Style in film: North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock was a director who could easily move from black comedy to documentary realism, from light-hearted action adventure to dark psychological thriller without compromising his vision. After all, he was the darling of many French film critics writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma and who started the French New Wave: François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer. However, during the period 1954-1960, the most prolific of his career, with nine feature films and numerous TV episodes, he was typecast as the ‘Master of Suspense’. It is unfair and ignorant of someone to limit his cinema style to this perception, but it was also in those years that, due to the complete creative control he had over his films, he had the greatest freedom he had ever experienced. One of the movies was North by Northwest (1959), which we have covered in a previous film feature and today I am going to talk about the fashion.

“Hitchcock made everybody in the picture dress in a classic style… He didn’t want the picture to date because of the clothes. There’s not one outfit I couldn’t wear today with a few minor adjustments and not look stylish.” Eva Marie Saint

Smart black suit.

A look that reminds us that Eva Marie is one of the quintessential ‘Hitchcock blondes’. Eve Kendall’s jewelry is beautiful, starting with this emerald pendant and delicate watch with thin leather strap.

Full-skirted black silk dress with a red roses pattern; almost off the shoulders continuing with a bare back. Chic pairing with the wrist-length gloves.

There is one particularity about Eva Marie Saint’s costumes in this movie: her wardrobe was entirely shopped directly off the models at Bergdorf Goodman as opposed to leaving all or part of it to be designed (and especially in the case of a Hitchcock film, who was famous for making the clothes in his film an integral part of the characters portrayed on screen). Though since late ’60s-early ’70s this has become a common practice, it was still a radical idea in the 1950s. MGM had been the one studio that had a consistent design staff. But in this case, Helen Rose, the studio’s head designer, was unable to be on set as much as Hitch had expected and he almost asked for Edith Head’s assistance. In the end he did not, nor did he like the studio’s sketches for the character of Eve Kendall, so instead he took Eva Marie shopping.

I like the way the stone of the ring picks up the colour of the roses.

Flawless ladylike look. Beautiful blue-grey dress: boat neckline, incorporated belt in the same grey shade as the long gloves and hat brim and bow. It’s interesting and a welcome change to see a bag in the ’50s in a different colour than the shoes or the rest of the accessories.

Orange wool dress with a neckline scarf detail (attached to the dress).

The elegant fourteen-gauge mid-grey worsted-wool Kilgour suit, one of the best suits in the history of cinema. Cary Grant usually used his own wardrobe in his movies. He had also done it in another Hitchcock film four years before, To Catch A Thief. “The male movie stars of that era didn’t have the luxury of big wardrobe departments and stylists swirling around them. They were film stars because they were also incredibly elegant men. Their wardrobe just went hand in hand with the work they did, so they’d obviously be at their tailors.” Carlo Brandelli, creative director of Kilgour, Savile Row. And Cary Grant was the most stylish movie star of them all. By 1959 Grant’s impeccable style was second nature to him.

Roger Thornhill goes through every possible ordeal in North by Northwest, but he remains perfectly dressed and unruffled. His suit gets sometimes a little dusty or scuffed, but nothing a good dry cleaner couldn’t take care of in a few hours. This is how it should be with a good suit. And the suit was Cary Grant’s grand achievement, as Richard Torregrossa, author of the book Cary Grant: a celebration of style says.

I love his posture in this one. He felt so at ease in a suit, just like most men feel in jeans and t-shirts.

The suit jacket in North by Northwest is ventless and Cary is always wearing it unbuttoned at the last button (that’s how it should be done). This helps his suit move gracefully with him during his unrelenting ride. Cary used to customize his suits and have his tailor lengthen the single or double vents of the suits beyond their normal boundaries. This made the jackets more functional and also created the illusion of greater height and slimness. The illusion of a lean line is also created in the film by the choice of matching grey socks and by eschewing a belt. The chocolate brown Derby shoes are the only contrasting accessory.

Who other than Cary Grant could pull off these sunglasses?

White shirt, grey tie, French cuffs. Throughout the entire movie, whether he stands, sits or runs, the shirt cuffs always show. And only at Cary. Another custom-made element? Most probably. The grey of the suit attractively matched even his greying hair. Cary Grant was a man of details.

“I can’t think of him without thinking of him in a beautiful suit, shirt and tie. I never saw him in jogging clothes or t-shirts; that was such an important part of his image. It was so smart of him. I don’t know any other actor who could do that.” Eva Marie Saint

images: stills from North by Northwest captured by me; kindly link back to classiq if you use any of these images; production credits
the sources for this article were the books: ‘Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films’, by Paul Duncan; ‘Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style’, by Richard Torregrossa; ‘Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer’, by Jay Jorgensen

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