Robert De Niro needed a tie. So, deep into the shooting of Casino, one of the film’s costume designers visited the actor’s trailer and presented him with two neckwear options. After seeing them, the star asked his visitor to choose.
“I said, ‘I think it should be this one,’” says John Dunn, who along with Rita Ryack, outfitted the movie’s cast. “And he just looked at me and he said, ‘You know, this is very important. You’d better be right.’”
De Niro was only teasing Dunn. But make no mistake: when it came to his on-screen look, the two-time Academy Award winner was extraordinarily discerning. “He understands the language of clothing and how it informs the character,” Dunn tells me. That’s never more apparent than in Martin Scrorsese’s Las Vegas–set epic, in which De Niro plays Chicago bookie turned casino boss Sam “Ace” Rothstein.
To Scorsese, the son of a garment presser and a seamstress, clothes have never been an afterthought. “Some directors are like, ‘OK, whatever you say is fine,’ Dunn says. “And Marty is much more involved.” Casino, based on coscreenwriter Nicholas Pileggi’s book of the same name, was no exception. Every single item the characters wear—from brightly colored jackets and five-point pocket squares, to bedazzled dresses and a tri-hued chinchilla coat—is of the hyperspecific aesthetic of ’70s and early ’80s Vegas, a mobbed-up city whose grit hadn’t yet been fully washed away by glitz.
Ryack and Dunn, who first worked together on Broadway musicals, prepared for the job by studying the period’s style and fashion. Their research also included drawing inspiration from photographs of the real people on which several characters are based. For example, Dunn says that Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna marries Rothstein in a dress identical to the one that her true counterpart, Geri McGee, wore when she married Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the real-life Ace. And every suit Ace wears was custom made by a New York tailor. “It was the ’70s,” Dunn says, “but we didn’t make anything out of polyester.”
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the release of Casino, Dunn gave a guided tour of some of the movie’s most audacious, unforgettable looks, starting with the most show-stopping of them all.
Ace’s Coral Jacket
In the opening scene of the film, a flash-forward to 1983, Ace falls victim to a car bomb. The coral suit jacket he’s wearing is as loud as the explosion. That’s on purpose, of course. Rothstein’s reign at the Tangiers Casino is about to come to a close. He’s become too conspicuous, too ambitious.
“There was the idea that Ace has just gone too far,” Dunn says. “He’s no longer behind the scenes, he’s no longer just manipulating things behind the screen. He’s being very, very up front and very in the face of the mob. And so it was very important to see that his character had reached a point where visually he was not afraid of basically being the brightest thing in the room. And also the idea that he’d come so far from where he had started in Chicago, and now he’s in Las Vegas in insanely bright colors and happy to be the center of attention. And obviously there was a price to be paid for that.”
The audience first sees Stone’s character through the eyes of Ace, who through closed-circuit television, watches Ginger put on a show at a craps table. For this moment, the costume designers knew that she had to be wearing something stunning. “It had to be that she was in this casino, full of life, in glamorous clothing,” Dunn says. “And she had to be like, the thing in the room. And we just tried out a number of dresses.”
The sparkling gown chosen, it turns out, wasn’t one that Ryack and Dunn made. It came directly from Stone’s closet. “It was a vintage piece that Sharon Stone had in her own collection,” Dunn says. “She said, ‘Listen, I think I have a great idea. This is a dress I’ve got. Why don’t you take a look at it? And we tested it and everybody said, ‘That’s it. We’re not gonna come up with anything better than that.’”
Ginger had a taste for expensive jewelry and clothing, so it only made sense that she would wear furs. When production on Casino began in Las Vegas in late 1994, Ryack and Dunn approached local furriers, told them they were working on a Scorsese movie, and asked if they had any period-appropriate coats that they could use.
“Suddenly the vaults flew open and these extraordinary pieces that they had since the ’70s came out,” Dunn says. “We were sort of in the throes of the anti-fur movement rearing its head in the ’90s, so these people couldn’t give away the furs. Having Sharon Stone wear some of their furs was beyond exciting to them. So we were able to pretty much promote these amazing furs that had been locked away for 15-20 years.”
Home Sweet Home
When Ace and Ginger tour their shiny new golf-course adjacent house—the former in a green suit, the latter in a trippy, rainbow-patterned dress—they spend the day lapping up all the indulgences now available to them. Sam gives Ginger piles of gold jewelry; she seemingly tries on dozens of pieces.
“They moved into a world where they were just surrounded by a color and freedom that none of them had experienced before in their lives,” Dunn says. “We just wanted to show that these were people that were experiencing the freedom that their activities, as it were, had made available to them. And so there’s no sense of restraint whatsoever.”
Ace Goes Pantsless
In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Rothstein sits at his desk in his office preparing for a meeting. When his secretary calls to say that the county commissioner is there to see him, Ace stands up, revealing that he’s wearing an electric blue shirt and tie, matching shoes, custom-made boxer shorts and custom-dyed socks, and no pants.
“Behind the scenes there were a lot of things that we would just laugh about and think, ‘They’re not gonna believe this when they see it,’” Dunn says. “Ace is now not gonna have his pants on in the scene. It’s a serious scene. It just sort of creates a whole sort of tension and comedy simultaneously that’s often part of a Scorsese film.”
You see, sitting for an extended period of time will destroy the crease on pressed trousers. Rothstein wanted to look as sharp as possible, so he worked in his underwear until he had to greet his guest. “It was all meant to demonstrate the type of mind Ace had,” Dunn says. “As disturbed as it was, it was also brilliant and obsessive. That whole concept is when things get tough and he’s under stress, he actually gets more orderly and concerned about his appearance.”
Coats of Many Colors
Ryack and Dunn had fun dressing Ace in shades that he likely wouldn’t have been caught dead in before moving West. He compared Rothstein’s usual palette to a sleeve of multicolored Necco wafers. “We wanted it to have that sort of desert feeling,” Dunn says, “where suddenly the mobsters were wearing these colors that they would never have worn in Kansas City or Chicago.”
In Vegas, for a while at least, Rothstein blossomed. “We all know those people who start out in one place and suddenly they go somewhere, a light bulb goes off, and everything clicks for them,” Dunn says. “And they are in the environment they were meant to be in. That’s really how we always approached Ace. Probably back in Chicago he just looks like everybody else in his sharkskin suit. But then once he got to Las Vegas and became a success, he had the power to indulge himself.”