James Stewart as George Bailey, banker and depressed family man
Bedford Falls, NY, Christmas Eve 1945
Film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra have both called It’s a Wonderful Life the favorite film of each of their prolific careers. Stewart cites George Bailey as his favorite character that he’s played, and Capra would annually screen the film for his own family each Christmas.
First released 60 years ago this week, the film earned mixed reviews and was ultimately considered a financial disappointment, earning only $3.3 million during its initial box office run against its considerably expensive $3.7 million budget. (It also earned the ire of the FBI for its “Communist tricks” of “represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture,” but that’s a whole different story.)
The rights to It’s a Wonderful Life swapped hands several time during the following decades, but a clerical error prevented the renewal of the copyright in 1974 and led to the film becoming a perennial television mainstay. Just like George Bailey himself, It’s a Wonderful Life received a second chance at life and has grown to become a holiday favorite and ranked by AFI in 2006 as the #1 Most Inspirational Movie of All Time.
I’ve made it a personal tradition to go with family to see It’s a Wonderful Life each December as the Regent Square Theater in Pittsburgh, just a few minutes from my apartment, hosts an annual public screening where the only cost of admission is a non-perishable food item to be donated to someone in need. This is the best way to take in the movie, laughing, crying, or just feeling with the rest of the audience. As someone who suffers from depression, I always leave the theater feeling refreshed, fulfilled, and appreciative… plus my ears perk up more than usual at the sound of bells ringing!
What’d He Wear?
After following George Bailey through his life, It’s a Wonderful Life catches up with him on Christmas Eve 1945. He has placed aside his wanderlust and big dreams to take over his family business and raise a family in the small town of Bedford Falls. He has reasons to be disgruntled, but he’s in high spirits as he waltzes into the office of the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan that morning, mouth clamped on a pipe, Christmas wreath over his arm, and proudly proclaiming the news of the homecoming of his war hero brother, Harry.
Set on a snowy holiday morning in upstate New York (though filmed during a toasty June and July in Encino!), George bundles up with a heavy tweed tan single-breasted overcoat and brown fedora. His heavy three-button coat has swelled edges on the notch lapels, single-button pointed cuff tabs, and flapped patch pockets. He will eventually leaves his coat and wide-brimmed felt hat at the office… a regrettable decision given how much he ends up digging in the snow but probably one that Jimmy Stewart greatly appreciated when filming during the hot California summer.
George’s scarf is a dark woven herringbone wool with long fringe. It was colorized to navy blue, just a shade darker than the thicker stripes of his repp tie. George is still wearing the scarf when he gets word of the missing $8,000, so he wears it when he goes off to find it but ends up leaving his coat and hat in the office.
Underneath his wintry outer layers, George is still warmly dressed for a winter day in a nice countrified suit for a humble small-town banker. The heavy wool suit is constructed from a large-scaled birdseye tweed, likely brown and tan yarn. Tweed suits are a favorite for George Bailey and strengthen the perception of his character as a homespun “everyman”; he wore a three-piece tweed suit for Harry’s first homecoming after his surprise wedding and another sportier tweed suit for both his own wedding and tempestuous “job interview” with Mr. Potter.
The heavy single-breasted jacket has a three-button front that George wears open for most of his onscreen trials and tribulations, exposing his ragged tie and contributing to the appearance of a man who is falling apart.
George’s suit jacket has thick notch lapels with a buttonhole through the left lapel. The shoulders are well-padded, there are three buttons on the end of each cuff, and the back is ventless. Sporty details like the patch pockets on the left chest and hips would not be found on a business suit and hint that, like his beloved father, George is no businessman (which certainly makes him very popular to his lendees!)
The trousers appropriately match the full cut of the jacket, rising high on Stewart’s waist with double reverse pleats and cut straight through the legs down to the cuffed bottoms.
George’s suit trousers have a straight pocket on each side seam and two jetted pockets in the back. Just below the belt line is a small coin pocket for “Zuzu’s petals!” The belt itself appears to be a medium brown leather with tan edge stitching and a plain, polished steel, single-prong squared buckle.
George wears a light cotton dress shirt, colorized to a pale blue-gray, with widely-spaced thin white stripes. The shirt has a semi-spread collar, plain front, and the same distinctive two-button cuffs – with the lowest button very close to the edge of the rounded cuff – that James Stewart had on many of his shirts in the 1940s.
George’s striped repp tie is revealed to be fraying on the bottom, a nice detail of his situation that goes unnoticed when covered by his buttoned jacket; significantly, the fraying tie is most concealed earlier in the day, when he appears happy.
The tie has been colorized to a navy blue ground with thick red stripes, each bordered by a thin white stripe on the top and bottom, crossing down from the left shoulder to the right hip. Navy and red is a classic color configuration for this type of striped tie, but it also may be a modern wink to Jimmy Stewart’s all-American reputation (despite the British direction of the stripes!)
If George had known he’d have been running through so much snow, he probably would’ve chosen more substantial footwear than the dark leather cap-toe oxfords and thin black dress socks that he wears for the day. The shoes are almost definitely brown to match his belt and the outfit’s earth tones.
Although his footwear was a miss, George wisely layered for the bitter cold Bedford Falls winter with a set of tan heathered cotton flannel long johns, consisting of a long-sleeve three-button henley shirt and long underpants with three widely spaced buttons on the fly.
George wears a simple tank watch, colorized to look brass or gold and secured to his left wrist on a plain brown leather strap.
What to Imbibe
I was just thinking of a flaming rum punch… no, it’s not cold enough for that, not nearly cold enough. Wait a minute, wait a minute! Mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Off with you, me lad, and be lively!
An order like Clarence’s would probably yield funny looks anywhere… at least anywhere that isn’t Brooklyn. As appetizing as Clarence’s libations of choice may sound, George ends up roping him into ordering a double bourbon – neat. In this case, Nick (Sheldon Leonard!) serves the guys a shot of King Black Label, an old Brown-Forman brand of blended Kentucky whiskey manufactured through the mid-20th century.
King is no longer available, but Brown-Forman currently owns Early Times, Jack Daniel’s, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve in addition to a host of Canadian and Scotch whiskies. Several old King labels, including the 86 proof “Black Label” seen in It’s a Wonderful Life, can be found at this site.
How to Get the Look
Jimmy Stewart’s heavy tweed country suit in It’s a Wonderful Life is the perfect outfit for a modest family man dressing for a cold Christmas Eve.
- Brown-and-tan birdseye tweed wool two-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-button suit jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale blue-gray cotton dress shirt with thin white stripes, semi-spread collar, plain front, and 2-button rounded cuffs
- Navy-and-red striped repp tie with thin white stripes
- Brown leather belt with polished steel square single-prong buckle
- Dark brown cap-toe balmorals/oxfords
- Black dress socks
- Tan heathered cotton flannel 3-button long-sleeve henley undershirt
- Tan heathered cotton flannel long underpants with 3-button fly
- Tan heavy tweed single-breasted 3-button overcoat with notch lapels, flapped patch hip pockets, pointed 1-button tab cuffs, and long single vent
- Dark navy woven herringbone wool scarf with long fringe
- Brown felt wide-brimmed fedora with brown grosgrain ribbon
- Gold tank wristwatch on brown leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
… and, if you can, find the great Saturday Night Live sketch from 1986 that added a “lost ending” finding George Bailey (played here by Dana Carvey) leading the rest of Bedford Falls on a revenge mission to beat the hell out of Mr. Potter.
Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!
And remember Clarence’s parting message…
No one is a failure who has friends!
Happy holidays to all BAMF Style readers!