From Here to Eternity: Montgomery Clift’s Aloha Shirts
Montgomery Clift as Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, U.S. Army bugler and “thirty-year man”
Honolulu, Hawaii, Summer through Fall 1941
Film: From Here to Eternity
Release Date: August 5, 1953
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Costume Designer: Jean Louis
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
April showers are said to bring May flowers, so let’s get into the spirit of the season with the classic floral shirts in From Here to Eternity, an adaptation of James Jones’ novel set on a U.S. Army infantry base in Hawaii during the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Though Burt Lancaster is first-billed, Montgomery Clift steals the show as the Kentucky-born bugler and ex-boxer Robert E. Lee Prewitt, dedicated to a career in the Army despite being demoted upon his transfer to Schofield Barracks. Captain “Dynamite” Holmes (Philip Ober) is thrilled that the talented middleweight can now join the regimental boxing team, but Prewitt is emotionally scarred from accidentally blinding a friend during a previous bout and refuses, earning him the ire of the company as increasingly demeaning punishments are thrown at him… sometimes literally.
Lorene (Donna Reed), the charming dime-a-dance girl who Prewitt falls for, comments that he must be disappointed with the nature of his service due to the constant harassment, but Prewitt disagrees, having finally found a place that gives him a sense of belonging.
Prewitt: I love the Army.
Lorene: But it sure doesn’t love you.
Prewitt: A man loves a thing, that don’t mean it’s gotta love him back.
After a week at Schofield Barracks, Prew’s resistance to joining the regimental boxing league hasn’t exactly endeared him to the fellas in G Company, aside from his pal, the scrappy Angelo Maggio played by Frank Sinatra, whose Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor would revitalize his career and catalyze his comeback. The first payday provides the perfect opportunity for Maggio to help Prew socialize and begin trying to enjoy his time at his new assignment.
“Look, first we hit a few bars, see? Then we go to a place of which I am a member, the New Congress Club. Girls. You got any prejudices against girls?” invites Maggio, knowing just what Prew would need to hear to get him leaping out of bed and changing out of his pressed khakis into a fresh Aloha shirt.
What’d He Wear?
It’s a shame that From Here to Eternity wasn’t produced in color, as it would have been dazzling to see the G Company servicemen’s bold, colorful Aloha shirts after changing out of their monotonous khaki. Luckily, the fashion still translated through the grayscale screen into viewer’s minds, and—even without the benefit of Technicolor—From Here to Eternity is credited with popularizing Aloha shirts as casual wear among continental American culture, building on the work that had been done over the past decade as actual servicemen were returning from the Pacific and bringing their Hawaiian shirts back to the mainland. The film’s Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design magnifies the cultural impact of the Aloha-clad off-duty soldiers and their glamorously dressed dates.
“Look, don’t let ’em get your goat! We just dress up in civvies and we’re as good as the rest of the world, ain’t we?” asks Maggio, trying to cheer up his pal before a night on the town. Unfortunately for the outcast Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, his lack of fellowship is only exacerbated when he doesn’t have a colorful tropical-printed shirt of his own.
“Here, wear this!” Maggio offers, tossing his own shirt to Prewitt. “My sister sent it to me. She buys everything too big,” he adds with a shrug, explaining how a shirt from skinny Frank Sinatra’s wardrobe could possibly fit the athletically built Montgomery Clift.
Prewitt and Maggio hit the town, having changed out of their Army uniforms into their ostensible leisure uniforms, each sporting white tropical-printed short-sleeved camp shirts—both from Maggio’s collection—with light-colored slacks as they stroll up to the New Congress Club, a bordello thinly veiled as a nightclub to suit the parameters of the Hays code. At the club, Prew immediately and understandably falls for the club’s “princess”, Lorene (Donna Reed, who would also win an Academy Award for her role).
Almost certainly an authentic Hawaiian shirt, Prew’s borrowed shirt is patterned in an eclectic, colorful array of tropical flowers against a light-colored ground. The short-sleeved Aloha shirt has a long-pointed camp collar with loop, double side pleats on the back, and a straight hem to be worn untucked. The shirt has six buttons up the plain front and two matching breast pockets.
