Singin’ in the Rain: Gene Kelly’s Tweed Norfolk Suit

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Vitals

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, ambitious film actor, singer, and dancer

Hollywood, Spring 1927

Film: Singin’ in the Rain
Release Date: April 11, 1952
Directed by: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Costume Designer: Walter Plunkett

Background

What better way to welcome April showers than by celebrating the 70th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, which was widely released on this day in 1952, just two weeks after it premiered at Radio City Music Hall.

Now considered not just one of the best musical films but one of the best movies of all time, Singin’ in the Rain centers around Hollywood during the waning months of the silent era as studios made the shift to “talkies” following the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927. The transition is no problem for the multi-talented Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who shares his portrayer’s finely honed abilities to sing, act, and dance, but previews for Don’s latest feature—the period drama The Dueling Cavalier—illustrate that Don’s brassy, vain co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is woefully underprepared for the new phase of their career, her shrill accent eliciting laughter and frustration from the test audiences.

Brainstorming over late-night sandwiches and milk with his professional partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and his new love interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), Don’s brain trust determines that The Dueling Cavalier could potentially be retooled as a musical, with Kathy dubbing Lina’s grating voice behind the scenes. This being a musical, the trio celebrates their breakthrough with a rousing rendition of “Good Mornin'” as the rain falls outside, followed by a gleeful Don kissing Kathy goodnight and—delighted with the prospects of his professional and romantic futures—singing the titular ditty as he dances home in the downpour.

Though now best associated with the movie and that iconic scene, which Kelly supposedly filmed while battling a 103 °F fever, it had indeed been a late 1920s standard, likely first recorded by B.A. Rolfe and his Lucky Strike Orchestra in 1929, followed by renditions recorded by contemporary vocal stars Annette Hanshaw and Nick Lucas. The song mostly fell out of public consciousness for decades, aside from a novelty performance by Dean Martin on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1950, until Arthur Freed revived it as the title number for the lavish MGM musical that would be a tribute to many of the songs he penned with Nacio Herb Brown through the ’20s and ’30s.

What’d He Wear?

Don, Cosmo, and Kathy all arrive at the test screening with matching yellow rain slickers, indeed prepared for the spring rain that evening, but it was likely decided that there would be considerably less staying power if Gene Kelly danced in the rain dressed like the Gorton’s fisherman, so he abandons the coat—and, eventually, his umbrella—for the titular performance.

Before the advent of synthetic water-proof fabrics like polyester, early 20th century raincoats were typically made of oilcloth, canvas, or “leatherette” rubber. Don’s yellow oilcloth knee-length rain slicker has five hooks that close up the front, with a banded collar that fastens through a tan leather belted strap. Each hip has a large flap-covered pocket.

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

The core creative team of The Dueling Cavalier—Lina Lamont, studio head R.F. Simpson, Don Lockwood, director Roscoe Dexter, and Cosmo Brown—react to the tepid reception of early test screenings.

Don dresses for the evening in a sporty three-piece suit of woolen Donegal tweed, characterized by the colorful flecks woven against the taupe-gray ground. While this is a natty look for a low-key outing in a more casual town like L.A., a night spent singing in the rain with it on would not have done it any favors.

While tweed has long been appreciated by outdoorsmen for its ruggedness and basic water resilience, exposing it to a constant downpour—particularly over the two to three days required to film the scene—would have rendered it essentially ruined, likely shrunken, stained, and plagued by an odor not unlike a wet dog.

Luckily for cinematic costume history, the suit survived production and—according to the Daily Mail—was purchased in 1970 memorabilia collector Gerald Sola, who paid a paltry $10 but knew he likely had gold on his hands when he noticed the water-smudged label with Gene Kelly’s name inside. Sola made an impressive profit when the suit was sold to Planet Hollywood following a 2013 auction; the Heritage Auctions listing describes the suit as a “vintage original (2) piece bespoke grey knit wool suit including (1) coat with notched lapel, self-buttoning belt, 2-hip pouch pockets, with interior lined in taupe silk and button front closure and (1) pair of matching trousers with button front closure.”

Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain

Don doesn’t quite share Lina’s enthusiasm for her mediocre delivery in “talkies”, though his own melodramatic performance leaves something to be desired as well.

The Norfolk jacket remains one of the earliest continued examples of tailored sportswear, originally designed as a comfortably loose, belted shooting jacket that was named for either the Duke or county or Norfolk, established as a country staple after it was popularized by the influential Edward VII, Prince of Wales, in the 1880s.

Don’s jacket follows the traditional characteristics of a full Norfolk jacket, with the box-pleated strips up the front and back, sewn over the self-belt at the waist that boasts two buttons across the front and pulls in the wearer’s waist to further flatter Gene Kelly’s athletic silhouette. These pleats extend up to a horizontal yoke across the chest and back.

