Dress Down Sunday: What Sam Spade wore under his suit

Dress Down Sunday
- looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

published 1930 2nd chapter

the book extract:

[PI Sam Spade has been woken up in the night with the news that his partner Miles Archer has been murdered]

He picked up the pigskin-and-nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear's. It was like a shaved bear's: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.

observations: It was all going so well, wasn’t it? Sam Spade, Mr Cool, epitomized by Humphrey Bogart in the film. But a union suit? An all-in-one pair of combis, to give them their English name? Doesn’t quite fit the image.

And who else wears union suits? Little girls. Scout in
To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Fossil Sisters in blog favourite Ballet Shoes. And we have a whole entry from Eight Cousins - though the words ‘union suit’ never come out of Louisa May Alcott’s pen, it seems pretty clear that that is what is liberating Rose here.

It is my belief that Dashiell Hammett is approved of and admired by a lot more people than actually read him. They are rattling good yarns, and (always a plus) he keeps it short. But the stories are very strange and the attitudes not attractive - the misogynistic all-guys-together aphorisms were very much of their time but come over badly these days. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.” Really? That’s much-quoted, but it doesn’t seem to mean much, though Humph says it beautifully. But still, you could find worse books to waste an afternoon with. And we'll look at his fascinating private life in a future entry.

Links up with: the girls mentioned above. For more Dress Down Sunday entries, click on the link below. There’s been a wide variety of non-police investigators in the blog: try
here, here and here – all very different from Sam Spade.

The picture is an advert from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - This is great! One simply doesn't think of those macho tough-guy PI's as wearing union suits but of course, they did. And you're quite right about the misogynistic attitudes prevalent in that kind of novel. But I won't go off on a rant...

  2. Why isn’t that quote meaningful? Spade goes to some effort and inconvenience in this story. Why? The “you” there refers not to Spade's interlocutor, he is not dismissing her opinion, but just shows he’s not doing it because he liked or admired Archer.

    1. Well we can agree to differ! Of course he goes to considerable trouble, otherwise there would be no story. But what is the moral framework to saying that someone's role in your life is more important than anything else about him?


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