Spats' All, Folks!
Al Capone, left, Asst. State Attorney Frank Mast and Bailiff Joe Weinberg in a Chicago Federal Building courtroom in 1931. - Chicago Tribune Archive
Words Ollie Day
Scarface. Big Al. Public Enemy No. 1. Amongst the incredible pieces of history seen at Kerry Taylor’s latest ‘Passion for Fashion’ auction, a pair of 1920’s men’s spats stole the show; owned by and sporting the signature of none other than Alphonse ‘Al’ Capone.
Spats, or spatterdashes, were a relic of men’s style abandoned shortly after the First World War. Made of tan wool, they fasten around the sole of the shoe and are held tight by belted straps; the precious leather upper of the shoe protected from the elements. Considering their widespread abandonment after the war, flawless examples are now hard to come by over a hundred years later, yet Kerry Taylor’s pair come from an unlikely owner: the king of the Mob, Al Capone.
Better known by the fearful moniker ‘Scarface’, Capone led the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate from 1925 to 1931: the most famous of the American bootleggers, smuggling illegal alcohol from Canada into disguised bars across the Prohibition-Era Midwest. Though there were many famed gangsters born out of the lust for alcohol in the 20s, Capone remains perhaps the most infamous criminal of the last century. Characterised by a penchant for extreme violence tempered with Robin Hood-esque philanthropy, he has since become the blueprint for countless gangster epics in popular culture.
There is a kind of noir intrigue befitting the spats in question, a hundred-year history of violence and style hand-in-hand: they were autographed and given by Capone to mechanic James McCann after the latter found them in the glovebox of the former’s steel-armoured 1928 Cadillac Sedan. After Capone’s arrest, the car was seized by the government and later used as President Roosevelt’s presidential vehicle; McCann kept the spats and sent them to his brother in Ireland for safekeeping.
The spats, with Capone’s signature visible on the tan wool.
A squat, rotund man, Capone was infatuated with style and luxury, indulging in $500 ($7500 today) silk-lined bespoke suits and enormous quantities of fine jewellery. Like many made-men, he had worked his way from poverty to extreme wealth; at the time of his death, he was worth over $100 million by today’s standards.
At his peak, he was the de facto ruler of Chicago, and carried himself as such; obsessively self- conscious of his appearance, he only allowed photographs from his unscarred left side. His use of spats, considered eccentric by the 1930s, reflects the kind of nostalgia he was infected with - a desire to be a gentleman, a man of substance and taste. It is easy to imagine the fastidious Capone fussing over the prospect of his pristine Oxford shoes being muddied by the Chicago pavement, which is where he presumably wore the spats over 90 years ago.
Imagining such a scenario, it is easy to forget the quiet lethality that the viciously-dressed man is still infamous for. It was this violence that lent him his nickname, and by extension made him the most powerful crime lord in the Midwest. Establishments refusing to purchase liquor from the Outfit often had that very refusal returned with a kilogram of lit dynamite. and as many as 100 people were killed in such bombings during his reign as ‘King of the Bootleggers’.
Members of the Chicago Outfit hide their faces at the trial of Al Capone, 1931 - photographer unknown
His use of spats, considered eccentric by the 1930s, reflects the kind of nostalgia he was infected with - a desire to be a gentleman
For there were two sides to Al Capone: Alphonse, the charitable, almost dandyish figure, who fancied himself as Chicago’s Robin Hood; and Scarface, capable of bringing the city to its knees at the peak of his career, with hands of gold around the necks of law enforcement and local government. Like a spider he squatted over the state of Illinois, and spun the Outfit’s web of bootlegging and murder-for-hire for the better part of the decade.
A hundred years later, this web is still in town; the Outfit still worming its way around Chicago’s underbelly. Indeed, as recently as 2009, its former boss John DiFronzio was charged with union extortion to the amount of $400,000. It now has a new, mysterious leader: Salvatore DeLaurentis, ex-caporegime. One has to wonder if he’s in the market for a new pair of spats.
A McCann family letter, written by James McCann’s grandnephew, detailing the story of the spats and how they entered the possession of the Irish McCann clan.
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