The jacket’s notch lapels, which Don turns up against his neck for the rainy dance home, roll to the top of a four-button front, though he appears to wear the top button undone and the belt covers the lowest button so only two fastened buttons are visible. Set-in hip pockets are rigged with straight openings just below the belt line, and the sleeves are finished with three-button cuffs.

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

It ain’t illegal to walk down the lane with a happy refrain, though it is sartorially inadvisable to do so in the rain wearing an unprotected woolen suit.

Though it doesn’t appear to have been included in the auction, the suit has a matching waistcoat (vest) tailored in the traditional fashion of the ’20s with a five-button front that Kelly wears fully fastened, four slim-welted pockets, and a dark gray satin-finished back with an adjustable strap that keeps the waistcoat tightly against Kelly’s frame. This snug fit and the flattering proportions of the waistcoat always covering the top of Kelly’s trousers provides an elegant continuity during the impressive acrobatics of the “Good Mornin'” dance routine.

Gene Kelly with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain

As mentioned, the trousers rise high enough for the waistband to remain completely appropriately covered by the waistcoat, though Kelly’s “Good Mornin'” dance movements give us a glimpse at the belt loops that go unused around the waist, suggesting that Don either wears suspenders or has trousers so closely tailored that there’s no threat of them shifting out of place even when cutting a rug.

These flat-front trousers have on-seam side pockets, a jetted back-right pocket, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms that break cleanly over the tops of his russet leather cap-toe oxford shoes, a more understated alternative to his usual two-toned spectator shoes that were likely chosen to be more tonally appropriate with the suit as well as to not be so obviously ruined as Don indulges that glorious feelin’ by splashing in every puddle he can find during his walk home. Don wears dark chocolate brown cotton lisle socks that coordinate with his reddish-brown shoes and the taupe suiting.

Gene Kelly with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain

The cheerful aftermath of a good mornin’ spent talking the whole night through.

Following Phillips-Van Heusen’s revolutionary introduction of men’s dress shirts with attached collars after World War I, the 1920s hosted an age of menswear modernization as men gradually began wearing pre-collared shirts rather than frequently attaching separate collars onto neckband shirts, secured with studs.

Don wears a timeless shirt and tie combination, sporting a pale-blue cotton shirt with a spread collar and button cuffs. His solid burgundy necktie is knotted in a classic four-in-hand.

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

The understated solid blue shirt and burgundy tie are welcomely uncomplicated companions to the busy Donegal tweed suiting, with the shirt and tie coordinated to the flecks of blue and red among the other colors woven into the wool.

Don wears a brown felt fedora with a tonal brown grosgrain band, which also falls victim to his rainy walk home. During the “Good Mornin'” performance, Don, Cosmo, and Kathy swap headgear so that Kathy wears Don’s fedora, Don wears Cosmo’s flatter-crowned hat, and Cosmo ends up in Kathy’s cloche hat.

Gene Kelly with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain

What to Imbibe

Despite its colorful depiction of the era of bathtub gin and bootleg hooch, Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t depict too raucous of a party scene among our Hollywood set, aside from the occasional glass of bubbly as enjoyed by Don during a “visualization” of the “Broadway Melody” sequence for The Dancing Cavalier. Thus, audiences hoping to pair this musical with a cocktail would be best-served by turning to Tim Federle’s entertaining volume Gone with the Gin: Cocktails with a Hollywood Twist.

Federle includes a recipe for a drink appropriately titled Sippin’ in the Rain, essentially a raspberry mimosa described as a “get-up-and-go drink that’s guaranteed to send you skipping down sidewalks” that consists of…

  • 4 ounces Champagne
  • 1½ ounces orange juice
  • ¾ ounce raspberry liqueur

… all poured into a flute, garnished with a raspberry, and finished with a mini-umbrella, of course.

How to Get the Look

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Recommended: outfitting yourself with a smart tweed suit, adding a touch of character by reviving the classic sporty Norfolk jacket.

Less recommended: wearing your new handsome tweed clabber out in the rain, soaking it to your skin to the point where it may need to be surgically removed.

  • Taupe colorful-flecked Donegal tweed three-piece suit:
    • Single-breasted 4-button Norfolk jacket with vertical box pleats, two-button self-belt, set-in hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
    • Single-breasted 5-button waistcoat/vest with four slim-welted pockets and adjustable back strap
    • Flat-front trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, jetted back-right pocket, and turn-ups/cuffs
  • Pale-blue cotton shirt with spread collar and button cuffs
  • Burgundy tie
  • Russet leather cap-toe oxford shoes
  • Dark brown cotton lisle socks
  • Brown felt fedora with brown grosgrain ribbon
  • Yellow oilskin rain slicker with five hook closures, belted neckband, and flapped hip pockets

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.

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