25 Years on, the Romeo + Juliet Shirt Is Still Fair Verona's Finest

·5-min read
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Gunnersbury Park, a semi-surburban, leafy enclave in London's western flank, is a place where young professionals swap weeknight parties for parenthood and mortgage plans. But, for a small window in the summer of 2018, a throng of young(ish) Londoners descended upon a creaking set where fairground rides churned to The Cardigans' swoon pop classic 'Lovefool', and where a serrated replica of the fictional Sycamore Grove spiked up against the skyline. They wore crucifixes, and aviator sunglasses, and so many Hawaiian shirts, before settling down, inebriated on vodka, and perhaps other things, to watch Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

These mad scenes, orchestrated by experiential events company Secret Cinema, were another sign of Romeo + Juliet's steadfast place in the pop culture canon. It is 25 years old today. And just like that pre-plague summer night were tickets sold out and fans screamed "What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word" back at John Leguizamo's oil slick Tybalt, it is still dizzyingly popular; a film that, despite a patchy critical response upon its debut, made Shakespeare for the MTV generation – and $151 million at the box office. It made a queer icon of Mercutio by way of Candi Staton. It made stars of a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And it made a generation (several, in fact), lionise the Hawaiian shirt.

Those shirts are still around. Because, as menswear reverses back into the retina scorch of the mid-Nineties and the early-Noughties, the wardrobes of the Montague boys have never been more relevant. Despite now existing in an age when MTV favours shows like Catfish over actual music videos, the channel's golden age is the enduring template for the current definition of cool. There's an echo of DiCaprio's Romeo in Maluma, in Justin Bieber, in Post Malone – all potential denizens of a fantasy in which Miami bleeds into Los Angeles; a city where the party boys can't sleep and the cars bounce on hydraulics to No Doubt.

This fantasy is also Luhrmann's fair Verona Beach – and, in a way, Shakespeare's. In the original production notes, production designer Catherine Martin argued that this "created world" was never meant to be "one pure period". For Shakespeare, who never visited Verona, this was a "mythical, Italianate country, where everyone was passionate and hot-blooded." And so Martin, and Luhrmann, created a new realm that could exist somewhere, and would continue to do so. "Essentially, the Verona in which Shakespeare set his play was a created world itself."

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Romeo was a seedling for the fashion that came some 20 years later, and it's two shirts that are largely responsible. What is perhaps the most iconic of the pair appears towards the film's second act, when a textbook Shakespearean case of miscommunication upends the star-crossed lovers' masterplan. DiCaprio, then just 21, smokes cigarettes in a blue Hawaiian shirt dappled with Japanese blossom in the doorway of a trailer before screaming at the sky, in one of the film's most recognisable scenes, as he laments the ostensible death of his young wife. It is one of those shirts; a wear-everywhere, year-round staple that works as well with a suit, as it does denim, as it does shorts, as it does a holiday, as it does weekends.

Of the shirt's special powers, fashion's custodians have been in agreement. To celebrate Romeo + Juliet's 20th anniversary, the original costume was displayed in all its glory at Opening Ceremony's now shuttered New York flagship. "This movie changed my life," said co-founder Humberto Leon upon the exhibition's open in 2016. "I want to dress like everyone in this film. I was in the middle of my schooling at UC Berkeley when [Romeo + Juliet] came out and saw a student screening on campus." For S/S '20, cult label Palm Angels sent a replica down the runway in Milan. And the shirt's counterpart, a sacred heart graphic shirt in a brighter shade of blue, was re-released by LA streetwear brand Pleasures in August of this year. Collectors have taken to Reddit en masse to showcase and review this grail, which, of course, took but hours to sell out.

The Romeo + Juliet effect can be explained by its pedigree. Prada and Dolce & Gabbana were initially charged with the costumes of the Montague and Capulet clan respectively, and the Hawaiian shirts of Romeo and co were to serve as a stark, intentional contrast to the monochromatic, razor-sharp, Catholic virility of their sworn rivals. This film was always meant to look good. What's more, Prada returned to the good and mad boxiness of Romeo + Juliet in later years, and triggered the Cuban collar revival from 2016 onwards with a shirt that, again, centred upon another pair of doomed lovers with a dreamy, amorous illustration of Elvis Presley and Cleopatra.

Is this one of the most popular shirts of all time? The metrics needed to answer that question are abstract. But we're still wearing it in some form, and we're still buying it from brands that profit on legion carbon copies. And Romeo, whether smoking, or screaming, or shooting, or crying, has populated Instagram feeds and 'best summer dressing' lists for 25 long years. You don't need a Secret Cinema ticket to embody this Romeo, nor a ruined villa on fair Verona Beach. You just need a Hawaiian shirt, and a high school recall of the greatest love story ever told.

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