What’s the Coolest Thing Anyone Has Ever Worn?

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Oct. 7 2013 11:42 PM

The Coolest Thing Anyone Has Ever Worn

Why Cary Grant’s sunglasses in North by Northwest still make us swoon.

Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
The coolest article of clothing in history: Vintage Tart Arnels (as worn by Cary Grant).

Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)/Warner Home Video

When Cary Grant first dons his sunglasses in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, he’s hiding, rather unconvincingly, from the police at Grand Central Station. When he takes them off, he is successfully propositioning Eva Marie Saint for sex in a train dining car. The intervening five minutes of film show Grant in great peril and distress—but through it all, he remains completely, impossibly cool. Not just because of his wit, or his sex appeal, but because of his sunglasses, the coolest article of clothing in history: Vintage Tart Arnels. [Update, Oct. 16, 2013: Perhaps they are not vintage Tart Arnels! But what are they?]

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

Coolness is, of course, a frustratingly ineffable quality; you know it when you see it, sure, but sometimes it’s impossible to explain what you’re actually seeing. And so it is with Cary Grant, an actor who remains archetypally cool despite a number of qualities—the unplaceable accent, the too-bronze skin—that should seem hackneyed or hokey today. So it is with his sunglasses in North by Northwest: With their tan plastic tortoiseshells and green-tinted lenses, the Tarts could seem a little dorky. But Grant’s insouciant charisma transfigures them into the quintessence of cool.

Consider the dining car scene. Saint has just saved Grant, who has been wrongly accused of murder, from arrest. He’s slightly flustered, and the sunglasses seem, for an instant, like little more than a silly disguise. But as he sizes up Saint and his face settles into sly detachment, the Tarts suddenly become a tool of seduction, magnifying his sardonic wit and perfectly framing his classically handsome face. The two soon settle into easy banter (verbal foreplay, really) over a meal, and Grant, still Tarts-clad, subtly switches gears. A few minutes earlier, he had been in total control, but now he gives a bit of ground, performing a delicate dance with the Hitchcock blonde. Saint teases Grant about the Tarts—“Is there something wrong with your eyes?” The two exchange coy glances and arch quips, and Grant slowly removes his sunglasses, revealing the twinkling eyes beneath. He holds them in his hands while lingering on a remark. Then, after a brief back and forth, he goes in for the kill:


“The moment I meet an attractive woman,” he admits, “I have to start pretending I’ve no desire to make love to her.”

“What makes you think you have to conceal it?” Saint answers.

Grant smiles and puts away his sunglasses. Their work here is done. The two go back to Saint’s sleeper.

With his Tarts off, Grant was an urbane charmer, a droll movie star. But with his Tarts on, he was something more. Even today, the Tarts feel risky: Their light brown rims could easily seem cheap and flimsy, their wide frames inelegant and unusual. This daringness, though, is the crucial to their coolness. During the sunglasses scenes of North by Northwest, Grant is essentially on the prowl, slinking past police officers and onto a train, pouncing on a woman who seems open to sex. In classically cool sunglasses—Wayfarers, for instance—Grant would have simply been trying too hard. In green-tinted, tan-rimmed Tarts, he doesn’t appear to be trying at all.

Throughout his career, Grant proved that he could maintain his cool through pratfalls and Nazi plots, love triangles and jewel heists. But he would never be cooler than those few minutes on a train with Eva Marie Saint, drinking cocktails and discussing love, wearing sunglasses that seduced us as effortlessly as he seduced her.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.


America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?