The most iconic image in the Hannibal (opens in new tab) TV show is Mads Mikkelsen wearing a spotless white shirt, cleanly slicing offal from a butchered human being. And while I’d love to reach into the cerebral void and suggest it’s a metaphor for committing unspeakable acts with impunity, I’ll be honest instead; I like it because it looks cool.
I’m not the only one. Search for ‘Hannibal suits’ and you’ll find articles listing everything he wore in the show (opens in new tab), handsome infographics (opens in new tab) on how your suit should fit, and deep dives into the number of buttons he has on his jacket (opens in new tab). Just like licking your lips at the forbidden meals he serves, there’s a guilty hunger to be like Hannibal despite him being a monster.
It’s a dream show if you like clothes. I usually have to rewind the first five minutes of every episode because I’m too busy admiring the outfits to notice who’s been eating whom. I watched the suiting up sequence in season 2 numerous times, just to work out what kind of cuffs Hannibal has on his shirt. And, if you ever wanted to understand how to properly match a tie and pocket square - they should never be identical, people - just watch and see how Hannibal does it.
But even if you’re not stimulated by stitching or provoked by paisley, you have to accept that Hannibal’s outfits are a masterful piece of characterisation. They tell you so much about the character without saying anything. The creator of the show, Bryan Fuller, explained Hannibal’s style to Esquire (opens in new tab): "Lecter is really a bit of a dandy and someone who loves the finer things in life - someone who would have a bespoke wardrobe,” says Fuller. “I thought of Hannibal Lecter as this man who appreciates the beauty in life, who would love colour and pattern and stimulating fabrics.” But as well as telling us what he loves, they reveal something about his personality. Hannibal’s outfits represent outrageous self belief disguised as formality.
They deliberately leave exactly the right amount of mystery, too. Costume designer Christopher Hargadon explains why in this interview (opens in new tab): “This was not the Hannibal that had been seen before... his background, a kind of indeterminate European heritage, with an awareness of history and culture”, says Hargadon. “I wanted him to have a cutting edge look, very modern, but I wanted to integrate almost a historical feel into his clothing as well. So that he was very distinct and different from the people around him.” The contrast works wonderfully. If Hannibal is unrealistically, mysteriously dapper, Will Graham is distressed yet rugged like his beaten fishing vest. Jack Crawford, however, is similarly elegant to Hannibal, but without any of the dandyism. You can look at the outfits of all the main characters, from the idealistic Alana Bloom to sensationalist Freddie Lounds, and know something about who they are, purely from the way they dress.
More than this, the clothing reveals subtext. Frederick Chilton gradually dresses more like Hannibal as the show progresses, just as Matthew Brown unwittingly mimics Hannibal's murders. Crucially, both simulations are wrong: sloppy facsimiles only an expert would spot, which betray the weak minds of the imitators. It’s perhaps more interesting, then, that for all the time Will Graham spends with Hannibal, he never begins to resemble him. Maybe he just doesn’t like waistcoats; or maybe it’s something deeper, cleverer. Their shared interest is analytical, not superficial. Hannibal is only interested in Will’s mind - who cares if he comes to dinner dressed like a fisherman? The contrast feels measured and deliberate in a very Lector way, and the show is so much better for these minor details.
Does this mean I’ll be preparing brandy-drowned ortolans in the kitchen while rocking a bespoke three-piece? Sadly not. This is partly because I’m a writer and not a successful pretend psychologist, but also because it’s a look only Mads Mikkelson can pull off. “He has a dancing background, and was a gymnast for years”, explains Hargadon (opens in new tab). “I can't say that I've met a lot of people who can wear clothes the way that he can.” But of all the decadent things Hannibal has made me want to try, the clothes are the hardest thing to resist.