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 wide open arms and an even wider smile, wearing a double-breasted beige suit and a shiny pair of 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 part-time errand boy to full-time mobster. Later in the film an adult Henry (Ray Liotta), eventually has a closet full of suits and shoes that grows as a result of years of illegal crime. Whether it is marking a character’s identity or illegal actions, what these two scenes underline is his how clothing plays a central role in Goodfellas.
Clothing also marks a point of transition when recently freed mobster Billy Bats (Frank Vincent), sees mob associate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) at a welcome home party. When Bats encounters him he initially notes that the latter is “all dressed up,” before hugging him, to which Tommy repeatedly tells him to “Watch the suit!”. Bats then proceeds to joke that the last time he saw him he was “Shoeshine Tommy” and boasts about how he used to make shoes shine “like mirrors.” Eventually, Tommy’s fuse goes off when Bats teases him to get his “fucking shine box.” This particular scene highlights the importance of clothing, as it helps mark the characters’ transition from mafia outsider to insider; Bats recognizes Tommy’s new identity through his suit, and that being a wearer (as opposed to a cleaner) is part of the identity for mafia associates in the film.
Aside from marking the transitional moments of mafia life, clothing also plays a crucial role in hiding and exposing illegal actions in the film. When Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) goes to visit Henry while he is incarcerated, she manages to sneak in food and drugs under 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 carry-on and conceal her husband’s illegal actions, and yet its ordinary style also signifies her status as civilian visiting her husband.
This coat completely 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 fellow associate Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) warns the crew not to spend money in a conspicuous manner. When a crew member’s (Frank Sivero) wife arrives in a brand-new white mink coat at a Christmas party shortly after the heist, an enraged Conway demands that she takes it off and have it removed from the premises. While the coat is more unapologetic in its display of illegal activity compared to Karen’s, both coats mark the simultaneous conspicuousness and inconspicuousness illegal crimes that take place in the film and define mafia culture.
Another important clothing moment comes just before Henry drops-off his babysitter and part-time drug mule Lois (Welker White) at the airport. Before leaving, Lois insists she cannot fly unless she has her lucky hat, which was shown earlier in the film as Henry, Karen and Lois were getting ready for one of her flights. 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 given the fact that the wide sloping brim design of a bucket hat was designed to protect fisherman and soldiers from the elements of the natural world. In this regard the hat that Lois takes comfort in, and that is designed to protect from the natural world, exposes and returns Henry to civilian life after he is busted by the feds. Ultimately, from showing Henry’s entry into mob life to causing his downfall, clothing in Goodfellas marks the identity of characters and the visibly of their illegal actions the film.