The Lady Eve: Henry Fonda’s White Sports Coat

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

Vitals

Henry Fonda as Charles “Hopsie” Pike, brewery heir and ophidiologist

SS Southern Queen, sailing north from South America,
August 1940

Film: The Lady Eve
Release Date: February 25, 1941
Director: Preston Sturges
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Men’s Wardrobe: Richard Bachler

Background

Last year on my girlfriend’s birthday, my commemorative BAMF Style post explored Henry Fonda’s summer-friendly formal wear in The Lady Eve, the romantic screwball comedy that I first discovered with her family. I’ve thus chosen to dive back into this classic directed by Preston Sturges (who would have turned 121 years old yesterday!) with another look at Fonda’s attire, this time a more casual ensemble as his character Charles “Hopsie” Pike romances Barbara Stanwyck at sea: “You have the darndest way of bumping a fellow down and bouncing him up again.”

Waiter: Breakfast, sir?
Hopsie: (a beat) Two Scotch and sodas with plain water. (to Jean) You take it plain, don’t ya?
Jean: Don’t you take cream and sugar in it?
Hopsie: No, I always drink it black. (realizes) Say, what am I talking about?
Waiter: How about a nice bicarbonate of soda with egg in it. It does wonders.

Context clues in the checks signed over by Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) to Fonda’s Hopsie actually indicate that these scenes on the SS Southern Queen were set exactly 79 years ago today, with Hopsie and Jean’s shared breakfast on August 29, 1940, while he receives the heartbreaking news about her and her father’s con artistry is set the next day, August 30, 1940.

What’d He Wear?

The Lady Eve‘s black-and-white cinematography leaves some obvious doubt about the exact colors that the characters wear on screen, but a stark light-colored sports coat like Hopsie wears for his afternoons at sea can be safely deduced to be either a white or a creamy off-white softly napped summer-weight flannel. The jacket’s sporty details include three patch pockets: one on each hip and one on the left breast, which he dresses with a white pocket square. The ventless jacket is single-breasted with a three-button front and four-button cuffs.

On the second morning, Hopsie adds a dash of romance to his look with a flower pinned to the left of his notch lapels, though his heart wilts before the flower does upon learning that his new romantic interest is, in fact, a con artist.

On the second morning, Hopsie adds a dash of romance to his look with a flower pinned to the left of his notch lapels, though his heart wilts before the flower does upon learning that his new romantic interest is, in fact, a con artist.

Hopsie’s jacket may look white, but its contrast with the crisp white oxford-cloth cotton shirt he wears beneath it hints that the jacket’s material is likely a creamy shade away from white. The shirt has a button-down collar and rounded, single-button barrel cuffs.

The first time that he wears this outfit, it’s accented with a fun tie patterned with Deco-style swirls against a dark ground, reflective of the love he’s found with the playful Jean.

Production photo of Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.

Production photo of Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.

The next morning, Hopsie dresses in the same outfit but with a more conservative tie patterned with a neat pattern of small C-shaped curves organized against a dark ground.

A heartbroken Hopsie has no time for Jean's explanations... unaware that his formalwear will ultimately be paying the price for his stubbornness.

A heartbroken Hopsie has no time for Jean’s explanations… unaware that his formalwear will ultimately be paying the price for his stubbornness.

Hopsie contrasts the brightness of his upper half with a darker pair of flannel trousers with pleats that contribute to the flatteringly full cut. The trousers are finished at the bottoms with turn-ups (cuffs) that break well above his white bucks.

Lifelong friends Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck share a smile on the set of The Lady Eve.

Lifelong friends Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck share a smile on the set of The Lady Eve.

Bucks, so named for the napped nubuck leather used to make the uppers, grew in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s for gents seeking a dressed-down summer shoe, and they swiftly found acceptance as an Ivy standard. The Handbook of Style by Esquire still lists white bucks among the top five essential shoes a man should own, placing them in the more contemporary context as “a semi-dress-up alternative to sneakers” and as “ideal partners for dark jeans and khakis.”

True bucks should be purchased from a trusted shoemaker, made from genuine napped nubuck leather—sanded on the grain side for a napped finish as opposed to the softer suede underside—and ideally soled in the distinctive “red brick” rubber that became standard. You can pick up white bucks from manufacturers like Allen Edmonds, Brooks Brothers, Florsheim, and Peter Huber.

White bucks would be a very fitting choice for the affluent and stylish Hopsie to wear for a summer day at sea, harmonizing with the bright whiteness of his jacket and shirt for a unified look. Hopsie’s bucks appear to have five-eyelet “bal-type” closed lacing and are worn with light-colored socks a few shades dimmer than his shoes.

While waiting for Jean on deck, Hopsie frequently consults his wristwatch, encased in a long rectangular case and strapped to his left wrist on a subtle dark brown leather band. The watch is very typical of men’s timepieces from the era and was likely Henry Fonda’s own.

As Hopsie enjoys a smoke at sea, we get a glimpse of the watch strapped to his left wrist.

As Hopsie enjoys a smoke at sea, we get a glimpse of the watch strapped to his left wrist.

How to Get the Look

The last weekend before Labor Day is the last opportunity for many men to wear their summer whites without subjecting themselves to snobbish commentary from sartorial elitists! Hopsie’s seaboard example in The Lady Eve balances the attractiveness of white menswear without the risky excess of an all-white suit.

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

  • Off-white summer-weight flannel single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
  • White cotton shirt with button-down collar and 1-button rounded cuffs
  • Dark Deco-swirled silk tie
  • Medium-dark flannel pleated trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
  • White nubuck leather oxford bucks with five-eyelet bal-type lacing and “red brick” rubber outsoles
  • Light-colored socks
  • Rectangular wristwatch on brown leather strap

One important consideration when wearing a white lounge jacket is to avoid looking like you’re wearing a lab coat or a waiter’s uniform. Consider an off-white shade like cream or ivory and invest in a quality material, particularly a summer-weight fabric like linen, cotton, tropical worsted, or a light silk. Polyester is a no-no, not just for this reason but also as the warm-wearing synthetic fabric defeats the purpose of wearing white in the first place.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie!

The Quote

You ought to put handles on that skull, maybe you can grow geraniums in it!

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