THE STYLE & SYMBOLISM OF FRED ASTAIRE, GARY COOPER & CARY GRANT
By Benjamin Wild.
Man’s stock appears to be falling. He is suffering a public relations crisis.
As recent as three years ago, Hanna Rosin contemplated ‘The End of Man’, as his physical size and strength are of little consequence in our post-industrial society.[i] A mere four months ago, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen baulked at the ‘new sex appeal’ promoted by James Bond’s twenty-third cinematic outing, which preferences Man’s pectorals and glutes over his personality and gumption.[ii]
This debate about Man’s societal role and public presentation gives a new twist to the age-old discussion about ‘great men’ and icons–particularly from the days of the golden years of Hollywood. Cohen suggests that Man’s current focus on physical perfection has emasculated him. To make the point, he compares Daniel Craig’s Bond with Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill in Hitchcock’s 1959 film, North By Northwest:
Grant – for all his good looks – represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy – a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have.[iii]
Richard Cohen berates Bond and his creators for presenting an image of Man that he finds distasteful. He approves of Bond’s choice of tipple (Macallan Scotch), but wishes the super spy possessed some of the intellectualism and sophistication, even some of the physical flaws of former Hollywood icons like Grant.
But Cohen’s argument doesn’t quite stack up. Lost in his polemic, he loses sight of the wood and the trees. He acknowledges that Bond is ‘zeitgeisty’ and that his focus on physical form is relevant to the concerns of men today, but overlooks the fact that a character like Roger O. Thornhill – a ‘short, a man of a certain age’[iv] – would probably not appeal to the majority of modern movie goers. Grant was “of his time”, in the same way that Bond is now of his. It is Cohen, rather than our culture, that is chronologically confused.
But what does this mean for those men hailed as icons of style from the Silver Screen? The question can be explored by looking at three very different leading men, Fred Astaire (1899-1987), Gary Cooper (1901-1961) and Cary Grant (1904-1981).
WE THREE KINGS
Astaire was theatrical, Cooper was taciturn and Grant was trendy. We each have our favourite, but these three men all had sartorial flair.
Slender and short in stature, Astaire favoured wide peaked-lapels, typically on double-breasted jackets, to emphasise the width of his upper torso and the thinness of his waist.
Jackets were usually without vents, so as to hug the hips and create a crisp silhouette as Astaire flung himself across the stage and screen.[v] Pocket squares and boutonnières added colour and texture to dark-coloured suits and further emphasised the width of Astaire’s chest.
It also made his head, which was variously described as being akin to Mickey Mouse and a Bartlett pear, less prominent.[vi]
Clothes were used to conceal Cary Grant’s physical imperfections, too: his thick neck, sloping shoulders and wonky walk.[vii]
Whilst narrower armholes on jackets created the illusion of height, large tie knots and shirts with higher collars helped to balance the proportions of the neck.[viii] Acutely sensitive to how he appeared on film – he (briefly) retired from Hollywood in November 1952 because he thought that he was too old to be a convincing leading male at the age of forty-eight[ix] – Grant was loyal to tailors who served him well, from Oxxford of Chicago, to Hawes & Curtis and Kilgour of London.[x]
Shopping on both sides Atlantic and familiar with English and American styles from his upbringing, Grant’s image possessed the confidence of the New World and the charm of the Old.
The same was true of Gary Cooper, who bought from Brioni in Rome, Anderson & Sheppard in London and Brooks Brothers in New York, among others.[xi]
Raised in an American frontier town, which introduced him to the bold colours and textiles of Mexican garments, Cooper was educated in Edwardian England, so became equally familiar with Tweed and the three-piece suit.[xii]
More so than Astaire and Grant, whose sartorial style was sometimes so polished that it looked positively clinical (think of Grant in his grey three-button Kilgour suit in North by Northwest and the matching grey tie[xiii]), Cooper seemed to enjoy the mix of different textures and colours. In his 1952 film High Noon, in which he plays the world-weary Marshall Will Kane, we get a glimpse of Cooper’s sartorial play as he wears a dark polka dot string tie with a black and grey striped waistcoat. Unlike many of the other male actors in the film, Cooper’s character also wears a penny collar shirt.
