Cary Grant has been a sartorial inspiration for legions of men including yours truly. After reading Marc Elliot’s biography (Cary Grant: A Biography, 2004 Three Rivers Press) — which incidentally is really not worth reading since it goes to laborious and tedious lengths to find evidence that he was (deep breath: gay) — I realized just how much of a fashion genius Grant really was.
Because more interesting than if Grant was gay was his uncanny ability to invent himself — or I should say, transform himself — from an impoverished and undereducated boy from Brighton named Archie Leach to the archetypal leading man named Cary Grant.
How he did that was as much about the clothes he wore as it was about that distinctive, mid-Atlantic accent which by now has become one of the most famous voices of the twentieth century.
Indeed, Grant knew that the clothes truly do make the man and that if he was going to make it in Hollywood against the likes of Gary Cooper (his nemesis), he needed to convince himself and the world that he truly was Cary Grant, a devil-may-care gentleman who felt as much at home in tennis flannels as in a tuxedo.
And so it was that I found myself in Palm Springs, California, standing in front of the charming and humble little Alsatian style villa that once was Grant’s, snuggly hidden by a stucco wall and overgrown cypresses and hedges. There beside the pool were the chaise-longues that I recognized from old photos. In fact little had changed from when Grant had lived there and delved deep into his psyche thanks to his then-wife, Betsy Drake and some early experiments in LSD. In one of many retirements, Grant spent long months in Palm Springs attempting to discover what might have been lost along the way to becoming Cary Grant.
Grant spent many hardscrabble years attempting to reconstruct and reinvent virtually everything about him. He hungrily learned about style and etiquette from the likes of Noel Coward, an early mentor. Appearances mattered for Grant – they were his bread-and-butter. Thus shopping was a serious vocation: he shopped with precision like a hunter sharpening the blade of his knife.
“We spent whole afternoons shopping,” says Grant’s friend, Oleg Cassini (in the book, Cary Grant Style, by Richard Torregrossa (2006, Bulfinch Press). “But not as it is done today. It was an entirely different sort of experience – Socratic, almost religious, an extended negotiation over the most basic details: fabric, cut, stitching. We were the architects of our appearance; we supervised each new suit the way an architect guides the construction of a building.”
When in London, Grant would prowl the Burlington Arcade where he was a regular visitor at Aquascutum (for suits and coats), N. Peal (for cashmere), and Floris where he purchased his favorite fragrance called “New Mown Hay” (yes, I checked and it no longer exists.)
On Jermyn Street, Grant had his shirts custom made to his exacting specifications. A preoccupation with the girth of his neck meant that shirts were made with collars that disguised this fact; it wasn’t unusual for grant to subtly raise the back of his shirt collar.
Suit jackets were carefully tested to permit Grant to put his hands in his pockets even when the jacket was buttoned closed — an affectation that became something of a signature of the Grant pose (visible in nearly every film he did.) He took great care to insure that the back of the jacket did not roll, or unsightly wrinkles appeared on the front.
Did he wear women’s underwear? Well, technically, yes he did, although not the kind you think. “They looked just like men’s swimming trunks,” says a woman who dated Grant. “They were hardly lacy or frilly. He was clearly wearing them for utilitarian reasons.” To this day, I still don’t understand men who wear the most unattractive boxers – mounds of fabric than only bunches up inside. My guess is the “Freeballin’” defense.
Author Richard Torregrossa notes that Grant, however, was no impulse shopper. “He adhered to a simple but highly disciplined philosophy of shopping that his mother passed had passed on to him as a boy… He rarely bought anything after the first viewing, no matter how tempting the merchandise. This served two purposes: it avoided impulsive expenditures and tested the true appeal of the targeted item.”
And so as I drive through Palm Springs, it’s hard not to imagine Grant in his earliest days whizzing down Palm Canyon Boulevard in a long, white convertible, open collared shirt and ascot and that grin; on his way to Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge just as I am tonight, to have a few cocktails. The only difference? — He looks a hell of a lot better doing it.