On suits... Part II Analysing „Catch me if you can"

How relevant suits are, we can observe in the film "Catch me if you can", directed by Steven Spielberg. However, it is not merely a fictional story, but a biographical crime drama, based on the life of Frank Abagnale. Frank successfully pretends to be a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor, to eventually become a millionaire.

Photo: Pixgood.com

Photo: Pixgood.com

It is 1963 and Frank is a 16 years old son of Paula and Frank Abagnale Sr., who divorce, after Frank’s father’s difficulties with the IRS seriously affect the quality of the family’s life. Being asked whom the son wants to stay with, Frank Jr. abandons both of his parents and runs away.

Frank puts on a pilot’s suit, and enjoys the benefits of a pilot. He later on dresses like doctor to work in a hospital, and further on wears a beautiful grey suit, calling himself a lawyer.

The FBI employee Carl, who was chasing him for five years, eventually catches Frank. He spends 5 years in prison, and is then hired by the bank fraud department of the FBI.

In the very beginning of the story, just before Frank leaves his family, his father gives him a very important advice, Frank would never forget. Frank Sr. tells him: The world believes your clothes/ costume, or as Spencer said, “(t)he suit still rules absolutely what a man must wear to be taken seriously in society”, (Spencer, 1992: 39).

With that in mind Frank undergoes a transformation, when a pilot’s suit is being tailored exclusively for him. From that moment on, he is perceived as a completely different persona – not a sixteen years old boy. Suggesting, that dress is “seen as a psychological code or device for displaying individual identity or personality”, Frank was easily identified as a pilot and therefore given certain privileges (Edwards, 1997: 28). It is important to note, that at that time period, the occupation of a pilot was accompanied by high respect and reputation. Another point worth mentioning is, that it was also the time when society to some extent still judged by the occupation of the person rather than his consumer behaviour.

Of course it is not only the suit, and through it, the privileges of a pilot which allow Frank to benefit from this position. Furthermore it is his talent to act and cheat, but also seduce.

In two scenes it is evident what impact Frank’s suits have on women, in combination with his seductive skills. In a bank, wearing a pilot’s suit, he flirts with the female employee, thus getting all the information he needs about the procedures with checks.

Secondly in a luxurious hotel, wearing a beautiful beige three-piece suit, he seduces a model for a brief intermezzo.

In both cases Frank benefits from his costume, which makes him appealing and desirable for the women. As mentioned above Anne Hollander sees good looks of men’s suit as a collective fantasy, “the fantasy as the proper material vessel of both beauty and power, of positive sexuality”, (Hollander, 1994:5). In her eyes the women are still enjoying the motifs of male tailoring. Edwards found a way to explain that eroticism, when saying that “(w)hilst the grace and elegance of the suit may come from the nature and continuity of its design, its eroticism comes more from its emphasis of the male form and most importantly, from its associations with commerce, success and corporate power”, (Edwards, 1997:21).

Pamela Church Gibson explains the sexuality of the suit, with its association with the phallus, because “today, when the unsheathed torso is everywhere, surely the suit is robust condom rather than cast (…)”, (Church Gibson, 2005:70).

Throughout the whole of the film, it is noticeable that most of the men are wearing suits. Frank Abagnale Jr., however, seems to stick out. His clothes are always perfectly tailored and fitted, and show certain trimness and almost perfection.

Photo: imgarcade.com

Photo: imgarcade.com

Frank puts special attention to his suits, and therefore to the persona he is playing in those suits. One can talk about certain fetishism or maybe some narcissistic preoccupation with clothes in the sense of Stella Bruzzi’s symbols of gangster’s identity.

It is this narcissism and undeniably the fact that he is a villain, which to a certain extent allows one to regard Frank’s character through the agenda of Stella Bruzzi’s gangster.

Of course Frank is not a gangster in the classic sense of “The Godfather”, nonetheless he might be seen as a “Spiv”, as Lorraine Gamman calls them. Gangster’s overemphasis on clothing helps them to “link violence and vanity, (and so) they often operate to glamorise menace. (…) They entertain us by violating the law (and/or prevailing social morality) whilst remaining good-looking and sartorially special, if not always good-hearted”, (Gamman, 2008: 218). And so does Frank, as the spectator wishes for him to escape, as soon as the FBI is on his scent. Being clever and skilful, sympathetic and attractive, he entertains his spectator.

In order to explain those perfect gangster-suits, they can also be considered as shields. “The suit holds the body like a fetish container that cannot be penetrated by a hostile gaze”, (Gamman, 2008: 220). Furthermore it protects the antihero from making his inner life transparent. It is a man with a masque, whose feelings are rarely exposed.

Ruth Rubinstein observes the ability of the suit, as a ubiquitous garment, to constrain the feelings, and to preserve self-control in favour of target-oriented behaviour, (see Rubinstein 1995:98).

Seeing the villain on screen, the spectator is confronted by the double effect “that here are the characters who have both cultivated an aggressively masculine image and are immensely vain, and whose sartorial flamboyance (…) is the most important sign of their masculine social and material success”, (Bruzzi, 1997: 70).

For Gamman there is a problem emerging, as she notes a contradiction “because on the one hand the suit contains feelings and reinforces masculinity as a hard exterior image that constraints some aspects of display. On the other hand, the suit helps to turn the male form into a performative spectacle and holds the gaze, providing narcissistic and voyeuristic identificatory opportunities for men and women, as well as strong homo-erotic overtones connected with the over-emphasis on appearance”, (Gamman, 2008:222).

However, one of the characteristics of the gangsters’ suits, is their recognisability, which helps them to become easily identifiable for the spectator. As soon Frank wears his immaculate suits, the spectator sees him acting in the “villain”-mode. As soon as he is dressed perfectly, he is lying. But beginning with the scene, as Carl is capturing him, and from this moment on, he is just a helpless young man. But when we see Frank leaving the FBI, wearing his pilot’s suit, we immediately understand the purpose of his costume, (see Bruzzi, 1997:71).

Frank Abagnale transforms himself into a villain, as soon as he puts on his costume.

The film “Catch me if you can” can be seen as an excellent example for the power of clothes, and in this case, the power of the suit. A greater proof for that can be noticed, when considering that the film is based on the true story of Frank William Abagnale Jr. and his biography. He is known for his history as a former confidence trickster, check forger, impostor, and escape artist.

Thus the trick with the costumes does not just work on screen, where Frank casts a spell on the spectator. The power of the suit is also evident off screen.

It is its history, and with it its own authority, as Hollander puts it, that empower this garment. It is its sexuality, which arises through its shape and the associations of success, masculinity and virility. Moreover its sanctity, which holds back the hostile gaze and serves as a shield to disguise and cover up the feelings.

The suit remains to be a remarkable phenomenon, as it has, “in one form or another, reigned supreme for over 300 hundred years, and is in short, here to stay. As nothing yet can equal its power, its elegance or its appropriateness on many occasions, this is a little of concern”, (Edwards 1997: 22).