Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Paul Newman’s Pajamas
Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt, bitter and repressed ex-athlete
Mississippi, Summer 1958
Film: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Release Date: August 27, 1958
Director: Richard Brooks
Wardrobe Credit: Helen Rose
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
April 16 is traditionally National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day, designed as a sartorial reprieve after the stress of meeting a late-night deadline to file taxes by April 15. As it felt incongruous to celebrate that “holiday” on a Sunday, I waited until today to celebrate a Hollywood icon who had the good fortune to wear pajamas for the majority of his screen-time in his first Oscar-nominated performance.
Thanks to movies like Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Long, Hot Summer, Paul Newman’s career was on the rise through the late 1950s when he was cast as Brick Pollitt alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Due to the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code, many of the themes in the play—particularly around Brick’s history of homosexuality—were revised to the extent that Williams himself reportedly urged audiences to avoid it. Despite his own frustrations with the deviations to the source material, Newman received his first of nine acting-related Academy Awards for his performance as Brick. The film was nominated for six awards, including nods for Newman, Taylor, and Best Picture but ultimately received none.
In both the play and film, Brick is a jaded former football star-turned-commentator who has turned to excessive drinking to cope with the emotional pain in his life, including a complex dynamic with his domineering father “Big Daddy” (Burl Ives), his fiery wife Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor), and his estranged friend Skipper, whose death has left Brick feeling considerable shame and guilt given the unresolved feelings between the two men that may have contributed to Skipper’s demise.
Brick’s drunken attempt to relive the glory of high school athleticism resulted in a broken ankle that leaves him needing a crutch—both literally and metaphorically, in the form of bourbon—on the eve of Big Daddy’s 65th birthday.
What’d He Wear?
After the brief prologue of Brick unwisely attempting some drunken late-night hurdles in a light-blue cotton suit, we next see him reclining in pajamas in the grand bedroom he shares with Maggie on the Pollitt family’s Mississippi estate.
The pajamas are made from a slate-gray cloth with an iridescent sheen suggestive of high-twist cotton, matte silk, or perhaps a blend. (Later, when Brick wears his robe to dry off after a shower, Maggie asks him “why don’t you put on your nice silk pajamas?” It’s not clear if she’s referring to these pajamas or others, though I suspect she means a more “presentable” and unseen set which may be made of a showier satin silk.)
The two-piece set consists of a pajama jacket that has four large smoke buttons up the front. The convertible collar could be worn buttoned up to the neck, fastened through a diagonal buttonhole, though Brick leaves the top button undone and the collar flat like a camp collar. The pajama jacket has three patch pockets—one over the left breast and one on each hip—and the set-in sleeves are finished with scallop-banded cuffs.
Like the jacket sleeves, the pajama pants are also banded around the ends, though the bands are straight as opposed to the more shapely bands around the jacket cuffs.
While his right foot is in a cast following the ankle injury, Brick wears a brown leather moc-toe Grecian slipper on his left foot. Named in reference for a style that dates back to ancient Greece, this type of flat-soled leather house slipper consists of two-piece uppers: one piece around the heel and another low-cut piece over the vamp and toes.
Brick wears both a pendant on a thin gold necklace and a silver ring on his right pinky, though I’m not sure if these are character pieces or were Paul Newman’s own personal jewelry. For what it’s worth, Newman wore neither just four years later when starring in Sweet Bird of Youth, another adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play.
After his shower, Brick dries off and pulls on a powder-blue bathrobe made of terry-cloth cotton, the same absorbent cloth often used for toweling due to its long-looped construction. This is a very common color and cloth for men’s bathrobes, but the rest of the details make Brick’s bathrobe unique.
While most bathrobes close with a simple sash, Brick’s robe includes features like a tailored jacket such as its broad Parisian (or “cran necker”) lapels and a button-front closure, with its four flat mother-of-pearl buttons arranged in a 4×2-button double-breasted configuration. In addition to the requisite sash to support the buttons, Brick’s robe has a patch-style breast pocket and somewhat larger patch pockets over the hips. The set-in sleeves are reinforced with pointed yokes around each cuff.
Brick eventually dresses for Big Daddy’s party in an off-the-rack ivory button-down shirt and tan corduroys, keeping his Grecian slipper on his left foot but adding a gray sock.
What to Imbibe
Big Daddy: Son, you know you got a real liquor problem?
Brick (pouring another): Yessir, I know!
Devoted to “the occupation of drinkin'” according to his wife Maggie, Brick downs plenty of the Golden Delight bourbon whiskey he keeps in his bedroom. The play often referenced the actual brand Echo Spring, but the movie avoided associating any real-life liquor brand with Brick’s alcoholism, falling back to the fictional “Golden Delight” label that appeared in contemporary MGM productions like The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Some Came Running (1958), Ride the High Country (1962), and even an appearance on The Twilight Zone.
Brick drinks his bourbon on the rocks, on a mission to feel “that mechanical click” that makes him feel at peace:
Like a switch clicking off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the cool one on. All of a sudden, there’s peace.
The prop bottle of bourbon that appears in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is actually a bottle of the real whiskey brand Early Times, as evident by the distinctive yellow label with its black text that uses red for accents, including the red “Early Times” in the last line of the descriptive paragraph on the back of the bottle.
As stated in the back label’s upper corner, Early Times was introduced in Kentucky in 1860 and was described as a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” for much of its manufacture until it was deemed that Early Times does not actually meet all the legal requirements to be marketed as bourbon in the U.S., where it remains marketed as simply “Kentucky Whisky”, joining fellow Kentucky distiller Maker’s Mark in borrowing the traditional Scottish spelling for its spirit.
How to Get the Look
Feeling little reason to celebrate, Brick Pollitt dresses for recovery and respite in his silky pajama set and lone slipper on his non-casted foot.
- Slate-blue silky high-twist cotton pajama set:
- Four-button pajama jacket with convertible collar, patch breast pocket, and patch hip pockets
- Flat front pajama pants
- Dark brown leather moc-toe Grecian slippers
- Thin gold necklace with pendant
- Silver pinky ring
- Powder-blue terry-cloth toweling cotton bathrobe with cran necker/Parisian lapels, 4×2-button double-breasted front, self-belted sash, patch breast pocket, and patch hip pockets
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, and read Tennessee Williams’ original play!
You can also read more about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‘s costume design, specifically Elizabeth Taylor’s attire, at Classiq.
What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?
Movie recommendation: Move Over, Darling. It might be my new favorite comedy movie ever, and it has amazing costume design.