Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night
Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, Philadelphia homicide detective
Sparta, Mississippi, September 1966
Film: In the Heat of the Night
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Costume Designer: Alan Levine
Happy birthday to the great Sidney Poitier, born 92 years ago today on February 20, 1927. The actor’s personal favorite among his prolific filmography is In the Heat of the Night, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, a year that found him pulling off a peerless hat trick that included that film as well as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and To Sir, with Love.
In the Heat of the Night has it all: gripping—and often funny—writing, pitch-perfect acting from all, and a noirish atmosphere dripping with a Southern Gothic twist. The masterful score by Quincy Jones ranges from bluesy to soulful, kicked off by the stirring title song performed by Ray Charles, welcoming us to the sweltering burg of Sparta, Mississippi.
Heading home after a visit to his mother, Virgil Tibbs finds himself in Sparta in the wee hours of the morning, waiting for his next train. Half-asleep in the deserted station, Tibbs is accosted and arrested for murder by Sam Wood (Warren Oates), who delivers him to the Sparta police station. Tibbs calmly withstands the relentless questions from Sparta’s police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who won an Academy Award for this role), until the chief implies that Tibbs could have honestly come by the hundreds of dollars in his wallet. “Now what do you do up there in little old Pennsylvania to earn that kind of money?” Gillespie chides.
“I’m a police officer,” Tibbs memorably responds, pulling out his credentials as Gillespie’s aggression transforms into shock. As the misunderstanding is resolved, both Tibbs’ own chief and Gillespie himself manage to goad the detective into sticking around in Sparta to assist with the investigation.
What’d He Wear?
“You hear the talk about Cary Grant and Steve McQueen, but I don’t think anybody wore a suit better than Sidney Poitier,” observed film critic Elvis Mitchell in a February 2017 Vanity Fair article that details the actor’s marvelous trio of films that cemented him as the most prolific actor of 1967.
Laura Jacobs further illustrates the points with her notation that “in each movie he wears a gray flannel suit as if it were a form of lightweight knight’s armor,” though Virgil Tibbs’ well-cut dark gray suit that he wears throughout his time in Sparta is likely a worsted with a silky blue cast that suggests a finer material.
The single-breasted suit jacket has slim lapels with wide notches that gently curve over the lower corners, suggestive of the “half clover” notch lapels that trended during the mid-sixties. The lapels roll just over the top of three gray-blue plastic buttons that work in tandem with the darted fit to present a strong, structured silhouette that flatters Poitier’s tall, lean 6’2″ physique.
The jacket has a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets in line with the lowest button, vestigal four-button cuffs, and a single vent.
The flat front trousers rise to Poitier’s natural waist, where he suspends them with a black leather belt that closes in the front through a polished steel single-prong buckle. The trousers are plain-hemmed on the bottoms with jetted back pockets and straight side pockets where the exasperated detective often places his hands.
Tibbs wears a pair of black calf cap-toe shoes with V-front three-eyelet derby lacing and black socks.
Tibbs adds an Ivy-inspired touch with his button-down collar shirts and striped repp ties. During his first few days in town, he wears an ecru button-down collar shirt with a scarlet and navy wide-striped repp tie.
The tie’s stripe formation evokes the classic Brigade of Guards tie that signals service in that formation of the British Army, though the stripes on Tibbs’ tie appear to be double the width of the traditional Guards tie stripes and follow the Americanized stripe direction of right shoulder-down-to-left hip.
While Sidney Poitier was a customer of Frank Foster—the venerated London shirtmaker who dressed the likes of Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and three James Bond actors among many others—the company confirmed that they did not make his shirts for In the Heat of the Night. (To see Poitier wearing Frank Foster, check out To Sir, With Love, released the same year.)
The ecru cotton shirt has a button-down collar in more of a spread than a point shape. The shirt fastens up the plain front with four-hole sew-through mother-of-pearl buttons with a column of two identical buttons on each squared cuff.
After two long nights with the Sparta PD, Tibbs shows up refreshed the next morning in a new blue shirt and striped tie only to be greeted with the news that Chief Gillespie is arresting the excitable Sam Wood, the officer who discovered the dead body two nights earlier. Tibbs can’t help but to laugh (“You’re making a mistake!”) now that yet a third suspect has been wrongly accused of the murder in as many days.
Tibbs again sports a striped repp tie, this time with navy and silver stripes about an inch wide and, like the previous tie, following the Americanized “downhill” stripe direction.
The closest regimental neckwear equivalent is likely the tie of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, a line infantry regiment of the British Army that was disestablished in 1961 after eighty years.
His light blue cotton shirt is styled similarly to the previous shirt with a spread-shaped button-down collar, plain front, and two-button barrel cuffs.
After the murderer has been caught, Tibbs oversees the confession from the doorway in his dressiest shirt yet, a beige cotton number with a classic spread collar and double (French) cuffs, worn with a plain bright red satin silk tie that’s almost identical to the train he’s about to board.
Also worth noting is the fact that—while similar in style, cut, and details—Tibbs appears to be wearing a different suit, made from a lighter shade of gray wool and detailed with darker buttons.
What to Imbibe
Chief Gillespie: You know a lot of things, don’t you? Well, what do you know about insomnia?
Virgil Tibbs: Bourbon can’t cure it.
During Tibbs’ action-packed last night in Sparta, he and Chief Gillespie wile away the hours with a bottle of Wild Turkey, though the chief seems to do the lion’s share of the drinking… or at least of showing the effects of drinking.
“You know, Virgil, you are among the chosen few,” offers Chief Gillespie after a long night of drinking. Indeed, Virgil Tibbs is a classic heroic figure – smart, strong, and still flawed, admitting that he allowed his investigation to divert in the wrong direction, following his own suspicions of the bigoted town big shot Endicott “for personal reasons” after the two men famously exchanged slaps.
How to Get the Look
Virgil Tibbs’ arrival in Sparta makes him easily the most fashionable man in town with his sleek, modern suit and Ivy-inspired underpinnings of light button-down collar shirts with striped repp ties.
- Dark gray worsted suit
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with slim notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and single vent
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Ecru cotton shirt with spread button-down collar, plain front, and two-button cuffs
- Scarlet-and-navy “downhill”-striped repp tie
- Black leather belt with polished steel single-prong buckle
- Black calf leather cap-toe 3-eyelet derby shoes
- Black dress socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, which was just given the Criterion Collection treatment in grand form last month.
They call me Mister Tibbs!
In an interesting bit of trivia, this film was set in Sparta, Mississippi but actually filmed in Sparta, Illinois, a river town south of St. Louis. It still looks pretty much the same today. And yes, Poitier could definitely west a suit. Great work, as always.
Poitier looks great in this and To Sir With Love. Another I’d like to see you do, where he has some great looks, is 1963s Lilies of the Field for which he won the Oscar for best actor. Thanks for the great work, amazing detail.