Revisiting North by Northwest and Its Costumes

It’s easy to inhabit Alfred Hitchcock’s worlds. In his films, nothing is left to chance. Everything is thought out to the tiniest detail and you slip right in. Time stops and the rest of the world falls away. North by Northwest is one of those films I would watch (and have watched) over and over again. From that first sound of Bernard Herrmann’s music, my interest doesn’t waver and I wait with anticipation every next scene as if I didn’t know what is about to happen. And I don’t know how, but it seems to get better every time. As always, François Truffaut had the answer to that: “For his pictures, made with loving care, an exclusive passion, and deep emotions concealed by exceptional technical mastery, are destined to circulate throughout the world.” Throughout your mind, and throughout the decades, one might add.

In North by Northwest, Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is mistaken for a George Kaplan, an imaginary agent invented by a US intelligence agency and given an identity through a name, a suite in a New York hotel and an elegant wardrobe. Roger Thornhill becomes a man-on-the-run, chased by other spies, led by Vandamm (James Mason), and thrown into a set of wild and dangerous circumstances – abducted, nearly driven off a cliff, framed for murder, crop-dusted and trapped on the Mount Rushmore monument – hard to get away from intact (“It is the biggest, fastest and most beautiful of Hitchcock’s chase movies,” Paul Duncan writes in Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films), especially when the unpredictable Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) enters the picture. And with her entrance, we find ourselves at that great train dining car sequence, one of my favourite train encounter sequences (before James Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, there was Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall in North by Northwest). The witty and tongue in cheek dialogue, the glances, the seductive ease of their manners, and a whole lot of class from both sides thrown in for good measure.

Eva Marie Saint is one of Hitchcock’s quintessential blondes, and then some. She’s got the looks and the brains, and she is always part of the action, and her clothes part of her seductive perfection, a meticulously stylised combination of feminine refinement and sexual attraction – but it’s the kind of sex appeal that is not blatantly obvious, but the kind that the audience has to discover themselves. In a conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, from 1973, Arthur Knight remarked: “You have a way of discovering things in your actresses that no one else ever finds. I keep thinking of Eva Marie Saint, who never looked more sparkling, attractive, or seductive than she did in North by Northwest.” To which Hitchcock replied: “I watched every hair on her head. She had two wardrobes made for her and I discovered when we screened them that the wardrobe department designer was dressing her up as a waif. She was dressing up the Eva Marie of On the Waterfront. And I finished up behaving like the character that James Mason played in that film (ed. note: Eva Marie Saint plays a woman kept by a rich man). I went along to Bergdorf-Goodman’s myself and sat with her as the mannequins paraded by. I chose the dresses for her.”

Alfred Hitchcock understood the power of clothes, a central element to many of his classics. Not only were the costumes a tool in his movies, but style was often of the utmost importance. “Hitchcock made everybody in the picture dress in a classic style…,” Eva Marie told Richard Torregrossa in the book Cary Grant: A Celebration of 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.” Pencil skirt suits, full skirts and dresses, nipped waists, restrained tailoring, classic totes and clutches, prim hair, gloves of all lengths, the most feminine dresses for the evening, fur stoles and coats as outerwear – they were part of the classic Hitchcock heroine’s wardrobe. It’s the elegance, timelessness and the bygone glamour, yes, but there is something more to it that makes his heroines fascinating. Mysterious and alluring, icy seductive and cool on the outside, and often vulnerable and passionate on the inside. Hitchcock’s each heroine was a very complex character, and each one different than the others. And he often used costumes to play with their personality, their clothes an integral part of who they were.

Full-skirted black silk dress with a red roses pattern, almost off the shoulders
continuing with a bare back, nicely paired with the wrist-length gloves.


Details are everything. Above: The stone of the ring picks up the colour of the rose pattern.

But it was Cary Grant who gave Eva Marie Saint the greatest confidence before the shooting of the film began, by saying to her that they were going to have a wonderful time because she didn’t have to cry in that movie, alluding to her previous melodrama roles, the aforementioned On the Waterfront included. “He set the pace that first day,” she recalled, “broke the ice, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I could play a sexy lady-spy; what’s wrong with that? He suddenly gave me confidence, and we had so much fun.”

Eva Marie Saint is absolutely wonderful in the role of the spy infiltrated in Vandamm’s gang. The scene when she is at the auction with Vandamm and his men, and Thornhill follows her there, taking her by surprise, is beautiful. The look on her face shows she’s utterly unprepared for seeing him there and I can not wonder whether Hitchcock had kept this moment quiet, not telling her Thornhill was about to show up there, to catch her by surprise, as he would often do with his actors. Eve Kendall is also the classiest of spies. And it is only fair to admit that this is a quality that has also to do with Eva Marie Saint’s own personality, just as in the case of Cary, not just with the character she played. But, of course, the important thing is that it’s a quality that suits the character like a glove. She and Cary were a perfect match.

As previously stated, quoting Hitchcock himself, Eva Marie Saint’s wardrobe for this movie was entirely shopped directly off the models at Bergdorf Goodman, as opposed to leaving all or part of it to be designed by the film costume department. Though since the 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. And he was right to do so. Her signature red brocade floral dress still stands out today.

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.

