Magnificent Obsession: Rock Hudson’s Summer Norfolk Jacket and Toweling Polo

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)


Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick, conscience-stricken millionaire and ex-medical student

Brightwood, New York, Spring 1949

Film: Magnificent Obsession
Release Date: August 4, 1954
Director: Douglas Sirk
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas (gowns)


German-born director Douglas Sirk and actor Rock Hudson had collaborated on nine movies throughout the 1950s, though their association may be best remembered for a trio of lush Technicolor melodramas beginning with Magnificent Obsession, released 68 years ago this month in August 1954.

A remake of a 1935 film of the same name, Magnificent Obsession was the first of two Sirk-directed dramas that paired Hudson opposite Jane Wyman, eight years his senior and thus a welcome inversion of Hollywood frequently pairing older male stars with much younger actresses.

Wyman starred as Helen Phillips, recently a widow after her quasi-saint of a husband was unable to receive the lifesaving medical treatment he needed when resources were tied up reviving spoiled playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) following a reckless boating accident. Feeling guilt about Dr. Phillips’ death, Bob’s attempt to make amends with Helen resulted in a car accident that left her blind. (If you haven’t seen Magnificent Obsession, just… stick with me here. It’s low-key one of the most insane movies I had seen in a while.)

As a blinded Helen recovers, Bob—who had previously abandoned his medical studies in favor of profligation—begins hanging around her home in the hope of finding a way to covertly assist her. Shockingly, given his clandestine activities like sitting a few yards away from her on a private beach in broad daylight, Bob is soon spotted by Helen’s precocious niece Judy (Judy Nugent), who calls out “hey, handsome!”, thus alerting Helen to his presence. Not wanting to reveal his true identity, an increasingly lovestruck Bob approaches her and introduces himself as a medical student with the very believable name of… Robbie Robinson.

What’d He Wear?

Bob—er, Robbie—dresses for the beach in a unique and sporty outfit, anchored by an imaginative variation of the classic Norfolk jacket that had been updated to reflect the era and setting.

As its name implies, the Norfolk jacket was pioneered in the English county of Norfolk sometimes in the 19th century as a loose-wearing hunting coat, said to be championed either by Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, or Thomas William Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who was also known as “Coke of Norfolk” and hosted duck-shooting events at his estate. The most popular iteration was made of a heavy tweed, appropriate for the English climate and rugged enough to withstand the rigor of outdoor sports. Norfolk jackets are typically characterized by box pleats and a belted waist, typically also detailed with notch lapels and patch pockets.

Bob Merrick’s jacket can qualify as Norfolk-inspired with its pleats and self-belt, though there are several interesting details that deviate from the traditional Norfolk jacket. One interesting differentiation is the buttoning arrangement, as Bob’s jacket lacks the traditional lineup of right-side buttons and coordinated left-side buttonholes, instead closing solely through the belt, which passes through each pleat and fastens to two mixed gray sew-through buttons on the front of each jacket, one on the left and one on the right.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

In lieu of traditional buttons, Bob’s jacket closes through two buttons positioned horizontally to coordinate with buttonholes on the full Norfolk-style self-belt.

Another clear difference is the material, as Bob’s jacket appears to be constructed from a lightweight linen rather than heavy woolen tweed. The gray linen has a nailhead weave that presents as a neatly organized arrangement of white-threaded micro-squares, with irregular threading across and around some of the squares for streaks that resemble the contemporary “atomic fleck” trend.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

As Bob knots some twine, note the unique fabrics of his nailhead linen jacket and toweling shirt.

Bob’s jacket reflects 1950s tailoring standards, designed to be full-fitting yet flattering, with padded shoulders and belted, suppressed waist contributing to an athletic silhouette. The sleeves are roped at the heads and finished with four-button cuffs.

Horizontal yokes extend across the front and back, below which wide box pleats extend down the length of the jacket. On the front, the two pleats go as far as just over the belt, allowing for flapped patch pockets on the hips; the two back pleats extend all the way to the hem, and a single vent splits the center.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

The yoked, pleated, and belted back of Bob’s jacket echoes a traditional Norfolk jacket.

Bob’s terry-cloth pullover shirt predates the toweling casual-wear boom of the ’60s and ’70s that’s currently undergoing a revival thanks to brands like Busbee McQuade, Dandy Del Mar, OAS, and Orlebar Brown.

Designed like a traditional golf shirt or polo, Bob’s shirt consists of a solid navy-blue body and a contrasting ribbed white cutaway-style spread collar. The top consists of two buttons, the top button closing through a navy loop and the lower button through a non-placket buttonhole on the left side. Bob never removes his jacket to confirm this, but the shirt appears to be short-sleeved.

Similar to how he dressed when he first met Helen upon “escaping” from Dr. Phillips’ hospital, Bob nattily completes his look with a silk day cravat. This particular scarf is navy silk with a repeating paisley print that appears to be beige on one side and burgundy on the reverse.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Newly self-christened “Robbie Robinson”, Bob reintroduces himself to Helen.

Bob’s light gray flannel trousers bring his ensemble a little too near “mismatched suit” territory given the similar shade of his jacket, though they otherwise suit the season and sartorial context. The buttoned jacket covers most details around the waist, though we can assume based on prevailing trends during the era that they are pleated and styled with side pockets. The fit is full through the legs, finished with turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.

The informality of Bob’s navy canvas sneakers coordinate with his casual shirt as well as more relaxed sartorial attitudes for a quiet afternoon on a secluded private beach. The shoes have flat navy woven laces that match the canvas uppers and are constructed on wide white rubber outsoles, possibly with siped bottoms for traction on wet surfaces. Bob wears thin navy socks that also blend into the color of his shoes, darkly contrasting against the gray trousers.

Rock Hudson and Judy Nugent in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Bob wears an elegant gold wristwatch throughout Magnificent Obsession, which may or may not have been Rock Hudson’s personal watch but otherwise suits the affluent character. Worn on a smooth black leather strap, the watch has a round black dial detailed with gold non-numeric hour markers.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Bob’s gold watch gleams from his wrist as he converses with Tom Masterson (Gregg Palmer).

How to Get the Look

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Bob Merrick pulls together an unorthodox but rakishly handsome casual outfit when engineering his beach reunion with Helen, wearing a linen jacket incorporating the sporty belt and pleats of a traditional Norfolk jacket as well as a silk day cravat and contrast-collared polo shirt in terry toweling cloth, a fabric then emerging as a leisure-wear favorite.

  • Gray and white-streaked nailhead linen single-breasted quasi-Norfolk jacket with notch lapels, full self-belt with 2-button front closure, horizontal chest and back yoke, front and back box pleats, flapped patch hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and single vent
  • Navy terry-cloth short-sleeved polo shirt with white ribbed spread collar and two-button top
  • Navy paisley-printed silk day cravat
  • Light-gray flannel pleated trousers with side pockets and turn-ups/cuffs
  • Navy canvas sneakers with white rubber outsoles
  • Navy socks
  • Gold wristwatch with round black dial and gold non-numeric hour markers on black leather strap

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

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