marilynmonkeybusiness

The other night I was browsing the streaming Netflix options and ended up watching “Monkey Business,” the 1952 screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. I hadn’t seen the movie since starting this website, and a very interesting scene caught my attention.

Grant plays a chemist who thinks he’s discovered a youth serum (which, this being a screwball comedy, was in fact randomly created by a chimpanzee). Suddenly Grant, who was 48 at the time, starts acting years younger. In fact, about two-and-a-half decades younger.

Under the serum’s influence, Grant buys a convertible sports car and takes Monroe roller skating. He also makes a few changes to his appearance. He gets a haircut noticeably shorter than what he’d previously been sporting (might we call it a Princeton haircut?), and goes to a clothing store where he selects a bold plaid jacket. When he asks if there are matching trousers, the elderly salesman informs him that such jackets are typically worn with grey flannels. Grant then picks out a pair of argyle socks.

When the serum wears off and Grant comes to his middle-aged senses, he says he was “acting like a college boy.”

The primary theme of the “rise and fall” essay we posted at the beginning of the year is that the Ivy League Look is much more than a mere tailoring style consisting of natural shoulders and an undarted chest. The sack silhouette is merely the blueprint for the look, which owes more to a certain approach towards dressing — the acceptance of certain items and the rejection of others, the importance of being casual — so much of which was codified by college men of the interwar years.

The transformation of Cary Grant’s character from mild-mannered middle-aged scientist to rowdy college boy is not a radical one, but merely a matter of degree. His haircut is shorter but still conventional. We also get the sense that his jacket is from a reputable maker, even though it is bolder in pattern than the suit he was previously wearing. It’s also more casual, consisting of sportcoat and trousers. His argyle socks are also more casual and youthful than his sober business hose.

Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and all the other Ivy League clothiers catered both to men and their sons. It was young men who drove fashion, however, albeit within the confines of correct Eastern Establishment dress. With its emphasis on casualness under the constant shadow of recreation and sporting activities, the WASPy way of dressing confers dignity upon young men and youth upon older men.

And decades after the end of the heyday, it’s clear that the youthful approach won out. The sartorial legacy of the Ivy League Look is not grey sack suits, but what was once a college-boy approach to dressing: tweed jackets, grey flannels, argyle socks and loafers.

The quest for the fountain of youth goes back for centuries, but metaphorically Grant’s character shows us that all we need to do to shed the probity of middle age is cut our hair short and dress a bit more audaciously. Well, that and drive Marily Monroe around in a sports car. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD