Gregory Peck as Tom Rath, hardworking business writer haunted by his war service
New York City and suburban Connecticut, Fall 1955
Film: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Release Date: April 12, 1956
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Wardrobe Director: Charles Le Maire
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Born 105 years ago today on April 5, 1916, Gregory Peck enjoyed one of his most celebrated—and notably tailored—performances in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Nunnally Johnson’s 1956 adaptation of the Sloan Wilson novel of the same name.
Like Peck’s earlier film Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit explored the enduring trauma of World War II, still a relatively undiscussed subject during the postwar economic boom, a boom powered by—as the film theorizes—the soul-crushing “rat race” of the modern American corporate structure that threatened fathers’ roles in the families so touted by the era’s norms.
Sloan Wilson’s novel was an immediate hit upon its publication in 1955, breaking down the myth of the American Dream while the rest of America was being told they were living it. Nunnally Johnson wrote and directed an adaptation that was released in theaters less than 10 months after the novel first hit bookshelves. In addition to its contemporary impact on writers like Richard Yates who deconstructed the same themes in his 1962 novel Revolutionary Road, the story was a major influence on Matthew Weiner as he created Mad Men, centered around a mysterious ad man balancing his demanding job, suburban family, and wartime secrets in mid-century America.
The title has become shorthand for the quintessential cog in the corporate machine, the quietly discontented “organization man” proudly serving the interests of his company for eight hours a day, not including his two-hour commute to and from the suburbs where he puts in appearances behind the white picket fence as a stern father to his 2.3 children, swapping out his suit jacket and tie for a cardigan and martini while comfortably repressing any lasting impacts of his war service a decade earlier.
Our man in gray flannel is Tom Rath, a 33-year-old Army veteran and father of three who we meet on the same day that the Brooklyn Dodgers clinch their first World Series win. Despite his low pay as a nonprofit foundation writer, his family’s dwindling finances, and domestic concerns like his daughter’s chicken pox, Rath seems content with the honest life he shares with his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) and their family in suburban Connecticut. The Raths try to maintain faith in “hope and the breaks” coming their way, but the hits keep coming, from a broken washing machine to a potentially worthless family estate. When a fed-up Betsy encourages Tom to strive for success she can be proud of, he takes his fellow commuter Bill up on the chance to interview for a PR gig at a broadcasting conglomerate.
Tom: I don’t know anything about public relations.
Bill: Who does? You’ve got a clean shirt and you bathe every day. That’s all there is to it.
What’d He Wear?
“This blog post’ll be easy!” I smugly thought, sitting down to watch The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for the first time. Of course, even a mildly successful businessman of the ’50s would have more than one suit in his closet, and by the time Tom Rath finally strolled into the UBC office wearing his gray flannel suit, I was pointing at the screen like Rick Dalton in near disbelief that the celebrated suit of Sloan Wilson’s title was finally making an appearance.
Appropriately, Tom first wears his gray flannel suit when he’s returning the UBC office to accept the job that threatens to break him into the rat race he’s been hoping to avoid. (It may be too much of a stretch, but what else is gray and fuzzy like a napped flannel suit? The skin of a rat!)
Though I haven’t yet read the novel, my understanding is that Wilson makes a more significant point of the gray flannel suit as a symbol of the homogenized workforce, though this point is briefly illustrated when Tom debuts the suit onscreen, flanked by his two similarly dressed colleagues Bill Ogden (Henry Daniell) and Gordon Walker (Arthur O’Connell) in their nearly identical gray flannel tailoring.
Gregory Peck was famously a customer of Savile Row tailor H. Huntsman & Sons, beginning in the early 1950s, and I’ve read unconfirmed suggestions that it was indeed Huntsman tailors who cut Peck for The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, though it’s more likely that the point of Wilson’s symbolism would have been conveyed had Tom Rath been depicted wearing the products of venerated Manhattan clothier Brooks Brothers.
Tom’s suits are detailed with signatures of American business tailoring from the era, such as single vents and soft shoulders that lack roping at the sleeveheads. The wide, padded shoulders were particularly fashionable throughout the mid-1950s, setting a foundation for the rest of the fully cut jacket to elegantly drape over the wearer’s torso. This is particularly the case for Peck, an athletically built man whose tailoring flattered his stature and also balanced his 6’3″ height with a three-button jacket shaped with darts to emphasize the shoulders and chest while pulling in at the waist. The straight hip pockets are finished with flaps, and Tom dresses the welted breast pocket with a straight-folded (or “TV-fold”) white linen or cotton pocket square.