BEING THE PART
In early Hollywood films, the lead character, the goodies and the baddies, were often distinguished by subtle wardrobe differences.
For Cary Grant this was perhaps less the case, as his suits never seemed so different to the other male protagonists, even if they did fit better.
However, Fred Astaire was particularly good at making sure he stood out. In his 1938 movie, Swing Time, a film that opens and closes with a sartorial gag about ‘cuffs’ on trousers, Astaire ensured distinction by wearing a double-breasted dinner jacket in the evening dance scenes with a ‘floppy’ bow tie–while all of the other men sharing these scenes wore single-breasted suits, wing collar shirts and conventional bow ties in white or black. Astaire also had a boutonnière and a pocket square, whereas other actors had one or the other, or neither.
The distinction that these stars of the past attained through the way they dressed reveals how much the film industry has changed today – and with it, how our notions of the icon has changed. When Astaire, Cooper and Grant were making films, Hollywood had an increasing number of make-up artists, stylists and costume designers–but even with these amenities at hand, the leading stars often dressed themselves, sometimes with their own clothes.[xiv] This personal touch of an actor being responsible for his own wardrobe is a far cry from today, where an actor’s wardrobe is sourced for him (frequently to endorse a particular couturier or brand).
Personality is particularly important when pondering the nature of icons. For film stars of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood are never revered for their dress alone. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant are eulogised for what they represented, which was often a moral integrity or an aversion to excess, of which their dress was a key signifier. And so we begin to see why Richard Cohen’s attempt to conflate the societal significance of contemporary and classic film stars is misplaced.
The personal touch of these halcyon days meant that an actor’s personality shined through into his performance, no matter how consummate he was. Reflecting on his respect for Gary Cooper, Ralph Lauren has spoken about the actor being ‘convincingly authentic’. He was ‘handsome, honorable, honest.’[xv]
Giorgio Armani has said much the same about Cary Grant, whom he thinks possessed ‘an easy manner, his ready wit and charm complemented by his ability to wear clothes effortlessly.’[xvi] The truth was probably the different…as Grant spent an achingly long amount of time copying actors whom he thought were stylish, like Jack Buchannan, Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.[xvii]
Fred Astaire was similarly focused on the perfection of his appearance. His personal relationship with Ginger Rogers may have suffered as a result.
But above all [Astaire] put effort, relentless effort, into making his own vision about the art of the dance look perfectly effortless.[xviii]
But back then, Hollywood stars, even though hounded by paparazzi (a term coined from Frederico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita), had an ability to craft their image, almost surgically, as in the case of Grant.
The world generally received stars as stars chose to present themselves–which is not at all how it works today (as technological developments have made media moguls of us all). As Anne Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue has said of New York Times’ street style photographer Bill Cunningham, ‘we all get dressed for Bill.’
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Technology is probably the single most significant factor that has transformed the film industry and perceptions of its leading stars’ style. Lacking the CGI wizardry of today, films between the 1930s and 1950s used clothing to provide audiences with visual cues about the actors’ state of mind and emotions.
Think of Gary Cooper’s open shirt collar and waistcoat as he prepares to confront Frank Miller in High Noon, or his torn suit at the end of Capra’s Mr Deeds Comes to Town. In another film, Hitchcock’s 136-minute thriller, North by Northwest, ten different scenes focus on dress and appearance, which means that an actors’ clothing is explicitly referenced around every thirteen minutes. Other key clothing props include Grant’s tortoise shell shades on the train and his plain-sight camouflage as a ‘red cap’.
The scripts of these earlier films were also different than those of today, as much depended on the actors’ chemistry with one another to convey a point. Consider the dialogue in North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s character, Roger O. Thornhill, becomes acquainted with his heroine, Eve Kendal, played by Eva Marie Saint, on a Chicago-bound train:
CG: …honest women frighten me.
CG: I don’t know. Somehow they seem to put me at a disadvantage.
EMS: Because you’re not honest with them?
EMS: Like that business with the seven parking tickets.
CG: What I mean is, the moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending that I have no desire to make love to her.
EMS: What makes you think you have to conceal it?
