Death on the Nile: Peter Ustinov’s Tropical Norfolk Suit as Poirot
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, eccentric Belgian detective
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
In his adaptation of perhaps the best-known Hercule Poirot mystery from Agatha Christie’s prolific canon, Kenneth Branagh all but confirmed at the end of Murder on the Orient Express that his follow-up film would find the fussy Belgian detective solving a murder “right on the bloody Nile!”
Indeed, just weeks after Murder on the Orient Express was released in November 2017, it was officially announced that Death on the Nile would be entering production as the third major adaptation of Christie’s 1937 novel. Even after the intended December 2019 release was postponed to October 9, 2020, Death on the Nile joined the ranks of films like The Many Saints of Newark, No Time to Die, and Tenet whose release dates were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The October date was optimistically shifted forward two weeks to October 23 (today!) before the perhaps more realistic release date of December 18 was announced.
Of course, Christie fans looking to get their Nile fix have long had a very watchable solution available with the 1978 adaptation of Death on the Nile, the first of six films to star two-time Academy Award winner Peter Ustinov as the detail-oriented detective.
Like Branagh would a generation later, John Braborne and Richard B. Goodwin had sought to follow the success of their massively successful—though reluctantly authorized—1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and selected Christie’s novel Death on the Nile for its similar potential to feature a star-studded cast in an exotic locale. As Albert Finney wasn’t available to reappear as Poirot, Braborne and Goodwin went in a different direction by casting Ustinov, who would become the definitive Poirot for the next decade until David Suchet would begin his tenure in the title role of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
Joining Ustinov in the cast were luminaries including Jane Birkin, Bette Davis, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, David Niven, and Maggie Smith, establishing an unofficial “troupe” as Birkin and Smith would reappear with Ustinov in the follow-up Poirot film, Evil Under the Sun (1982), where they would be joined by Murder on the Orient Express veterans Colin Blakely and Denis Quilley.
The fatal love triangle at the heart of Death on the Nile centers around glamorous but aloof heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) and her newlywed husband Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale), whom she seemingly seduced from her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), who is now stalking them across their honeymoon in Egypt.
Despite some complications due to the setting, director John Guillerman later recalled that the cast’s professionalism made the production considerably enjoyable:
The more experienced people created a very generous atmosphere. They were not impatient at all… During the breaks, the cast would often sit to one side engaged in terrific conversation. There was Ustinov’s great wit and Niven’s dry humor. Jack Warden is a very funny man and Mia Farrow is a very funny woman. This was a bunch of people who could relax.
Though Death on the Nile premiered in New York on September 29, 1978, it was weeks later on October 23, 1978—42 years ago today—when Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, and Earl Mountbatten attended a Royal Charity Premiere showing at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue in London.
What’d He Wear?
Fans who have seen Death on the Nile would certainly not be surprised to learn that Anthony Powell’s costume design received both an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award during those respective ceremonies in the spring of 1979. I was recently honored to work with Amanda Hallay, host of the marvelous Youtube channel The Ultimate Fashion History, as she explored the glamorous costumes Powell designed for Death on the Nile in an August 2020 episode of her series. In fact, it was my communication with Ms. Hallay that inspired me to take a look at the dignified detective at the center of it all: Peter Ustinov’s inaugural appearance as Hercule Poirot.
Standing nearly a foot taller than Agatha Christie’s descriptions of the literary Poirot, the 6-foot-tall Ustinov with his significant heft was already a more imposing presence than the “strange little man,” as Christie—or her surrogate, Arthur Hastings—often dismissed the meticulous sleuth in her writings. Despite the difference in stature, both Ustinov’s Poirot and Christie’s literary creation share an approach to dressing that, as she described in Murder on the Orient Express, was “neat, spruce, and dandified as ever.”
The idea of Poirot vacationing in off-white aligns with Christie’s descriptions, as she outfits the Belgian detective in white duck suits while ostensible on holiday in both Evil Under the Sun and in The Mystery of the Blue Train. Even Death on the Nile includes moments along the Karnak‘s passage up the Nile where Christie pointedly describes Poirot’s “white silk suit, carefully pressed, and a panama hat,” and later, at Ez-Sebûa, his “white suit, pink shirt, [and] large black bow tie.”
When we get our first glimpse of Ustinov’s Poirot, he’s in repose near the famous pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza, clad in a warm-weather variation of the traditional Norfolk sports suit, updated for tropical travel in a light and luxurious summer-weight suiting.
