The Unflappable Nonchalance of Gary Cooper

The Unflappable Nonchalance of Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper with Veronica Balfe, also known as "Rocky"

It's an odd twist when a prominent Hollywood actor is noted as much for his understated style as he is recognized for his work as an actor. Such is the case of Gary Cooper, who grew up in Montana, a dream location for many men, waking each morning on his family's 600-acre ranch and gazing over the horizon just like a real cowboy.

It has been said that a person's entire life can change on a dime---in one split second. Little did Gary Cooper know that a car accident at the age of 13 would be one of the single most significant events in his life that would open the doors to Hollywood for him in the future. In 1914, after the young Cooper was in a car wreck during the time he was attending private school in England, his doctor ordered him to begin a physical therapy regimen of  horseback riding several times a week.

This training with horses would prove invaluable.

Eleven years after the car accident, Cooper found himself in Los Angeles, and following a failed career attempt as a salesman for electrical signs and theatre curtains, Gary put his horse riding skills to work as a movie extra, earning ten dollars a day riding horses in cowboy films. The rest of the story is history---with more than 100 films to Cooper's credit before his death from prostate cancer at the age of 60.

But, just how did Frank James Cooper, who later took the name "Gary", develop his celebrated sartorial skills?  We know that in one particular photo of Gary as a child, he was an immaculately dressed as a child cowboy, most likely a result that can be credited to his mother. And so we see that early on in his life, Gary already had a sense for what "dressing the part" feels like.

Gary Cooper as a child in Montana (around 1906)

But, Cooper's appreciation for crafted clothing could have been ignited at another time, when he and his brother were accompanied by their mother to Bedfordshire, England, where the boys attended Dunstable Grammar School. One could imagine that the difference in how people dressed in Montana compared to Bedfordshire, must have been quite a contrast to behold for the young lad. He attended private school in England up until the time of his car accident, at age 13, when he returned to Montana to recuperate, and was left with a slight limp that he would have for the rest of his life.


Flash forward to the time when Cooper not only became known as an accomplished actor, but also as a man who captured the very essence of the word nonchalance through the way he dressed (arguably with more natural nonchalance than any other film star before or since his entrance into the Hollywood film scene). He was the man who always got the girl and the one who exits stage as the hero. Yet, while other Hollywood stars posed and strained to relay glamour, Cooper won the hearts of the public as he eased onto the scene like a swan who is somewhat unaware of his innate beauty. Being particularly tall at 6'3"(190 cm) and walking with a slight limp could have worked against Cooper's endeavors, but he somehow understood how to turn his limitations into benefits, and pulled off an effortless persona that doesn't cease to intrigue.

As Cooper become more successful in his film career, he toyed with and pioneered pattern combinations in ways that Tom Ford would have approved. Throughout his days in film, he wore single and double-breasted suits, as well as three-piece ensembles.  And, during his day, no one could deny that Gary was a natural when it came to mastering the art of dressing well with ease and fortitude.

Still, Mr. Cooper did not always get it right, and it is curious to think about whether the times he missed the mark was a result of the studio dressing him, or a result of Gary dressing himself, as many actors did during the 1920s - 1950s (unlike today when actors are told what they will be wearing on the set with no freedom to choose clothing for themselves). But, despite Cooper's lack of attention to his shirt sleeves, which were at times swallowed by his coat sleeves, and his unawareness of the occasional coat fabric bunching up behind his neck, along with the once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence of a slight collar gap...overall, Gary Cooper's style-savvy was exquisite.

And still, it feels like some sort of inspiration, to know that even if Cooper fielded a few style errors occasionally, he was still relentless in his pursuit to refine himself and find a true personal style that grew with time, knowledge and experience. After all, personal style is a journey, not an immediate destination, and Cooper was not afraid to set out on his path to make a statement through the way he dressed.

Cooper, who was rejected by his Iowa college drama club, rose from working as a salesman of theatrical curtains to become a Hollywood superstar. As a superstar, Gary's shaky personal life took a toll on his physical and mental health.  During 1930 - 1931, the combination of exhaustion, illness, and conflict between his well-meaning mother and a jealous lover, led to a nervous breakdown. Sensitive by nature, "Coop", as his friends called him, wrote to his nephew Howard "I had drifted, taken advice, let people get at me through my emotions, my sympathy, my affections..."

Regardless of Cooper's personal struggles, his easy and enduring style, and his perennial performances as the "hero of the storyline" in most of his films has stood the test of time, and today, he is revered as one of the most stylish gentlemen in history.

Here are some things we notice about Gary's style preferences:

He seemed to give as much attention to his trousers as he gave to his coat, and this is a point that makes him unique. He often enjoyed turn-ups and trouser legs with ample fabric---with a fairly high waist. In most photographs, his trousers are remarkable, while his horizontally striped socks that he often wore, are reminiscent of some of the sock designs that we see today:

Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper in Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936)

Gary Cooper leaving his handprint at the Graumann's Chinese Theater. Notice Cooper's horizontally striped socks.

Cooper with gorgeous grey flannel trousers with signature horizontal striped socks, and a fantastic narrow and long, low point shirt collar.

We know that Cooper found pleasure in ample-sized lapels on his coats, that exposed very little chest area...perhaps he knew that the lapel is usually the first thing most people notice about a suit:

And, although known for his clean and understated style, he also enjoyed playing with pattern combinations from time to time, as well as occasionally donning a pair of suspenders.

Sometimes Cooper opted for the three-piece suit.

Wearing the iconic tattersall waistcoat.

And, he definitely wasn't a stranger to the double-breasted suit.

As Bruce Boyer relays in his definitive book, Gary Cooper : Enduring Style (with unprecedented access to the Cooper family archives):

"[Cooper] devised and perfected his own debonair style that combined a perfectly tailored European wardrobe with all-American casual sportswear to produce the first, and still finest example of elegant, international, masculine style rooted in an American ideal of the everyman as hero. From the most casual sports clothing to the most formal white tie and tails, Cooper carried himself with uncontrived conviction."

It feels like Cooper was ahead of his time, and it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that he was born as early as 1901, as many would guess that he could have easily been born in the generation that followed his actual lifetime. To this day, Cooper is remembered as lanky, handsome, outspoken about his beliefs, and as a man who fully embraced his relationship with his clothing and who will always remain a strong testimony to the transformative effect of knowing how to dress the part.

Sonya Glyn Nicholson, Senior Editor


Gary Cooper : Enduring Style, by Bruce Boyer (Amazon)

IMBd Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper, Wikipedia

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