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June 20, 2024
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French manicures, gold jewelry: The ‘mob wife’ aesthetic takes over TikTok

“The Sopranos” costume designer says the look is less about the clothes and more about the attitude

(Illustration by Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

The 25th anniversary of the debut of “The Sopranos” this month inspired a number of creative marketing efforts: a cast reunion at a Little Italy red sauce joint which is offering a Sopranos-themed menu through the end of the month, a new TikTok account with never-before-seen footage from the show, and screenings all over the country.

And of course, there is a new corresponding aesthetic. The Mob Wife Aesthetic, which many TikTok users have proclaimed since the beginning of the year, is this year’s new dominating trend.

“Clean girl is out, and mob wife aesthetic is in,” countless videos — including parodies and stitched commentaries — begin.

No longer are Kim Kardashian and Hailey Bieber, with their slicked back hair, glossy lips and neutral clothes, the ideal. Instead, Carmela Soprano, the wife of mob boss Tony Soprano played by Edie Falco, and Adriana La Cerva, the sexy and brash partner of Christopher Moltisanti played by Drea de Matteo, are the women to emulate. (Even Francis Ford Coppola weighed in on Instagram, explaining the concepts behind the two wives at the forefront of his “Godfather” trilogy.) Begin with black clothes, especially leather — “if you look like you’re going to a funeral, you know you’re doing it right,” says one explainerthrow on a fur coat and red lipstick and spiky boots and big sunglasses, plus a recognizable designer bag, and voilà.

Or shall we say, bada bing.

Much like the mob itself, the trend is rich with opulence — and, potentially, corruption. Some women claim this is cultural appropriation, blithely lifting trends from Italian women (and who took at least some of their style notes from the label-conscious and gold-jeweled looks of Black women in the 1980s and ’90s). Even more controversial, some users believe that this suspiciously ubiquitous “aesthetic,” which is so different from the “quiet luxury” conversations of 2023, is just another part of the marketing efforts to promote “The Sopranos.”

“It’s a testament to The Sopranos and its enduring impact on culture. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary this month, it’s no surprise that fans and creators have found inspiration from the series,” Jason Mulderig, a spokesman for HBO, said.

Juliet Polcsa, who designed the very memorable costumes on “The Sopranos” (which make up most of the moodboards for the trend), says she is unconvinced. “The stuff that they’re doing doesn’t really have anything to do with my work,” she says, laughing, adding that she is “flattered, nonetheless.”

“I think the biggest thing is, it’s not so much the clothing,” she says. “It’s more about the attitude. It’s this fierceness. With Carmela, there was a strength and attitude that she had. She was not a wallflower. She was a strong woman. I think that appeals to people.”

Sarah Arcuri, a romance novelist who has been posting on TikTok and Instagram about the “mob wife aesthetic” since October 2022, is a 29-year-old New Jersey resident who has been dressing in furs and animal prints for as long as she can remember. (When a creator first proclaimed in early January that “mob wife” had now replaced “clean girl,” Arcuri replied in her own video, “Okay, I’m here! I’ve been summoned! … I am here to usher you girlies into this new era” as she slipped gold bracelets and rings over her French manicured hands.)

She sees the growing popularity of the look as a reflection of the resurgence of “full ’80s glamour, like fur coats and red nails and gold jewelry,” combined with an interest in “the Y2K housewives.” In other words, it’s a rejection of fast fashion and what she calls “the Kardashian influence, because we have all started to look and sound and do everything the same. This is such a fun way to be unique.”

The videos are so prolific that one TikTok user, Molly Levine, asked whether the phenomenon was “a plant” from HBO. “It’s so interesting because it coincides so perfectly with this anniversary,” she says in her video.

Levine says her post was partly in jest, though she is skeptical of how corporate and organic marketing have become so entangled. “On the internet now, everything is packaged really quickly,” Levine, a 26-year-old who works in product operations at Google, says. “Brands want to play into something, and everyone just helps more and more mainstream and package these trends.”

Other women see a different problem with the videos, which in typical TikTok style provide a primer that boils down a universe to a few key pieces and steps: They are reductive, and even appropriative.

“What you guys are doing is cosplay,” says one user, who then provides a kind of ethnography on which fur coat lengths to wear and when. One particularly compelling series comes from an anonymous woman, who calls herself “a former mob wife” and recounts her story, with photos from her early 20s, that ends with an alleged Drug Enforcement Administration raid on her house.

Other users have pointed out that this “is more of an immigrant aesthetic” — the style of someone who came to the United States and found wealth and opportunity and wanted to show it through expensive purchases, and which is written off by the style mainstream as tacky or tasteless.

But really, as Arcuri points out, this look is less about any particular garments than a way of being. If “quiet luxury” and “clean girl” were trends that encouraged women to remain calm, collected and tame, the mob wife encourages loudness, bossiness — “let’s be bold and do whatever we want,” as Arcuri puts it.

For “The Sopranos” characters, Polcsa engaged in what she calls “method shopping.” Rather than making costumes herself, she went to New Jersey malls and observed shoppers, putting herself in the mind-set of her characters and then shopping herself, which gave the show the kind of realism that its creator David Chase desired: “what David wanted was to be as real as possible.”

She primarily patronized the now-shuttered mall staple Cache for looks for Carmela, whom she describes as “very outfit-driven, almost like that was her hobby” and a “nouveau riche, suburban New Jersey housewife.” Cache “had the right attitude,” she says, in that “everything was very matchy, color-coordinated. If you didn’t have a fashion sense, it gave you one.” (To her credit, Arcuri says she has an extensive collection of old Cache pieces.)

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Carmela’s French manicure, Polcsa recalled, was a defining quality — a sign of her life of McMansion leisure that is especially evident in an early episode in which she has her friend Charmaine, who runs a popular restaurant with her husband, Artie, cater a party, and Charmaine realizes through Carmela’s condescending summoning hand gestures that she is considered not a friend, but the help. “The nails were so crucial,” Polcsa says. “And we thought, ‘Oh, she probably spent her money on a boob job.’ So things were a little body conscious.”

Perhaps what defines Carmela’s style, then, is her desire to ingratiate herself into the typical American suburban life — workout clothes, kids in private schools, a big house with an open kitchen and a pool — but an insistence on doing it in her own way. She may be wearing a little suit to a meeting, but it’s pastel with a dramatic collar. (Again, this is the sort of narrative that TikTok trends tend to quash.)

Adriana, on the other hand, was more flamboyant; her most well-known look is a tiger-print ensemble worn when she is running her own rock club. “Dre could pull off more of the sexier stuff — [Adriana] was really just all about sex,” says Polcsa. “Whether you’re a mob wife or not, you wear your clothing to introduce yourself or arm yourself. It’s your calling card.”

Polcsa thinks that Chase’s obsession with realism is why it remains so popular, especially on social media: “I feel like the show in its entirety has held up,” she says. The clothing somehow doesn’t feel dated. It may be that fur coats, matchy workout clothes, gold jewelry and designer bags are classics in a world that, as Tony Soprano knew so well that it drove him to panic attacks and therapy, seems to be in such perpetual decline and even degradation.

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