Cary Grant – Modern Gentleman, Part II

Last week, we explored a question at the intersection of On The Fly’s point-of-view and my book: Was Cary Grant a "modern gentleman"? It?s an intriguing question because Ami would consider Mr. Grant an icon of "Old School" style — an actor who not only made movies during Hollywood?s golden era but who epitomized it. And that was a very long time ago.

But the arc of his life, from Archibald Leach, a poor and awkward kid from the English provinces, to the suave movie star at the top of Hollywood?s A-list, is essentially a story about a very modern obsession? the makeover.

By dint of a shrewd understanding of the transformative power of style?and by style I include not only how he wore his suits and ties, but how he walked and talked, where he spent his days off, and the quality of his mind and character?he became the man he wanted to be, a change so profound it is, I believe, largely the reason for the continuing interest in him as not only a movie star but as an historical figure.

His journey is one from which we all can learn?not as a dry academic exercise but as a kind of entertaining guide that reflects our own interests and goals. One of which is the quest for the best and most tantalizingly unique products at the best value.

In Grant?s day finding the best but not necessarily the most expensive objects was truly a quest, an abiding passion that meant exploring the shops and showrooms in cities all over the world.

Visiting Rome, he discovered the luxurious bespoke suits of Caraceni. In Milan he selected cashmere and silk sweaters by Pasquale Avon Celli, a genius with fabric who made a splash in the 1920s with his silk three-button polo shirt whose legendary quality was achieved by the importation of looms with 36 needles that were then only used to produce women?s stockings.

Grant, most notably, wears a long-sleeved striped Avon Celli polo in ?To Catch a Thief? which he paired with a red foulard for one of the most memorable looks in film history.

When in London he visited Aquascutum for one of their signature rain coats, Hawes & Curtis for a new glen-plaid suit, Lobb or Tuczek in Mayfair for a fitting with the legendary George Cleverley who might make him a new pair of benchmade tasseled loafers, and then off for window-shopping in the Burlington Arcade, searching its shops for the new and the novel, from hand-crafted chocolates to a nifty new pair of cuff links. 

His scents were selected from Floris, Creed and Aqua di Parma. In New York he might make a stop in Brooks Brothers for one of their off-the-wrack button-down white shirts he liked so much. Then to Tiffany and Verdura whose help he enlisted for the jewelry he designed specially for his wife Barbara.

Later in his life he discovered shirtmakers and tailors in Asia and his garments would travel back and forth from Beverly Hills to Hong Kong with alteration instructions until the garments met his exacting standards. Adjustments of 1/8th of an inch on a shirt sleeve were not unusual.

Accumulating a fine wardrobe was far more perilous than it is for fans of On The Fly. When the Andrea Doria sunk off the coast of Nantucket on July 25, 1956, Grant?s third wife, Betsy Drake, was onboard with a batch of his custom-made shirts that she was transporting from Europe. Betsy was rescued but his shirts went down with the ship.

There were far fewer luxury brands then than there are today, so there were far fewer choices, and of course they were not nearly as accessible for him as they are for us, thanks to the wonders of technology.

Perhaps the image we have of Grant is one of staunch conservatism, a man dressed more like a banker than a daring sartorialist. (It?s that damn gray suit in ?North by Northwest?!). But this is not really accurate. He was very cutting-edge, very forward-thinking in just about everything he did. 

Was Cary Grant a modern gentleman? Indeed he was. In fact, I think he had what I would call the essential quality of the modern gentleman?a passion for style, innovation, and quality that is shared by fans of On the Fly who explore this site not as a chore but as a joyful journey, though one without all the travel expenses Mr. Grant no doubt incurred. 

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