North by Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America. The title sequence in which the stark lines of a Madison Avenue office building are ‘woven’ together could be the construction of Cary in his suit right there – he gets knitted into his suit, into his job, before our very eyes. Indeed some of the popular ‘suitings’ of that time (‘windowpane’ or ‘glen plaid’) perfectly complemented office building. Cary’s suit reflects New York, identifies him as a thrusting exec, but also arms him, protects him: what else is a suit for?...
The recent idiom of calling a guy a ‘suit’ if you don’t like him, consider him a flunky or a waste of space, applies to Cary at the beginning of the film: this suit comes barrelling out of the elevator, yammering business trivialities a mile a minute, almost with the energy of the entire building. The suit… [is] a real beauty, a perfectly tailored, gracefully falling lightweight dusty blue… It’s by far the best suit in the movie, in the movies, perhaps the whole world.
observations: Two happy chances led to this entry. When I featured Todd McEwen’s Five Simple Machines recently, with a picture of Killer Barbie, his publisher Charles Boyle at CB Editions told me about this essay, published in a Granta travel writing edition a few years ago. I absolutely loved the essay, and then while looking for a film still, came upon the completely amazing Clothes on Film website, which I strongly recommend anyone with the slightest interest in clothes or films should visit immediately. It’s possible I’m prejudiced in its favour, this being a subject so close to my own, and to my heart - but no, I think anyone would enjoy a turn around this site.
Meanwhile, McEwen’s piece is hilarious, but strangely convincing – it’s as good a way of studying a film as any. Later on, after the famous crop-dusting scene, he says:
[Grant] looks like he’s been teaching school all afternoon… his tie is still pressed and the shirt is white, even the collar and cuffs. You cannot violate the white shirt of the Sixties. You might kill me but you will never kill this shirt.
And he continues to track the clothes in the film - Mount Rushmore seems ‘a very formal national park, there were a lot of people dressed up in the cafeteria’.
Links on the blog: Todd McEwen here. In Strangers on a Train (1950), a character chooses a glen plaid suit, as mentioned above, and for the entry there is a fine illo featuring a young and handsome Frank Sinatra, a man nearly as stylish as Cary Grant.
The two stills from North by Northwest are, of course, from Clothes on Film – their article on this film is well worth reading in parallel with the McEwen.