What The Warriors Wore
Max Ingleby pays tribute to the idiosyncratic costume design of The Warriors
A friend recommended The Warriors to me a couple of years ago, selling it as a late-70s gem that I was bound to love. I had only heard of it as a passing reference in a Wu Tang song, but to my imminent delight the film proved to be an instant favourite – a low-budget romp through the gritty streets and subway stations of 1970s New York City, crammed with endless running scenes that even Tom Cruise would struggle to keep up with, and cheerfully formulaic fights with some fancy slo-mo chucked in for good measure. The costumes, however, were the unexpected icing on the cake.
A brief synopsis – the Warriors are a Coney Island street gang who send nine delegates to a peace-making summit all the way over in the Bronx, organised by Cyrus, the messiah-like leader of the biggest gang in town. When Cyrus is gunned down mid-speech, the Warriors are framed for his death and have to flee across NYC back to Coney, dispatching each gang that confronts them on the way.
Every gang has their own distinct look, their own uniform, and they are truly a sight to behold. The ‘Hi-Hats’, for instance, wear black top hats with striped red shirts and faces painted white like sad, lost mimes. The (insensitively portrayed) ‘Savage Huns’ from Chinatown, who dress in stereotypical paramilitary-style Chinese clothing as they mooch about waiting for the next subway train. The titular Warriors opt for a more low key get-up. Their only uniform being what can only be described as a leather waistcoat with a bitchin’ patch on the back, usually worn over a hairy bare chest.
The film and its iconic costumes are a love letter to a city in the grip of severe urban decay, and the real danger and extreme poverty its people suffered through in the 1970s.
The ‘Baseball Furies’ are another highlight, donning a full Yankees kit and wielding baseball bats. Their brightly painted faces make them impossible to take seriously, but they look fantastic as they sinisterly stare down the noble Warriors whilst swinging their bats in unison. To tell the truth, realism was thrown out of the window during the opening credits, but as an anthropological case-study of late-70s fashion, or just pure escapism, it’s hard to beat.
Although the dialogue is often laughably clumsy and the acting consistently wooden, the film had a real impact on audiences for its artistic honesty. The Bronx at the time was famously burning, with President Ronald Reagan commenting in 1980 that it resembled “London after the Blitz”. The film and its iconic costumes are a love letter to a city in the grip of severe urban decay, and the real danger and extreme poverty its people suffered through in the 1970s.
Clothes and costumes are integral not just to the visual appeal of the movie, but to the plot too. The Warriors are told by a rival gang that they can only pass through a neighbourhood if they take off their jackets, or their “colours”. They respond by throwing a molotov cocktail at a nearby car. For them their colours are a part of them, it’s “who we are”. They are willing to die for their gang, and many do during the film. This may sound silly and exaggerated, but there were hundreds of gang killings in the 70s in New York, and for many watching in cinemas The Warriors, with all its ridiculous costumes, captured the reality of that tumultuous era like no other film.