An American in Paris

I’ve never cared much for Gene Kelly.

He is, along with Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, consistently listed as one of the best-dressed men in old-Hollywood. Maybe so, but Gene Kelly was always too simple for me. He was a handsome man- which always helps in terms of clothing- and all the characters he played were pleasant, easy, uncomplicated. Uncomplicated, of course, because Gene Kelly consistently starred in romances and musicals. Cary Grant, for comparison, would go in for thrillers and dramas. The difference showed.

Cary Grant’s character in To Catch a Thief is a former cat burglar, jailed, escaped, and now on the run from the police for a crime he did not commit. Gene Kelly’s character in An American in Paris, released just four years earlier, is a poor and romantic artist whose greatest hurdle is being in love with a girl. Not quite comparable, is it?

I don’t mean to suggest that somehow Cary Grant played gritty and realistic characters- his are often just as fantastic and unbelievable (After all, who of us would Eve Marie Saint fall for at first sight?). But his characters were always more interesting. They had a backstory and a complicated past. They weren’t perfect, and their flaws helped them be more relatable, more captivating.

Now the reason I’m talking about how I don’t care for Gene Kelly is that while writing this column, “An American in Paris” the natural companion piece would be the movie An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly. But, alas, this is not the movie for me.

Nor, in any way, was my time in Paris comparable to Gene Kelly’s. The dear romance of the movie and city never translates well into reality and my time there was more comparable to a tourist’s than anyone else’s.

I arrived in the mid-afternoon rain, in the kind of weather that soaks in, which no coat, no matter how thick, can ever quite seem to keep out, and which, after stepping out of the Gare du Nord looking for a café, practically drove me into the refuge of the nearest one. Like most restaurants and cafés near stations, this one was singularly depressing and overpriced. Ah, c’est la vie.

But, despite the poor reception, I embarked on the city, entirely withoutmap, and by pure chance happened upon some of the beautiful alleyways, side streets, and arcades with which Paris abound.

At this one in particular, I was caught by the full feeling of the Paris tradition of street-side cafés, but with a far greater refinement than that initial station café had. Lounging here and taking in the scene, I certainly wished I was dressed for the part.

A silk suit- charcoal grey- would have fitted well into the picture. Double breasted, of course, with fine detailing and finishing that reflected not only the finishing of the space but the traditions of French tailoring and haute couture. Two pockets, Milanese buttonholes, and full trousers with all the accessories- cuffs, slanted pockets, flapped rear pockets, and double pleats. I’d match this with a shantung silk regimental tie, pointed collar shirt, and black cap toe oxfords. A rich and opulent suit, with all the excessive details, that match the traditional leisure culture I found myself in.

My next stop within this French metropolis was- probably expectedly- some of the many museums within the city center. The Rodin museum in particular, within the shadows of the Musee de l’Armee and in turn the Eiffel Tower, was at the top of my list. I certainly couldn’t miss an opportunity to see up close the works of the father of modernist sculpture.

That was the attitude that made Paris so interesting- a curious mixture of refinement and stolid tradition, bumping up against the avant-garde and the new. Nearly-contemporaneously with Rodin, it was that very same mix that inspired so many of my own countrymen to live in Paris. Names like Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Gertrude Stein all made Paris their home in the years following the First World War- the so-called Lost Generation.

And what could be more appropriate than channeling their feelings of artistic modernity? No unimaginative business suit for me! Instead, I combined that old standby of French peasant clothing and artistic dishevelment- corduroy. This was a wheat colored garment, double breasted but cut for simplicity which- unintentional at the time- was also a nice bit of solidarity with Hemingway’s clean and simply writing style. Paired simply with an off-white turtleneck and the American trad classic: cordovan loafers.

Together these were completely opposite garments to wear: one a fine silk suit, the other a rough corduroy. Yet neither felt out of place, a curious tribute to the romanticism and temperament of the French capital that has rewarded art of both maximalist and minimalist qualities. I definitely wasn’t a character in any of Gene Kelly’s romantic stories but I was smitten, and the next time I’ll be in Paris I’ll make sure I’m dressed for the part. NWW/YYS/DPFC/MM/JHS

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