There’s a moment in Oppenheimer that seems almost like something out of a superhero movie or an Indiana Jones flick. Standing in his office at Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) puts on a hat and picks up a pipe, each item lingered on by director Christopher Nolan’s camera. Nolan films these actions from behind like Oppenheimer is assuming his armor as he emerges to lead the Manhattan Project, the WWII effort that will result in the development of the atomic bomb. His shoulders are broad. His silhouette is totemic. “A rock star is born,” costume designer Ellen Mirojnick explains. “There’s an elegance, an empowerment, and a strength about who that man has become as he walks out of his office in the totality of this outfit.”
Oppenheimer the movie is clear that Oppenheimer, the man, is not actually a superhero or a rock star, even if he might at times think of himself as such. Nolan’s film recognizes that its protagonist is both deeply conflicted and the orchestrator of atrocity. At the same time, it also acknowledges that Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, was deeply stylish.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has been dominating the movie fashion conversation this summer with its hot pink ensembles, but for menswear enthusiasts Oppenheimer might actually be the sartorial event of the season. Vogue coined Oppenheimercore to note how the boxy tailoring of the physicist has been reflected on runways, while Twitter observers speculated that the film might unleash a new level of “hat guys.”
For fashion writers Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, also known as Tom and Lorenzo, a Nolan production always means great suits. “Christopher Nolan is a director after our own hearts, because he makes sure his leading men all know the value of a good suit, from Batman Begins to Inception to Tenet,” Fitzgerald writes in an email. “When we think of those films, we can’t help but picture how great the men looked in them.”
The fact that Oppenheimer looks so good is not irrelevant to the plot. Nolan depicts him as a ladies’ man — which he was — and as someone who can convene a cult of personality around him. People are drawn to him not just because of his brilliance but because of his general suaveness. Which is all to say, the striking image of Oppenheimer on screen is very much not incidental, according to Mirojnick. “It’s seductive in a way,” she says. “Because what you feel in the silhouette is that you feel the person. His silhouette embraced the body where it needed to be embraced.”
Oppenheimer’s personal connection to the world of great tailoring is a matter of record. His father, Julius, worked in the world of menswear. According to American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the biography on which Oppenheimer is based, Julius has a reputation as “one of the most knowledgeable ‘fabrics’ men in” New York. American Prometheus authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin wrote that Julius “dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie, and a dark business suit.”
In her initial research, Mirojnick was struck that over time Oppenheimer maintained a steady style, despite looking at images that spanned from the ’20s through the ’60s. He shifted his dress a little during his time at Los Alamos, she says, to adapt to the environment of the New Mexico desert — he loses the waistcoat, for instance — but that “silhouette” remains the same. (Mirojnick loves designing for a male “silhouette,” a fact she learned designing the costumes for Wall Street in 1987.)
Oppenheimer’s jacket might look a little large on his frame to the modern viewer, which gets skinnier as time passes; his tie might look a little short; his waistband might look a little high; and his hat might look a little big. (The style of the hat has been called “pork pie” but Mirojnick believes it’s a variation on that with a larger brim.) It’s all a bit “voluminous,” a word that Mirojnick uses, but that’s what makes it actually look “fashionable,” she adds.
While some men might scoff at a bigger shoulder for fear of looking like Talking Heads-era David Byrne, a little length in that area actually looks good. “When you extend the shoulders like that you get a much more flattering proportion for the male figure because you’re able to build a kind of V-shaped silhouette for the suit,” says Derek Guy of the blog Die, Workwear! (Guy is probably best known as the Twitter menswear dude.)
Mirojnick notes that she and Nolan weren’t too concerned with making the costumes of Oppenheimer look perfectly period accurate. “We were not one to keep it so strict, that it would take somebody out of the story,” she says. “I had to make it [so] a young audience would be as seduced as an older audience would be.” One key historical inaccuracy: Oppenheimer is one of the only characters to wear a hat. Normally during these eras, everyone would be donning headwear, but Nolan wanted Oppenheimer to stand out among his peers.
It’s hard to tell how much the influence of Oppenheimer’s costuming will trickle down into everyday life; after all, the suit in general has been in decline. (Even Murphy didn’t wear one to every Oppenheimer event.) High fashion might take notice, however. Vogue’s Laia Garcia-Furtado argued: “My guess is the sartorial influence of this movie will be reflected in seasons to come.” Tom and Lorenzo believe that if the cyclical nature of trends accounts for anything, a ’40s revival is on the way.
“With menswear, we went from a very Mad Men-inspired mid-’60s silhouette for men’s suits for the better part of a decade, then lockdown happened and after that we entered a period of funkiness and minor experimentation as the pants flared and a rainbow of color and print options became trendy again,” Fitzgerald explains. “If you go by the theory that fashion repeats itself, then we’re in roughly 1979 or so, which is right about the time that menswear went through a ’40s-inspired trend period.”
So maybe a burst of Oppenheimer-inspired looks are on the horizon — at least when it comes to tailoring. It may even filter into women’s looks given how menswear has been a dominant trend for female celebrities this summer. (Tom and Lorenzo think the hat has taken too much of a beating from its “M’lady” associations to really weather a comeback.)
For Mirojnick, there’s a thematic way in which the film reflects modern society. The horrors of today, after all, are very visible in the horrors of the past. “The world that they inhabit and the time periods that they inhabit are not dissimilar to the time periods we live in today,” she says. “So naturally fashion would imitate fashion or costumes would become fashion.” It’s also, as she said before, very seductive. In the context of the movie, that seduction is tinged with the evil Oppenheimer knows he has wrought. In the context of good clothes, that seduction is just, well, hot.