CG: She might find the idea objectionable.
EMS: Then again, she might not.
The verbal volley is light and edgy. The parallel scene in Daniel Craig’s first Bond film Casino Royale, when he meets his female partner Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, leaves much less to the imagine – because technology has cursed us with shorter attention spans and we need to be told what to think about our male and female leads? – At times, the dialogue is simply crude:
EG: …What else can you surmise, Mr Bond?
DC: About you, Miss Lynd? Well, your beauty is a problem. You worry you won’t be taken seriously.
DC: True. But this one over compensates by wearing slightly masculine clothing and being more aggressive than her female colleagues, which gives her a somewhat prickly demeanour. And, ironically enough, this makes it less likely for her to be accepted and promoted by her male superiors, who mistake her insecurities for arrogance…
EG: Alright. By the cut of your suit you went to Oxford, or wherever, and naturally think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain. My guess is that you didn’t come from money and your friends never let you forget it, which means you were at that school by the grace of someone’s charity – hence the chip on your shoulder […] Now having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that you think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money and off your perfectly formed arse.
DC: You noticed?
EG: Even accountants have imagination.
And so we’re back to where we started…with the glutes.
ICONS AND ANXIETIES
Richard Cohen’s personal anxieties might diminish if men like Cary Grant returned to Hollywood blockbusters…but it wont happen, at least not in the immediate future because films – and the clothing their stars sport – can generally only impress if they engage with the zeitgeist and if they in some way endorse contemporary societal mores.[xix]
Presently, people want male action figures to be well-toned–so that is what they will get. As Tom Payne has explained, our relationship with celebrity and fame is complex, as we reserve the right to worship and denigrate our idols as we deem fit. This has always been the case, but developments in (social) media have conspired to give us, the viewers and voyeurs, ever more power to get our own way.[xx]
It is hardly coincidental that many of the Silver Screen stars whom we acknowledge as icons reached the peak of their careers before the term paparazzi was coined in the 1960s. Today, our stars don’t last long at all, even if they do burn more brightly than their predecessors when under the spotlight. This explains why we no longer really have icons. For Hollywood figures of the past, like Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, this is actually rather good news.
They will continue to inspire – perhaps more than ever – because they now represent something immutable and steadfast, something so different to today. And as the characters remain timeless and appeal to us because of their distance and difference, so too will the clothes they wore to work their magic.
The End of Man may be nigh, but at least we’ll go out looking grand … and buff.
Benjamin Wild for Parisian Gentleman
[i] H. Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, Atlantic Magazine (July/August, 2010). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.
[ii] R. Cohen, ‘James Bond and the new sex appeal’, The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-cohen-james-bond-and-the-new-sex-appeal/2012/11/26/098813e6-37f4-11e2-8a97-363b0f9a0ab3_story.html. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.
[iii] Cohen, ‘James Bond’.
[v] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 30.
[vi] G. Bruce-Boyer, Fred Astaire Style (New York, 2004), 6.
[vii] R. Torregrossa, Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style (London, 2006), 61-66, 68-72.
[viii] Ibid., 63-64; ‘Style Icon: Cary Grant’. www.thewelldressedman.net/style-icon-cary-grant. Accessed: 9-iij-2013.
[ix] Torregrossa, Cary Grant, 134.
[x] Ibid., 62; E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 100.
[xi] G. Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper: Enduring Style (Brooklyn, 2011), 186; Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 79.
[xii] Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper, 172-73.
[xiii] Flusser, Clothes and the Man, 159.
[xiv] D. Nadoolman Landis, ‘Setting the Scene: A Short History of Hollywood Costume Design 1912-2012’, Hollywood Costume, ed. D. Nadoolman Landis (London, 2012), 13, 19-30.
[xv] R. Lauren in Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper, 8.
[xvi] G. Armani in Torregrossa, Cary Grant, ix.
[xvii] Torregrossa, Cary Grant, 42-57.
[xviii] J. Epstein, ‘The Astaire Way to Paradise’, The Hudson Review (Spring, 2008), 130.
[xix] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1993), 305-307.
[xx] T. Payne, Fame: what the classics tell us about our cult of celebrity (New York, 2009).