With its themes of fashion and deception, French thriller Plein Soleil is regarded as one of the most stylish films of the 1960s. The plot follows the impoverished Tom Ripley as he befriends the wealthy Philippe Greenleaf and sets about stealing his identity amid the glamour of the Italian Riviera. The film is known for its strong aesthetic; picture-postcard Italian vistas, luxury yachts, piazza cafés and bachelor apartments share the spotlight with the undeniable stars of the film, Ripley’s and Greenleaf’s wardrobes. It’s what its stars wear that has made it one of the most stylish movies ever and, on the eve of its 55th anniversary, its influence on the Italian sense of style is still evident today.
The film’s yachting scenes offer a rolling catwalk of polo and floral short-sleeved shirts, and loose linen shirts worn artfully half-tucked and always unbuttoned to at least mid-chest, as though, frankly, one just couldn’t be bothered to do them up any further. Off-white jeans with suede snaffle-bit loafers and rolled khakis with espadrilles epitomise coastal chic, while shantung silk suits in muted tones of grey, pale cream or blue complement the scenes staged in Rome. Dark suits are teamed with white loafers in a way that would make an expert in fashion etiquette blush, and socks are never seen. A striped boating blazer, set of monogrammed shirts and selection of rep ties complete Greenleaf’s jet-setting attire.
One extended scene, in which Ripley wanders around a street market, could have been taken straight from the catwalk, with Ripley as played by Alain Delon appearing to be part male model, part maniac. Delon even strikes a somewhat clichéd pose, shirtsleeves rolled and a blazer slung over his shoulder. Style often appears to trump substance; rather than a much-anticipated arrest scene, the film’s final image is of Ripley, cool in his trunks and chunky cardigan, strolling along the beach.
Clothing as costume
One of the underlying themes of the film is the way clothing can be used as costume, and not just worn by actors portraying a part; the characters themselves also wear costumes in order to become other people. In one scene, for example, Greenleaf catches Ripley trying on some of his clothes, eerily foreshadowing subsequent events. Even so, despite the film’s use of clothing as artifice, it has been cited by various commentators from the likes of GQ, Studio Canal and H&M Life as providing the foundations for an entire way of dressing.
And it’s a style that remains relevant more than half a century on. ‘There’s a whole new generation following its cues to dress in a more overtly prosperous way, to look sharp again even when dressed very casually,’ argues British tailor and designer Timothy Everest, who worked on costumes for the 1999 remake, The Talented Mr Ripley. ‘It’s the playboy style: classic but worn in such a relaxed way that it suggests money and the confidence not to care much about how you look, while all the while actually putting a lot of effort into it.’
The look is essentially a distillation of attire favoured by the wealthy, sun-kissed gadabout of the early 1960s, those with endless income and leisure time who were able to see the world as a playground. Modern Italian fashion often references this artfully relaxed style, avoiding loud patterns and incorporating luxurious fabrics into looks that have been put together in a carefully dishevelled way. The clothing worn by both Ripley and Greenleaf also echoed the Italian landscape. Shades of washed-out white are worn against the aged wood of the quay or the stonework of an ancient piece of architecture, shades of blue set against the vibrant Mediterranean Sea, and pale pink reflected in the canvas sails of Greenleaf’s yacht.
Although Delon didn’t dress himself in Plein Soleil – that was the work of costume designer Bella Clément – effortless chic became something the actor could sell throughout his life: in 1978 he launched a successful fragrance, followed by clothing and accessories lines. Even so, the film that made him famous uses clothes on a much deeper level: to codify character – displaying differences in class, education and lifestyle – and to suggest how interchangeable these differences are to the world at large after a simple change of clothing. When Greenleaf admonishes Ripley by saying, ‘No, you can’t come aboard [my yacht] in those shoes,’ it’s not quite clear whether it’s their suitability for wearing on deck that is in doubt or their suitability to be worn anywhere. The question is never answered. Style obsessives have been worrying about it ever since.