Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle, newlywed honeymooner
Egypt, September 1937
Film: Death on the Nile
Release Date: September 29, 1978
Director: John Guillermin
Costume Designer: Anthony Powell
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 70th birthday of Simon MacCorkindale, the English actor whose breakthrough role was in Death on the Nile, the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery of the same name.
The novel has been adapted again, this time by Kenneth Branagh, who directed and starred as eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the movie that was finally released yesterday after years of delay due to COVID-19 and allegations against Armie Hammer, who played the same role originated by MacCorkindale.
The story follows a love triangle from England to Egypt, where the glamorous Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) spends her honeymoon with the charming, if simple, Simon Doyle (MacCorkindale). The duo’s union wasn’t quite so simple, as Simon had been first engaged to Linnet’s erstwhile friend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), who made up for her lack of wealth with boundless energy. (Casting Chiles and Farrow as best friends may have been a nod to their characters in The Great Gatsby four years earlier.)
The Doyles’ idyllic honeymoon is soon ruined by Jackie stalking them through Egypt’s ancient landmarks, though she’s hardly Linnet’s only enemy as the paddle steamer gliding up the Nile seems to consist almost exclusively of people with their own reasons to despise the haughty heiress. It’s hardly a surprise when Linnet is found dead in her cabin, and all evidence points to Jackie as the shooter… though her former friend has an airtight alibi after she was witnessed shooting Simon in the leg during a drunken argument the prior evening, seemingly incapacitating him and rendering her into constant supervision until the following morning.
Unluckily for our murderer—or murderers—famed detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) and the dapper British agent Colonel Race (David Niven) are among the many suspects aboard the Karnak and are prepared to use their combined “little gray cells” to solve the case in this lavish mystery that won the late Anthony Powell his second of three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design.
What’d He Wear?
After we meet “Simple Simon”, the new Mrs. Doyle evidently went to some extent to expand his wardrobe into something more befitting the husband of a cereal heiress with Corn Crisp/Choo-Chew merger money to burn. Simon thus embarks on their honeymoon with a full complement of lightweight casual-wear, summer suits, and evening attire to stylishly meet any occasion while celebrating his new marriage.
Agatha Christie’s novel provides little description of Simon’s evening attire at sea that gets ruined by blood and nail polish (not necessarily in that order), aside from the fact that he was indeed wearing trousers, socks, and shoes, so costume designer Anthony Powell stretched his creative muscles to dress Simon in the semi-formal style as eye-catching as it was short-lived: the white mess jacket.
The evening mess jacket evolved in the early 1930s as American gentlemen—traditionally more inclined toward informality than their English counterparts—sought a comfortable alternative to conventional black tie in tropical settings and borrowed the cropped comfort of military mess dress. Similar waist-length jackets had already been long in use, such as the shortened “spencer” developed during the Regency period or the single-breasted coat known as the “Eton jacket” as part of the underclassmen’s uniform at Eton College.
“The white mess jacket represented the first radical change in male evening wear and received such broad national acceptance that it was immediately adopted for the uniforms and orchestra members,” wrote Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man, highlighting how the mess jacket soon fell out of vogue as class-conscious gents sought to separate their appearance from those that served them. It was likely this desire for differentiation as well as the search of a more universally flattering fit that led to the introduction of the white dinner jacket shortly after the mess jacket had debuted in Palm Beach. (You can read more about the history and how to correctly fashion a mess jacket at Gentleman’s Gazette.)
Evening mess jackets typically follow the styling of dinner jackets with peak lapels or shawl collars, but Simon’s cream tropical wool mess jacket bucks this tradition with its broad notch lapels. With all respect to Anthony Powell and his deservedly Oscar-winning costume design, this detail more suggests the influence of late ’70s trends than interwar fashion, but it could also suggest that Simon Doyle—as nouveau riche as it gets—wouldn’t be as well-versed in tasteful evening attire, even with a socialite like Linnet on his arm.
Simon’s mess jacket has a single link-button closure, consisting of a traditional flat pearl button on the right side that’s sewn to a second identical button connected to a short white thread shank on the inside. This unique fastening was indeed a fixture of single-breasted mess jackets, meant to be either fastened normally through the outward-facing button or with the inside link button through the left buttonhole to symmetrically present two buttons where the jacket closes. Consistent with his inexperience dressing so formally, Simon forgoes both methods of fastening by wearing the mess jacket open, showing the inner button hanging freely.
The mess jacket’s defining trait was also its downfall, as Apparel Arts bemoaned in 1934 that it required wearers to have “the figure of an Adonis” to truly flatter. Luckily, the lean, 5’11” Simon MacCorkindale possessed the physical characteristics most ideal for mess jacket adoption.
Simon’s jacket is shaped with front and back darts that taper the lines toward a pointed hem on the front and back; the front darts begin at mid-torso and extend to the bottom, while the back darts curve in from each sleeve, nearly matching the seams along the back of each sleeve. The sleeves are roped at the heads and finished with a “swelled” band around each otherwise unadorned cuff.
Simon wears the same type of evening shirt as he had with his full dinner suit, constructed of cotton with a starched piqué (marcella) bib and squared single cuffs, rather than double (French) cuffs, fastened with silver hexagonal diamond-faced links that match the three smaller diamond studs up the placket. Simon attaches a stiff wing collar to the shirt, worn with the wings behind his black silk self-tied thistle-shaped bow tie.