Tom Rath’s first shirt with this suit is made from plain white cotton, detailed with a front placket and rounded barrel cuffs fastened with a single button placed closer to the wrists. He secures the shirt’s soft club collar with a gold collar pin under the four-in-hand knot of his scarlet red foulard tie, which is held in place further down his torso via an askew gold tie clip.
The suit’s flat front trousers have a longer rise to Peck’s natural waist line, where he holds them up with a slim dark brown leather belt that closes through a small squared brass-toned single-prong buckle. The side pockets are placed along the side seams, and there are two jetted back pockets with a button through the right. The bottoms are finished in then-fashionable turn-ups (cuffs), which break over his brown leather cap-toe derby shoes just high enough that we occasionally glimpse his dark navy socks.
After Tom cycles through a few blue and navy suits while working out his role at UBC, he dresses for the finale in this same gray flannel suit, though now having firmly decided he’s content to be a strictly a “9-to-5 fellow” that makes time for his family, not only earning the respect—but also perhaps the envy—of his powerful boss, Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March).
For this finale sequence, Tom dresses in a similarly styled cotton shirt, though the actual cloth appears to have an icy blue cast rather than plain white.
Tom wears a striped tie, though it isn’t the three-color repp tie seen in some of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit‘s promotional photography, instead patterned in a narrow balanced “uphill” stripe that alternates between navy and periwinkle. The right hip-up-to-left shoulder stripe direction is traditionally associated with British menswear, thus this tie may reflect the real Peck’s preference for having his clothing tailored across the pond.
Once Tom dresses to retrieve Betsy from the local police station (long story!), he dresses up his tie with the usual accoutrement of gold collar pin and tie clip, though the latter is a thick silver bar affixed horizontally.
Per the pre-Camelot decorum of the fabulous fifties, Tom Rath isn’t fully dressed for his commute until he dons his hat, in this case a businesslike gray felt trilby with a wide black grosgrain ribbon and the shorter brim that differentiates the trilby from the more dramatic fedora. He also wears a gold watch with a round white dial and raised lugs that fasten to the brown exotic-textured leather strap secured to his left wrist.
As I mentioned, Gregory Peck actually spends the majority of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit wearing suits that are not gray flannel, though the taupe-tinted sports coat he wears for the opening scene could also argue its way into the gray flannel category. Following that, we see a beautiful array of suits along the blue spectrum, from a self-striped slate to a rich navy and a blue-gray semi-solid suit worn for the climactic conversations with Hopkins, Betsy, and his Army chum Caesar (Keenan Wynn).
I hope to give each suit more in-depth coverage at some point, but it felt most appropriate for the first discussion of this movie to zero in on Peck actually wearing a gray flannel suit. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was also the focus of a “Celluloid Style” feature scribed by Nick Scott for The Rake.
What to Imbibe
Though The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit may be a spiritual ancestor of Mad Men, Tom Rath’s liver remains relatively intact compared to Don Draper and his hard-drinking cohorts at Sterling Cooper. Tom and Betsy unwind—and argue—over a pair of martinis, and Tom toasts to his reunion with an old Army pal by ordering a double Scotch and soda in the lobby of his office building, having earlier enjoyed a dram of Scotch on the rocks with his boss.
How to Get the Look
Promotional photography for The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit depicts Gregory Peck wearing a classic striped repp tie with his titular tailoring, though Tom Rath unfortunately never wears this neckwear on screen, instead cycling between a red foulard and blue narrowly striped ties knotted under his shirt’s pinned collars as he plays the quintessential mid-century Manhattan businessman.
- Gray woolen flannel tailored suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button suit jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and single vents
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with pinned club collar, front placket, and 1-button rounded cuffs
- Gold safety pin-style collar pin
- Scarlet red foulard tie or striped tie
- Gold or silver tie bar
- Dark brown slim leather belt with squared brass-finish single-prong buckle
- Brown leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Dark navy socks
- Gray felt short-brimmed trilby with wide black grosgrain ribbon
- Gold wristwatch with round white dial on brown exotic-textured leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
You remember those 9-to-5 fellows you were talking about? I’m afraid I’m one of ’em.