Celluloid Style: Montgomery Clift 

Montgomery Clift portrait
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

I’ve often thought that it’s strange Montgomery Clift isn’t spoken of more often as a menswear icon. In a similar vein to what I wrote last week about Humphrey Bogart, it’s not that I think anyone would necessarily dispute the claim that Clift is one; rather, it’s that people rarely seem to think about him in these terms. While there is certainly an over-abundance of high-profile pieces to be found on Clift’s career and private life, there’s a strange absence online of coverage on the clothes he wore. Apart from BAMF Style’s entries on the costuming from some of Clift’s iconic films, little else has been written on his sense of style.

It’s especially odd when you look at old photographs of the man. He has everything you could want from a movie star of the ’50s and ’60s, aesthetically speaking. Apart from his obvious good looks and covetable quiff, Clift, ever the consummate role-player, effortlessly managed to turn his hand to just about any mid-century American look. On the one hand, there is the rebel style of a James Dean or a young Marlon Brando (two men who Clift is often grouped with for his innovative and era-defining approach to screen acting): the tight white Ts, the leather jackets, the garrison belts. On the other, you have the preppy trappings of a Paul Newman or a ’50s-era Miles Davis: Oxford button-downs, tweed jackets, and penny loafers. Other staples of the time include his affinity for boxy jackets, camp collars, and Aloha shirts. Any given outfit or bit of costuming looked great on him, so an apparent lack of enthusiasm for Clift’s sense of style seems puzzling. This is usually the kind of thing that’s catnip to the average menswear enthusiast.

Perhaps the answer lies in Clift’s reputation as a man uninterested in appearances. Even after becoming a Hollywood star, he kept living in a shabby apartment in New York, which he rented for $10 a month. He also drove a beat-up, 10-year-old car and survived on just two simple meals a day (usually some combination of steak, eggs, and orange juice). Most of his friends were from outside of the movie business and he spent his free time reading works by authors like Chekov and Aristotle.

Montgomery Clift wearing a suit
A rare suited sighting of a slouchy Monty Clift
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Most relevant in this particular context, however, is the fact that Clift had a reputation for being somewhat dishevelled. The LA Times dubbed him the ‘Rumpled Movie Idol’ and once, when visiting Elsa Maxwell at her home, the famed gossip columnist had her maid darn the elbow of his jacket. He is also said to have owned just one suit.

Be this as it may, whatever careless touches we see in images of Clift today — a loosened tie, a collar point out of place — only serves to add to his sense of roguishness. It’s a devil-may-care look that helped cement his reputation as one of the icons of 50s youth culture. He was often seen as a rebel, a beat, a non-conformist, and it was an image that Clift would come to hate. While filming Lonelyhearts in 1958, he lashed out, saying: ‘I am not—repeat not—a member of the Beat Generation. I am not one of America’s Angry Young Men. I do not count myself as a member of the ripped-sweatshirt fraternity.’ He insisted that he was not a ‘young rebel, an old rebel, a tired rebel, or a rebellious rebel’. All he seemed to want was to do the job of acting and have it left at that. 

It’s worth pointing out that by this time Clift had already suffered the near-fatal accident that seemed irretrievably to alter the course of his life. When driving back from a party at the house of his co-star and long-time friend, Elizabeth Taylor, he crashed his car into a telephone pole. He was very nearly killed and required extensive reconstruction surgery, which substantially altered his appearance. He remained very handsome and continued his acting career, but his on-set behaviour had become erratic and the accident seemed to have aged him by several years. More than anything, a deep sense of weariness had crept into his features. A much-publicised addiction to painkillers and alcohol at the time no doubt added to the effect and hastened his death of a heart attack at the age of 45. His acting teacher, Robert Lewis, referred to Clift’s decline as ‘the longest suicide in Hollywood history’.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor
Clift with his co-star and long-time friend, Elizabeth Taylor
Image credit: Film Star Vintage / CC BY 2.0

Much has been made of Clift’s private life and the struggles of his later years. The prevailing narrative has long been that he was gay or bi-sexual and that the struggles in his personal life were amplified by a secret crisis of identity. More recently, however, these assumptions have been challenged by friends and family who claimed he was entirely at peace with his sexuality and that some of the turbulence of his final years has been misconstrued.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems appropriate that no single narrative should rule our understanding of Montgomery Clift, a man whose life and personality seemed characterised at every turn by a sense of irreducible complexity. It was a quality he managed to pour into his work and is apparent everywhere he appears on screen. The sense of depth and vulnerability in his performances earned him four Academy Award nominations over the course of a 30-year career and helped canonise films like From Here to Eternity, Judgment at Nuremberg, and The Misfits as American classics.

Clift’s deep inner life somehow showed in his clothing too — or, more accurately, showed up against it. It’s easy to look like you’re trying too hard if you care about clothes. We all risk overdoing it somewhat in our enthusiasm. Even the much-sought concept in menswear of sprezzatura or ‘studied carelessness’ is ultimately just that: studied, thoughtful, deliberate. Montgomery Clift seemed altogether too preoccupied for all that, which lent him the rare and magnetic quality of someone who always looked great without genuinely ever seeming to notice or care.

As to whether or not Clift truly gave any thought to his appearance, we can only speculate of course — chalk it up as one of the many mysteries surrounding the man. But while he himself may never have noticed what he had on, the same certainly couldn’t be said of anyone looking at him.

Montgomery Clift in preppy clothes 1950
Image credit: Max Coplan / Public domain