Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, novice high school teacher
London, June 1966
Film: To Sir, with Love
Release Date: June 14, 1967
Director: James Clavell
Wardrobe Supervisor: John Wilson Apperson
As many students are returning back to school at the end of August, BAMF Style takes a look at Sidney Poitier’s scholarly style as the patient teacher in To Sir, with Love, based on E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel from 1959. The film was produced, directed, and adapted for the screen by James Clavell, the prolific writer whose works include “the Asian Saga” (including Shōgun) and the screenplay for The Great Escape.
Sidney Poitier stars as Mark Thackeray, the determined teacher who takes his first appointment (or “job,” as he is politely corrected) instructing a senior class of troubled—and often troubling—high school students at the North Quay Secondary School in London’s East End just a few weeks before the students were scheduled to graduate.
“I can’t guide you, but don’t take any nonsense from these little tykes,” encourages his friendly fellow teacher “Clinty” Clintridge (Patricia Routledge). “They’re good kids, Mark… most of them. If you don’t solve ’em, they’ll break you and damn quickly.” “That’s been tried… by experts,” Mark assures her. “They’re very expert,” Clinty half-jokingly responds.
Another colleague, the fellow newbie Gillian Blanchard (Suzy Kendall), asks Mark why he took up teaching in the first place, to which he laughs: “Oh, it’s good to have some kind of job!”
While he’s still circling classified ads for engineering positions, the former communications engineer with British Guiana tries to find some inspiration to teach within himself, despite naysayers like the cheeky and cynical Theo Weston (Geoffrey Bayldon), a longtime veteran of North Quay who had long given up on trying to get through to the kids.
Mark’s patience is further tested through a series of immature pranks such as a loosened desk leg and a sheet of ice dropped from a window above him, but the disciplined Mark remains patient… until the prank of a used sanitary pad burning in his classroom stove pushes him over the edge. After losing his temper (“the one thing I swore I would never, never do”), Mark resolves to treat the students as adults, ceremoniously throwing their books into the trash and eschewing the prescribed curriculum in favor of reasonable discussions “about life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion…”
The class’s lessons from “Sir” range from practical advice and in-class discussion to museum field trips and even learning how to make salad, steadily gaining him the respect of even the most obstinate and uninspired of his students as he guides them into shaping themselves into mature adults with a chance to succeed.
What’d He Wear?
North Quay has no uniforms for its students or teachers, but Mark Thackeray dresses for each day in the class room in a navy sports coat, white OCBD shirt, striped repp tie, and gray flannel slacks that, while a timeless trad ensemble in its own right, could also be argued as the grown-up version of the classic school uniform.
Mark’s single-breasted jacket appears to be made from navy blue softly napped doeskin wool, a popular and classic cloth for blazers, though the softness and sheen in some shots suggests cashmere. The short fit is contemporary to the mid-to-late 1960s, and there is a long single vent. There is a patch pocket on the left breast and two patch pockets on the lower quarters.
Despite being styled in the traditional blazer cloth and color, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to refer to Mark’s jacket as a blazer as it lacks the contrasting buttons—often metal shank buttons to reflect its naval heritage—that most visually differentiate the blazer from its cousins in the odd jacket realm. Referring to Mark’s jacket as such may lead to additional confusion in the modern world of marketing shortcuts where every tailored jacket—whether part of a suit or just an odd jacket with lapels—is referred to as a “blazer”.
Instead of metal blazer buttons, Mark’s jacket has three dark blue plastic buttons on the front and on the cuffs, though a closer look at the sleeves suggests that more than one jacket may have been worn by Sidney Poitier on screen. The sleeves alternate between having one and two buttons on the cuff, though the buttons are always placed close to the edge of each sleeve. (Click here to see Mark’s jacket with one-button cuffs rather than the two-button cuff example below.)
Each day, Mark wears the same tie, patterned with slim crimson red satin stripes crossing diagonally “uphill” against a navy ground with imperfect slubbing consistent with navy shantung silk. While the pattern shares similarities to the Kings Regiment Liverpool stripe, Mark’s tie is almost certainly unaffiliated with the regiment.
Mark wears a plain white oxford cotton shirt with a button-down collar, plain front, and squared cuffs that close with a single button. By the late 1960s, it was still a typically American practice to wear a button-down shirt with a jacket and tie in a professional setting, indicative of Mark having “spent some years in the States.” That said, Mark only wears his OCBD shirt with his navy sport jacket, opting for a white French-cuff shirt with a classic point collar when he wears his gray worsted suit on screen.
The lightweight white fabric of Mark’s OCBD shirt reveals the outline of his short-sleeved undershirt, a white cotton T-shirt with a low-opening crew neck. The undershirt is never seen on screen, though he wears a white mesh short-sleeved T-shirt with a wide boat neck with his slacks (as well as light gray sneakers) when he has to fill in as P.T. teacher after an altercation between student “Pots” Potter (Christopher Chittell) and the bullying instructor Mr. Bell (Dervis Ward).
Mark’s dark gray flannel trousers are hardly ideal for physical education, but they’re otherwise classic and a perfect complement to his navy sports coat. The trousers appear to have a flat front but are, in fact, darted to comfortably curve over Poitier’s hips without requiring pleats, which were falling out of fashion by the late 1960s. They have slanted side pockets and jetted back pockets with a single button to close the back right pocket. The fit is straight through the legs to the plain-hemmed bottoms. The trousers have three-button “Daks top” side adjusters and an extended waistband tab with a hidden hook closure.Mark wears black calf derby shoes with dark navy socks.
When the day appears to be threatening rain, Mark dons a khaki gabardine knee-length raincoat with a short Prussian collar. He wears the coat open, though it has four widely spaced buttons made from mixed taupe plastic. Each set-in sleeve has a semi-strap that closes with a single button over the cuff. The coat also has flapped hip pockets and two short side vents.
To Sir, at Home
After Mark’s long and difficult first day, we observe him at home that evening, attending to his clothing his characteristically patient care as he irons his white shirt, folds over the collar, and hangs it beside his gray trousers, preparing to dress in the same to do it all over again the following day.
For these evenings filled of laundry, sleeplessness, and studying how to teach “the slow learner,” Mark dresses for classy comfort in a blue cotton bathrobe with white piping, tied over his light blue cotton navy-piped pajamas.
How to Get the Look
Sidney Poiter puts a mature twist on the classic school uniform aesthetic with his scholarly ensemble of a navy jacket, striped repp tie, and gray flannel trousers in To Sir, with Love.
- Navy doeskin wool single-breasted 3-button jacket with slim notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 1- or 2-button cuffs, and long single vent
- White oxford cotton shirt with button-down collar, plain front, and 1-button squared barrel cuffs
- Navy shantung silk tie with crimson red “uphill” satin stripes
- Dark gray flannel darted-front trousers with “Daks top” three-button side adjuster tabs, extended hidden-hook waistband, slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black calf leather derby shoes
- Dark navy socks
- Khaki gabardine raincoat with short Prussian collar, four-button front, set-in sleeves with single-button semi-strap cuffs, straight flapped hip pockets, and short double vents
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Toughness is a quality of the mind, like bravery, honesty, and ambition.