The characters in On the Waterfront do not wear much makeup or elaborate costuming. Eva Marie Saint’s Edie Doyle is wind-worn in her close-ups—just being outside, it seems, is painful. She has wrinkles around her moist stung eyes and exposed cheeks. Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy wears the same simple lumberjack’s coat with holes in the elbows for the duration of the film. Its checkerboard pattern helps us to identify him in any crowd and sets him apart as different. In the final scene, he’s not wearing the jacket. Rather, he wears Joey Doyle’s, signifying his acceptance of Father Barry’s belief that Doyle was a true martyr. He dons the skin of a martyr to stand up for a principle himself.
Changes in costume like this are also key indicators of shifting emotions or suggested eroticism in a paranoiac, code-restricted Hollywood. After we get used to seeing Catholic teacher-in-training Edie Doyle all buttoned up in her proper overcoat, her appearance at the end of the film in a soft white slip, with her hair free of its barrettes, is surprising. Her body is presented in a new light. She now has a feminine shape, and in comparison with her formerly demure appearance, her physicality jumps right off the screen.
Joey's jacket is passed from Joey to Kayo Dugan to Terry Malloy. It is worn by Joey who is going to testify. Then to Kayo who decides to testify and finally to Terry who does testify.