Although mess jackets were essentially to be treated as shorter dinner jackets, Simon’s black formal trousers curiously lack the black satin side braid that characterizes formal trousers. He nonetheless wears the traditional black silk cummerbund, triple-pleated with the pleats opening upward. The full width of the cummerbund, which appears to close over itself toward the back of the left side, provides generally adequate coverage of Simon’s waist line to provide an elegant transition between the jacket’s short bottom and the top of the trousers without showing his shirt.
Simon’s trousers have double forward pleats, plain-hemmed bottoms, and side pockets. A gold chain loops from under the left side of the cummerbund and into Simon’s left pocket, where it presumably connects to a key. Simon keeps a handkerchief in his right-hand pocket, which he uses to clutch his leg after Jackie fires at him. (Highlight for spoiler: After he actually shoots himself in the leg, he pulls the white kerchief that he’d been wearing as a pocket square to catch the now-genuine blood, having discarded the gun with the previous hankie.) In the novel, this is described as a “coarse” white handkerchief from Woolworth.
Simon holds his trousers up with a set of white silk suspenders, which pass through gold-toned adjusters and have white leather double “ears” that hook them onto buttons along the inside of the trouser waistband.
Though low opera pumps (court shoes) remained considered the most formal footwear with any evening dress, they were increasingly being eclipsed by lace-up oxfords, particularly with black patent leather uppers that bridged the formality cap between business oxfords and evening shoes. Simon wears black patent leather oxfords with a cap toe and five sets of eyelets for the round laces.
Simon’s thin black dress socks appear to be a widely ribbed silk, held up with a set of black garters. Though often considered old-fashioned or associated more with women (thanks in part to an enduring wedding tradition), sock garters had indeed been widely integrated in men’s under-garmenture around this time, both self-supported—like Simon’s—or as a more involved system that traversed much of the wearer’s lower half to maintain order.
Simon’s simpler self-supporting sock garters consist of a white-trimmed black fabric strap worn around the calf, adjusted through a gold-toned buckle and secured to a black leather patch that buttons onto the tops of his socks. (The increased advent of elastic in socks and other garments reduced the need for men’s garters as the 20th century went on.)
What to Imbibe
“I’m dying for a Manhattan! Aren’t you?” Simon asks Linnet, who cautiously responds: “All right… seeing we’re on our honeymoon.”
We never do see if Simon gets his Manhattan, but the following evening finds Jackie throwing back shot after shot of Gordon’s gin while telling a captive Rosalie Otterbourne (Olivia Hussey) the “three-hanky story” of her life before reaching into her purse to confront her former fiancé once and for all…
Jackie makes a considerable display of the fact that she’s traveling armed, showing Poirot that she carries “a mere tiny thing, but it’s lethal.” The firearm in question is an almost miniature Sharps Pepperbox pistol, chambered in .22 Short as established by dialogue and the imprinted text atop the quad-barreled frame.
“Pepperbox” is a generalized firearms term for a weapon—usually a handgun—with multiple barrels, resembling early pepper shakers. The weapons grew popularity throughout the early 19th century as an alternative to single-shot handgun technology, allowing shooters to carry sidearms loaded with more than a single round. Following the development and standardization of revolvers, the “pepperbox” philosophy was revived as a sturdy design for pocket pistols, echoing earlier derringers.
A particularly popular model was the four-barreled Sharps Pepperbox, introduced in 1859 by the same inventor of the legendary Sharps rifle. These pistols are loaded by sliding the four-barrel mechanism forward, inserting a rimfire cartridge into each barrel, and sliding it closed. The single-action operation functions by pulling the hammer before each shot with a revolving firing pin that rotates to fire each shot. The barrels could be slid open to unload at any time, as seen when Poirot is explaining how Simon opened the weapon to replace a spent cartridge with an unfired one before tossing it into the Nile.
Colonel Race explains that Jackie’s pistol is a .22-caliber which—combined with the brass frame—establishes it as a Sharps Model 1A, the first series of pepperbox pistols produced after the model was introduced in 1859. The Sharps Pepperbox would evolve through .30- and .32-caliber models before it was discontinued in 1874.
Though both are chambered for .22-caliber ammunition, the screen-used Sharps Pepperbox differs from Jackie’s pair of “dainty” pistols described in the novel, where each is described as “a small pearl-handled pistol… a kind of toy,” distinguished by “ornamental work” and the engraved initials J.B… as well as a “clip” that refers to the magazines used to feed ammunition in a semi-automatic pistol.
How to Get the Look
The white mess jacket may have only been en vogue for gents vacationing in warm locales through the early 1930s, so—unless you want to be mistaken for a waiter—it may be best to preserve that style for the history books. Of course, if you have a time machine, a fashionable restaurant gig, or merely a desire to channel that elegant bygone era, feel free to consider the mess jacket for your summer evening soiree!
- Cream tropical wool mess jacket with wide notch lapels, single link-button closure, welted breast pocket, banded cuffs, and pointed front and back hem
- White cotton formal shirt with detachable stiff wing collar, marcella/piqué bib with front placket, and marcella/piqué single cuffs
- Silver hexagonal diamond studs and cuff links
- Black silk self-tied butterfly/thistle-shaped bow tie
- Black double forward-pleated trousers with side pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White silk suspenders with gold hardwaree and white leather double-ears
- Black silk pleated cummerbund
- Black patent leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black silk dress socks
- Black sock garters
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie and read Agatha Christie’s original novel. I’ve rarely seen this movie streaming in full quality across any services, so I was delighted to see it had arrived on the Criterion Channel this month!