Chris from the UK blog Clothes on Film gives his insight on this iconic film…
Sleazy sex, drugs, violence, foul language, rape, racism, homophobia, suicide – if you only remember Saturday Night Fever for its Bee Gees soundtrack and lurid fashions, you’re in for a serious shock. This is one of the bleakest, yet most compelling movies of the seventies.
As the opening credits roll, young Italian-American dude Tony Manero (John Travolta – mesmerising) struts through Brooklyn in his bell bottom slacks and short leather jacket like an urban cowboy on a mission; the new frontiersman with only three things on his mind: dancing, women, and getting the hell out of Dodge.
Seconds before we meet Tony the camera pans across Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, down into the tough streets of Bay Ridge. Tony has a way to go in pursuit of the American Dream, not in terms of miles but in abandoning his juvenile gang lifestyle, necessary if he ever wants to fit into the supposedly sophisticated world of New York.
When Tony meets Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) a local girl now working in Manhattan, she immediately gets his number, cutting “You’re nowhere on your way to no place”. Though stuck up and phony, Stephanie has a point. Along with his brother quitting the church this is a catalyst moment for Tony. It stings, but he knows that to get somewhere in life he actually has to do something.
As the story draws to a close Tony has apparently proven Stephanie wrong; he hopes to build a new life in Manhattan. Yet, regrettable sequel notwithstanding, it is difficult to believe he could ever really succeed outside his comfort zone of big fish in a small pond. Tony certainly has aspirations, but maybe he would rather dream the dream than live it?
Costumer Designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein created a look for Saturday Night Fever that is principally only remembered for one outfit: Travolta’s white 3 piece suit.
However there is more at work here than an iconic poster image. Von Brandenstein (who would later become a production designer) deftly matched all costumes to their environment. Whether it’s the synthetic shirts worn by Tony on the dance floor or the drab knitwear of the old folks; the fakery of disco against the honest misery of a generation lamenting the young for rejecting a future they so bleakly promote.
According to the film’s director John Badham, for budget and authenticity reasons every costume was sourced and not made. Disco wear drew influence from early seventies glam rock and gangster flamboyance of the 1930s.
Applying to both male and female, this includes Stephanie’s trenchcoat and tweed cap, Tony’s white suit with two-tone brogues, Annette’s (Donna Pescow) fur coat, the Grecian-esque gowns, tightly cuffed pyjama pants and billowy sleeved dance shirts. As a mass produced version of pimp wear (from Blaxploitation films such as Shaft, 1971 and Coffy, 1973) it was, to rephrase the moustachioed DJ in Brooklyn’s Club 2000, the ‘polyester look’ of the day.
By making costume uniform, Von Brandenstein ensured every disco patron belonged implicitly to that scene, the girls and the guys. Tony and his crew were especially concerned with their appearance (Tony as leader of course with his blow-dried hair and permanently spread shirt collars). They appropriated a specific look; an ideal not really fashionable for men since the mid-1960s. In affect, Tony and his crew were New York mods.
The disco scene however was not a clean one, far from it. Those fairytale-like dance routines in Saturday Night Fever, bathed in dry ice and flashing lights, represent hazy interpretation of the seventies’ last hurrah. Before the gallant optimism of New Romantics, disco would disappear in a cacophony of drugs and casual sex. In many ways disco was filthier than punk; then came AIDS and the sixties hangover of free love and experimentation was gone for good.
This film is often credited as bringing disco to the masses. Yet for all the colourful costumes and up-tempo music, John Badham has crafted a dark journey into the prejudiced and sometimes hopeless side of inner-city life. It is an incredible achievement that improves with age. Though make no mistake, this is no fond inauguration to the musical sub-genre that defined a decade; Saturday Night Fever is the death of disco.