Celluloid Style: Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart wearing a bow tie
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

Last night I went to see an 80th-anniversary screening of The Maltese Falcon at my local movie house. Everything about the experience seemed strange and familiar all at once. 

Familiar because I’d seen the film once before (although the plot is so labyrinthine that hardly mattered) and because I’ve spent untold hours of my life in that cinema, to the point where just about every inch of the place feels nearly as known to me as the walls of my own home. Since moving to this city, I’ve gone to see a film there nearly every week — except, of course, for the last year and a half. 

Which brings me to the strange part. Going back to the movies after many months of being away is an uncanny experience, rather like returning to your home town after many years of being away, where the general shape of everything is as you remember it but the details have all somehow changed. The building’s screens and hallways remain as recognisable as ever, but the walls have been painted, the cafe has been reorganised, and the seats all have new covers. Plus there are the now mundane markers of pandemic life: QR codes, sanitizing stations, Perspex screens, and masks — all necessary but grim reminders that things aren’t quite as they were before. 

But when the lights go down you forget all that. The real world soon melts away as the big screen takes over, the way it always has. Even going to see a familiar film never dulls the experience. You realise that the picture is always the same; what changes each time is the person watching it. 

It was with this in mind that I started thinking about the man on the screen in front of me: Humphrey Bogart. In this context, Bogart —as well-known to me as he is to any film fan — suddenly felt much less so. A lot has changed since I last saw The Maltese Falcon. For one thing, I’ve started spending a much more substantial part of my life engaged in the world of menswear. Why is it, I found myself wondering, that for all of Bogie’s renown, you don’t find him spoken of in menswear circles all that often? 

During the course of writing several articles and a newsletter on the subject of men’s clothing every week, I end up doing a good amount of research on the subject. A solid chunk of any given workday for me is dedicated to reading menswear books, articles, and blog posts, and when I stopped to think about it I realised just how rarely I’ve seen Bogart’s name pop up in that context.

When I got home after the film I went online to test this hypothesis (a bit of amateur sleuthing to match Sam Spade’s antics in the movie I’d just seen). Sure enough, on the topic of Bogart and clothing, the only reputable pieces I came across were BAMF Style’s analysis of his film work and a short ‘style lessons’ piece from a few years ago in Esquire. Similarly, combing through posts on Instagram, those dedicated to Bogart’s wardrobe are few and far between. Compare, for example, the 100 or so posts you’ll find under hashtags comprising some variation of ‘Bogart’ and ‘style’ to the many thousands under the equivalents for Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or Cary Grant. It’s as though these men — all leading actors, all massive stars with enduring legacies — somehow occupy entirely different spheres.

All of this feels especially odd given how closely tied Bogart’s image is to particular items of clothing. Picture the trench coat or white dinner jacket from Casablanca, or think of a fedora, a bow tie, a double-breasted jacket, or a pin-striped suit — they all readily conjure images of an impeccably turned out Bogie wearing the same.

Even his accessories are well-known. Bogart was reportedly a Longines fan, often sporting an Evidenza wristwatch on screen, alongside a gold ring he inherited from his father, which featured a rectangular ruby-diamond-ruby setting. The ring has become famous enough that you can even buy replicas from several different sources online.  

Then there’s the signature slicked-back hair and the impeccable pocket squares. The fact that his clothes were often made by Italy’s finest: suits by Caraceni, shirts by Battistoni, hats by Borsalino. Or that he founded the consummately rakish Rat Pack before Sinatra took the helm following Bogart’s death in 1957. The list of sartorial achievements goes on and on.

If I’m right here, there seems to be some disconnect between discussions of style and our enduring memory of Humphrey Bogart. On the one hand, he readily calls to mind countless hallmarks of classic menswear; on the other, it feels as though he gets scant recognition for this fact. To be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone would dispute Bogart’s stylish status. All the evidence of his iconic attire cited here seems to suggest quite the opposite. Rather, it’s that despite the undeniable character and flair of his wardrobe we seem not to pay him the credit he’s due. 

As to why that might be the case, my best guess is that it’s because Bogart survives better on film where he is alive and in motion rather than he does in still photographs, which constitute much of the cultural currency of contemporary menswear. With a small build, a receding hairline, uneven teeth, and a noticeable lisp, he was never the picture of a conventional leading man, but his magnetism was such that none of that ever seemed to matter. Anyone in need of proof need only watch him projected on a big screen and then try to take their eyes off him.

Maybe that’s why we tend to still talk about his films more so than we do his clothing. In the cinematic canon, if perhaps not in its clothing equivalent, Bogart’s place seems forever secure thanks to his performances in movies like the aforementioned Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, as well as in To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), The African Queen (1951) and many others still. In fact, there’s barely a dud in the whole bunch, which makes it unsurprising that the American Film Institute would award him the number one spot on their list of male screen legends of the twentieth century. 

Looking at that hangdog face of his — wisened, world-weary, but never truly cynical — it’s easy to lose track of things like clothes, appearances, and just about everything else. Like the magic of the screen it’s projected onto, Bogart’s moving image has the power to make you forget about everything else for a little while.

Humphrey Bogart wearing a coat and fedora
Image credit: loewsjersey / CC BY-ND 2.0