For this holiday treat, I again welcome BAMF Style contributor Ken Stauffer (@oceansographer on Instagram), here sharing his thoughtful analysis of a screen icon in a holiday classic.
Cary Grant as Dudley, debonair angel
New York City, December 1947
Film: The Bishop’s Wife
Release Date: December 9, 1947
Director: Henry Koster
Costume Designer: Irene Sharaff
Happy holidays, BAMF Style readers! To celebrate the season, we’re looking back at the Christmas classic The Bishop’s Wife, which premiered at the Astor Theater in Times Square exactly 75 years ago today. Interestingly, general audiences would not have a chance to see the movie until the following February, an odd marketing decision that shows how much the film industry has evolved over the years.
The film stars Cary Grant as Dudley, a literal angel on Earth, assigned to help Manhattan-based Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham, drolly performed by David Niven. While acting as the bishop’s assistant, Dudley finds himself drawn to his eponymous wife Julia, played by Loretta Young in an enchanting turn.
Given how perfectly cast the movie is, it’s funny to think about the rocky road that led to its production. Original director William Seiter was abruptly fired by studio head Samuel Goldwyn days into shooting. By the time script rewrites had been completed, star Teresa Wright was pregnant and had to be replaced in the part of Julia. Dana Andrews, who was playing the bishop up to that point, was leant out to RKO in exchange for Loretta Young joining the cast. New director Henry Koster then brought on Cary Grant, which then necessitated David Niven to switch parts from angel Dudley to Bishop Henry, in order to play to Grant’s strengths. Honestly, it’s a miracle that this ended up as good a movie as it is!
At the outset of the story, Henry has committed to building a gaudy new cathedral to appease a demanding dowager. When the bishop rebukes the advice of his new angelic assistant, Dudley contents himself to take the neglected Julia out on a string of romantic excursions: lunch at a luxurious French restaurant, bottomless sherry drinking with her professor friend (played by Monty Woolley no less!), shopping for a new hat, and Olympic-level figure skating. At some point during these outings, Dudley finds himself falling for the bishop’s wife, complicating his heavenly mission.
In spite of its title, the film is a very fun romp that never comes off as preachy, even during the reading of a sermon. Still, the studio was so afraid of public perception that it temporarily retitled the picture Cary and the Bishop’s Wife in many markets while adding the gossipy-sounding tagline, “Have you heard about CARY AND THE BISHOP’S WIFE?” onto posters in other venues. Legend has it that Grant’s star power was so great that the inclusion of his first name (not the name of his character!) in the title boosted ticket sales by 25% in those areas.
What’d He Wear?
At several points in the story it’s implied that Dudley has been walking amongst us for eons. With that in mind, it seems he’s chosen his clothes to remain inconspicuous in 1940s New York. The angel with one name dons only a single outfit throughout the length of the film, one that reflects both the general trends of the decade as well as Grant’s own personal style.
The immortal character’s look is anchored by a two-piece, dark gray woolen flannel suit. Of the two varieties of wool flannel fabric, woolen and worsted, woolen is thicker and softer with a fuzzy, mottled appearance. It therefore lends its wearer a more casual air, while naturally resisting wrinkles, and keeping the wearer comfortable in cooler temps.
Twenty years after the film’s release, Cary Grant continued to extol the virtues of gray flannel suits in the Winter 1967/68 issue of GQ:
What about a second suit? Well, I think a grey worsted or flannel would be most serviceable. Not too light in color, not too dark. And, this time, of medium weight but not more than what is known as ten-ounce cloth. It might be advantageous to purchase an extra pair of trousers for wearing separately with a sweater or a sport shirt. A grey flannel suit, with or without extra trousers, together with a sport coat could, at a pinch, be sufficient for a weekend in the country.
This suit is cut like many that the actor wore around this time, incorporating aspects of both English and American tailoring. Grant’s influence on his characters’ wardrobes is well documented with the actor most often wearing his own garments on screen. Thus, the look of his costumes remain amazingly consistent from picture to picture.
The jacket has a low 3-roll-2 button stance, a signature of virtually all the single-breasted jackets that Cary wore throughout his career. Its notch lapels are wide and set in a steep gorge indicative of the era, with a boutonniere hole on the left side. The shoulders are well padded and extend past Grant’s own to give him ideal proportions on screen. The sleeveheads are gently roped, and the comfortably wide sleeves taper to cuffs finished with four kissing buttons. All of the suit’s rimmed buttons appear uniform in color and appear to be made from a glossy, dark plastic.
The jacket’s two hip pockets are straight and jetted, and there’s a standard welted breast pocket on the left breast. Inside it, Dudley keeps a neatly folded white pocket square, likely made of cotton or linen, which tends to sink in and move around a bit throughout the course of the film.
