A Place in the Sun: Montgomery Clift’s Leather Jacket and Aloha Shirt
Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, dangerously ambitious factory executive
Carthage, Missouri to “Loon Lake”, Spring to Summer 1950
Film: A Place in the Sun
Release Date: August 14, 1951
Director: George Stevens
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
April showers bring May flowers… and hopefully some floral shirts from the back of your closet!
Decades after Ellery J. Chun established his flowery-printed shirts as the signature garb of the Hawaiian islands, aloha shirts went mainstream on the mainland thanks in part to the American servicemen dazzled by the bright colors after being stationed in the Pacific. This postwar boom was felt at home in Hawaii, as Josh Sims wrote in Icons of Men’s Style that “by 1947, employees of Hawaii’s city councils were allowed to wear Hawaiian shirts to work and, in 1948, Aloha Wednesday, a precursor to dress-down Friday was introduced across the islands.”
Aloha style received an added boost from the on-screen advocacy of Montgomery Clift, first as the ambitious George Eastman in A Place in the Sun and then perhaps most famously as the conflicted rifleman at the heart of From Here to Eternity, both performances that earned Monty two of his four Academy Award nominations.
Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, itself based on Chester Gillette’s 1906 murder of his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown, A Place in the Sun marked the first of three on-screen collaborations between Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, who would become his lifelong friend after portraying the glamorous socialite Angela Vickers.
Hitchhiking through the midwest, George Eastman first catches sight of Angela in her luxurious white Cadillac convertible as she speeds past a billboard for his uncle’s company where he seeks employment. She doesn’t stop, but this has no damaging effect on his long-term attraction to her, and he eventually finds a less elegant ride in a chicken truck.
“Not much education, but ambitious,” Uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes) describes George, who continually proves his ambition by being the last to leave his menial job at the Eastman factory… well, he and the shy Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), of course, spawning a doomed romance between the two co-workers. Once Angela enters his life romantically, poor Alice—now pregnant with George’s baby—is thrust to the side as George spends every occasion that he can with Angela, joining her family for a lake vacation over Labor Day weekend.
What’d He Wear?
George Eastman cycles through a rotation of suits and casual staples throughout A Place in the Sun, but there are two garments that best reflect his dual identities: the well-traveled leather police jacket he wears over his white undershirt when arriving in Carthage and meeting Alice and the aloha shirt representing his free-spirited life with Angela and her coterie of Loon Lake socialites. Both pieces are introduced separately in their respective environments, essentially sealing George’s fate when he wears them together, representing his separate worlds “colliding”.
Part I: The Leather Police Jacket
George’s story begins and ends with him wearing a deconstructed leather police jacket, establishing who he is: a man destined to run afoul of the law.
Almost certainly made from black horsehide, this zip-up leather blouson has a badge placeholder over the left side of the chest that establishes it as a surplus police jacket, as the wearer would ostensibly pin his badge through the two punched holes designated for it. The jacket otherwise follows the style of contemporary motorcycle jackets with zippers to close the slanted hand pockets, a single black-finished button at the end of each set-in sleeve, and tall belt loops around the waist them that are each fastened in place with a button. (These may appear to resemble a snap, but looking closer at the loops reveals that these are black-finished shank buttons fastened through vertical buttonholes.)
Wisely concerned that his hard-worn jacket would look out of place when visiting his rich uncle’s home that night, George picks up a secondhand tweed suit for $35 before his visit. The laborious nature of his work initially makes his tweed suit superfluous, so he’s back in his white undershirt as he works through March and April at the factory, layering on his leather police jacket at the end of each hard day.
Many associate the image of a jacket half-zipped over a plain white undershirt with countercultural icons Marlon Brando or James Dean, but A Place in the Sun shows that Clift did it first. George Eastman spends his days at the factory wearing no more than a white lightweight cotton crew-neck undershirt tucked into his high-waisted trousers. Like traditional undershirts of the era, the set-in sleeves are very short, just the few inches long enough to cover his shoulder and provide a sweat-catching layer between his armpit and whatever shirt or jacket he may wear over it.
These dark flat front trousers are made from a coarse woolen flannel, made to withstand hard-living days and styled with gently slanted side pockets. Clift holds them up around his natural waistline with a wide leather belt that closes through a squared single-prong buckle.
George’s trousers are slightly flared at the plain-hemmed bottoms, cut to provide room for the black leather engineer boots that are consistent with both his image and lifestyle at this point in the story. The trousers cover his boot shafts, but we do see a strap across each vamp with a buckle on the outside; we can assume that these also have the characteristic strap across the top of each shaft.
As George begins establishing himself in Carthage, balancing his humbler dates with Alice and the glamorous promise of life with Angela, his upgraded style includes a dark—likely black—polo shirt that, when worn with the leather jacket and trousers, creates a sinister, all-dark effect suggesting that this unsustainable love triangle won’t end well.
When George returns to Loon Lake after Alice’s death, his jacket reappears as a subtle sartorial reminder that he can’t shake his fate. He wears it with dressier clothes than he had formerly, now tucking an off-white button-down shirt into dark forward-pleated trousers, cuffed at the bottoms and held up with a slim leather belt.
Welcoming George’s return with open arms, Angela encourages him to change out of his leather jacket and slacks into more summer-friendly garb.
