Gregory Peck as Jim McKay, “neat, clean, and polite” former sea captain and aspiring rancher
West Texas, Summer 1886
Film: The Big Country
Release Date: August 13, 1958
Director: William Wyler
Costume Design: Emile Santiago & Yvonne Wood
A couple years ago, I had received a request via Twitter from venerated BAMF Style reader Ryan to explore Gregory Peck’s “taupe city slicker suit” in The Big Country, which also happened to be the favorite movie of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 129 years ago today on October 14, 1890. In fact, Ike was such a fan of William Wyler’s Technicolor Western that he screened the 166-minute epic on four separate occasions during his administration’s second term in the White House.
Adapted from Donald Hamilton’s serialized Ambush at Blanco Canyon, The Big Country—co-produced by Wyler and Peck—tells the story of Jim McKay, a patient sea captain traveling west to make his life on a ranch with the vivacious Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) and those in her orbit, including her charming friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), her domineering father “the Major” (Charles Bickford), and the patriarch of the rival Hannessey clan, Rufus (Burl Ives, in an Academy Award-winning performance).
In addition to Ives’ recognition, Jerome Moross’ triumphant score was also rightly nominated for an Oscar, though it lost to Dimitri Tiomkin’s work in The Old Man and the Sea. Franz Planer’s exquisite cinematography was also snubbed, though not even nominated in its category. Moross’ and Planer’s impressive work is showcased from the get-go with the stirring opening credits that follow McKay’s coach as he approaches his destination.
“There’s Pat Terrill and her eastern dude!” exclaims the rapscallion Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), Rufus’ most rambunctious son, when he spots Jim and Patricia out for a ride shortly after their arrival. McKay holds firm against the gang’s abuse, coolly resisting the harassment from the roguish band of what Pat herself describes as “local trash” as he rises above the group’s pettiness with his easygoing, mild-mannered charm:
Don’t worry about it. Greenhorns always have to get knocked around a little.
What’d He Wear?
“Honestly, darling, you do look funny out here in those clothes,” remarks Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) of her ostensible fiance’s dress, an observance more sarcastically commented on by the rough and wild Buck Hannassey, when he asks his brothers:
Don’t it make you boys feel kinda dirty to look at such a handsome gentleman all dressed up in a fancy suit?
Based on the dialogue along, one would expect Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) to have made his journey west in a purple plaid suit and fancy brocade silk waistcoat, but alas McKay’s attire is as unassuming and dignified as the man himself. The fact that so many feel the need to comment on McKay’s subdued outfit merely illustrates how uncommon it is for these characters—and specifically, the hard-living Hannasseys—to encounter a man (or woman!) on this west Texas trail who isn’t bedecked in buckskin and flannel.
A Heritage Auctions listing includes a three-button jacket described as “a brown sport coat worn by Peck in the 1958 Western” and stamped as a product of Western Costume Co., identifying the garment as a size 40R and part of a two-piece suit. A tag in the pocket bears Peck’s name and the manufacture date of July 1957.
The modern photography of the auction listing makes the jacket look much more tan than the sandy taupe color that appears on screen. As Peck’s other jackets—a similarly cut suit jacket and a reefer coat—in The Big Country are dark navy blue, we can deduce that this must be the same jacket.
McKay’s single-breasted jacket has narrow notch lapels that roll to just above the top of three buttons, a welted breast pocket that slants toward the center, straight flapped hip pockets, and two non-functioning buttons on the cuffs.
While the tailoring is consistent with the modern lounge suit jacket or sports coat, the back of the jacket is detailed for the era with seams that curve out from each sleeve and follow the back of the jacket to the bottom, flanking a long center vent. The waist line is detailed with two decorative buttons, a holdout from the garment’s equestrian origins when the coat tails would be buttoned to the back when a rider was unmounted.
McKay wears a white shirt with a rounded club collar, plain front, and double (French) cuffs, worn with a set of ornate gold squared cuff links filled in the center with a black amoebic stone.
After Buck recognizes the growing connection between Jim and Julie, he exclaims in disbelief:
He sure is a dude! Is that the kind of a man you want? With a bow tie, fancy hat, and no nerve to hold a gun?
Rather than a bow tie in the modern sense, Jim’s neckwear to which Buck refers is a simple black silk tie. Among the period-inspired offerings at Historical Emporium, the most similar product is cataloged as a “floppy bow tie”… and I can hardly think of a more accurate description, though many have also referred to this narrow neckwear style as a “ribbon tie”.
