Book Review: ‘Cary Grant: A Celebration Of Style’

Almost nothing in life happens by chance. Most things have to be worked at, studied and learnt over time. There are experts on every conceivable subject out there, but none was born with their knowledge. It had to be learnt.

While there are plenty of online repositories of wisdom and enlightenment there is something pleasurable about doing it the old fashioned way.

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Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style’, by Richard Torregrossa

When you buy a book on Cary Grant you probably have two questions in mind. The first is how did he do it? The second, can I learn anything? Richard Torregrossa’s book delivers answers to both questions.

Part biography and part style guide, Torregrossa has collected and expertly blended lively anecdotes from the course of Grant’s life, such as, how President and Bobby Kennedy would call Grant up simply to hear him speak, to quotes from the man himself:

One pretends to do something, or copy someone or some teacher, until it can be done confidently and easily in what becomes one’s own style”. C G

In addition, there are well chosen quotes from established sartorial luminaries, of past and present, which form a thoughtful backdrop as well as a guide to developing your own style.

Despite being written by a recognised fashionista, there is thankfully no excess verbiage. The author obviously has the greatest affection for his subject matter, but the book is a light (only 184 pages including pictures) elegantly written account of an extraordinary guy.

From impoverished Bristol boy named Archie Leach who joins the circus age 12, to style icon known throughout the world as Cary Grant, the book gives an interesting account of the key stages of Grant’s life. What Torregrossa shows is that throughout Grant’s life clothing played an important role – they were an enabler.

Though he may be the gold standard today, Grants timeless masculine style didn’t materialise overnight. At his first screen test, for example, the director described Grant as “bo-legged and pudgy”, and turned him down. As Terrogrossa reveals, despite his iconic status Cary Grant had many physical irregularities – just like the rest of us. He had a drop shoulder, a 17.5 inch neck and what Grant himself described as an unusually large head. However, with some study, the careful selection of clothes and how to wear them, limitations of background and physical flaws were overcome. It is perhaps these tales running through the book that will make you think afresh about how to dress yourself.

As a side issue the book weighs into the argument regarding the difference between a man of style and a metrosexual. I am happy to say that Grant is placed in the camp of the former. It also shows that style is as much a state of mind as it is a state of being. Clothes don’t make the man, they’re merely a useful tool. What is clear from this book is that the warmth, humanity and humour of the man was as quintessential a part if the icon as the clothes.

For my part, one bonus of this book is that it elegantly puts the manufactured fakers who currently litter our silver screen, TV and newspapers to shame. Those fools need stylists, Cary Grant is style.

The Big Boys Go Online

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Last year I wrote of an exasperating experience with H&M that highlighted one of the major problems with retailers of that enormity and economy; sourcing. Quite simply, they don’t do it. If someone requires another size or another item not in stock, they are simply recommended to try another store or wander in each Monday when a delivery is taken. But what will be on the van? “We don’t know” they said “we never know.”

It is a frustrating and inconvenient way to shop. I remember thinking that it would be so much simpler to see the item, check the stock in store and if a size is unavailable have some sort of central despatch system whereby a size can be found online and delivered to your nearest store. It was a fantasy of course as the cost for sourcing sizes would outweigh the profit margin on the garment. “It will only happen” I reflected “if they start selling online.”

And what has happened now? H&M have started selling online. As have Zara, another retailer with stock-knowledge problems, and Uniqlo whose online shopping service I recently used as stocked sizes in all central London stores continued to disappoint. “Do you have a small?” I would ask, incessantly, as I viewed the racks crammed with large and extra large sizes. Dumbfounded, they trundled over to a computer by the till, looked earnestly at the screen and shook their heads in regret; “No I’m sorry, but you could try…”

The repetition of such an experience actually put me off the garment in question, an excellently priced wool blazer, and I resolved not to bother to continue my search. Until, that is, I received an email from a friend informing me that Uniqlo would soon be setting up an online store for UK customers. This cheery news encouraged me to resume the quest and within two days of ordering online, it was delivered to my door.

The experience, like most online shopping experiences, while not immersive and definitely lacking a certain tangibility, was comfortable and less hassle. No more traipsing around various branches, dashing across London, making panicked enquiries about sizes, stock levels and delivery dates. Instead, I will use the stores as a showroom. Should my size not be available, I will make for the nearest computer and order there.

So far, I have only experienced Uniqlo. Zara’s online shopping site certainly looks the part and offers a continually updated inventory with a simple black and white interface. The zoom function on the products is particularly impressive. H&M’s offering is not as slick. It is not the full inventory, the product zoom function is poor and unlike Uniqlo and Zara it says nothing at the point of sale about free returns to any store. Interestingly, H&M have been retailing online for a longer period having previously offered the service solely to Scandinavians for a considerable period of time, so their site’s apparent inefficiency and less impressive interface is all the more surprising.