Colour however isn’t just supposed to blend in with the rest of the decor in a Hitchcock film. Whenever Eve’s identity is questioned, or her life is in danger, the costumes seem to pick up on that trail. It happens with the floral dress and it happens again with the burnt orange suit she wears towards the climax of the story.

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

Colour and costume are employed differently when it comes to the male hero of the picture.

In his forward to Richard Torregrossa’s book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style, Giorgio Armani wrote: “In my designs, I see elegance as the most important quality, as it gives the wearer confidence and the look of someone not trying too hard. Cary Grant managed to give great performances in comedies, thrillers, and romances, and at all times he appeared cool and immaculate. He had an easy manner, his ready wit and charm complemented by his ability to wear clothes effortlessly. Cary Grant always looks relaxed in his stylish outfits.”

Hardly have I seen anyone more relaxed in his suit than Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Such ease and naturalness does he display that he seems to glide through the scenes, his suit a second skin. The elegant mid-grey worsted-wool Kilgour suit is one of those film costumes that can not be separated from their characters. Cary Grant usually used his own wardrobe in his movies. He had already done it in a previous Hitchcock film, from four years before, To Catch a Thief. “First of all, you have available to you a film star by the name of Cary Grant. Don’t lose sight of that element. You are actually playing a character, but you are also playing the personality of Cary Grant,” Hitchcock concluded in an interview with the American Film Institute, from 1972. Carlo Brandelli, creative director of Kilgour, Savile Row, further remarked: “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.” And Cary Grant was the most stylish movie star of them all. In 1959, the time North by Northwest came out, Cary Grant was at the height of his sartorial prowess.

“Cary was always beautifully dressed. But he wasn’t a clotheshorse. His tastes were really simple, elegant but simple,” his North by Northwest co-star, Eva Marie Saint, would remember. Roger Thornhill goes through every possible ordeal in North by Northwest, “all sorts of things happen to the hero with such bewildering rapidity,” Hitchcock himself told Truffaut in their interviews, but Cary Grant remains perfectly dressed and unruffled. Implausible? Not at all. Richard Torregrossa came with the perfect explanation: “Hitchcock joyfully placed Grant into the most absurd ordeals, as if toying with and teasing him, deriving a kind of sadistic enjoyment – and exquisite dramatic tension – from the established fact that here is an urbane actor perfectly dressed, immaculately attired, more suited to the drawing room than the landscape of the action hero. The joke seems to be on Grant, but only momentarily, for Grant turns the tables by remaining unruffled, his suit dusty, maybe a bit scuffed here and there, but nothing a good dry cleaner couldn’t take care of in a few hours.”

The idea that remains is that a good suit, or the proper clothes for that matter, move along with the wearer. And our wearer always lands on his feet. “It’s almost as if Cary Grant is equally determined to save his life and his suit,” Richard Torregrossa further advances. “The suit is the life giver, the lucky charm. The suit and the man are inextricably linked.” But “before it becomes armour, it makes him seem vulnerable, naked, alone.” That, it does, too, because he is always on the run, he has no place to hide, not a moment to change or conceal his clothes. Hitchcock doesn’t let loose and makes the grey suit the target. And the man and the suit simply have to prove that they are indestructible.

The posture. Cary Grant 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 unfastened at the first button. This helps his suit move gracefully with him during his unrelenting ride. And there is beauty in the way Cary moves. It’s almost an artistic, certainly an athletic, ability. The result of his past as an acrobat, yes, but also of a perfected style acquired over the years. He used to customise 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. “Think thin”, Roger tells his secretary to remind him to write on his desk. 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, and, of course, the right colour coordination to the rest of the outfit.

Who other than Cary Grant could pull off these sunglasses?

So many years after I was introduced to Roger Thornhill and so many viewings of North by Northwest later, I am just as intrigued by the sunglasses Cary Grant wears in Hitchcock’s thriller. In orangey turtoiseshell, with green lenses, they are not exactly what you’d expect, rather unusual, but that’s exactly what makes them enduringly classic. Sharp and daring, they are a piece you won’t forget, and one that won’t age either. They are cool. And Cary Grant made them that. Any other style on him in this film wouldn’t have had the same impact, nor would have these sunglasses had the same effect on any other face – “such a nice face,”, too, Eve Kendall muses over dinner. I am sure their appeal has to do not only with Grant’s effortless composure, or with the character’s sense of humour, but also with being used as a last resort to take the attention off the suit, and therefore off himself. He knows he is unconvincing when he uses them trying to hide from the police at Grand Central Station. He shows the same sense of humour, and cool demeanor, when he is trying to seduce Eva Marie Saint in the dining car (while still wearing the sunglasses). Or is it the other way around? Anyway, the effort and the exchange of words with Eve Kendall are both memorable.

White shirt, grey tie, French cuffs. Throughout the entire movie, whether he stands, sits or runs, the shirt cuffs always show. And only on 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,” Eva Marie Saint remarked. “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.” Richard Torregrossa had again the last word on that as well, in our interview: “Cary Grant was the Last Gentleman.”


images: stills from “North by Northwest”, Classiq Journal | photo credit: MGM
editorial sources: Hitchcock, by François Truffaut / Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films, by Paul Duncan / Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style, by Richard Torregrossa / Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Sidney Gottlieb / Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen



Production designer François Audouy takes us behind the scenes of Ford v Ferrari

Interview with Richard Torregrossa, author of the book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

The Nest: In conversation with costume designer Matthew Price

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