Cornel Wilde as Richard “Dick” Harland, idealistic novelist
Northern Maine, August 1942
Film: Leave Her to Heaven
Release Date: December 25, 1945
Director: John M. Stahl
Costume Designer: Kay Nelson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
I began Noirvember this month by highlighting a costume from one of the rare classic examples of “color noir”—which is exactly what it sounds like, a crime-centered drama from the 1940s and ’50s that includes many of the same themes and techniques as the shadowy film noir but photographed in full color, rather than the typical black-and-white.
Arguably the first major example of color noir is Leave Her to Heaven, widely released on Christmas 1945 and starring Cornel Wilde opposite the ravishing Gene Tierney, whose performance resulted in the actress’ only Academy Award nomination. Tierney died 32 years ago today on November 6, 1991.
Based on Ben Ames Williams’ then-recent novel of the same name, Leave Her to Heaven centers around the doomed romance between novelist Dick Harland (Wilde) and Ellen Berent (Tierney), after they meet on a train traveling through New Mexico. After their marriage in Georgia, Dick and Ellen settle into a quiet domestic life in his rustic lodge “Back of the Moon” on Deer Lake in northern Maine*, where he hopes to continue his writing.
We begin to see the cracks in the lovely Ellen’s disposition, particularly as Dick has invited his younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) to live with them. He handles her increased frustrations and gentle criticisms with charm, though contemporary viewers may recognize Ellen’s behavior as consistent with borderline personality disorder… among other conditions that dangerously manifest themselves as they compound.
Despite the already crowded living situation for the newlyweds, Dick bewilderingly chooses to “surprise” Ellen by inviting her family for a visit, prompting her to storm off in anger—not that I can necessarily blame her for this intrusion upon her romantic expectations of married life.
*Though the sequence is set in Maine, it was actually filmed on Bass Lake in the Sierra National Forest in northern California.
What’d He Wear?
Cornel Wilde rotates through a fine selection of then-fashionable sport shirts through Leave Her to Heaven, particularly fitting his laidback lakeside life with Ellen. One of the most prominently featured pieces from Dick’s closet is the brown plaid flannel shirt he wears tucked into khakis when an afternoon of writing transitions into an evening with Ellen’s family—and reconciling with Ellen over their presence.
These hardy and colorful two-pocket wool shirts had grown in popularity since they were pioneered in the 1920s by the Oregon-based Pendleton Woolen Mills. Company president Clarence Bishop had sought to enliven men’s workwear by applying the colors and patterns the mill used for their popular blankets. Pendleton shirts were initially a hit among outdoorsmen, but the style would be immortalized by the Beach Boys after the band wore them for a famous 1962 shoot and cemented the “board shirt” association with surf culture.
Made of 100% virgin wool sourced from local Oregon ranches, the classic Pendleton shirt design has remained generally unchanged over a century of production. While it’s lost to history whether costume designer Kay Nelson dressed Cornel Wilde in a true Pendleton shirt in Leave Her to Heaven, the design, cut, and cloth are aligned with the company’s most iconic offering.
Dick’s mid-weight woolen flannel twill shirt has a taupe-brown ground, patterned with a sky-blue double grid-check and a rust-framed white dotted windowpane. The large point collar is extremely long—likely flaring out to 4″ at each end—with a small threaded loop on the left side to connect to a smaller button under the right collar leaf. (By the 1960s, Pendleton added the now-familiar satin lining around the inside of the board shirt collar.)
The shirt has two rounded chest pockets, each covered with a rounded flap that hangs free—with no button to close. The sleeves close with a single button that matches the five visible buttons that close through horizontal buttonholes up the plain front. Behind each armhole, two pleats extend down from the straight horizontal back yoke that increase the wearer’s range of motion.
Leave Her to Heaven was filmed through the summer of 1945, as American servicemen were beginning to return home from victory in World War II. With them, they continued some of the comfortable sartorial philosophies that had served them well overseas, perhaps most enduringly their khaki service trousers.
Khaki trousers had been an American military staple for at least a half-century when they were integrated into summer uniforms for troops serving in warm locations, such as those deployed to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Like the pea coat, cardigan, and many style staples before them, khakis soon gained a foothold—or, more accurately, leg hold—in men’s fashions and their blend of presentability and practicality made them a favorite in many American men’s closets by the mid-20th century.
Dick tucks his wool shirt into a pair of khaki cotton trousers with a classically high rise to Cornel Wilde’s natural waist. The fit is straight and relaxed through the thighs down the leg to his plain-hemmed bottoms. The trousers have a button-fly, side pockets, and button-through jetted back pockets. Through the wide trapezoidal-shaped belt loops, Dick holds up these slacks with a belt of well-worn dark leather that closes through a single-prong belt buckle tarnished to a dulled and darkened brass.
Dick wears low-vamped dark-brown leather loafers, which appear to have either a straight toe-cap or a more rakish wingtip. The full-brogue wingtip is typically (but not exclusively) reserved for dressier lace-up shoes like derbies and oxfords and would add a rakishly literary dash to Dick’s casual ensemble if on his low-vamped slip-ons. His black argyle socks are patterned with brown lozenges and white intercrossed rakers.
How to Get the Look
Dick Harland briefly gets to live the good life many writers dream of: secluded on a New England lake with a beautiful wife, a full imagination, and a typewriter. Thus, he comes by the look honestly when he dresses for a day enjoying all three in his plaid woolen Pendleton-style board shirt—never a bad choice for any man’s closet.
- Brown (with sky-blue double-grid and rust-framed white windowpane check) woolen flannel twill “board shirt” with long-pointed collar (with loop), five-button plain front, two rounded chest pockets (with free-hanging flaps), 1-button cuffs, and double rear pleats
- Khaki cotton flat-front trousers with trapezoidal belt loops, button-fly, side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Dark-brown leather belt with tarnished brass single-prong buckle
- Dark-brown leather wingtip loafers
- Black, brown, and tan argyle socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.