Though the lack of contrast between them creates the initial effect of a two-piece suit, neither the jacket nor trousers are matching pieces, though—for purposes of shorthanded expression—I may, at times, continue to use the Hannassey’s misinformed vernacular to refer to it as such. One interesting comment about this particular era is that McKay’s decision to wear three non-matching pieces was actually considered more formal than if he wore a true three-piece suit as these “ditto suits” were only coming into fashion by the late Victorian era as less formal alternatives to frock coats worn with non-matching trousers and waistcoats.
McKay’s odd waistcoat (“odd” meaning non-matching rather than the more pejorative definition) has a subtle brown micro check on a beige ground that blends to form a warm shade of taupe that also only slightly contrasts against the jacket. The high-fastening waistcoat has six buttons that close down to the notched bottom and four welted pockets.
This is clearly what McKay considers his “go-to-town” attire, as he again wears it after Pat sends him back to live in town. For this return trip, he wears the jacket and trousers sans waistcoat, revealing the waistband of the slightly darker taupe trousers. McKay wears these high-rise trousers with suspenders with brown leather hooks that connect to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband, proving that they’re not the same taupe trousers that he wears for day-to-day life on the ranch as those have belt loops.
McKay’s flat front trousers have slanted front pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms that are worn on the outside of his boots.
When dressed in this manner, McKay wears brown leather boots with the shafts covered by his trousers. Only when co-starring with the 6’3″ Charlton Heston and the 6’5″ Chuck Connors would Gregory Peck—also 6’3″—need to be considered about his height, and it’s reported that he wore lifts in the movie that at least gave him the edge over Heston.
Remember that “fancy hat” Buck had maligned? McKay the erstwhile naval captain had found himself somewhat out to sea initially in the wild west, his taupe felt derby hat with its brown ribbed grosgrain silk band and edges establishing him as an outsider as he alights from the Southwest Overland stage in the opening scene.
“I don’t know if I’d wear that hat too long around here, Mr. McKay,” advises Steve Leech (Charlton Heston). “One of these wild cowboys might take it into his head to shoot it off ya.”
Sure enough, as soon as Jim and Pat encounter the Hannassey boys on the road, Buck tosses the derby up into the air for his brothers to shoot a few single-action holes through. “Not very good shots, are they?” a relieved Jim asks upon retrieving his undamaged hat after the fracas.
What Americans call the derby hat originated in England when hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler introduced their latest product, which would become colloquially known as the “bowler hat”, in 1849. The versatile hat with its low, round crown and upturned brim gained a quick reputation for durability and crossed the pond within a decade, where it obtained its “derby” moniker either through association with the Earl of Derby or dapper yet deadly outlaw Marion “the Derby Kid” Hedgepeth.
Hedgepeth—who would later gain notoriety for providing information that would lead to the arrest of serial killer H.H. Holmes—was far from the only outlaw who terrorized the wild west with a derby atop his head, as their ubiquity among old west figures including (but hardly limited to) Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid led to journalist Lucius Beebe describing the derby as “the hat that won the West”.
Thus, it’s surprising that McKay’s hat receives such a cool reception by thugs like the Hannasseys who would surely respect the violent exploits of criminal contemporaries like Butch and Billy. Perhaps their attitudes were more a reflection of the late 1950s, by which time the derby would have been rendered obsolete or old-fashioned, relegated to the heads of dandies or stodgy British businessmen while the wide-brimmed Stetson had emerged perhaps unfairly victorious in contemporary pop culture depictions of the American West.
How to Get the Look
Most of The Big Country‘s characters make a big deal about Jim McKay’s attire which, aside from a few period-influenced details, could easily be updated for the modern era with a more contemporary lounge suit and tie.
- Sandy taupe gabardine Victorian era single-breasted 3-button lounge jacket with notch lapels, slanted welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, non-functioning 2-button cuffs, tailed back with single vent and 2 decorative buttons
- Taupe flat front high-rise trousers with slanted front pockets, no back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton shirt with rounded club collar and double/French cuffs
- Ornate gold square cuff links with black-filled amoebic centers
- Black silk ribbon tie
- Suspenders with brown leather hooks
- Brown leather boots
- Taupe felt derby hat with brown ribbed grosgrain silk band and edges
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
There are some things that a man has to prove to himself alone, not to anyone else.