Going Against The Grain

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Many of the great dressers had curious quirks. For example, according to Francois Chaille, the bespoke ties of Aristotle Onassis were tailored from more than six feet of fabric – one and half times the regular length. This was so he could wrap them around his neck twice.  Perhaps the most famous sartorial quirk of all time was Gianni Agnelli’s habit of wearing his watch over the cuff of his shirt. What is less well known is that this wasn’t merely an act of mere sprezzatura but the result of being allergic to the metal in his watch.

Now, apologies to anybody sitting down to a plate of sausages or about to much on a lunchtime Hot Dog, but I’ve been convalescing from a rather painful operation in the locality of the family jewels. Time on the couch offered an opportunity to re-read Richard Torregrossa’s excellent book ‘Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style’– you can read my review in my next post.

One of the more interesting facts that Torregrossa reveals is that Grant didn’t wear boxer shorts or briefs but instead preferred women’s nylon knickers, something he confessed to in an interview with Esquire in 1960. His reasons were superbly practical, for not only did they keep everything in good order, but they were “cooler than men’s underwear and they’re so much easier to wash”.   Grant was a notoriously light packer and he could wash his underwear at night and wear them again next day. Aside form these features, they flattered a man’s anatomy and were very much more comfortable.

How does this ditty relate to me and my op? Well, the need to find comfort in the aftermath of my operation led me to have a Grant moment of my own. A step short of women’s nylon knickers, my salvation came in the form of Micro-Skin trunks from UK high-street retailer Marks and Spencer.  As much as I love my proper boxers, and have written as much before, they just weren’t up to the job, and positively encumbered the healing process. What I found and settled upon was an anathema to everything I believe in, but I suddenly saw where Grant was going. Not only are they comfortable beyond description, with cleverly placed soft seams and support that is akin to a second skin, I’ve noticed that trousers lie and fall much better. In fact, in this regard the difference between these and even better made boxers is remarkable – and it’s an understatement to say they went down well with the girlfriend. In fact I’m half tempted to start giving these as gifts to people.

The world of men’s clothing is full of rules and standards of good form. For the most part it’s wise to follow these strictures, but just occasionally going against the grain makes sense.

The Influence Of American Presidential Style

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I wish the leader of the free world would take the opportunity to also be a leader in style. The past few U.S. Presidents have all adhered to the American political uniform: dark suit, white shirt and typically a light blue tie. There is nothing particularly wrong with that look, except that it is painfully boring. Esquire has previously named President Obama one of the best dressed men in the world. I honestly don’t see it.

U.S Presidents have not always been so sartorially boring. Former haberdasher Harry S. Truman sported double-breasted suits, Stetson hats and spectator shoes; his contemporary Winston Churchill was also incredibly stylish. JFK has been blamed for killing the hat, but at least he had an influence on the nation’s style consciousness. Ronald Reagan, the dandy from Hollywood, is credited with reviving the popularity of the brown suit. He was not afraid to indulge his passion for clothing. Consider this article from the June 28, 1982, issue of Time magazine:

Not since John Kennedy posed boldly in a two-button coat, defying decades of three-button tradition, has a suit of clothes gained such worldwide attention as the blue-and-gray glen plaid outfit that Ronald Reagan wore to Europe. It jangled the eyes of television producers on two continents and offended the artistic sensibilities of still cameramen. “Can’t you get him out of that suit” pleaded one photographer. White House aides feared that it had the whiff of the $2 window at a race track. Foreign functionaries, noting the swaths of plain blue and gray cloaking the ample figures of the other summiteers, looked politely pained when they saw Reagan’s cheery plaid clashing with a red carpet or the faded elegance of Versailles.

When the folks back home opened up their magazines to pictures of the summit, the Reagan suit hit them in the eye like an errant thumb. One reader phoned Washington to ask if the suit had deeper diplomatic significance. Cocktail parties on both coasts pondered Reagan’s sartorial splendor.

The American fashion industry rallied to the President’s defense. “It’s a credit to his imagination,” claimed Jack Haber, editor of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. “It was not a sore-thumb kind of plaid. It was a beautifully tailored suit, a muted plaid.” John Fairchild, Women’s Wear Daily publisher, seconded the thought: “Good for him. The President didn’t look like a stuffy old goat. There’s some sunshine, some California in that suit.”

The suit, believe it or not, became a subject at last week’s White House issues luncheon held by Reagan with his principal aides. Normal fare for the august assemblage is the federal budget with a sprinkling of SALT II. Just how the glen plaid came up is not clear. But Reagan was heard to proclaim, “I like that suit.” Whereupon he explained that months ago he had cautiously worn the suit to test how it photographed. “It only could have looked good in stills,” joked one aide. No, the President replied, he thought it went well on television, so he wore it often.

Reagan’s glen plaid has good lineage. The fabric was manufactured by the British firm of Illingworth, Morris & Co. Ltd., which also furnished the interiors of Rolls Royce autos, the Pope’s vestments and the covers for the tennis balls used at Wimbledon. White House Aide Morgan Mason (son of Actor James Mason) used to be executive director of Illingworth, Morris, and when Friend Nancy Reagan wanted some new suiting for her husband, Mason hustled over some swatches from which the glen plaid was chosen.

