Celluloid Style: Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins jumping
Image credit: Philippe Halsman / Public domain

Psycho was one of the first classic films I managed to get into as a teenager. Up until that point, I had never gone near a black and white film and had no interest in doing so. But the second I lay eyes on Norman Bates and his sinister hillside motel during an otherwise uneventful family movie night, I was hooked. Not only did I steadily begin watching more old movies, I concertedly sought out every Hitchcock film I could find and have since devoured every piece of Psycho-related content within reach, from the bizarre 1998 Gus Van Sant remake to a feature documentary dedicated in its entirety to just the infamous shower sequence.

Oddly, just about the only thing to escape the clutches of my obsession was the actor who played the film’s titular part, a young man named Anthony Perkins. If this seems like a slight on Mr Perkins’ acting ability, in a way it’s really the highest kind of compliment. My young brain found his performance so convincing that it simply didn’t occur to me that the man I saw on screen was anything other than the character he so chillingly portrayed. In fact, for many years I would conflate the two, calling both character and actor Norman Bates without ever noticing.

Sadly, for Anthony Perkins anyway, I wasn’t alone in this. He was so widely associated with the murdering psychopath he portrayed in his breakout role that it effectively ruined his fledgeling career. The situation became so untenable that he eventually fled America to live in Paris, apparently saying to his friends, ‘Face it, gang, I am Norman Bates’. 

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the character the made — and then ruined — his career
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Eventually, for my own part at least, I came to recognise Anthony Perkins as an entity in his own right. Better late than never, I suppose. In doing so I came to know some of the other noteworthy parts he went on to play: Joseph K. in Orson Welles’s The Trial, Chaplain Tappman in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22, and McQueen in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, among many others.

I also began taking note of his clothing for the first time. It soon became clear that the man I only ever pictured wrapped in a jailhouse blanket at the end of Psycho had a lot to offer under that creepy covering. In fact, studying photographs of Perkins was in effect a crash course in Ivy League style for me.

Once more, it turned out that generations of filmgoers had beaten me to the punch on this score. As Graham Marsh and Tony Nourmand point out in Hollywood and the Ivy Look — a book whose cover is adorned by none other than Tony Perkins himself, looking every bit the preppy icon in a tan sack suit and wine-coloured penny loafers — Perkins’ wardrobe in Psycho brought the collegiate wear of the era to scores of eager-eyed cinema-goers:

‘Anthony Perkins took care of business at the Bates motel wearing a corduroy Ivy suit, desert boots and a white button-down shirt. His clothes were as sharp, indeed sharper, than his mother’s knife. At the time, he defined the Ivy Look for a generation of devotes: it was a good look, unless of course you were a shower salesman who wore a corduroy jacket.’

Perkins’ costuming in Psycho (as in many of his other on-screen appearances) was essentially the same thing he wore in his daily life: button-down shirts, Shetland sweaters, and jackets with modest lapels up top, along with slim-legged jeans, chinos, or corduroys down below. On his feet you could always count on a reliable lineup of collegiate classics: Weejuns, moccasins, bucks, and cordovan galore, all typically worn with sporty, light-coloured socks.

It proved a remarkably long-lived look for Perkins. From his college days (he attended Florida’s elite Rollins College, as well as Columbia University) through to middle age (he died in 1992 aged 60), Perkins always seemed to wear essentially the same thing — and he always looked great doing so. It’s certainly a testament to the timelessness of the staples of Ivy style, although Perkins’ eternally slim physique and youthful features certainly didn’t hurt matters.

When there was so much in Anthony Perkins’ life that he tried desperately to shake off — he entered a self-imposed exile in Europe for several years, underwent conversion therapy, was plagued by his crippling shyness and a fear of intimacy, and haunted by endless comparisons to a dramatis personae of his own making — fans of his work can at least be thankful that he never stopped acting (Although his reprisal of the role of Normal Bates for three subsequent outings was no doubt a fraught undertaking). Ditto, for those, like me, who have come to admire his dress sense in addition to his acting ability, a lifetime spent wearing timeless Ivy staples at a minimum represents some degree of stasis and solidity in what at times seems like a turbulent and troubled existence.

Having learnt more about all the real-life torment one of my favourite horror film characters caused the man who played him, I now regret spending all those years failing to tell the two of them apart. Now, of course, they couldn’t appear more different to me. But even as Anthony Perkins no longer seems anything like Norman Bates, one similarity remains: I can’t help but think they both sported some truly killer threads. 

Anthony Perkins wearing a black sweater and corduroys
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain