing a classy suit, fedora hat and a long trench coat. Often called upon by damsels in distress with perfect hair and little suits and dresses that make many a fan of the genre and time (1940s mainly) green with proverbial envy.

It is exactly that time period that one needs to look at, as well as the movies of course, do have fun while conducting research, to figure out how to put together the perfect film noir fashion outfit.

Keep in mind that you’re not entirely stuck to that, perhaps even a little cliché, image. There are many fine contemporary and almost pop-culture icons of the detective noir genre that could influence you equally. Think of John Taylor (Nightside books series by Simon R. Green), The Spirit (either the comics or the movie adaptation) and that fantastic detective noir-themed episode of Castle (“The Blue Butterfly,” episode fourteen of the fourth season) to name but a few.

Gordon Parks photo
Photo by Gordon Parks

For the women, the classic 1940s (although if you prefer you could easily substitute with 30s or 50s style garments) dresses and suits consisting from pencil type skirts, blazer and lovely shirt. You can still find pussy bow blouses on high-street stores here and there even if the height of that hype has passed, but those are very appropriate for the style.

Alternatively, you could buy a nice classy blouse and tie a foulard-type scarf in a bow to create the same effect.

And you can absolutely wear a contemporary suit instead of a vintage style one, there are plenty nice figure-hugging suits on the market for all kinds of budgets that provide a perfectly acceptable alternative.

As is the case with many styles, footwear is important. Choices are a bit more limited than with many other styles, but thankfully the limitation is in the type of shoe rather than in the availability.

Of course, the high-heeled pump is the quintessential shoe worn by ladies in the detective noir genre, but that doesn’t mean you absolutely have to go for this. If you’re not one for heels, then you could wear the flat variety or a lovely classy ballerina. Some kinds of stylish (ankle) boots are are also suitable, but I’d take some time to look into women’s boots of that era before you go out and buy a pair because only some styles are appropriate. The advantage, however, is that you can find both pumps and flats on any budget, especially this time of year.

Boots may be a bit harder, but there are budget alternatives, it just requires more looking around for the exactly right pair.

Detective outfit
Not all noir: Combine dark colors with a lighter shirt (Hambledon Productions)

If you can, don your hair in a coiffure of the era. There are plenty of tutorials online that will explain to you how exactly to achieve the proper look. Especially rockabilly hairstyle tutorials will get you on the right track as they tend to delve into the same era for the basics of their fashion.

Look for classic-style and vintage-inspired hats (or proper vintage) if you wish to go for headwear. I know back in the day, real fur stoles were very popular, but bear in mind that those are entirely optional. If you want to go for one, go for it, but you may choose to go for faux fur alternatives just as well. Chains such as H&M carry very affordable and good quality (rinse wash and air dry and they last for years) faux fur alternatives.

Men can either chose from an historical-style suite from the good old days, such as the zoot suit associated with gangsters from the era, or decide upon a nice modern classic alternative to the full military or dystopian-day alternative. A suit and tie are key, but there’s no set-in-stone rule that claims you should wear one that is historically correct or expensive. If you’re on a budget and still want to go for this look, take a look around high-street stores. They may even have that typical detective trench coat and most do offer a far more affordable alternative to the fedora than you’d find at a proper hat shop.

Women choosing to wear a men’s style will no doubt already know that they simply have to go for the feminine answer to the men’s suit.

Ava Gardner
Femme fatale: Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946)

Remember: style and class are key for both men and women, depending on whether you want to be a modern-day or historical detective that looks like he stepped right out of a grimy and gritty noir setting. Dark colors combined with a lighter blouse or shirt are preferred, but you can easily go for all dark. Or if you really want to be a cliché: wear a white trench.

Accessories are like the outfit, footwear and hair: classy. A nice wrist watch, a leather gun holster (because a detective is known to pack heat), a proper tie, whether it’s standard, narrow or skinny is up to you. Be mindful though, if you’re going for an historic-style outfit, wear a standard tie as that was the style of the day, a tie pin, handkerchief in your breast pocket, a (hip) flask for your booze (or nonalcoholic drink of choice), sock garters, etc.

If you wish to wear jewelry, again, make it match the era you’re going for. While piercings and modern-day designs can be incorporated in a contemporary outfit well enough, they don’t particularly match up all that well with a proper olden days detective. If you want to keep piercings, make sure you are wearing subtle jewelry in them that is not obtrusive.

Necklaces, bracelets and rings were delicate and subtle, often finely designed, so that’s the sort of thing you should be on the lookout for. If at all possible, try wearing frames reminiscent of that period too if you want or have to wear glasses. Think thick-horned rimmed or fine-round spectacles for the gentlemen and fabulous cats-eyes frames for the ladies. Geek specs make for a great modern alternative.

Humphrey Bogart Ingrid Bergman
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942)

Detective noir may sound like a lot of hard work, but it’s actually one of the easier styles of dieselpunk because of its wide range of opportunities for outfits. Yes, you will need a certain budget if you wish to go for a proper historical-style outfit like the ones you see in classic Hollywood movies (or contemporary versions thereof), especially if you can’t sew, but there is a modern-day alternative that is accessible even for those on a tight budget, which makes it a very inclusive and gratifying style to wear.

And one of the main advantages is that you can wear it in your day-to-day life. I can’t think of many nonuniform work places that would object to their employees showing up dressed to the nines.

It is also excellent for beginners in the dieselpunk fashion and those looking for a more casual, classic alternative to the full military or dystopian fashions that dieselpunk is generally known for.

This story first appeared in Gatehouse Gazette #22 (August 2012), p. 10-12, with the headline “Be the Detective!”.

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