The golden years of Hollywood cemented the modern day image of the gentleman.
It was a conservative era for sure, with a preoccupation for appearances, and this came together with a collection of clothing that would make up modern male classical dress: suits with single or double-breasted lapels — the precursors to the modern-day business suit — the depression influence brought somber colors, blacks, greys, and dark blues, Oxford University introduced navy blazers as popular summer-wear, two-toned brogue and loafers became go-to shoes and sunglasses first appeared as a fashion item. Gone were long-tailed jackets and frock coats. The gentlemen of the era were stylish in a modern way. Along came fashion icons, such as Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper & Cary Grant — these three men, in particular, had a certain air of savoir-faire. They had something their contemporaries lacked. So what was it they had?
Fred Astaire — whose great talent was famously and unflatteringly summed by a studio executive at the time as: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little,” knew his limitations and made up for them with endless perfectionism. Part of this was his dress sense. Astaire preferred wide peaked lapels on double- breasted jackets, to emphasize the breadth of his torso and the thinness of his waist. Typically his jackets were without vents, so tended to hug his hips and he clearly favored high-waist, pleated and cuffed trousers, creating a crisp silhouette and the necessary combination of classic tailoring and easy movement as he danced across stage and screen. He used pocket squares to add flashes of color to dark suits. A recognized not only what looked good — but what looked good on him. Something else that looked good on (his arm) was Ginger Rogers. The couple made series of films together which made them one of the most romantic (on-screen couples) and solidified his dry, self-effacing gentlemanly manner. As Katherine Hepburn once said, “Fred gave Ginger class, and Ginger gave Fred sex.”
The gentleman knows how to get the girl. Gary Cooper’s sense of style reflected his youth growing up in a small western town, where he was introduced to bold colors, and textiles of Mexican origin, and also his education in Edwardian England — where he became familiar with tweed patterns and the classic three-piece suit. Cooper’s style was less polished, more subtle and real as a result. In his most famous film High Noon (1952), you’ll see aspects of his dress sense woven into the wardrobe of world-weary Marshall Will Kane. Unlike the rest of the male cast, Cooper’s character sports a penny collar shirt, and in one scene a dark polka dot string tie with a black and gray striped waistcoat.
Interesting trivia to note about films of this era — is that the cast often wore their own clothes! Today you’ll see Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt designer-dressed in their films — with clothing by D&G or Armani. The style you see in the films of Cooper, Astaire, and Grant is their own. It’s authentic.
Early in his career, Cooper suffered a breakdown. He had made ten films in two years. He was mentally and physically exhausted and had lost thirty pounds. Feeling isolated and depressed after his meteoric rise to fame and sudden wealth, he left Hollywood in the spring of 1931 and sailed to Algiers, then to Italy where he resided for a year.
There he met the Countess Dorothy di Frasso who taught him to read Italian and French and showed him how to socialize with Europe’s aristocracy. He toured art galleries and museums, learned all about gastronomy and fine wine, and European culture. He had begun to remake himself and felt secure enough to return.