The Real Skinny Behind Borat’s Infamous Neon Green Mankini
In the original Borat film, only six seconds of screen time is devoted to Borat’s bright green “mankini.” Despite its limited appearance, however, the absurd, skimpy piece of swimwear is among the most memorable things about the Borat character.
In fairness, its infamy probably has as much to do with the 2006 Cannes Film Festival as it does the film itself, as Sacha Baron Cohen made headlines there for showing up in the outfit. Since then, Borat has been credited with popularizing the mankini, and fans all over the globe have sported it on a variety of occasions. The best-known incident was in 2017, when six Czech tourists were arrested in Kazakhstan for their Borat cosplay (Kazakhstan, by the way, really, really hates Borat).
The mankini was created by Cohen’s longtime costume designer, Jason Alper, who has worked with the actor to help create the looks for Borat, Ali G and Brüno. But while he has created numerous indelible cinematic fits over the years, he says none of them quite compare to being the man behind the mankini.
The Dawn of Borat
I met Sacha Baron Cohen when I was the costume designer for a satirical news show in England called The 11 O’Clock Show. At that point, he was working on what was very much the embryonic stages of both Ali G and Borat. Then we did some stuff for the Paramount Comedy Channel with Brüno.
It was great when all of those characters were coming about because comedy was crying out for something new at the time, and I don’t think people knew what they wanted until they saw Sacha and what he was doing. Sacha’s a very intelligent guy, and he’s always made the right choices. I’ve been working in comedy forever with everyone, and nobody executes a joke like him — nobody.
Borat’s Suit Remains Unwashed to This Day
We did Borat on Da Ali G Show, but when it came to the film, you had some backstory for the character. In that respect, I always treated the character like a real person. He’s a real person who’s traveling, so he’d have his suit, he’d have his pajamas and he’d have something for swimming and sunbathing. That would all go in his bag.
The clothes had to feel lived-in, and people had to believe this guy was real. I love getting into the details of what he’d have in his pockets and in his wallet, like Kazakh money and old Kazakh news clippings.
When I’m building a character, my mantra is not to make the costume funny. That might sound crazy, but when you look at Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau, that’s not a funny costume. Laurel and Hardy were wearing suits — nothing funny about that. Same goes for Chaplin. That’s the kind of comedy I grew up with, and it was a great note for me not to go too big with costumes. Plus, with Borat specifically, the bigger you go, the bigger the chance of blowing your cover.
To me, it made sense that Borat’s wardrobe would consist of things that ended up in Kazakhstan that had been popular in the U.S. 20 years previously. The beauty of doing that is, people can relate to it. Borat’s suit is just slightly oversized. It’s not funny, it’s just a bit off.
There’s only the one suit, too. We weren’t a film with wardrobe trucks or anything like that. Borat’s wardrobe is in that suitcase, and that suit is the same one we were using on The 11 O’Clock Show. It’s never been washed either, and that helps because when Borat leans into people, he smells, which feeds into people’s prejudices about foreigners and makes it feel like this guy really has been traveling.
The Birth of the Mankini
The exception to my “less is more” mantra is the mankini. It only works because it was done in a controlled environment. The shot with the mankini is just a few seconds long in the film, when Borat was sunbathing at this muddy river’s edge. That location, if I remember correctly, was on the way back from lunch one day. It was a last-minute, nothing scene.
The mankini was such a small thing for Borat that it almost wasn’t even made. It was just the swimwear we threw into the suitcase to fill out his wardrobe. I didn’t even have a design for the mankini when I made it. Sacha and I were talking about Eastern European weightlifting leotards, and I thought it’d be funny if we turned one of those into a thong. All I ended up doing was cutting a leotard for the top and a Speedo for the bottom. It was made from classic Spandex with a reinforced gusset. That’s it — again, it was a very nothing costume.
I did put some thought into it though. The bright green color, for example, had to be deadstock Spandex from the 1980s. It’s a tough color to pull off, and it’s definitely not current. I also put some thought into how you’d wear it. When I was designing the front of it, I made the Speedo part narrow, so that, if you ran with your knees outwards, your “breadbasket” wouldn’t fall out. If you run normally though, it would.
There is a method to my madness.
An Un-Cannes-y Entrance
Even though it was only in the movie for a few seconds, Sacha was clever enough to know that, when he was promoting the movie at Cannes, the thing to do was to wear the mankini. If you want the world to know you’re there, there’s no better way to do it than with a mankini. Cannes was where awareness of the film skyrocketed, and it started to become a big thing.
The Mankini Goes Global
The irony is, 20 years later, people in the real world are still wearing mankinis. I constantly get pictures sent to me from friends who spot them all over. Because of that, when we did the sequel, we introduced the “maskini.” We’d just gone through COVID, so obviously we needed a mankini made out of masks.
It’s been amazing for me to be connected to such an indelible piece of popular culture like the mankini. It’s very flattering. Like, those guys who were arrested in Kazakhstan — that was brilliant. It’s also been banned at soccer matches and things like that. To be connected to a piece of banned clothing, imagine how proud my parents are.