Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, principled Southern lawyer
Maycomb, Alabama, Summer 1932 and 1933
Film: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Costume Designer: Rosemary Odell
Tailor: H. Huntsman & Sons, London
Today marks the birthday of Gregory Peck, born April 5, 1916. Peck’s arguably most iconic role was that of the patient, humble, and earnest defense attorney Atticus Finch, a portrayal that earned Peck the Academy Award and was voted the #1 screen hero of all time in a 2003 AFI poll, outranking cinematic badasses like James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Ellen Ripley and illustrating that the most heroic strength is strength of moral character.
Based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird chronicles a year growing up in a “tired old town” in the Depression-era South, framed by the recollections of Atticus’ precocious daughter Jean Louise (Mary Badham)—best known as “Scout”—as she observes her father’s work defending a black man who had been charged with raping a local woman. Although the trial itself was less prominent int he source material, To Kill a Mockingbird was also ranked as the top courtroom drama in AFI’s “10 Top 10” presentation in 2008.
“There just didn’t seem to be anyone or anything Atticus couldn’t explain,” Scout recalls of her thoughtful father, who sees it as his duty to instill in his two children a sense of decency, empathy, and respect for humanity as they grow into young adults. (Which I say having not yet read Lee’s follow-up novel, Go Set a Watchman, which evidently presents the once-beloved Atticus as having aged into a much different kind of person.)
What’d He Wear?
Although Atticus Finch assures his daughter that their family is poor, the country lawyer retains a relatively wide selection of three-piece suits, all cut and styled similarly, that prove suitable for seasonal rotation: dark flannel for the cooler seasons, a light-colored worsted for the intermediate months, and—most famous of all—the heroic seersucker he wears for Tom Robinson’s summertime trial.
Atticus is far from the only man in the courtroom seeking sartorial comfort in the July heat by embracing a cool-wearing fabric. His friend, Maycomb County Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton), also wears seersucker in the form of a sports coat that unfortunately clashes with his striped shirt, and both the judge and court clerk take their positions in the front of the courtroom wearing rumpled white or off-white linen suits.
Most frequently patterned in an alternating railroad stripe, seersucker is a thin cotton fabric, made in a slack-tension weave that creates a puckered finish as the threads unevenly bunch together to produce a crinkled effect. In Dressing the Man, Alan Flusser writes that seersucker was “first discovered by the British in India as a silk fabric, the word is derived from the Hindi sirśakar (Persian shir-o-shakar, meaning “milk and sugar”).” The fabric grew in popularity during the British colonial period, popularly used for clothing in warm colonies though the durable, cheap-to-produce material was also found to be suitable for everything from bags to bed mattresses.
According to Michael Solomon, writing for Forbes, “the seersucker suit was born when Joseph Haspel, a New Orleans haberdasher, reimagined the working-class fabric as a lightweight alternative for southern businessmen.” It didn’t take long for the suit to catch on, accelerated as usual when it became a staple of Ivy fashions thanks to Princeton students during the roaring ’20s and Brooks Brothers offering their own seersucker garb to yankee gents by the following decade. Seersucker fever spread across the pond, and the natty Duke of Windsor was photographed sporting a seersucker clabber while on holiday in the Italian Riviera during the late 1940s. A half-century later, Senator Trent Lott formalized the practice of wearing seersucker suits in Congress with the establishment of “Seersucker Thursday” on National Seersucker Day, observed the second Thursday of June.
Of course, the pre-wrinkled fabric’s easy maintenance endeared it more to the everyday worker than the Riviera-summering leisure class, earning a place at the forefront of Atticus Finch’s summer wardrobe. In fact, it was reportedly Joseph Haspel, Jr., son of the suit’s Broad Street progenitor, that provided Gregory Peck with the three-piece seersucker suit he would wear for battling the summer heat and bigoted prosecution in To Kill a Mockingbird.
More than a hundred years after Joseph Sr. recognized “the power of the pucker”, according to the Haspel website, the brand has been re-launched by his great-granddaughter Laurie Haspel, offering a range of quality menswear from suit separates and silk ties to swimwear and sunglasses and, of course, the original seersucker suit. Haspel’s modern seersucker construction is a blend of 99% cotton with 1% elastane, offered in “Audubon” classic fit and the tapered “Toulouse” modern fit and an array of regional colors like blue bayou, fountainbleu, cayenne red, mardi green, oyster gray, and beignet tan. (Although To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed in black-and-white, contemporary promotional art suggests that Peck’s suit was colored similarly to this latter color combination in a tan-and-white stripe.)
