Moments of Movie Wisdom: The Clothes Make the Man

Moments of Movie Wisdom: The Clothes Make the Man
A publicity still of the 1936 film “Swing Time” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (MovieStillsDB)
Tiffany Brannan

Some movies are very inspiring and uplifting, obviously full of good messages. We expect Frank Capra movies to teach valuable moral lessons. However, many less serious movies can contain inspiring scenes. Even comedies may include one or two moments of movie wisdom which can be applied to our lives today.

Today’s moment of movie wisdom comes from “Swing Time” from 1936, a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical which was the sixth of the dancing duo’s ten films together. The scene takes place 15 minutes into the 103-minute film, when the lead characters first meet. Penny Carroll (Rogers) tells a policeman that Lucky Garnette (Astaire) stole her quarter, but the officer refuses to believe it, because he is wearing a classy and expensive-looking cutaway coat. This unlikely beginning of a romance for the pair shows how the clothes truly do make the man.

When the film begins, Lucky’s fellow dancers trick him into missing his own wedding because they don’t want him to retire. The gambler’s future father-in-law (Landers Stevens) then says he won’t let him marry his daughter, Margaret (Betty Furness), unless he proves his worth by earning $25,000. He and his pal Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) set out for New York with nothing but his lucky quarter. When he asks a passing woman, Penny, for change for his quarter, she ends up believing he stole from her. Naturally, the policeman refuses to believe her, because Fred is still dressed stylishly for his wedding. Lucky then follows Penny into the dancing school where she works.

A publicity still of the 1936 film “Swing Time” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (MovieStillsDB)
A publicity still of the 1936 film “Swing Time” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (MovieStillsDB)
After almost getting Penny fired because her employer (Eric Blore) overhears her saying that Lucky will never learn how to dance, he lands her a nightclub audition by performing a sensational dance routine with her. Meanwhile, Pop meets Penny’s middle-aged friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick). Lucky and Pop move into the hotel where the girls live. As Lucky gambles himself in and out of good fortune and Penny’s good graces during the next few weeks, he becomes increasingly conflicted about earning money, since he realizes that reaching his goal will bring him back to Margaret, and away from Penny.

The Scene

When Lucky and Pop arrive in New York, they are so broke that Lucky decides to get change for his lucky quarter to buy Pop cigarettes. The stranger he asks for change happens to be Penny. When they put the money in the cigarette vending machine, it dumps out a bunch of loose change. Since they now have more money, Pop decides to buy back his friend’s good luck token. Penny, however, is fed up with the two strangers when they catch up with her. Since she is not willing to trade the quarter back to them, Pop swipes it from her bag. She thinks Lucky did it, so she calls over a policeman and accuses him of theft.

Even though Penny is indeed the injured party, the policeman sides with Lucky. He asks her why a gentleman like him would steal small change and even apologizes to Lucky for the inconvenience. Naturally, Lucky and Pop don’t clear up the misunderstanding, since they aren’t eager to go to jail. Afterward, he feels bad for causing Penny so much trouble, so he decides to follow her to her workplace, where he proceeds to bother her further.

Studio publicity photo of Fred Astaire in 1941. (Public Domain)
Studio publicity photo of Fred Astaire in 1941. (Public Domain)

Its Significance

In many film scenes like this, a policeman will automatically believe a lady who says that a man is bothering her, since authorities were eager to protect women from mashers—men who make inappropriate advances toward women—at least according to screenwriters. In this case, however, the policeman assumes that the girl is pestering the man. Why the switch in this case? If a young woman were to wear Penny’s outfit walking down a New York street today, she would turn some heads because of how stylish and formal she looked with her mid-calf length dress, matching shoes, and cute hat. However, in 1936, this attire was standard daywear for an average working woman. In contrast, Lucky is wearing a cutaway coat, sometimes called a morning coat, which was one of the most formal ensembles a man could wear. The officer assumes that Lucky is a wealthy gentleman, so why would he need to steal a quarter? It’s much more logical that a poor girl would want to get money from him.
This scene illustrates how much your clothing defines the way people perceive you. Lucky is a dancer and gambler who doesn’t have a dollar to his name. However, because he is dressed like a gentleman of leisure, the officer assumes that he is such. I’m not suggesting that one should dress nicely because it will keep away the suspicion of law enforcement, but wearing traditional, stylish clothes allows you to present yourself with dignity and modesty.

Dressing Like a Lady or Gentleman

What would have happened in this scene if Lucky had been wearing a plain suit? The policeman probably would have arrested him as a petty thief and a masher. Instead, he got away and received an apology to boot! This scene illustrates that the clothes truly make the man.

The next time you’re dressing for an important event, a business meeting, or even an average day out on the town, remember this scene. If you want people to perceive you as a lady or gentleman of style, integrity, and tradition, try clothing yourself in an outfit which reflects your values.

Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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