The matching trousers are cut wide and straight with a plain hem. We don’t glimpse their waistband as the ethereal character never unbuttons his suit jacket. He does however occasionally put his hands into the on-seam pockets revealing their high rise and double reverse-pleats. It’s also likely these pants have an extended tab closure and sliding buckle side adjusters as these features were common on Grant’s tailored pants of this era.
Beneath the suit, Dudley wears a simple white poplin dress shirt with a button-down collar, traditional placket, mother of pearl buttons, and long, soft, rounded single-button cuffs that overlap a good deal.
He pairs it with a traditional silk repp tie in wide alternating bands of dark navy and medium brown, tied in Grant’s usual four-in-hand knot. A small, shiny metal tie clip can be seen affixed above the widest part of the tie blade in a few moments of the film when the tie doesn’t reach below the buttoning point of the jacket.
With a story set during a particularly snowy New York December, our angelic protagonist frequently dons a black overcoat made of what appears to be heavy melton wool. The coat has three exposed buttons and steep notch lapels that roll in a manner similar to his suit jacket. It extends just past the knees and is cut generously through the body with a plain back and long center vent, giving the wearer freedom of movement. Grant wears the coat with the bottom two buttons fastened and the top one undone, much like how he buttons his suits in other works (though this buttoning choice is far more accepted on outerwear).
The coat is rather uniquely constructed with raglan sleeves, turnback cuffs, and flapped, patch pockets. It has thick, welted seams throughout that match the swelled edges of the jacket’s edges, lapels, pockets, and cuffs. These characteristics are often found on balmacaans, ulster coats, and polo coats, but none of those traditionally feature notch lapels or a plain back, making this overcoat a curious hybrid.
Before Dudley first goes out to find Julia in the park, the Broghams’ housekeeper, Matilda, insists he take a scarf to protect himself from the cold. She pulls out a wide, fringed silk one with dense rows of white polka dots plotted against a dark background. It’s really the most eye-catching piece that Grant wears as Dudley, and as John Burton beautifully summed it up on his blog Ivy Style, “this one dash of flash bestows his singular cinematic glamour. It’s a reminder that you only need one stylish item per outfit to look distinguished.”
If colorized lobby cards and DVD covers are to be believed, the silk scarf is a deep burgundy in color. Dudley drapes it around his neck, under his coat, throughout his adventures with Julia, before it goes on full display on the skating rink.
When the pair returns to find Henry at home, he takes note of both the scarf and the way his heavenly assistant regards his wife. It seems the housekeeper had previously given this scarf to the bishop as a gift, but he paid it no mind until seeing it wrapped around Dudley. Interestingly, when the angel takes leave of the family for good, he leaves the scarf behind.
On the character’s feet are a timeless pair of black calf leather cap-toe oxfords finished with natural-colored leather soles. Through the first half of the movie, Dudley wears a pair of light colored socks, but those are replaced by darker ones later on. As the supernatural character wears the same pristine outfit in every scene, one could regard this as a continuity error. That said, as we never learn where Dudley spends each (presumably sleepless) night, I contend the character just changed them off screen for reasons that are never explained out of respect for the audience’s time.
One accessory that is conspicuously absent from the character’s ensemble is any form of hat. This is explained in the story when Dudley tells Matilda that the cold never affects him. In reality, Grant realized a decade earlier that hats didn’t favor his features, observing that he looked silly wearing them on screen.
What to Imbibe
Dudley escorts Julia to lunch at Michel’s, an elegant French bistro that her husband has been too busy/preoccupied to patronize lately, though it holds a special meaning for her as the place where they were engaged to be married. After inviting the three gossipy community church ladies to join them (and mitigate talks of scandal), Dudley orders a round of Stingers.
After lunch, they join the Professor for “rather inferior grade, but potable” sherry, which Dudley magically refills over and over in the Professor’s glass.
How to Get the Look
With the effortless charm that was his trademark, Cary Grant was the ideal fit for a flawless, immortal angel. He imbued what was essentially a stock character with a playful wit, and his comfortable wardrobe staples allowed his relaxed, reassuring nature to take center stage.
- Dark gray woolen flannel suit:
- Single-breasted jacket with wide, steeply angled notch lapels, 3-roll-2 button front, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated high rise trousers with wide, straight legs, on-seam side pockets, extended waistband tab, buckled side adjusters, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White cotton shirt with button-down collar, front placket, and long, rounded single-button cuffs
- Navy and brown silk repp striped tie
- Polished metal tie clip
- Plain white handkerchief
- Black melton wool full length overcoat with raglan sleeves, turnback cuffs, plain back, and center vent
- Burgundy silk scarf with white polka dots and matching fringe
- Black calf leather cap-toe oxfords with leather soles
- Light or dark dress socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Pour yourself a bottomless glass of sherry, and check out the movie.
Supposing I told you I came from another planet. Would you believe me?…We all come from our own little planets. That’s why we’re all different. That’s what makes life interesting.