Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, dangerously ambitious factory executive
“Loon Lake”, Missouri, Labor Day 1950
Film: A Place in the Sun
Release Date: August 14, 1951
Director: George Stevens
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
With Labor Day weekend ahead, today’s post explores the style from one of my favorite movies set across the late summer holiday. A Place in the Sun was adapted by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown from Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, which was itself based on Chester Gillette’s 1906 murder of his pregnant partner Grace Brown in the Adirondacks.
For those unfamiliar with the case , Gillette was in his early 20s when he took a job at his uncle’s skirt factory in upstate New York, where he quickly seduced the 19-year-old “factory girl” Brown. When she announced that she was pregnant the following spring, Brown was disheartened to discover that Gillette had no intention of marrying her and, in fact, may have been seeking a more glamorous romance with a wealthy socialite. An increasingly desperate Brown continued her pursuit of Gillette in hopes of an eventual marriage, to which he responded with planning a summer getaway for the couple into the Adirondacks. While rowing together in an isolated part of Big Moose Lake, Gillette clubbed Brown with his tennis racket, leaving her to drown. Though he foolishly tried to cover his tracks by initially registering at a nearby hotel under a false name, his failed coverup of the crime and Brown’s obvious head trauma when her body was discovered led to Gillette’s eventual arrest for murder. Gillette’s uncle, who owned the factory where he met Brown, refused to support his murderous nephew during the trial where additional damning evidence came to light. Gillette was swiftly convicted and executed in the electric chair at Auburn state prison in March 1908, ten days after what would have been Grace Brown’s 22nd birthday.
The lurid murder was glamorously reimagined for A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift as the ambitious George Eastman who, like the real Gillette, had found work at his wealthy uncle’s factory and soon became involved in a secret relationship with his co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). George’s rising position through the company introduces him to higher rungs of Carthage society and the acquaintanceship of the glamorous Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), with whom he quickly grows enamored. George may lack Chester Gillette’s callous ruthlessness that drove him to plot and commit the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, but Alice’s eventual revelation and how it may threaten his budding romance with Angela has him rethinking the young woman’s value to him.
George delays any commitment to Alice while continuing to spend time growing closer to Angela, but Alice reaches her breaking point when she realizes that her boyfriend’s Labor Day weekend at the lake is being spent with Angela rather than his uncle Charles as he had told her. The truth of her lover’s deception finally made clear, Alice jumps on the bus to Loon Lake to confront the duplicitous George with an ultimatum: marry Alice, or she will go public with the news that she is carrying George’s child.
Inspired by a story Angela had told him earlier about a mysterious drowning on the lake, George begins hatching his desperate plot and impulsively putting it in motion, only to decide a little too late that he doesn’t want to go through with the murder after all!
What’d He Wear?
A Place in the Sun won six of the nine Academy Awards for which it was nominated, though Clift and Winters lost the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars to Humphrey Bogart and Vivien Leigh, respectively. One of the half-dozen Oscars the movie did take home was for Best Costume Design (Black and White), honoring Edith Head with the fourth of eight total Academy Awards that the prolific costume designer would receive throughout her career.
George Eastman has come a long way from when he first arrived in Carthage wearing an old leather police jacket, plain undershirt, dusty flannel trousers, and motorcycle boots. Now, he’s carousing with the Carthage elite, all but initiated into the exclusive Vickers clan as he’s bedecked with a floral lei during the family’s Hawaiian-themed Labor Day dinner.
George has also appropriately updated his wardrobe to look suitable among his new social set, dressing for this dinner in a large-scaled glen plaid wool jacket that was typical of men’s fashions during the bolder, postwar era, illustrated by a similar sports coat modeled by no less than Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1952 screwball comedy Monkey Business.
Clift’s sport jacket has a full cut with wide, heavily padded shoulders and plenty of drape, consistent with menswear trends of the early ’50s. The notch lapels are appropriately broad to coordinate with the cut of the ventless jacket, rolling to a closely spaced three-button front. The bold plaid and the patch pockets dress it down to a sporty level.
During the Vickers’ dinner party that George leaves to meet Alice at the bus station, he dresses the jacket up with a white shirt and dark tie, solid and subdued underpinnings that don’t clash with the striking plaid jacket, though the short, wide-bladed tie frequently pokes out over the jacket’s buttoning point.
The next morning, George reluctantly accompanies Alice to the Warsaw County courthouse where they discover (to her horror and his relief) that the marriage office is closed for Labor Day. He has since changed into a more casual white long-sleeved sports shirt with a wide camp collar. At first, I assumed that George had just been wearing this shirt the whole time, having discarded the tie and unbuttoned the loop collar to wear the collar flat atop the jacket lapels; however, the white shirt for his dinner party had double (French) cuffs while the Labor Day shirt clearly has squared button-fastened barrel cuffs, as we see when he’s rowing Alice to her doom.
George’s trousers are a solid, light-colored grenadine that effectively balances the bolder jacket pattern while the lighter color also maintains the outfit’s summer-friendly resort aesthetic. Like that of his jacket, the cut of his high-waisted trousers are consistent with prevailing fashions as the ’40s advanced into the fabulous fifties with double reverse pleats accentuating the elegantly ample cut down to the bottoms, finished with turn-ups (cuffs) that break cleanly against the top of his spectator shoes.
Also known as “correspondent shoes” for their possibly apocryphal association with the proverbial “other man” in early 20th century divorce proceedings, George’s two-toned cap-toe oxfords are thus appropriate footwear given his scandalous impropriety.
George’s hosiery doesn’t receive much screen time, though famous series of photographs that Peter Stackpole took for LIFE magazine of Monty and Liz on set during production of A Place in the Sun. While still in costume as George Eastman, Clift has swapped out the flashy spectator shoes for a pair of dark kiltie loafers. Due to the larger openings of these shoes and the playful nature of some of these photos, we can clearly see that Clift is wearing argyle socks in a high-contrast pattern.
How to Get the Look
While the ample fit of George Eastman’s Labor Day look dates it to A Place in the Sun‘s early 1950s production, his glen plaid sport jacket, open-neck shirt, and light trousers provide a timeless template for gents building an outfit for the long late summer weekend ahead.
- Large-scaled glen plaid wool single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White long-sleeved sport shirt with wide camp/loop collar, plain front, and squared button cuffs
- Light-colored gabardine double reverse-pleated high-waisted trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Two-color cap-toe spectator oxford shoes
- Argyle socks
- Wristwatch on dark leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy that served as source material. The novel had also received a more straightforward adaptation with Josef von Sternberg’s pre-Code drama An American Tragedy (1931) starring Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, and Frances Dee in the roles that would be played by Clift, Winters, and Taylor, respectively.
If you’re interested in learning more about the actual Gillette-Brown case, I would suggest Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks as a well-reviewed and recent volume.
Things happen and you just don’t stay the same.