Psycho: Norman Bates in Corduroy
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, mother-obsessed motel proprietor and amateur bird taxidermist
Fairvale, California, Fall 1959
Release Date: September 8, 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Costume Designer: Rita Riggs (uncredited)
Costume Supervisor: Helen Colvig
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
A boy’s best friend is his mother…
Alfred Hitchcock would probably find some dark humor in choosing Mother’s Day to focus on Psycho, the story of a young man’s complicated relationship with his mother.
Hitch had intentionally departed from his then-established style of high-budget thrillers of major stars in glamorous location, exemplified by To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Paramount Pictures had already balked at the controversial content, but the Master of Suspense was convinced he needed to make Psycho after Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name was brought to his attention by long-time assistant Peggy Robertson. To satisfy Paramount’s demands—as well as to explore his own curiosity—Hitch agreed to make the film on a low-budget, in black-and-white, using his crew from the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Though controversial at the time for its unyielding depictions of murder and sexuality, Psycho earned four Academy Award nominations and broke box-office records around the world. It forever changed the lives of its stars, Janet Leigh paying for her Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win with a newly instilled lifelong fear of showers (which she would share with many of the film’s audience!) Anthony Perkins established his still-burgeoning image to be forever associated with Norman Bates, the creepy killer inspired by the real-life Ed Gein, a mother-obsessed body snatcher who murdered at least two women in his small Wisconsin hometown.
“I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me!” we hear the infamous Mrs. Bates barking off camera, perhaps lampshading the restrictions of the infamous Motion Picture Production Code that Hitch so delightfully flouted. Psycho defied convention in many ways, from being the first mainstream movie to present a toilet flushing to the surprising dispatch of its top-billed protagonist by the end of its first act… and in the shower, no less!
Panicked after a confrontation with a California Highway Patrol officer on the Golden State Highway outside Gorman, newly minted thief Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gives herself a crash course in perfecting a getaway by swapping out her black four-year-old Ford for a newer white sedan and getting back on the road and planning to register at a motel—of course, using an alias—after sleeping in her car attracted the unwanted police attention in the first place.
“There are plenty of motels in this area, you should’ve… just to be safe,” Marion had been advised by the suspicious patrolman (Mort Mills), indirectly leading to the fateful decision that finds her pulling up to the cryptic Bates Motel on that rainy Saturday evening in December. Little does she realize she’s not far from her destination of Fairvale, where she intends to surprise her indebted boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Before she can get to Sam, she makes the acquaintance of the motel’s mild-mannered proprietor, Norman Bates…
What’d He Wear?
Norman Bates’ unassuming yet upright manner of dress helps soften his image, presenting him as an affable—if somewhat anxious—young man, not lacking charm as he gives Marion Crane a self-deprecating tour of her room, allowing his seemingly offhand mention of “the stationery with Bates Motel printed on it in case you want to make you friends back home feel envious” distract from the fact that her room shares a wall—with a little hole drilled into it—with his un-officious parlor and its various taxidermy. (In fact, there’s even a disturbing amount of Letterboxd reviewers who frequently comment on their attraction to Norman Bates… which we can just chalk up to Perkins’ screen presence.)
When he’s feeling most like himself, Norman cycles through a rotation of comfortable and timelines menswear staples, always anchored by a light cotton button-down collar shirt with roomy corduroy trousers. At first, I’d thought these trousers to be part of a matching suit given the single-breasted corduroy jacket that Norman wears for his introduction, though the jacket appears to be a shade darker than the trousers, with some color photography even suggesting that the jacket is gray.
No matter its color, the jacket is made from a pinwale corduroy (also known as “needlecord”) with three dark woven leather buttons. At 6’2″, Anthony Perkins has the height to effectively balance a three-button jacket, but Norman wears the jacket more insouciantly than flatteringly, the notch lapels turned up by the collar in the back. The jacket has wide, padded shoulders, a single vent, two-button cuffs, a welted breast pocket, and flapped pockets positioned straight along each hip.
I may be reading too much into this—which would surprise approximately 0% of my readers—but I like the decision to dress Norman Bates in corduroy, a deceptively resilient cloth that gained a surprisingly genteel reputation for its professorial associations while it’s, in fact, a hard-wearing material that had been originally woven for outdoor pursuits. Just as Marion Crane may be initially amused by the nervous Norman, hesitating to bring his tray of sandwiches and milk into her room, we too may consider him merely a harmless young clerk, perhaps working a late shift after a class at a local college.
Norman Bates illustrates just how mainstream the Ivy League look had gone by mid-century. Here we have a “boy” born into his “private trap” in small-town California, sporting worn-in corduroys and baggy button-down shirts like a Princetonian beginning his fall semester across the country.