Part II: The Aloha Shirt
If a leather jacket signifies ruggedness and action, the aloha shirt—aside from how Tom Selleck wore them on Magnum, P.I., perhaps—suggests the opposite, a relaxed mood. Indeed, this Hawaiian staple is the perfect to wear for spending the day at… well, a place in the sun.
A few years before Montgomery Clift popularized aloha shirts in the Hawaiian-set World War II drama From Here to Eternity, George Eastman spent a Labor Day weekend on Loon Lake wearing this short-sleeved sport shirt patterned in a two-toned tropical all-over print of palm trees and island motifs. The shirt follows contemporary postwar trends with its long-pointed loop collar and a matching breast pocket.
The aloha shirt is George’s attempt to conform to Angela’s world that encourages leisure rather than labor, an image completed by the white trousers and shoes she provides before spending a day on the water. The lightweight trouser material is prone to wrinkling in a manner suggestive of linen, with a generous enough fit that allows the breeze to blow coolly through the fabric.
George’s white socks maintain the harmonious flow between the white trousers and shoes, which appear to be the celebrated “white bucks”, so known for their buckskin uppers. “No article of footwear better typified the postwar trend toward relaxed style than American white bucks,” observes Alan Flusser in his sartorial volume, Dressing the Man, of these suede-like oxfords with their signature brick red rubber outsoles.
After an afternoon spent boating and having a serious talk with Angela’s father about marrying her, George tries to distract himself from his overwhelming guilt by stealing away with Angela for a fast ride in her white Cadillac convertible. A bit of a leadfoot, Angela’s speeding attracts the attention of a motorcycle cop, who she initially outruns(!) before he issues her third speeding ticket of the summer.
George dresses in much darker—almost black—trousers with turn-ups (cuffs), likely the same pleated slacks he had worn with the off-white button-down shirt when he returned the previous day. To avoid the disharmony of black pants with white shoes, George wears a pair of dark leather moc-toe penny loafers, still a more leisure-friendly alternative than the engineer boots he had worn earlier. He wears light-colored socks in promotional photos featuring this outfit, but the on-screen socks appear to be black.
Part III: Putting Them Together
As the walls close in around George Eastman, he finds that his true nature (represented by the leather jacket) cannot exist in harmony with the person he wants to be with Angela (represented by the aloha shirt), and it may be no coincidence that it’s only after his fatal fashion decision to wear both that his own life implodes when he’s ultimately arrested for Alice’s murder.
Maybe Montgomery Clift just makes it look cool, but I always liked the offbeat combination of the leather jacket over an aloha shirt, even if wearing one with the other does seemingly defeat the purpose of the other. Shrouding and neutralizing the festive shirt that symbolized his hope for an escape from his fate, the reappearance of the police jacket coordinates with the law enforcement officers waiting at the Vickers lake house to arrest him.
Sensing that his time is up, George allows himself one more idyllic conversation with Angela, full of love and passionate kisses, before literally going on the run… his attempt to lam quelled by a laconic old-timer who turns him in. Now, George’s time truly is up.
…ah, yes—time! On his left wrist, Monty wears a simple but attractive metal watch with a round, light-colored dial on a dark leather strap.
What to Imbibe
After Alice’s death, George drives back to the Vickers lake house, heading directly to the bar to brace himself with a dram of Scotch.
George tries to distract himself by socializing with Angela’s friends, but the quasi-Murderinos’ obsession with the drowning at Loon Lake has him aching to break away from the group, eventually falling into a serious conversation with Angela’s father Tony (Shepperd Strudwick), a discussion lubricated by martinis.
Vodka was just gaining its foothold among American drinkers during the postwar years, with gin still the prevailing spirit expected to be used for martinis. Cocktails like the Bloody Mary and Moscow Mule helped popularize vodka among mainstream drinkers, though Cold War sentiments still prejudiced some Americans against this Russian-associated spirit. Vodka had some help from Hollywood, but it wasn’t until the next decade and the first James Bond film, Dr. No, when audiences watched western hero 007 confidently mixing and ordering his famous vodka martinis—”shaken, not stirred”—that gin found its serious competition in the grain-based vodka.
It’s not clearly established if the Vickers family prefers serving martinis with gin or vodka, though I imagine the older Tony would maintain loyalty to the established gin while some of the more cosmopolitan drinkers among Angela’s friends could have been early vodka adopters.
How to Get the Look
Montgomery Clift exemplifies increasingly relaxed postwar casual fashions in A Place in the Sun, from George Eastman’s black leather police jacket to the festive aloha shirt he incongruously pairs with it during the final act.
- Black horsehide leather zip-up police jacket with slanted zip-closure hand pockets, single-button cuffs, and button-fastened waist-hem loops
- Two-color tropical-printed short-sleeve aloha shirt with long-pointed loop collar, plain “French placket” front, and matching breast pocket
- Dark forward-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Dark leather belt
- Black leather moc-toe penny loafers
- Black or light gray ribbed socks
- Wristwatch with round light-colored dial on dark leather strap
The Honolulu-based Aloha FunWear offers a line of retro silk Hawaiian shirts, inspired by an era where aloha apparel “was more like wearable art,” similar to those that Monty wore in A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity.
Any waist-length leather jacket would create the same effect, though if you want to channel Clift’s police jacket, Taylor’s Leatherwear includes more than a dozen in the styles of departments around the United States, including a few with the pre-drilled nameplate holes as seen on George Eastman’s chest.
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.
Love me for as long as I have left. Then forget me.