James Stewart as George Bailey, reluctant banker
Bedford Falls, New York, Spring 1932
Film: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson
Released 75 years ago today, It’s a Wonderful Life has become an enduring Christmas classic… almost by accident! Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s self-published novella The Greatest Gift, the movie had been relatively well-received at the time of its release, even earning five Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture, but it would be overshadowed by the epic blockbuster The Best Years of Our Lives that told the story of servicemen returning from World War II.
Despite being a personal favorite of director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life seemed destined for obscurity as just another “old movie” when a clerical error prevented proper renewal of the copyright. Though small royalties were still owed as it was derived from Stern’s story, TV stations leapt at the chance to air high-quality, low-cost seasonal programming, launching It’s a Wonderful Life to its status as a perennial favorite for holiday viewers by the 1980s.
For the few who may be unfamiliar with the story, It’s a Wonderful Life centers around Stewart’s performance as George Bailey, an ambitious adventurer who grows increasingly frustrated with the toll his constant sacrifices for others take on his personal dreams. Having alienated his wife and children and facing an inadvertent business scandal, George finds himself serious contemplating ending his life one Christmas Eve… until the intervention of his guardian angel.
From there, the story of George’s “wonderful life” is told in flashback, from his character-building childhood where he saved the life of his brother Harry through the years of young adulthood as he exchanges his long-awaited travel opportunities to take a position at the community savings and loan institution that his father had started in their small hometown of Bedford Falls, presumably in upstate New York.
One pivotal spring day in Bedford Falls, George and his absent-minded uncle Billy meet Harry at the train station, returning to town with a college diploma… and a wife! George warmly greets the new Mrs. Bailey, though he’s less enthused to learn that the marriage came with an offer for Harry to work for Ruth’s father at a glass factory in Buffalo. Harry reassures George that nothing is set in stone yet as he hopes to repay his older brother for “holding the bag here for four years,” but we know as well as George that he’ll continue to be the one at the helm of the Bailey Bros. Savings and Loan, leaving the rest of the world with its anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles to be explored by others.
After building up some liquid courage at Harry’s homecoming celebration—though not as much as poor uncle Billy—George gets directed by his mother in search of rekindling his connection with his childhood crush, Mary Hatch (Donna Reed), who has also returned from college and doesn’t seem too keen on the advances of their fellow classmate, Sam Wainwright. George brushes off the suggestion, instead sauntering into the town square where the voluptuous Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) welcomes George’s attention, until it’s determined that the two have very differing ideas of how to “make a night of it.”
George: Let’s go out in the fields and take off our shoes, and walk through the grass.
George: Then we can to up to the falls. It’s beautiful up there in the moonlight, and there’s a green pool up there, and we can, uh, swim in it. Then we can climb Mount Bedford, and smell the pines and watch the sunrise against the peaks, and we’ll stay up there the whole night, and everybody’ll be talking and there’ll be a terrific scandal…
Violet: Georgie, have you gone crazy?
Out of options, George tries to play it cool as he works his way over to the Hatch household, feigning disinterest in Mary, but love wins and finds the two embracing.
What’d He Wear?
George spends the entire sequence wearing a three-piece suit in “barleycorn” tweed, so named for its broken twill weave that resembles barley kernels. (Brown is one of the most frequently seen colors on tweed suits and jackets, so the earthy taupe used in this 2007 colorization is likely not far off from what Stewart had actually worn.)
Like some of his other attire throughout It’s a Wonderful Life, this was likely one of James Stewart’s own suits, as he would be photographed on- and off-screen wearing identically woven and detailed parts of this suit throughout the decades to follow. This was a common practice during the era when actors like Stewart, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart were well-tailored enough that their own duds would do when their screen characters needed to reach into their respective closets.
Tweed would be George Bailey’s suiting of choice from this point forward, suggesting a grounded humility that serves as a direct contrast to the avaricious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who would be exclusively suited in formal black lounge with white-slipped waistcoat and wing collar.