For hot days under the Egyptian sun, Ustinov’s Poirot is enveloped in cream summer-weight silk, possibly a linen and silk blend as suggested by the subtle slubbing on the cloth, which shines under certain light. A reprint of one of Anthony Powell’s costume sketches shared on Twitter by Emma Fraser (@frazbelina) suggests that Powell had envisioned “cream silk tussore dyed to the deepest cream of old tussore” for Poirot’s similarly colored lounge suit that he would wear while carrying out his investigation aboard the Karnak. Assuming that Powell was able to execute his vision, it’s reasonable to assume that the meticulous detective would have had this sportier traveling suit made from the same tussar silk cloth as his dressier three-piece lounge suit.
The jacket is cut like a Norfolk jacket, traditionally a heavy tweed garment that Alan Flusser wrote in Dressing the Man could be “considered the first sport jacket,” often characterized by front and back pleats, flapped patch pockets, and a full belt. Poirot’s jacket lacks the pleats, no doubt to avoid the weight that would come with the extra fabric, though it does feature the full self-belt with a front strap that buttons against the rest of the belt on the right and left sides for a symmetrical presentation that would no doubt appeal to Poirot’s sense of order.
Poirot’s jacket has short notch lapels that roll to the top of four covered buttons up the high-fastening front, with the self-belt covering the second button from the bottom. He wears a lapel watch fastened via a gold chain-link that connects to a long tack pushed through the front of the buttonhole; the watch itself is carried in the patch pocket over the left breast, which closes through a single button. The large patch pockets on the hips also close with a single-button flap. Like the four buttons on the front and the two on the belt, these buttons to close the pockets are covered in the same fabric from which the rest of the suit was made.
The soft shoulders are roped at the sleeveheads with a bump not unlike the con rollino shoulder associated with Italian tailoring. Each sleeve are finished with a gauntlet, fully sewn to the rest of the sleeve. Unlike traditional suit jackets, the cuffs are non-vented with no buttons—vestigial or functioning. Per the Norfolk jacket’s sporting origins, the back of the Poirot’s jacket has an inverted box pleat that would allow him a greater range of arm movement. The pleat extends down the center from the horizontal shoulder yoke down to the belt; a single vent extends down from the belt to the bottom.
The cream Norfolk-inspired jacket is worn with matching trousers, though the full square-cut lower quarters of the buttoned-up jacket prevent the audience from seeing more of them. A man of Ustinov’s size would have certainly benefited from the ample fabric added by trouser pleats, but what we see on screen—and even in behind-the-scenes footage and photography‚ isn’t enough to properly discern whether or not these were pleated.
The trouser bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) that break high over his spat boots. This unique footwear perfectly speaks to Poirot’s sense of old-fashioned fussiness, an only somewhat more practical evolution of the formal spats that gentlemen had strapped over their shoes to protect them—specifically their insteps and ankles—from the elements, hence the moniker shortened from “spatter guards”. Spats had generally fallen out of fashion by the loosening menswear trends of the roaring ’20s, an obsolescence only hastened by the Great Depression.
In July 1936, the Associated Press in New York reported that “in recent years, well-dressed men have been discarding spats because they have become the property of the rank and file” (according to Wikipedia) and were being superseded by spat boots, which consisted of leather low shoes with an attached cloth high-top upper portion.
A man like Poirot who would want to differentiate himself from the “rank and file” (“Oh yes, I quite forgot your opinion of yourself” Colonel Race had uttered upon their reunion) would be an early adopter of this distinctive hybrid footwear. When not rigged in his evening black tie kit, Poirot wears taupe leather plain-toed shoes with attached tan cloth upper parts that envelope the ankles, covering the insteps and fastened up the sides with five spherical pearl buttons.
Unlike the fashionable straw boaters and Panama hats of his affluent fellow travelers, Poirot favors a more functional headgear while exploring Egyptian landmarks: the pith helmet, known alternately as a “safari helmet” or “sun helmet”, though I prefer the nomenclature that refers to its construction from sholapith plant matter.
As one might expect of a helmet, the pith helmet originated with military usage when Spanish soldiers and officers in the Philippines adapted it from the native salakot headgear. The Spanish salacot style spread to European militaries servicing in warmer colonies, such as in British India where the familiar “Colonial” pattern pith helmet emerged by the end of the 19th century. Though impractical and somewhat clumsy as field-issued military headgear, the pith helmet found an audience among European tourists and explorers traveling through these warmer climates who were able to shade themselves from the sun under the lightweight helmet’s wide brim.
Poirot’s sun helmet has a low, round crown and wide brim, similar in profile to the rigid American fiber helmet adopted by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1934 and still in limited service by various arms of the military. Unlike the covered helmets worn by many militaries, Poirot’s hat presents the natural khaki-shaded pith material, bound at the brim with fraying brown leather. The domed crown has a single-grommet ventilator hole on each side with a wide puggaree-effect around the base though this is supplemented by a thin brown band around the base.
