"North by Northwest," Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 cinematic masterpiece, is celebrated not only for its gripping storyline and cinematic brilliance but also for its meticulous attention to fashion. The film's characters are adorned in meticulously crafted ensembles that amplify their personas and contribute to the movie's enduring allure. It is easy to be captivated by the witty writing and personable nature of the characters on screen, but it is the sartorial choices, specifically in the small details of the suits, that amplify each character and allow you to understand their deeper motives.
Cary Grant's portrayal of Roger Thornhill is an embodiment of sophistication and charm, epitomized by his impeccable wardrobe. Grant's character undergoes a remarkable transformation, evolving from a suave but ordinary businessman into an accidental hero entangled in a web of espionage. His attire mirrors this evolution flawlessly. Grant went to his favorite Savile Row tailor, Kilgour French and Stanbury, to custom make the suit for him. The tailored grey suit he dons is a manifestation of his character's journey, transitioning seamlessly from metropolitan elegance to adventure-ready ensembles. It is the simplicity of the suit that allow you to accept him in his original role as an advertising man, but it is the minor details that open his character up to the changes he goes through. By extending the suit vents, choosing to wear no belt and wearing matching grey socks gives Grant the illusion of being slimmer, taller, and more graceful. All of these traits make it easier to understand how he could be mistaken for a spy, but also opens the viewer up to the idea that he could evolve into the hero he would become.
The suits are not just clothes; they are extensions of Thornhill's resilience and adaptability. Grant's ability to maintain his suave demeanor despite the film's high-stakes situations is a testament to the power of a well-fitted suit. As Thornhill embarks on a cross-country journey, his suit traverses the same path, enduring challenges and hardships. The suit's endurance parallels Thornhill's own transformation—from a well-dressed executive to a resourceful and determined hero.
The suit's journey is a visual representation of Thornhill's growth, reflecting his ability to adapt to unexpected circumstances. It serves as a protective armor, shielding Thornhill from danger while symbolizing his unwavering resolve. Hitchcock's genius lies not only in crafting a gripping narrative but also in using the suit as a visual motif that enhances the film's thematic depth.
James Mason's portrayal of Phillip Vandamm is a masterclass in sophistication and intrigue. His character's penchant for classic tweeds and refined ensembles creates a captivating contrast with his nefarious motives. Vandamm's style, reminiscent of an English gentleman, adds depth to his character, emphasizing his ability to navigate civilized conversations and ruthless plots with equal finesse.
The film strategically uses Vandamm's attire to convey his duality—his suave exterior masking a malevolent core. His clothing choices, from his tailored suits to his charming demeanor, showcase the complexity of the character and contribute to the film's intrigue.
Martin Landau's Leonard, Vandamm's right-hand man, exudes an air of calculated danger that is impeccably complemented by his wardrobe. His attire serves as an extension of his meticulous and methodical nature. Leonard's suits are impeccable, a reflection of his unwavering loyalty to Vandamm and his ruthless dedication to their criminal endeavors. It is his appreciation for his clothing that emphasizes this need he has to be appreciated. Landau described the character as being "in love with his boss" and his incredibly crafted suits act as a silent cry for attention from Vandamm.
According to Landau, Hitchcock took him to Grant’s tailor in Beverly Hills (without Grant’s knowledge) to have his suits made. Once Grant saw the suits on Landau he was immediately impressed with the craftsmanship and knew instantly it was from said tailor. This specially made suit acts as an extension of Vandamm's attention to detail and good taste.
Eva Marie Saint
Eve Kendall stands as a paragon of the "Hitchcock blonde" archetype, a woman of allure and intrigue. However, her wardrobe is far from superficial; it becomes an integral element in her character's enigma. Hitchcock's decision to have Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe directly sourced from Bergdorf Goodman instead of relying on the studio's costume department was an innovative choice for its time. This approach, while commonplace today, allowed Hitchcock to ensure that Eve's outfits possessed a contemporary and timeless elegance.
The wardrobe's symbiotic relationship with Eve's personality is evident in the subtleties. Hitchcock's deliberate choices in color and style imbue each outfit with hidden meanings, enriching the character's development. The red roses patterned black silk dress with the bare back, for instance, exudes both sensuality and vulnerability. As the narrative unfolds, her attire becomes a silent communicator of her emotions and intentions. The exquisite attention to detail is embodied by the inclusion of accessories – a stone on her ring mirroring the rose pattern, and the unique choice of sunglasses that adds an air of mystery.
Hitchcock's genius extended beyond aesthetics; he recognized that attire could serve as a silent actor, influencing the audience's perception of the character. Eva Marie Saint's portrayal, seamlessly integrated with the meticulously curated wardrobe, creates a synergy that propels Eve Kendall beyond a mere femme fatale. The result is a character whose depth and allure are accentuated not only by her words and actions but also by the carefully chosen garments she wears.
Fashion and Identity
"North by Northwest" masterfully intertwines fashion with character identity. The characters' clothing choices are deliberate, reflecting their personalities, motivations, and societal roles. The film underscores the intricate relationship between fashion and identity, demonstrating how clothing can serve as an extension of character traits. The meticulous attention to detail in wardrobe underscores the characters' depth, adding nuanced layers to the narrative. From Thornhill's journey to Vandamm's duality, fashion becomes an integral tool for storytelling.
"North by Northwest" is a timeless cinematic treasure that not only mesmerizes audiences with its thrilling plot and iconic scenes but also leaves a lasting impact through its meticulous fashion choices. The film's characters don't just wear clothes; they embody them, contributing to the overall visual and narrative brilliance of this cinematic gem. As characters navigate a world of espionage and intrigue, their fashion becomes an essential part of their journey, reinforcing the powerful connection between style and storytelling.