In a recent Instagram post, Peck’s usual tailor Huntsman Savile Row wrote that they “had the privilege of providing the wardrobe for” Peck throughout To Kill a Mockingbird. I suspect that they did tailor his wardrobe and provided the non-seersucker suits, while Haspel supplied one of their signature seersucker suits. I’d welcome some clarity from anyone with more firsthand knowledge or expertise of the nature of these various associations!
Peck’s seersucker suit jacket is styled like a traditional business jacket with notch lapels and a single-breasted, two-button front with white plastic sew-through buttons matching the three-button cuffs at the end of each sleeve. The ventless jacket also has a welted breast pocket and straight hip pockets covered with narrow flaps that are rounded on the corners.
In a less tactfully chosen fabric, a three-piece suit can add a swelteringly unnecessary layer for a summer day spent fighting for justice in an unventilated Alabama courtroom. Luckily for Atticus, his suit’s waistcoat (vest) made from a matching seersucker merely adds a light-wearing sense of decorum. The single-breasted waistcoat is detailed like the suit jacket with swelled edges and white plastic buttons, all five buttoned down the front over the notched bottom, and an adjustable strap across the satin-finished back.
Next to the waistcoat’s third button is a small hole for a watch chain, which Atticus uses to run the “double Albert”-style chain of the pocket watch that he wears in one of the waistcoat’s four jetted pockets. Atticus shows the watch to a fascinated Scout, who opens the cover to read the inscription “To Atticus, my beloved husband,” on the inside, illustrating that the watch was a gift from his late wife. Scout’s inspection of the watch also shows us that it has a round white dial with Roman numerals and a 6:00 sub-dial.
The suit’s flat front trousers rise high enough that the black leather belt is concealed under the waistcoat, though menswear tradition dictates that suspenders (braces) are the more appropriate method of holding up the trousers of a three-piece suit. The trousers are similarly detailed like his other suits with side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.
The Ivy appropriation of seersucker suits has led to white bucks—another Ivy favorite—adopted as the unofficial shoe to wear with seersucker, however Atticus treats his seersucker more like the business suit it contextually is for him and wears a pair of cap-toe oxfords in what appears to be black leather.
The pitch darkness of Atticus’ shoes suggests black to me, though brown—even a dark brown—would be more tonally coordinated with the rest of this outfit. Atticus at least wears lighter socks that adequately bridge the contrast between the light suit trouser fabric and dark shoe leather, though Esquire‘s The Handbook of Style issues more specific advice for men seeking hosiery advice specific to seersucker: “the seersucker suit is not an excuse to wear shoes without socks—match them to either stripe.”
Atticus wears a natural straw Panama hat with a narrow black grosgrain band and a full “optimo crown”, characterized by a flat top with a raised center ridge that runs across the hat from front to back. The optimo crown is described by Village Hat Shop as “the original Panama hat style” in its description of the Jaxon Hats “Habana Cuenca” (via Village Hat Shop). Levine Hats of St. Louis also specializes in optimo crown Panama hats like the Casa Blanca (via Amazon and Levine Hats).
“Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning,” Scout narrates to illustrate the constant heat in Maycomb. Indeed, the stiffness of Atticus’ collar as well as its habit of riding higher than the tie knot suggests that he still adhered to the increasingly obsolete fashion of wearing detached collars on his shirts, a practice that had been all but phased out for everyday businessmen during the Prohibition era as companies like Van Heusen revolutionized easy-to-launder shirts with attached collars. Rather than the stuffy white contrast collar, however, Atticus favors collars made to match his shirts. (For evidence, I submit this 2013 auction listing from Nate D. Sanders, showing a pale blue striped shirt worn by Peck on screen with one of his other suits.)
Atticus also makes a more fortunate choice than Sheriff Tate when picking out a shirt to wear with his striped seersucker, foregoing his usual hairline-striped shirts in favor of a plain white or off-white cotton shirt with a front placket and rounded single-button cuffs.
Atticus’ dark tie is embroidered into a broken white diamond-shaped grid with a thick white circle overlaying where each set of lines intersect and a white broken “X” at the center of each diamond shape created. Knotted in a four-in-hand knot, all of Atticus’ ties have the habit of falling about a half-inch short of the top of his shirts’ tall collars.
In addition to the film’s famous trial sequences, Peck also wore this seersucker three-piece suit for an earlier scene when Scout, Jem (Phillip Alford), and their new pal Dill Harris (John Megna) track Atticus down at the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s indictment. It’s late summer, almost a year before the trial itself, so the lightweight cotton suiting is still seasonally appropriate.
