Fashion in Film Blogathon: Cary Grant, Style Icon
Angela of the classic film blog
Cary Grant had style. Actually, Cary Grant has style. When discussing men’s fashion, his name most assuredly enters the conversation. He could transform the simplest of clothes into fashionable and iconic looks. CG never made many historical films, and the few he made were disasters at the box office. Why? Because he was a modern man. He was timeless, ageless, and ultimately comfortable in his threads.
I could write an entire book on Grant’s style, but Richard Torregrossa has already done a marvelous job of that with his book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style. Since I cannot be as comprehensive as Torregrossa, I will settle for highlighting some of my favorite CG looks along with anecdotes pulled from Torregrossa’s book, other publications on Grant, and my own observations.
First, here are a few tidbits about Cary Grant that relate to his sense of style:
• CG modeled himself after two men: Noël Coward and Douglas Fairbanks. For his sophisticated looks and manners, Coward was the inspiration. For the muscular, athletic, acrobatic side, Fairbanks.
• CG had a very large, muscular neck. He often attributed his neck’s size to the years he spent as an acrobatic performer in The Pender Troupe. He was self conscious about his neck and always made sure to draw attention away from it. In his films and in real life, Grant can almost always be seen wearing either a tie, scarf, or neckerchief. When he did not have on a piece of neckwear, he usually kept his shirts buttoned to the top or the back of his collar popped up. The majority of his clothing was custom made and he often requested the collars of his dress shirts be wider to better conceal his neck.
• Many of the custom pieces in Grant’s personal wardrobe were made by tailors from the famous Saville Row in London. He spared no expense as long as he could be assured of the quality. He bought clothing that would last. When his shirt collars and cuffs would start to show wear, like all shirts inevitably do, Grant would sometimes send them back to the tailors to have that portion replaced. Some call it cheap, I call it being savvy. With footwear he favored brogues. He can often be seen wearing brown and black brogues with many different styles and colors of suits.
• Early on in his career when he was still under contract to Paramount Studios, Grant struggled to find the right look and fit with his suits. For one, he was still developing his style. Also there were limitations to many of the suits that were made then–mainly with freedom of movement. Many of the suit coats had no venting, which created a lumpy mess with the simplest of movements, like putting a hand in a pocket. Grant worked with his tailors and staff in wardrobe to create vented suits. Most of his jackets had extra long custom vents to allow for maximum movement while giving him a taller and leaner look. This was perfected with the tuxedo Grant wears in the Highland Dance scene in Stanley Donen’s Indiscreet and more famously with the grey suit in North By Northwest.
• Grant wore women’s nylon panties. I have read this in many books about him. Some of the authors try to attribute this to some weird fetish he supposedly had, but I believe Richard Torregrossa has the best explanation. There were no briefs or boxer briefs, only boxer shorts which would bunch up. After years of aggravation, CG finally discovered that nylon panties provided enough support, was flattering to the male anatomy, and didn’t show through clothing. Ok, then!
Early on in CG’s career, he was still discovering his sense of style. He didn’t get much chance to experiment in his first several films because 1) he didn’t have the clout, and 2) he mainly played the pretty boy in a tuxedo and top hat. Many of these films were the scraps that remained after Gary Cooper had his top pick. When not in those damn tuxedos, Grant incorporated a timeless classic into his wardrobe: the pull over sweater. Paired with a collared shirt and sometimes a scarf, this look was casual yet sophisticated.
The Exposed Neck
As I already noted, Grant was self conscious of his neck size. He went to great lengths to conceal it, but there were times when he allowed its exposure. I don’t know about you, but I find his neck to be quite nice.
This is one of my favorite photos of CG, taken in 1932 by photographer Imogene Cunningham. Not only does it ooze sex, it shows a more vulnerable side of Grant. I know this is a beefcake shot, but to me it is pure art. Absolute perfection.
This photo is from the most famous scene in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby. Grant’s character David Huxley is a nerdy scientist who is socially awkward around everyone except a fossilized dinosaur. He is uptight, a little frumpy, and isn’t concerned at all with his looks. When David is forced to wear a frilly women’s robe, he suddenly has sex appeal. Why? The audience knows that he is completely naked under that robe. His hair is slightly disheveled and his neck is exposed.
The submarine might sink, but CG is going to look sexy in the process. It’s not often we see a bare chested Cary. It’s a shame because he pulls the off the look very well. If you take a closer look, he is wearing a gold necklace. This is a piece of CG’s personal jewelry. He wore it every day and it can be seen in several of his films. The necklace had charms that represented the religious beliefs of each of his wives. Of course at this point Cary had only been married twice, so there were only two charms. By the end of his life, the necklace had a total of five.
99% of the time Cary looked perfect. Clothing freshly pressed and coordinated, face clean shaven, and not a single hair out of place. However, even style gods make mistakes.
This is a publicity still of Grant as Matt Howard in the 1940 historical drama The Howards of Virginia. Not the best look for Grant and he knows it. If you have seen the film, it is obvious that he is not incredibly comfortable in the role.
Thankfully Grant only made one other historical drama after Howards: the steaming pile The Pride and the Passion. One cannot fault him for taking the role, especially with the great Stanley Kramer as director, close friend Frank Sinatra as a costar, and his lover Sophia Loren as the leading lady. Sexytime aside, this is not a good look for our modern man.
The Hitchcock Era
For many people, the iconic Cary Grant consists of a combination of Johnny Aysgarth, T.R. Devlin, John Robie, and Roger Thornhill. These four identities make up what we know as the quintessential Hitchcock leading man.
In Hitchcock’s Notorious, Grant’s character Devlin may be troubled, but he always looks like a million bucks. Even faced with great peril, his suiting is perfect. One important thing to note: while Grant’s clothing is immaculate, it never overshadows him. He wears the clothes, the clothes do not wear him. They are merely an extension of his personality and his character’s personality.
This is one of the few times we see Grant without neckwear. Although he is tie-less, Grant’s neck does not look large because of his patterned jacket. He’s also got on his angry face because his lady has lots of “playmates.”
The pinstripe suit that Grant wears at the end of Notorious is my favorite of the whole film. It gives him the appearance of being taller which is important for the impending showdown with Sebastian (Claude Rains) on that infamous staircase. I also love how Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) is grabbing onto the lapel.
When filming the 1952 thriller To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock trusted Grant to select his wardrobe. Above is an example of one of the ensembles: A simple striped pullover with foulard neckerchief, a look that inspired a fashion trend in the 1950s and today ranks as one of Grant’s most iconic looks.
This is one of my all time favorite shots of Grant. This outfit is so simple and sophisticated. Again, he uses the neckerchief as an accessory. Any man who dresses like this on a beach day is doing everything right. No wonder Frances (Grace Kelly) is so eager in her pursuit.
The grey suit. It still influences men’s fashion to this day. The color and cut of the suit is incredibly flattering on Grant’s body. He looked taller and leaner and the color brought out the silver in his hair. After almost driving off a rocky cliff, murder at the U.N., a one night stand on a train, and running from a rogue bi-plane, the grey suit needs only to be sponged and pressed.
In real life, Grant’s style was a combination of all his characters, especially those he played for Hitchcock. Once he was an established star, he brought his own style with him in the roles he played. This is an example of his head to toe perfection. Everyone wants to be him or be with him.
Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.