In his long career as a film actor, Gary Cooper played every type of role available to a leading man” he was a small-town poet and small-town sheriff, a playboy, an heroic soldier, scientist, spy, professor, French Foreign Legionnaire, swashbuckler, con man, fighter pilot, Indian fighter, Bengal lancer, and of course dozens of cowboys. No matter what costume he put on, he looked like he owned it. The camera loved him, and so did the box office.
But costume is one thing, and clothes are another. In his private life he wore contemporary clothes with a perfection of his own debonair style that combined the fine tailored European wardrobe with all-American casual clothes to produce the first and still finest example of elegant international masculinity.
None other than the great American designer Bill Blass once said that Cooper had the greatest sense of style of anyone he’d ever met. It was the purposeful nonchalance of being able to wear clothes effortlessly, to be entirely at easer even in the most formalwear, that defined Cooper’s approach.
“You see,” Blass wrote, “It was no accident that Cooper looked as terrific as he did … he used to go on these shopping expeditions to Rome and Paris. He’d buy cottons by the yard in Mexico and then send them to his shirtmaker in Italy. He had tailors all over the world, and he was the first to buy jeans and do the stone-washing thing. He’d beat them on a rock and leave them out in the sun all day. Did it himself too.”
This approach of artful nonchalance can be seen hundreds of times in Cooper’s films when he’s wearing modern dress: the jaunty angle of his fedora, the colorful silk scarf at the neck or worn as a belt, the tie allowed to float freely around the upturned points of his shirt collar, the fancy patterned sports jacket worn with a knitted sports shirt, a camel hair polo coat thrown loosely over the shoulders, the lapel of his chalk-striped double-breasted suit casually falling to the lower button.
In all of this he rose above and ignored the contrived glamour and studied posturing that had characterised so many film heroes of those years. And he remains, in his ability to personalise tradition, a model for today.