Atticus wears the same light-colored shirt and matching point collar during the indictment but a different tie, a more amoebic-patterned tie of large paisley shapes clustered against a dark ground.
I don’t know who made the glasses Gregory Peck wore in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Oliver Peoples, a Los Angeles luxury eyewear brand founded in 1987, released the “Gregory Peck” frames to celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Inspired by Peck’s screen-worn glasses and designed in collaboration with the actor’s estate, these round-framed acetate specs come in several different colorways including a tortoise frame like he wore as Atticus Finch.
Earlier, I mentioned the other suits in Atticus’ wardrobe. The first we actually see him wearing on screen is made from a light-colored, semi-solid worsted wool that, aside from the material, is cut and styled just like his seersucker suit.
During the fall and winter, Atticus wears a darker flannel suit, perfect for the sort of weather that would require Sheriff Tate to wear a shawl-collar pea coat over a wool cardigan.
The decreasing temperature also finds Atticus pulling on a basket-woven wool overcoat for one scene when he returns from work to find that Scout has been fighting at school to defend his honor. For evenings at home, he drapes a wool cardigan over the waistcoat of whichever suit he had been wearing that day.
In response to his son Jem’s constant needling him for a gun, Atticus recalls receiving his first firearm as a gift from his father when he was 13 or 14 years old:
I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point at anything in the house, and that he’d rather I shoot at tin cans in the back yard… but he said that, sooner or later, he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted—if I could hit ’em—but to remember that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
“Why?” asks Jem. “Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy, don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corn cribs. They don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”
The following day, Atticus’ dormant shooting talent is called to the test when Sheriff Heck Tate, uncertain of his own abilities, hands off his bolt-action rifle for Atticus to put down a rabid dog threatening his children on their street. “Didn’t you know your daddy’s the best shot in this county?” Sheriff Tate asks a bemused Jem.
The rifle is a Krag-Jørgensen, identifiable by the horizontal magazine with its loading door extending from the right side of the rifle, below the bolt. The eagle-eyed experts at IMFDB further identified the rifle as a “sporterized” version of the full-length American Krag-Jørgensen Model 1898 with a cut-down stock, chambered for the smokeless .30-40 Krag cartridge.
Developed throughout the 1880s by Captain Ole Herman Johannes Krag and gunsmith Erik Jørgensen of Norway, the original Krag-Jørgensen rifle in 8x58mm R was first adopted for Danish military service in 1889. Three years later, the U.S. Army was hosting a competition to replace the aging, single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfield with the hope of adopting a bolt-action repeating rifle. More than 50 designs were submitted, but the Krag-Jørgensen stood out from the pack and was chosen as the new American service rifle, modified to be chambered for the new proprietary .30-40 Krag cartridge and a horizontal magazine door hinge designed to open upward.
More than 500,000 full-length Krag-Jørgensen rifles and cavalry carbines (with shorter 22″ barrels) were produced by the Springfield between 1894 and 1904, when they were officially replaced by the M1903 Springfield rifle in response to lackluster performance against the clip-fed Mauser rifles wielded by the Spanish during the Spanish-American War.
Though their short reign as American military rifles was mostly over by the end of World War I, the Krag-Jørgensen lived on in the sporting world, popular for their distinctive appearance, unique side-loading magazines, and smooth actions with easy recoil. Sporterization can include any number of modifications made to military firearms for practical civilian usage, including shortening the fore-end (as seen here) as well as adding commercial optics, replacing the stock, or even re-chambering the weapon for a sporting caliber. Certain aspects of sporterization are also done for the sake of legal compliance, such as removing flash suppressors, integrated bayonets, pistol grips, and automatic-fire capability. (Sheriff Tate’s bolt-action Krag would surely be exempt from the latter.)
How to Get the Look
Long before Ben Matlock would endear himself to audiences and juries, Atticus Finch had established the seersucker suit as the earnest Southern lawyer’s courtroom uniform, illustrating how to stay cool, comfortable, and courtly in a three-piece suit while arguing fervently for justice during the peak of a long, hot summer.
- Tan-and-white “railroad stripe” seersucker cotton tailored suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat with four jetted pockets, notched bottom, and adjustable back strap
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Off-white cotton shirt with point collar, front placket, and 1-button rounded cuffs
- Dark tie with white-threaded diamond grid enclosing mini “X” shapes
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Tan cotton socks
- Tortoise round-framed eyeglasses
- Natural straw Panama hat with round optimo crown and narrow black grosgrain band
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system, that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!