The Awful Truth: Cary Grant’s White Tie and Tails
Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner, witty divorcee
New York, Fall 1937
Film: The Awful Truth
Release Date: October 21, 1937
Director: Leo McCarey
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Archibald Leach was born 117 years ago today on January 18, 1904. Though he’d established his now-iconic stage name just before his film debut in This is the Night (1932), I consider Leo McCarey’s 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth to be the symbolic start of Cary Grant’s screen persona as a stylish yet self-deprecating gentleman with a remarkable penchant for physical comedy as well as wit.
The Awful Truth chronicles the tumultuous divorce of Jerry and Lucy Warriner, played by Grant and Irene Dunne in their first of three on-screen collaborations. Despite their suspicions of the other’s fidelity that led to the decision to end their marriage, Jerry and Lucy maintain a playful antagonism as they both move on to other partners. As they approach the end of the 60-day decree that will finalize their divorce, Jerry has already gotten engaged to socialite Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont).
Painfully aware of the titular “awful truth” that she and Jerry still love each other, Lucy designs to sabotage Jerry’s engagement by crashing a formal dinner at the Vance estate in the guise of Jerry’s fictitious sister Lola.
What’d He Wear?
By the middle of the 1930s, the dinner jacket had been firmly established on both sides of the Atlantic as the preferred standard for evening-wear, relegating white tie and tails to only the most formal occasions. The wealthy Vance family considers an engagement dinner with their new prospective son-in-law to fall into this category of formality, so Jerry respects their affluence by attending the dinner in a perfect execution of full evening dress, stylishly interpreted for trending styles of the ’30s without sacrificing tradition.
Jerry’s formal tailcoat is appropriately made from black or midnight wool. The silk-faced peak lapels extend broadly out to the padded shoulders, the wide and sharp points with gently slanted gorges being the outfit’s primary concession to ’30s fashions—and not an unattractive concession, at that. The six silk-covered buttons on the front are arranged in a double-breasted configuration, three on each side following a V-shape though the coat isn’t mean to be closed and has no buttonholes to do so. The four buttons on each cuff are also covered in silk as are the two decorative buttons sewn along the waist line above the back tails. In addition to the inside breast pockets, the evening tailcoat has only a welted breast pocket where Jerry wears a white handkerchief.
Jerry wears the prescribed white cotton piqué, or marcella, shirt with a pronounced detachable wing collar and single cuffs, fastened with a set of gleaming links that coordinate with the subtle diamond studs on the stiff shirt front.
Regarding the natty neckwear that characterizes the white tie dress code, Jerry wears a white bow tie, likely also made from marcella cotton, fashioned in a tastefully large butterfly/thistle shape.
While full evening dress continues to endure into the 21st century, the dress code’s elegance has often been compromised by wearers aware of its components but not how they should properly fit. Scores of white tie do’s and don’ts across the internet highlight the misadventures of contemporary celebrities and statesmen; Gentleman’s Gazette illustrates these sartorial debacles with particular aplomb.
The most common faux pas of modern attempts at white tie would arguably be the relationship with the waist. This should be no surprise, as the last few decades have found trouser waistlines falling considerably below the natural waist as the low-rise fad continues to overwhelm the men’s fashion industry. We’ve been seeing this every day as men hit the streets—or their Instagram accounts—wearing suits that fit a bit too snugly with the telltale shirt “triangle” between the buttoned jacket and the top of the trouser waistband belying questionable tailoring.
Tailors (and their customers) from the oft-described “golden age” had mastered cutting to flatter their clients by anchoring jacket buttoning points and trouser tops around the wearer’s natural waist, a position that may seem comically high to under-informed men today. This naturally applied to full evening dress in addition to suits and daily attire so that the waistcoats would be cut with a high bottom that would echo the lines of tailcoat’s cutaway front, which should be cut to the just cover the bottom of the waistcoat as, per Simon Candy of Henry Poole & Co., “the waistcoat should absolutely not come below the jacket… although a perfectly fitting jacket will be cut so as the pointing of the white marcella piqué waistcoat come to, at most, a quarter of an inch below the lowest point of the jacket.”
