In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), there’s a scene when Henry Hill’s mother (Elaine Kagan) opens the door to greet her son (Christopher Serrone). Tilting down to match the mother’s point of view, Henry is shown with open arms and a wide smile, wearing a double-breasted beige suit and shiny shoes.
As Anna Pendergast notes, the suit is “too big, and too beige, but Hill wears it with pride, the equivalent of a young sportsman being given his first jersey.” Henry asks her what she thinks, encourages her to look at his shoes, and says “Aren’t they great?” When the camera moves back to his mother, she proclaims, “You look like a gangster!” The clothing marks Henry’s transition from a part-time errand boy to a full-time mobster. Later in the film, an adult Henry (Ray Liotta) eventually has a closet full of suits and shoes that grows from years of crime. Whether it is marking a character’s identity or crimes, these two scenes underline the way clothing plays a central role in Goodfellas.
Clothing also marks a point of transition for mob associate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) at a welcome home party for recently freed mobster Billy Bats (Frank Vincent). When Bats first sees Tommy, he notes that he is “all dressed up.” When he hugs him, Tommy repeatedly tells him to, “Watch the suit!” Bats jokes that the last time he saw him, he was called “Shoeshine Tommy” and boasts that he used to make shoes shine “like mirrors.” Eventually, Tommy’s fuse goes off when Bats tells him to get his “fucking shine box.” Similar to Henry, Bats recognizes Tommy’s new identity through the suit and shiny shoes that he wears (instead of cleans).
Aside from marking transitional moments of mafia life, clothing also marks the crimes committed in the film. When Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco), visits Henry while he is in prison, she sneaks in food (including two loaves of bread) and drugs, in a long powder blue down coat. Overtly visible against the muted browns and grays that fill the prison meeting area, Karen’s coat allows her to conceal and continue her husband’s crimes. But its ordinary style also signifies her status as a civilian visiting her husband.
This coat differs from a coat worn by a fellow mafia wife later on in the film. With cops surveilling Henry’s crew after a multimillion-dollar heist, Henry’s associate Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) warns the crew not to spend their shares of the heist conspicuously. When a crew member’s wife arrives in a brand-new white mink coat at a Christmas party shortly after the heist, Conway is enraged. Conway demands that she takes it off and remove it from the premises. The coat is unapologetic in its display of crime compared to Karen’s, but both coats simultaneously mark the conspicuousness and inconspicuousness of crimes that take place in the film.
Another important clothing moment comes before Henry drop-off’s his babysitter and part-time drug mule Lois (Welker White). Before leaving Lois insists, she cannot fly unless she has her lucky hat, which was shown earlier in the film. In what turns out to be a setup, the feds bust Henry and Lois just before they pull out of the driveway. The attempt to retrieve the hat marks the end of Henry’s insular life as a mobster. This takes on greater significance because the wide sloping brim construction of a bucket hat was designed to protect fishermen and soldiers from the elements of the natural world. Ultimately, the hat that Lois takes comfort in, and that is designed to protect from the natural elements, exposes Henry to civilian life. Whether it is marking entries into mob life or crimes committed by characters in the film, clothing underscores the identity and actions of characters in Goodfellas.