As it follows the completion of Harry’s four years in college, the scene presumably takes place around the spring of 1932. George’s barleycorn tweed suit reflects the flatteringly athletic silhouette that had been popular during this period retrospectively celebrated as a “golden age” of men’s tailoring.
Unlike the sporty patch-pocket jackets of his later suits, this jacket has been detailed more like that of a business suit… and Bedford Falls is indeed the sort of place where men could have appropriately worn tweed when conducting business in the early ’30s. The single-breasted jacket has a 3/2-roll front, the moderate-width notch lapels gently rolling over the top button and rigged with a buttonhole through the left lapel. Ventless like most suit jackets of the period, the jacket has soft and narrow shoulders, four-button cuffs at the end of each sleeves, a welted breast pocket, and straight jetted hip pockets.
The matching waistcoat (vest) has six buttons that Stewart wears fully fastened, including the lowest button over the long-tailed notch bottom. Per its nomenclature, the waistcoat is meant to cover the waistline, thus the then-fashionably long rise of Stewart’s suit trousers means that the waistcoat need not be an excessively long garment, the six closely spaced buttons extending down from mid-chest to the waistline.
Presumably held up by suspenders that remain unseen under the waistcoat, the trousers have double sets of forward-facing pleats and are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. We know the trousers have side pockets, as George often keeps one or both hands slipped into them as he lumbers through Bedford Falls, trying to look nonchalant en route the Hatch household.
George wears a light-colored shirt with a prominent point collar and the barrel cuffs with the spaced two-button closure that would be a Jimmy Stewart signature, likely bringing balance to the lanky 6’3″ actor’s long sleeves. (Though the shirt appears white in the original black-and-white version and some promotional photography, the colorized version depicts the shirt as an icy pale blue cotton.)
George’s tie is separated into balanced “uphill” block stripes by sets of three narrow stripes. (The colorization takes a teal-centric approach to the tie, though there’s some inconsistency as to whether or not all the bar stripes are the same tone of teal or if they alternate between teal and forest green. This colorization would be reinforced by some contemporary lobby art, which also paints the tie in shades of green.)
George wears a dark felt fedora with a tall, pinched crown and a bound self-edge. The hat had been colorized to a dark taupe-brown, with the grosgrain band coordinated in the same color.
George appears to be wearing black leather cap-toe oxfords, with dark socks colorized to brown that effectively continue the leg line of his trousers into the shoes.
On George’s left wrist, he wears a watch colorized to gold metal and worn on a plain brown leather strap. This wristwatch was almost certainly Stewart’s personal timepiece, and thus it may have been an Elgin as the actor lent his likeness to a series of endorsements for the Illinois-based watch company circa 1949, just three years after It’s a Wonderful Life was released.
How to Get the Look
Perhaps representative of his grounded nature—and this sequence symbolically “grounding” him to Bedford Falls, indefinitely—George Bailey cycles through several tweed suits, including this smartly cut three-piece with its business-minded jacket, high-fastening waistcoat, and appropriately long-rising trousers.
- Brown barleycorn tweed wool suit:
- Single-breasted 3/2-roll jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button waistcoat/vest
- Double forward-pleated high-rise trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale-blue cotton shirt with point collar and 2-button rounded cuffs
- Dark teal-green gradient-striped tie
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Dark brown dress socks
- Dark taupe-brown felt wide-brimmed fedora
- Gold round-cased wristwatch on brown leather strap
This particular colorization was made decades after It’s a Wonderful Life was produced, but at least the general colors of the suit and tie are consistent with contemporary lobby art so there may be some basis in fact.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I also recommend visiting the picturesque upstate New York hamlet of Seneca Falls, which claims it was the inspiration for Frank Capra’s fictional Bedford Falls. My fiancée and I spent a Labor Day weekend exploring the town, including a visit to the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum dedicated to the movie.