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The story behind the bold and bizarre street style of The Warriors

Costume designer Bobbie Mannix talks us through the film that changed the face of NYC on screen, 40 years on from its release

For action film fans of a certain vintage, New York City will forever be a deserted subway carriage rattling around Walter Hill’s brain. As seen in The Warriors, the cult director’s quick-and-dirty gang flick of 1979, the city was dark, grubby, exotic – somewhere between a bin-fire hellscape and an urban adventure playground for the criminally insane. It looked like the coolest place on Earth.

Which was, of course, exactly how Walter Hill wanted you to feel. Adapted from Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name, the film follows a crew of leather-clad tough guys as they try to get back to Coney Island, having found themselves wrongly accused of shooting an underworld boss. Along the way, they encounter a series of rival gangs looking to “waste” them – but Hill doesn’t mess about debating the rights and wrongs of the situation, instead presenting his film as a kitsch-y, pulp-fiction riposte to the moral panic surrounding gang violence in New York during the late 70s. (Its backers, Paramount, offered to pay cinemas showing the film for extra security after violence broke out at screenings in the US.) “Our film doesn’t say everyone is supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor or something,” Hill told the Village Voice in 2015. “The movie sees gangs as a defensive alignment in order to help you survive in a harsh atmosphere.”

That’s one way to account for The Warriors’ enduring influence, which has grown through the years to encompass 80s action cinema, grungy video game aesthetics and hip-hop culture. (Ol’ Dirty Bastard famously shouts out the film on the Wu-Tang’s debut.) Another is to note its stylised take on the material, from Hill’s comic-book staging of the carnage to the gangs’ bold and frequently bizarre uniforms, designed and adapted for the screen by Bobbie Mannix.

Forty years on from the film’s release, we asked Mannix to talk us through some of her iconic costume designs. Because, hey, it’s not easy looking hard when you’re dressed like a 70s kids’ show presenter on rollerskates. But The Warriors did make it look cool.

Bobbie Mannix: “It didn’t feel like The Warriors existed in the world at all at that time. I didn’t want all the gangs to show up in the same clothes so I brought a fantasy feeling to them. In those days, I don’t think gangs could afford to wear anything like we had in The Warriors.

“One thing I did notice was that some of the kids started showing up in crappy clothes for the shoot (Hill recruited real-life gang members as extras for the film), putting their gang clothes on, and then going home in the morning in the same stuff. They were stealing the clothes and leaving the crappy clothes with us!

“I had 120 gangs with ten or 12 members per gang, so we had to separate them somehow otherwise they would all blend in with each other. I was inspired, of course, by the names of the gangs, the personality of each gang and what part of New York was their territory. From there, I separated each gang by shape, fabric and colour.

“At the time the film was very controversial, it was big-time nasty but now it looks adorable to me! It’s more like a cartoon. I remember them pulling it out of theatres at one point because here in California someone got stabbed and killed at the theatre. But (the film is) like child’s play compared to real-life gangs of today.

“Besides The Warriors, I think the Furies are the most popular (of the gangs from the film). I did all the make-up and designed all the logos for the gangs. It was the make-up put them over the top, though. It had nothing to do with A Clockwork Orange or Kiss – I was so naive at the time, I just pulled it out of my brain!

“Of course, the Lizzies I just loved, loved, loved. I wanted them to be sexy and have these see-through tops, which I think they did but then they ended up covering them with jackets in the film.

“We purchased everything and put (the costumes) together, they weren’t designed from scratch like they would be in a big movie today, like Black Panther. I found fabulous pieces of clothing for the Riffs scouring the streets of New York City, from the upper West side to Houston Street Downtown. I saw that one jacket for (gang leader) Cyrus, with all the black checks on it, and that triggered the idea for the whole gang. Then I just kept finding these fabulous pieces of quilted satin appliques – they were all female things, but I put them on the Riffs and it looked great. In those days it wasn’t gay or straight or anything like that, it wasn’t a big gender thing, it was just people. And it worked out just fine.”