In his same 2010 piece that quotes Candy’s stipulations, GQ style writer Robert Johnson summarized that “the simple rule of thumb is that you should only ever see black and white not black, white and black again.”
As Jerry Warriner, Grant wears a white marcella waistcoat with a shawl collar that comes to broad, sharply square-cut corners at the bottom of the low, V-shaped opening. The waistcoat has three closely spaced mother-of-pearl buttons above the notched bottom that tapers back on each side to follow the lines of the tailcoat’s cutaway front.
Traditional tailoring tenets dictate that one should never see a gentleman’s trouser waistband and especially not the device that said wearer uses to hold up those trousers. The advents of the two-piece suit and trouser belts led to a loosening of these guidelines, but it remains true among degrees of formal dress, particularly with white tie and tails.
Naturally, Grant’s double forward-pleated formal trousers are perfectly tailored to rise to his natural waist, concealing the top of his trousers—and the likely white suspenders (braces) used to hold them up—under the waistcoat. The requisite silk side braid is present in the form of two narrow stripes down the seam of each leg to the plain-hemmed bottoms, which break against the top of his black leather cap-toe oxford shoes, just long enough to cover his black dress socks so that no form of “undergarments” should be seen.
While patent leather opera pumps with grosgrain ribbons are considered the traditional choice for formal evening footwear, oxfords emerged during the early 20th century as a more practical alternative.
When the party ends earlier, the Warriners escape into the evening air in their outerwear, Jerry in a long dark overcoat with the dress code’s prescribed black silk top hat and white silk scarf.
Likely made from black wool, albeit in a considerably heavier wool than the barathea evening coat and trousers, Jerry’s knee-length overcoat echoes the tailcoat’s sensibilities with its double-breasted, six-button configuration, though the overcoat was obviously cut and designed for its lower two rows of buttons to close for protection. The generously cut coat has a welted breast pocket and four-button cuffs.
The Awful Truth would hardly be the debonair Grant’s final foray into white tie, as he would wear the fashionable formal ensemble several more times across his screen appearances, making his final movie appearance wearing white tie while flirting with Ingrid Bergman after his economics lecture in Indiscreet.
How to Get the Look
If white tie and tails were designed to flatter any man’s appearance, you can imagine how good this formal full evening dress kit would look on Cary Grant, especially when tailored during the celebrated “golden age” of menswear in the late 1930s.
- Black or midnight blue wool barathea full dress tailcoat with wide silk-faced peak lapels, six silk-covered buttons, welted breast pocket, silk-covered 4-button cuffs, and 2 ornamental back buttons
- White cotton marcella piqué formal shirt with detachable wing collar, stiff front bib, and single cuffs
- White cotton marcella piqué butterfly-shaped bow tie
- White cotton marcella piqué low-cut single-breasted 3-button waistcoat with square-cut shawl collar and notched bottom
- Black or midnight blue wool barathea high-rise double forward-pleated trousers with double silk side braiding, on-seam side pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black or midnight blue wool double-breasted 6-button overcoat with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, hip pockets, and 4-button cuffs
- White silk formal scarf
- Black silk top hat
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Can’t have any doubts in marriage! Marriage is based on faith… once you’ve lost that, you’ve lost everything.
Not a Cary Grant film I have ever seen – for some reason, unlike most of his others, it doesn’t seem to get shown on television that often. One I should look out for perhaps.
It is certainly a lovely example of white tie. I have only ever found a reason to wear white tie twice and having hired the first time i tried to do it properly the second time and sourced my own vintage examples. I can confirm that the issue with waistcoats is largely that modern examples are designed to hang too low for the higher waist that white tie suits have – some work with safety pins was needed to get it at about the correct level.
Getting a wing collar that sits as high as Cary Grant’s is very hard these days too: most don’t sit as close to the jawline as that. It frames both his bow tie and face much more elegantly than than the normal lower wing collar.
I thought this would be harsh criticism of a fashion faux-pas by Cary – turns out it’s just the film’s title.
Cary Grant never disappoints. I particularly love the lapels. One note though, the gentleman from Henry Poole is named Simon Cundey. (Not your error, blame the GQ article!)