The bolt of cloth was sent along to Beverly Hills Tailor Frank Mariani, who makes all of Reagan’s suits. He went to work with the quiet confidence that comes from knowing his customer’s taste: two-button coat, medium-width lapels, pleated trousers and six buttons on the fly. For $1,200 the suit was a beauty, and Mariani suspected back then that it might be destined for fame. “The President likes his clothes,” explains Mariani. “He builds a fondness for them.”

Emperors and their clothes remain an important area of presidential lore that has only been skimpily researched. It was a given back in Dwight Eisenhower’s time that when the President was spied coming down the corridor in the morning in a brown suit, he was in a bad mood. Aide Tom Stephens flashed the word all through the White House to beware. GQ’s Harber insists that Kennedy’s fondness for a two-button coat began a trend that drove three-button models out of the market. Kennedy also put the last nail in the coffin of the men’s hat industry. He was proud of his bushy hair and refused to wear a hat, despite the pleadings of the industry. Gerald Ford’s too-short striped pants wore for a Tokyo reception obliterated the news of the trade talks.

If world leaders were dazzled by Reagan’s blue-and-gray plaid, wait until they see the one he has stashed away in his closet. It has the identical cut and pattern, only in brown. White House strategists believe the President should spring it on Leonid Brezhnev in the fall, provided the Soviet leader has recovered his health.

Maybe recent U.S. Presidents have felt stylistically constrained by their position as a world leader. Maybe they have wanted to avoid stirring up any sartorial controversy. But consider that other world dignitaries, like Prince Charles and Nicolas Sarkozy, manage to also be leaders in style.

The situation in the White House has devolved even further with the current President. President Obama created a minor stir during the first week of his Presidency when he was photographed in the Oval Office without a suit jacket. It has been reported that business casual is now the norm on the weekends in the White House. At least President Bush, who was certainly no style icon, required some formality of dress.

American presidents exercise incredible influence worldwide. I wish Mr. Obama and our future U.S. Presidents would take the opportunity to stand as example for the t-shirt and flip-flop wearing masses. Maybe they could help reverse this trend of sartorial laziness, this attitude of idleness that infects the work ethic of the American populace.

The Art Of Acting British

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On the 4th September Jermyn Street, London’s shoe-and-shirt mecca, was closed to traffic. However, this was no ordinary inconvenience. The entire street had been taken over for the celebration of a particular Art; the Art of Being British. Many of the street’s retailers had set up stalls exhibiting their trade, trumpeting British values of quality. The Ritz Hotel occupied a large part of the Western end with their British chef creating and instructing on fine British cuisine and the Rivoli’s head bartender demonstrating the art of mixing a Ritz cocktail whilst their hotel car, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, boomed out ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’, a song which appropriately identifies celestial bodies as hotel diners.

A bandstand was set up by the statue of Beau Brummell at the entrance to the Piccadilly Arcade and musicians from the Royal Academy of Music (where else?) entertained the watching crowds with nostalgic and sprightly tunes. Paxton & Whitfield, proudly the smelliest shop in London, organised a slightly Wodehousian ‘Guess the weight of the cheddar’ competition; Barkers demonstrated the art of creating a shoe cutting and sewing leather in front of a silent audience; the Cavendish hotel organised a street-served hog roast which was so popular the queue snaked down the street in not one but two directions and a catwalk was set up in the middle of the street showing ensembles from the likes of TM Lewin, Beretta, Favourbrook, Daks and Hawes & Curtis.

Elsewhere along the street, Morgan cars gleamed in the September sunshine, Lewin’s attracted shoppers in to see their working seamstress and The St James Hotel served up some complimentary out-of-season Pimms. It was in confection as British as an imagination would dare and, acknowledging the special occasion, some of the crowd had taken the opportunity to exhibit their Art of being British. I say ‘being British’, when in fact I mean ‘acting British’; most of the fantastically, elegantly and colourfully dressed gentlemen there were not British at all yet they chose to mark the day in particularly British ensembles; tweed suits, fedoras, bow ties and even bowler hats. I heard Italian, American, Spanish and French visitors enjoying their promenade on this special day, attired in beautiful British classics. My fellow countrymen were largely anonymous.

You see, the trouble with the British is most of them are trying to be something else. They want to be Italian, or American or French. They’re either not comfortable with their nationality, or they secretly believe the grass is greener. Admittedly, the effect can be repeated elsewhere – Milan is full of men who see British tailoring as the pinnacle of elegance. But despite all the apparent British nationalism, our connection with Britishness, all the stuff that Jermyn Street was celebrating – that oaky, tweedy, burnished state of being – has become a museum in itself. Our citizens wander around in this world with a passive unconcern that suggests it no longer exists. Whereas those looking in on Britain see such things as worthy of protection and celebration, the curious Brits who peer in through the windows seemed to have lost all association with that world.