About six weeks later, an impressed First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) takes pity on the staunch young bugler’s plight and grants him a weekend pass. Prewitt dresses in a second Aloha shirt, again with a light-colored ground but patterned in a large-scaled tri-tone leaf print which appears to be best described as Monstera per my friend Aloha Spotter’s helpful guide. The shirt is similarly styled with its loop collar, plain front, and double chest pockets.
He wears this shirt first for his date with Lorene at Choy’s and again when confronting the bully “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine) and challenging him to a knife fight behind the New Congress Club.
December 7, 1941. Prewitt has been AWOL at Lorene’s, recuperating after the fight that killed Judson, when he learns of the attack at Pearl Harbor. Out of a sense of duty, he re-dresses to return to G Company in his darker slacks, belt, shoes, and socks, as well as his third and final Aloha shirt… appropriately known to collectors and fans as “the death shirt”.
Apropos the spirit of the day’s events, it’s the darkest of his three Hawaiian shirts with a black ground and a print of white clouds and palm trees in the expected colors of teal-green foliage and brown trunks, as proven by color photography from the production. It’s a “border shirt”, meaning that the ends of the short sleeves and the waist hem are a solid, defined border devoid of pattern.
You can find a version of this rayon shirt, made by Kahanamoku, among the offerings of the Hana Shirt Co., though its sadly not for sale as of April 2020. According to the Hana listing, this shirt is colored in a “deep, rich tapa brown,” and patterned “with surreal, wispy palm trees in the foreground and a lava black Diamond Head in the background.”
With all three shirts, Prew cycles through two pairs of off-duty slacks, styled consistently with the fashions of the era with a long rise and double reverse pleats that offer a comfortably generous fit. Both the lighter khaki gabardine trousers and the darker wool trousers have straight pockets along the side seats, jetted back pockets (with a button-loop closure on the left), and are finished with turn-ups (cuffs). He wears a dark leather belt with a rounded single-prong buckle.
Prew wears plain-toe derby shoes that are likely made from a brown leather, styled like the russet-colored low-quarter shoes worn by U.S. Army officers and enlisted men during the 1940s (like these), though it’s highly unlikely that Prew would break regulation by wearing his G.I. shoes with civilian clothing. (Perhaps someone with more military experience or knowledge of regulations during this era can shed some light on whether or not this was an accepted practice?)
Although the U.S. Army had already begun phasing in the more elongated “dog tags” by the start of World War II, Prew still wears the older style of circular aluminum discs that resemble what the military had been issuing since these identification tags had first been required leading up to World War I. When these were first prescribed in 1913, they required a soldier’s name, rank, and company—or regiment or corps—to be imprinted on the tags and authorized that they be suspended around the neck “by a cord or thong passed through a small hole in the tab”, though the 1943 regulations updated this to prefer “non-corrosive, non-toxic and heat-resistant necklace material in lieu of cord or tape” and metal chains like Prew’s beaded ball chain quickly became the new norm. The double tag system (one to stay with a corpse, another to be used for record-keeping) had also been implemented in July 1916, followed two years later by the addition of service numbers when that system was adopted by the Army. It wasn’t until November 1941, less than a month until the Pearl Harbor attack, when the Army added medical information including blood type, year of tetanus shot, and religious preference. (You can read more about the history of World War II-era dog tags in this informative post by the WW2 U.S. Medical Research Centre.)
Given his status as a “thirty-year man”, the experienced Private Prewitt retains his older pattern dog tags despite the fact that the War Department had authorized the new elongated M1940 the year prior.
Under his uniform, though not necessarily always under his off-duty Aloha shirts, Prew wears a white ribbed sleeveless undershirt with narrow straps over the shoulders. Assuming Prew wears the same underwear as the rest of G Company, these would be Army-issue white cotton boxer shorts with a three-button waistband.
What to Imbibe
“You see that, buddy boy? A woman sees a soldier and like that she figures his drunk. Why? You know why?” Maggio asks Prew. “‘Cause he is,” a slurring Prew confirms. Even the affable Private Mazzioli (Harry Bellaver) calls it “a soldier’s nature… almost his sacred duty once in a while” to get drunk.
