Friday, March 25, 2011
Suits and the Men Who Wore Them
A few weeks ago, when Hall of Fame ball player Duke Snider died, Sports Illustrated ran a gorgeous black and white photo of him at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1956. This week they printed a letter from Jack Shakely of Rancho Mirage, who looked at the picture and saw what was in the background.
“That glorious photo,” he wrote, “reveals a great deal about mid-century fans. Nearly half of the men in the picture are in suits and ties. More than a dozen are wearing fedoras. One young lady is even decked out in her prep school blazer. Unlike the fans of today, when people went out to the ball game in ’56, they were dressed to the nines.”
That’s true. Of course, they played a lot of day games then, so it was not uncommon for businessmen to put in a half-day and catch the game in the afternoon. Cell phones hadn’t been invented, so if somebody called while the boss was at the ball park, the secretary took a message and the call was returned the following morning. I don’t recall anyone ever dying as the result of that arrangement.
Still, the men had to be wearing a suit to work in order to wear it to the ball game, and that doesn’t happen so much any more. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the invention of the suit, and while no one is predicting its imminent extinction, its place in our culture isn’t what it used to be.
The business suit is the middle-aged man’s best friend, concealing his butt and paunch and adding a slimming, dignified look. But it looks terrific on a young, thin guy, too.
Think of the American movies of the 1930s to 1950s, and you think of men in suits. There was a devastatingly confident and handsome Gary Cooper playing a starving artist in Design for Living. Wearing a suit on a train, he looks sharp and prosperous. Only when he removes his jacket, revealing the tattered shirt beneath it, does the truth become clear.
Humphrey Bogart never looked better than in High Sierra, when his character, just released from prison, is walking through the park in a plain black suit, savoring the fresh air, the freedom, and the garb that brands him as a regular member of society again. In The Philadelphia Story, James Stewart is a $40 a week magazine reporter, but wearing a good suit he fits right in with the highest society.
Nobody wore a suit like Cary Grant. The lead salesman at the place where I buy most of my suits told me once that if you want to understand how to wear a suit, you should rent any Cary Grant movie from the 1950s, watch how he does it and do the same thing. Good advice for any father to give his son. In North by Northwest, Grant even provides a lesson in how to take care of a suit.
After being chased through an Illinois cornfield by a murderous crop duster, and having to take several head-first dives into the topsoil and fertilizer, Grant escapes and returns to his Chicago hotel, his only suit much worse for the wear. No problem. He calls room service, asks them to sponge-clean and press the suit within the hour, then, after a shave and shower, puts it on again and goes downstairs to have cocktails with Eva Marie Saint.
Nobody today could remotely come close to pulling that off.