James Stewart as George Bailey, newlywed banker
Bedford Falls, NY, fall 1932 through spring 1934
Film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Although the film takes place over the course of one man’s whole life, It’s a Wonderful Life has earned a comfortable home among nostalgic holiday cinema. The man in question, George Bailey (James Stewart), spends a depressing Christmas Eve questioning his existence… prompting a visit from his guardian angel to remind him of the titular wonderful life that he has led.
We follow George through a Capra-esque montage of childhood and Charleston-dancing up through his courtship and eventual marriage to Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), which happens to coincide on a catastrophic day during the Great Depression that finds the bank in George’s small-town selling out to the avaricious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Rather than letting the entire town fall into Potter’s hands, George and Mary invest their entire honeymoon savings into keeping the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan afloat and ensuring the livelihood of his lendees, neighbors, and town acquaintances.
Mr. Potter: I may lose a fortune, but I’m willing to guarantee your people, too. Just tell them to bring their shares over here and I will pay 50 cents on the dollar.
George: Aw, you never miss a trick, do you, Potter? Well, you’re going to miss this one!
A few years later, we see the positive effects of George’s community leadership as he and Mary are able to welcome a working-class family into their new home in Bailey Park, a housing development financed by George’s building and loan that allows the people of Bedford Falls to own their own homes rather than renting from Potter.
Ruthless businessman that he is, Potter recognizes the business opportunity in bringing George onto his team… especially as the flivver-driving George’s cynicism continues to grow.
Potter: George, I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it. Or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing. Now take during the Depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, I saved all the rest.
George: Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest.
Potter offers George a job… with a nearly 800% salary increase. George is flabbergasted and, like most anyone being offered a 800% salary increase, extends his hand… until Potter’s job offer becomes yet another offer for George to keep his morality intact as he tosses away his celebratory stogie and read Potter the riot act:
You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!
What’d He Wear?
A common practice of “golden age” cinema was for actors – particularly clothes horse actors like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Cary Grant – to wear their own clothing on screen. James Stewart was no exception, often wearing his own conservative, well-tailored suits and trusty hats in multiple movies.
Almost every scene of George Bailey’s adult life features him wearing a tweed suit, a nontraditional choice for business executives like George but certainly fitting with his humble, homespun demeanor and the small town setting. The suit that he wears when saving the Building and Loan – and then saving his own professional integrity a few years later – is almost certainly one from Stewart’s own real-life closet. In fact, Jimmy appears to be wearing the suit in a series of photographs taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt during the production of Made for Each Other in 1938, nearly a full ten years before It’s a Wonderful Life was filmed.
As much of It’s a Wonderful Life was set during the Depression, it makes sense that the unassuming Stewart would reach into his own closet for a suit of 1930s vintage rather than putting the costume department of Capra’s fledgling Liberty Films through the rigamarole of creating a suit for him. Luckily, the suit still fit the lanky actor perfectly after a six-year stretch that included an Academy Award and a courageous war career.
The suit first appears on screen after George and Mary’s wedding, approximately the fall of 1932, when they plan on embarking on their honeymoon before they make a detour at the Bailey Building and Loan and invest their personal savings into securing the futures of everyone in town. It’s a rainy day in Bedford Falls, so George is dressed in his coat and hat, colorized to be a dark olive fedora with a matching grosgrain band.
George’s long, heavy twill overcoat is double-breasted with broad peak lapels that roll to a 6×2-button double-breasted front that fastens below Jimmy Stewart’s waist. Especially when wet, the oversized coat creates an effect of George being overwhelmed and overtaken, though he takes more ownership of the situation with each layer he pulls off.
The knee-length coat has a welted breast pocket, straight hip pockets, a long single vent, and plain, vented cuffs unadorned with buttons at the sleeve ends. It is colorized to match the aesthetic of the suit with the brown and tan twill creating an overall fawn effect.
The suit itself, worn after his wedding and again during his job “interview” with Potter a few years later, is barleycorn tweed, colorized to a cool fawn-like brown. The single-breasted jacket has wide lapels that pull apart from the collar more than the usual peak lapel, closer to the distinctive cran Necker or Parisian lapel.