A method actor (and also a troubled guy with a few issues when it came to booze), Montgomery Clift reportedly made it his own sacred duty to actually get drunk when playing a scene opposite Burt Lancaster where the two were depicted passing a pint of whiskey.
“Yeah, we’ll dance, we’ll dance,” Maggio assures Sandra (Joan Shawlee), “First, I gotta calm my nerves. Let’s go to a phone booth or somethin’, huh, where I will unveil a fifth of whiskey I have hidden here under my loose, flowing sports shirt.” That very fifth heralds Maggio’s entrance into the club parlor later in the evening, where he drunkenly greets Prewitt and Lorene: “I didn’t hear no sounds of combat, so I thought you might want a drink.”
From Here to Eternity is ripe with plenty of great drinking dialogue, including the following exchange made all the more entertaining by Sinatra’s famous reputation for imbibing…
Lorene: No thanks, I don’t drink… I think it’s a weakness.
Maggio: (finishing the extra drink he poured for her) I grant you that.
Lorene: I don’t like weakness. Do you?
Prewitt: No, I don’t like weakness, but I like to drink.
Despite all the whiskey talk, we don’t get an identifiable look at the label of Maggio’s fifth. Instead, we have to wait a few scenes until the NCOs’ night out in a tropical-themed bar filled with big band music and Chesterfield smoke, where Prewitt, Maggio, and Warden are all seen drinking bottles of Blatz, a then-popular Milwaukee beer.
Blatz would appear in another iconic 1953 movie, The Wild One, in which Marlon Brando’s Johnny and his biker gang take over a small California town, getting drunk on plenty of Blatz in the process.
How to Get the Look
When in Hawaii… do as the troops stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor did.
- Vintage tropical-printed Aloha shirt with long-pointed camp collar (with loop), plain front, two matching chest pockets, and straight hem
- Light khaki or dark gabardine double reverse-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets (with left button-loop closure), and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark leather belt with rounded single-prong buckle
- Russet brown leather plain-toe derby shoes
- Light-colored socks
- White cotton boxer shorts with three-button waistband
- Aluminum circular Army identification tags
I tend to favor the array of prints in quality fabrics from trusted manufacturers offered by the talented team at AlohaFunWear. If you’re looking to channel Prew and Maggio, they have a curated selection of retro and vintage-inspired Aloha shirts here, though I recommend seeing all this wonderful site has to offer!
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, which includes one of Montgomery Clift’s finest performances. In fact, that year’s Academy Award winner for Best Actor, William Holden, had supposedly believed that Clift or Burt Lancaster should have received the Oscar instead of him.
“Clift forced the other actors to be much better than they really were,” explained director Fred Zinnemann. “That’s the only way I can put it. He got performances from the other actors, he got reactions from the other actors that were totally genuine.” Both Lancaster and Sinatra counted themselves among those who benefited from working with Clift, and Donna Reed recalled his “positively violent” concentration in their scenes together.
Although neither Clift, Lancaster, or Deborah Kerr received the Oscars they were nominated for, From Here to Eternity did receive eight Academy Awards including the coveted Best Picture as well as recognition for the performances of Sinatra and Reed, Zinnemann’s direction, and Daniel Taradash’s adapted screenplay.
Ain’t nothin’ the matter with a soldier that ain’t the matter with everyone else.
it’s really not “a shame” that the great FROM HERE TO ETERNITY wasn’t produced in color. duh! Someone has to educate himself to the nuances of classic Hollywood b&w cinematography, one of the most refined of all the expressive tools in the inventory. Duh again!
Obviously I like classic Hollywood and have an appreciation for B&W cinematography, I was perhaps using overly facetious shorthand to comment that I would have liked to have seen more of the vivid colors in the Aloha shirts specifically. For someone who writes about clothing, it can sometimes be a little limiting to not know the specific colors of the costumes involved especially when they would doubtlessly be eye-catching like these shirts. If your sole takeaway from this post is that I wish the movie was color instead of B&W (which I don’t), then that is a lesson learned for me to be extra-cautious about how I express my appreciation for a fine and influential wardrobe in an excellent movie.
Great article, I adore your attention to death il, right down to the kinds of beer featured. Cheers.
Should be DETAIL. Anyway, excellent read.