by David Isle

There are very few famous suits. There are famous silhouettes or styles, but specific individual suits rarely penetrate the collective consciousness. Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) is one of the few exceptions. In 2006, GQ named it the best suit in film history. The Sartorialist was so awestruck by the suit that he “didn’t even notice until half-way through the film that he was not even wearing a pocket square,” while his post’s first commenter hails Grant as the “epitomy of style.”

And yet, I can’t stand this suit.

For many of the same reasons that the Sartorialist loves it. The Sartorialist rightly describes the suit as “easily adaptable to a modern wardrobe” (I believe this is blogger-speak for “modern”) and as exhibiting a “long, lean silhouette.” Note the difference, for instance, between Grant’s suit and Gregory Peck’s suit in Roman Holiday, which came out a mere 6 years before North by Northwest:

Peck’s suit is full and shapely. There’s extra room in the chest and shoulders than then is gathered in at the waist to create a relaxed, yet powerful silhouette. Grant, like all the other great stars, wore this same silhouette in his earlier movies. Here he is in 1937’s The Awful Truth:

His suit in North by Northwest zips up this fullness in the jacket, which, together with the extended length of the jacket, makes him into a tube. Which is indeed a long and lean silhouette, but not one I find particularly attractive.

But this look was very influential - you can still see its effects today. And the movie itself was a huge success, both at the box office and with the critics. Even though the story, as Maude Lebowski would say, is ludicrous. It involves a guy walking right into the UN and knifing a diplomat in the back, who falls dead into Grant’s arms. Grant removes the knife as a newspaper takes photos that make him look guilty. But then he just runs right out of the UN without anyone stopping him. He goes to Chicago, where he avoids being seen in public, since he is now a nationally wanted suspected criminal, except in the scenes where he is walking around in broad daylight without being noticed or arrested. The rest of the movie continues in similar fashion.

The movie is worth seeing both for its historical importance and for Grant’s plucky performance. But I never liked action hero Cary Grant as much as the slapstick comedian Cary Grant of his earlier days, and the movie’s artistic legacy is the endless stream of spy thrillers, and “modern” suits, that followed.

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in May 2015.