Pure ‘50s, Down to the Undies

THE MOVIE: “The Mambo Kings”

THE SCRIPT: Brothers and musicians Cesar (Armand Assante, left) and Nestor (Antonio Banderas, right) Castillo leave their native Cuba in the 1950s to pursue their destinies in New York City in the film adaptation of Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” They also find love--Cesar with sexy cigarette girl Lanna Lake (Cathy Moriarty), Nestor with housekeeper Dolores Fuentes (Maruschka Detmers).

THE LOOK: Ann Roth and co-designers Gary Jones and Bridget Kelly express the bravura of the Latin beat. Cuba was once renowned for its fine tailors, as well as its music, says Roth, so Cesar and Nestor have style, even if it’s not the Brooks Brothers variety.

The brother’s stage style of shawl-collared dinner jackets, aglitter with gold lame or shouting their presence in braggadocio colors, are always loosely cut to reflect the ‘40s long, draped zoot suit influence.


Performers like Tito Puente, who plays himself in the movie, were obvious role models. His white brocade dinner jacket is the jazziest of all. The musicians’ joyful-if-hokey ruffle-sleeved rumba shirts evoke a period and a look that has gone the way of the green-glass Coke bottle.

Offstage, Cesar and Nestor’s hot blood is reflected in warm browns and tans of pin-striped suits, open-collared shirts and easy sport jackets.

Women step out in dance dresses that are fitted with bones and secured with spaghetti straps or halter-neck ties. If every curve looks right, perhaps it’s because the actresses are wearing vintage Maidenform bras and garter belts and girdles, says Roth.

The chiffon dress Dolores wears for her sexy dance number with Cesar is a potent ad for the diaphanous fabric, while Lanna’s sequined cigarette-girl dress suits her wanna-be glamorous style.

THE SOURCES: The designers used vintage textiles found in fabric stores across the country, including Beverly Hills Silks and Woolens, for the custom-made wardrobe. Accessories are vintage too.

THE PAYOFF: The innocence of the pre-MTV ‘50s mambo scene is expressed through meticulously real details and honest styling.