Sidney Poitier as Dr. John Wade Prentice, widowed physician and professor
San Francisco, Spring 1967
Film: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Release Date: December 12, 1967
Director: Stanley Kramer
Costume Designer: Joe King
As we gear up for arguably the biggest family dinner of the year this week, I want to revisit one of the most famous “dinner movies” despite never actually seeing the titular meal on screen. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner broke ground upon its release 55 years ago for its positive portrayal of an interracial relationship when the white Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) returns from a Hawaiian vacation with her new fiancé, a widowed black doctor named John Prentice (Sidney Poitier).
Joanna’s parents Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) are surprised by the engagement, with Christina quicker to warm up to her daughter’s decision while Matt fears for their potential unhappiness and lack of acceptance in a country where interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states until the Supreme Court’s landmark Loving v. Virginia decision in June 1967, just weeks after filming concluded on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The film illustrates the complexity of their situation by also introducing John’s parents, John (Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) and Mary (Beah Richards), who are equally nonplussed to learn that their son plans to marry a white woman, resulting in John’s emotional and memorable monologue outlining how their generational differences alter their perspectives:
You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I’ve got a decision to make, hm? And I’ve got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, ultimately winning for William Rose’s original screenplay and Hepburn’s lead performance as Christina Drayton. Following the death of Sir Sidney Poitier this January at the age of 94, Houghton remains the only living member of the principal cast.
What’d He Wear?
1967 was a watershed year for Sidney Poitier, who starred in three excellent films that each address societal issues and race relations: To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Poitier spends at least a portion of each movie dressed in a tastefully tailored gray wool suit, perhaps visually communicating that the stalwart “man in the gray flannel suit” was being expanded beyond its image introduced in the segregated 1950s to men who look like Sidney Poitier: the new American everyman.
After wearing his dark gray flannel suit to meet the Draytons, John changes for dinner into an elegant dark navy suit with the unique combination of peak lapels on a single-breasted jacket, perhaps hoping to sartorially signal an alliance with his similarly tailored father.
John’s suit is made from a navy wool with an elegantly fine nap suggestive of doeskin, a woolen flannel that has been felted into what Sir Hardy Amies described in his 1964 volume ABCs of Men’s Fashion as “a smooth, almost velvety finish,” with its close weave making it an appropriate suiting for cooler climates like springtime in San Francisco. Doeskin is typically reserved for sportier tailoring like blazers and slacks, but Poitier wears it effectively with his well-tailored suit that delivers a strong silhouette despite the soft surface.
The two-button jacket has peak lapels of moderate width though they perhaps wider than was “fashionable” in the late ’60s, indicating John’s preference for timelessness rather than trendiness. The ventless jacket has wide, padded shoulders with gently roped sleeveheads and four-button cuffs. In addition to the straight flapped hip pockets, the jacket has a welted breast pocket that John dresses with a scarlet silk pocket square.
John’s matching flat-front suit trousers are held up with a black leather belt, seen most prominently when the silver-toned single-prong buckle shines from his waist as Spencer Tracy delivers Matt’s memorable monologue. The trousers also have side pockets and the bottoms finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
John wears a light cream cotton shirt that provides a warmer contrast against his navy suit than a more businesslike white shirt. As he dresses, we see him slipping the plastic collar stays into his spread collar. The shirt also has a plain front (sans placket) and double (French) cuffs. Knotted in a small four-in-hand, John’s navy tie has an arrangement of pale-pink pin-dots that add a reddish cast which neatly coordinates with his pocket square.
John wears black socks and black leather lace-up shoes, likely the same well-polished cap-toe derbies that he had worn earlier in the day with his gray flannel suit.
What to Imbibe
John and Joanna stop for drinks with friends before picking up his parents from the airport. The other couple appear to be drinking Old Fashioneds—suggested by the amber color and the cherry and orange slice garnishment—while John and Joey clearly drink Martinis, each garnished with a single olive.
Martinis had long been traditionally made with gin and vermouth, though of the latter it’s often been stipulated to use as little as possible per Noël Coward’s oft-quoted guidance that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.”
After centuries confined primarily to Russia, Poland, and Sweden, vodka grew sharply popular through the 1940s, thanks to drinks like the Bloody Mary, Moscow Mule, and Screwdriver and shady marketing tactics touting Smirnoff as a “no smell, no taste… white whiskey.” David Embury published the vodka martini as a viable alternative to the venerated gin-based cocktail in his 1948 volume and the “vodka martini, shaken not stirred,” would soon be immortalized as the cinematic James Bond’s signature drink. By the late ’60s, as John and Joey joined their friends for a night on the town in San Francisco, it very possibly could have been gin or vodka used to make their martinis.
How to Get the Look
Consistent with his elegant screen persona, Sidney Poitier illustrates how a few touches—like a warmer-shaded shirt and a red, rather than white, pocket square—can convert traditional business-wear like his navy flannel suit into contextually appropriate attire for a more intimate family dinner.
- Dark navy doeskin woolen flannel suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Flat-front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Cream cotton shirt with spread collar, plain front, and double/French cuffs
- Navy with pale-pink pin-dots tie
- Black leather belt with silver-toned single-prong buckle
- Black leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Black cotton lisle socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.