Cinemode: North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, released on July 17, 1959, is a prime example of the director’s mastery of high-styled suspense, but it can also be credited with creating unforgettable style for men in film and menswear in general. As enthralling as government espionage—the crux of the film—is, Cary Grant’s dash from New York to Mount Rushmore is legendary because Grant just looks so damn cool doing it. The actor’s debonair persona was perfect for the role of man-on-the-lam Roger O. Thornhill, but credit is also due to his silver-gray, slim-cut, ventless Kilgour suit. In a 2006 Granta essay, titled Cary Grant’s Suit, Todd McEwen goes so far as to say, “North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit.”

The film follows Thornhill, a Mad Men–era ad exec, as he is picked up by two goons who have mistaken him for a government spy named George Kaplan. They bring him to their boss, where one of the henchmen can’t help but notice how sharp Grant looks, saying, “He’s a well-tailored one, isn’t he?” After this complementary reception, the villains attempt to kill Thornhill by force-feeding him a bottle of bourbon and sending him on his way down a mountain road in a convertible. Thornhill must have had practice drunk driving (remember he is a Mad Men­–era ad exec) because he manages to survive. Aside from a ruffled collar, Thornhill looks as suave and put together as ever when the cops pick him up, which must have made for an enviable mug shot. Once he sobers up, Thornhill begins a race across the country to track down the real Mr. Kaplan, and he does so without so much as loosening his gray silk tie. Thank goodness he only has one costume change in the entire film. Sadly, it’s into a rather disappointing pair of shapeless black pants and a baggy white dress shirt borrowed from another character who either grossly misjudged Kaplan’s measurements or was just not as fashion savvy.

Kilgour, a century-old haberdasher on London’s famous Savile Row, specially created Grant’s suit and welcomed the actor’s input for the sleek design. (There has long been a debate over who made the suit, with varying sources pointing to Kilgour and others to Quintino in Los Angeles. Six suits were used during filming, so there is a possibility that other tailors used one master pattern to make duplicates, but it is generally accepted that Kilgour helmed the original look after Grant approached the tailors himself.)  Just as he had done in To Catch a Thief four years earlier, Hitchcock left Grant to his own devices when it came to costuming. The actor showed clever foresight in making sure that his contract stated that he got to keep all of the clothes he wore in his films, so it’s natural to think that Thornhill’s distinctive suit is something that the actor wanted to wear. The fact that the suit was ventless—meaning no “flaps” at the hem of the jacket—was unique at the time for an expensive single-breasted suit, and an odd choice for Grant who usually wore double-vented jackets so he could comfortably put his hands in his pockets. He seems to have no problem with that, though; in several scenes it seems that undoing the bottom button does the trick for Grant, with minimal wrinkling to his jacket. He also eschewed a belt, creating one lean line from his waistline down to his matching gray socks. The monochromatic sock trick (much like the nude heel trick) made Grant look taller and above all, polished. The chocolate brown Derby shoes he chose were the perfect contrasting touch.

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Does Hitchcock’s trademark blonde even register next to Grant’s impeccable suit? Eva Marie Saint manages to hold her own as Eve Kendall, a mystery woman who A.H. Weiler described in a New York Times review as “a blonde Mata Hari” and “a glamorous charmer.” Though the costume designer for the film was supposed to be Harry Kress, Saint’s wardrobe was in essence designed by Hitchcock. In a 2010 interview with Chicagoist, Saint gives the wardrobe credit to Hitchcock. The director disliked the clothes that MGM created and took his leading lady to Bergdorf Goodman for a shopping spree, where he instructed her to choose dresses right off the models. Saint chose her entire wardrobe, including the full-skirted black silk dress with a pattern of red roses for the auction scene. She was delighted to hear Hitchcock say, “Wrap them up for Eva Marie,” and still refers to the director as her “one and only Sugar Daddy.”

But whether the dresses were truly of her choosing is up for debate. Saint told Chicagoist: “He’d done his homework, I’m sure, and he didn’t have the models come out in anything but what he would choose, too.” This seems likely since Hitchcock oversaw every aspect of Saint’s look, including her accessories and natural make-up and hair. Hitchcock had an affinity for neat, classic dressers, and Saint’s well-dressed lady is no different. From the impossibly-shiny-and-blonde coif (which Saint had re-styled during lunch breaks) to the perfectly matched gloves, everything Saint wears is premeditated. Eve Kendall’s first appearance onscreen reveals her role as seductress when she walks away and Hitchcock has the camera linger on her swinging hips snug in a black pencil skirt. Understandably, Thornhill ogles. He voices his appreciation later when Kendall coos, “I’m a big girl,” and he replies, “Yeah, in all the right places, too.”

With all the meddling from the lead actor and director, Kress’ role as the costume designer eventually went uncredited. Grant’s suit became nearly as famous as its wearer; in 2006 GQ magazine named it the best suit in film history. Eva Marie Saint’s style in the film is also memorable and she is generally credited as one of the quintessential “Hitchcock blondes.” Neither has fashion design forgotten the smart looks of the Hitchcock set. Alexander McQueen paid homage in his fall 2005 collection, and Vanity Fair dressed up modern actors as Hitchcock’s famous brooders and blondes for their 2006 Hollywood Issue. Seth Rogen was a surprising choice to don “the best suit in film history.” Even with one made for him by the legendary Kilgour, the resulting photos show that a legendary suit gets much of its charm from the legendary man who wore it. —Rachel Chambers

All photographs courtesy of MGM Studios.

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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