The years immediately following World War I saw a slackening in the rigidity of menswear, hastened by the self-folding shirt collar patented by Van Heusen in 1919. Men were quick to embrace this comfortable alternative to the austere detached collars that had been de rigueur during the Victorian and Edwardian eras for their formality and the fact that they could be starched to cardboard-like stiffness to present a clean appearance without needing to subject the rest of the shirt to the same laundering process. The acceptability of attached-collar shirts as well as innovations in the ease, efficiency, and expense of washing them rendered detachable collars obsolete for all but the more formal evening dress codes by the end of the roaring ’20s and the onset of the Great Depression.
As part of his outmoded sartorial sensibilities, Poirot wears crisp white wing collars fastened to all of his shirts, regardless of situation or time of day. In Death on the Nile, Ustinov consistently wears the tabs of his wing collar folded over the front his bow ties rather than behind them. While some are more inclined to draw a hard line in the sand regarding the correct way to wear a wing collar with a bow tie—Alan Flusser, for one, commands in Dressing the Man that “the bow tie always sits in front of the wing collar’s wings”—there are others who allow more leniency based on historical record; others still advocate that it’s a non-issue as a proper wing collar should be so designed that the tabs would never interfere with the bow tie, which would be neatly presented under the tabs as opposed to in front or behind them.
Perhaps anticipating that some blogger forty years in the future would have too much time to argue this point, Anthony Powell chose to make this a non-issue in the follow-up Poirot mystery, Evil Under the Sun, where Ustinov’s wing collars are styled with considerably shorter tabs that are contently to rest atop and slightly behind his larger bow ties.
For this traveling kit’s first appearances, first at Giza and then touring Aswan, Poirot wears his white wing collar fastened to an all-white cotton shirt. While in respite near the pyramids, Poirot wears a scarlet red bow tie with a pattern of dense white polka dots organized in neat rows. He would later wear this bow tie with his cream-colored three-piece lounge suit while investigating Linnet’s murder aboard the Karnak.
After making the acquaintances of the newlywed Doyles and their jilted ex-pal Jackie, Poirot now wears a navy blue bow tie with somewhat larger and more spaced-apart white polka dots, arranged in alternating rows.
This navy polka-dotted bow tie appears again for the denouement as Poirot bids farewell to the few who survived the Nile passage, this time worn with the striped shirt that he had sported with the three-piece lounge suit during his investigations. This white shirt is patterned with spaced-apart taupe stripes, each shadowed by a pale beige stripe to the right.
At the Temple of Karnak, Poirot wears a unique shirt and tie combination not seen elsewhere in the film. The pale blue cotton shirt is patterned with white accent stripes, bordered on each side by a darker blue shadow stripe. His bow tie, tucked behind the white wing collar as always, is taupe with a subtle pattern.
All of Poirot’s cotton shirts have front plackets and double (French) cuffs made from the same shirting, typically fastened with a set of flat gold disc-style links. All of his bow ties are in the traditional butterfly or thistle shape.
On his left pinky, Poirot wears a gold signet ring that—as we see when he’s facing off against a cobra in his cabin—appears to be etched, likely with his initials “H.P.”
In a nice touch of continuity within the Ustinov canon, Poirot would retain his similar sartorial approach while on holiday in Evil Under the Sun as Anthony Powell returned to provide costumes for that film, where Poirot even wears this same Norfolk-like summer jacket, worn with matching knickers as well as his full-length trousers. The jacket may have been made by Bermans & Nathans, who created at least one suit jacket from Ustinov’s wardrobe in Evil Under the Sun according to a Prop Store auction listing.
How to Get the Look
Traveling in the tropics warrants dressing for adventure, even if one plans on exercising no more than their “little gray cells”. For the eponymous Egyptian voyage in Death on the Nile, Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot supplements his fussy everyday wear of wing collar, bow tie, and spat boots with the adventurous garb of a summer-weight Norfolk-style jacket and pith helmet.
- Cream summer-weight silk single-breasted Norfolk-style jacket with short notch lapels, four covered buttons, button-through patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets (with button-down flaps), wide self-belt (with right and left side buttons), inverted box-pleated back, and single vent
- Cream summer-weight silk trousers with turn-ups/cuffs
- White or striped cotton shirt with front placket and self-double/French cuffs, with detachable wing collar
- Gold mini-disc cuff links
- Navy polka-dotted thistle-shaped bow tie
- Taupe leather spat boots with tan cloth pearl-button uppers
- Khaki pith helmet
- Gold lapel watch on link chain with long end-tack
- Gold signet ring
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and read Agatha Christie’s original novel!
Do not allow evil in your heart… it will make a home there.