Of course, Psycho never makes any attempt to communicate that Norman is anything more than he is, demographically speaking. The obsession with avian taxidermy—not to mention his mother—don’t suggest a well-traveled man, and the glimpse we get of the label inside his jacket’s right breast isn’t clear enough to discern a maker, but we can tell it’s not from vaunted Ivy luminaries like Brooks Brothers, Chipp, or J. Press.
Norman likely wanted to look respectable to please his mother, perhaps having seen photos of respectable young men in magazines, and went into Fairvale to pick out the closest approximations he could afford.
Norman’s preferred oxford cotton shirts all have button-down collars, a detail dating to the turn-of-the-century when Brooks Brothers president John E. Brooks—inspired by English polo players pinning down their shirt collars—introduced the elegantly rolled button-down collar to the United States. “Worn by movie stars, artists and politicians alike, it became a signature staple of American fashion in the twentieth century,” Brooks Brothers describes the oxford cloth button-down shirt, shorthanded to “OCBD” in some pockets of the menswear community.
Norman Bates is arguably Psycho‘s primarily antagonist, but OCBDs are also the shirt of choice for many a Hitchcockian hero at this time, from Marion’s own all-American boyfriend Sam Loomis to Hitch’s previous protagonist in the final act of North by Northwest as Cary Grant scales a mid-century modern estate in an off-the-rack—and oversized—Brooks button-down shirt.
The first of Norman’s oxford button-down shirts is non-white, possibly the classic light blue created by basket-woven blue and white cotton yarns. Indeed, there would be some hidden significance to Norman wearing the same “periwinkle blue” as the dress he picked out with Mrs. Chambers to bury his mother in.
A week after Marion’s murder, Norman now wears a white oxford shirt, detailed with the rolled button-down collar as well as plain “French placket” front, breast pocket, and button cuffs.
Norman exclusively wears corduroy flat front trousers, held up with a worn-in brown leather belt that closes through a squared single-prong buckle. The first and final trousers are a pinwale corduroy—likely tan— and detailed with a button-up fly, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs).
Norman wears classic chukka boots made from a dark suede leather—likely chocolate brown—with two derby-style eyelets. The dark leather soles differentiate Norman’s chukkas from crepe-soled desert boots. His ribbed socks are also dark-colored.
Like Norman’s preferred button-down shirts, chukka boots are also rumored to have reached the United States by way of polo players, in this case reportedly the trend-setting Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales and later Duke of Windsor. Edward had likely encountered the shoe while playing polo with British officers in India, introducing this new comfortable footwear to the United States during his 1924 visit, during which Men’s Wear magazine observed that “The average young man in America is more interested in the clothes of the Prince of Wales than in any other individual on earth.”
While there’s little that’s “average” about Norman Bates, it’s reasonable that he would adopt the popular shoe of his peers in an attempt to aesthetically fit in.
When private detective Milt Arbogast (Martin Balsam) drives up to investigate one evening a week after Marion’s murder, Norman is layered in a dark sweater and darker, heavier trousers made from a wider-waled corduroy and finished with plain-hemmed bottoms that Norman keeps uncuffed.
The dark merino wool sweater has a ribbed roll-neck that’s wide enough for him to show the top of his shirt’s button-down collar. This style bridges the traditional high-necked turtleneck and crew-neck jumper, similar to some military-issued sweaters like those authorized for the RAF that are sized to be comfortably and effectively worn over a pilot’s uniform.
We never see if Norman brings his “trusty umbrella” when Marion Crane meets her watery, Bosco-flavored demise, but Norman’s, er- mother, dons the extra layer of a mini paisley-printed belted housecoat when confronting the patron occupying the first cabin. (Interestingly, the pattern of the murderer’s coat is not dissimilar to Marion’s own silk robe which she discards in the seconds before her murder.)
My mother… what is the phrase? She isn’t quite herself today.
How to Get the Look
Norman Bates covers his dangerous personality with the mild-mannered costume of a casual collegiate, pulling from his wardrobe of corduroys, button-downs, suede boots, and comfortable sweaters… when not layered in the trappings of his mother’s legacy.
- Gray pinwale corduroy single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and single vent
- White or light blue oxford cloth cottons shirt with button-down collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Dark merino wool wide-necked roll-neck sweater
- Tan pinwale corduroy flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Brown leather belt with squared single-prong buckle
- Dark brown suede 2-eyelet chukka boots
- Dark ribbed socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and Robert Bloch’s novel.
I understand the cinematic sequels may be better left unvisited, and I can speak from experience to say that the 1998 shot-for-shot remake is hardly worthy of its title, unless you think Vince Vaughn noisily gratifying himself or Julianne Moore referencing her Walkman are necessary updates to Hitch’s masterpiece.
We all go a little mad sometimes… haven’t you?
If you follow the the Psycho franchise, Norman’s style develops from ivy casual to normcore.
A real descent into madness…
thought i read somewhere perkins wore his own clothes for Psycho. T/F?