The jacket’s wide lapels roll to the top of a two-button front, and there are three buttons on each cuff. In addition to the half-belted back, a popular element of 1930s tailoring, the ventless jacket includes sporty details like four patch pockets – two on the chest, two larger ones on the hips – all rounded on the bottoms.
The matching single-breasted waistcoat (vest) only appears during the suit’s first appearance. It has six buttons with the lowest button located on the notched bottom, clearly not meant to be buttoned. The waistcoat has four welted pockets on the front and an adjustable strap across the lower back.
When George wears his waistcoat, he holds up his trousers with a set of suspenders (colorized to dark brown).
George’s double forward-pleated trousers have a fashionably high rise for the era. They have slightly slanted side pockets, two jetted back pockets, and are finished on the bottoms with turn-ups (cuffs).
George wears a white cotton shirt when leaving his wedding. The shirt has a point collar and Jimmy Stewart’s usual two-button cuffs that balance the 6’2″ actor’s long arms. His “uphill”-striped tie is colorized to a low-contrast variance of cool blues and greens.
A few years later, George is hard at work at the building and loan… loaning people money to build houses. His workday shirt is colorized to a pale blue with thin, subtle, well-spaced white stripes. The shirt has a semi-spread collar and Stewart’s usual two-button cuffs. The tie consists of an organized field of two-toned circles linked over a dark ground, all colorized to ochre tones.
Since he has discarded the waistcoat, George wears a suede-like belt to hold up his trousers, colorized to a muted brown with a thin, dull brass single-prong buckle.
George’s cap-toe oxfords are colorized to a taupe brown leather, worn with dark brown socks.
On George’s left wrist, he wears a watch colorized to gold metal and worn on a plain brown leather strap.
The Eisenstaedt Shoot (1938)
German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was an iconic photographer whose subjects ranged from politics to pop culture. In 1929, he was hired as a full-time photographer in the German office of the Associated Press and spent the next few years building a robust portfolio that documented the rise of fascism while also capturing the glamour of interwar Europe. Some of Eisenstaedt’s most notable photos from the period include an ice-skating waiter at St. Moritz in 1932, the first meeting of Hitler and Mussolini the same year, and Joseph Goebbels glaring at Eisie’s camera during a 1933 League of Nations conference in Geneva.
“Suddenly he spotted me and I snapped him,” recalled Eisenstaedt in his 1985 memoir, Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt: A Self-Portrait. “His expression changed. Here are the eyes of hate. Was I an enemy?”
The photo summed up the increasingly aggressive political climate that led to Eisenstaedt and his family emigrating in 1935 to the United States, where he took a position as a staff photographer for Life magazine the following year. In 1938, Eisie traveled from New York to Santa Monica and captured James Stewart with his co-star Carole Lombard on the set of the romantic comedy Made for Each Other (1939).
Eisenstaedt also captured one of the most enduring photos in history when he attended the V-J Day celebrations in Times Square on August 14, 1945, and photographed an anonymous U.S. Navy sailor kissing a woman in a white dress, who has since been identified as a dental hygienist named Greta Zimmer Friedman.
More than 90 of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photographs had been featured on the cover of Life by the time he left the magazine in 1972. Eisie died in August 1995 at the age of 96, just nine days after the 50th anniversary of his iconic V-J Day photo.
How to Get the Look
This distinctive tweed suit with its unique, sporty details is an interesting representation of the sartorial style shared by James Stewart as well as his character George Bailey.
- Brown-and-tan birdseye tweed wool sport suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, two patch breast pockets, two patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with four welt pockets, notched bottom, and adjustable back strap
- Double forward-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, slightly slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White or pale blue striped cotton dress shirt with semi-spread collar, plain front, and 2-button rounded cuffs
- Striped or patterned tie
- Dark brown cap-toe oxfords
- Dark brown dress socks
- Brown-and-tan twill tweed wool double-breasted 6×2-button overcoat with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight hip pockets, plain vented cuffs, single back vent
- Olive felt wide-brimmed fedora
- Gold round-cased wristwatch on dark brown leather strap
Since the colorization was made decades after the film was made, all colors featured in this post are estimated assumptions.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider! And… and that goes for you, too!