the man in the white suit

“if this stuff never wears out, there’ll only be one lot to make!”

In the final minutes of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1951 Ealing comedy, The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness, in the role of beleaguered scientist, Sydney Stratton, is being pursued through the dark streets of a northern town by groups of mill bosses and mill workers who are both out for his blood. What has turned this optimistic, modern chemist into a desperate industrial fugitive? The single-minded and resourceful Stratton has invented a brand new type of artificial fibre which creates a brilliant white fabric which never gets dirty and never wears out. The workers don’t want Stratton’s invention to go into production because a cloth that never wears out only needs to be woven once. The bosses are just as keen to suppress Stratton’s idea, because there is obviously no long-term profit in a product that lasts for ever. But Stratton, buoyed up both by his own hubris and the belief that he has created something of enormous benefit to humankind, is determined to get news of his invention out. Clad in the luminescent suit that has been fashioned from his cloth, he runs into his landlady, local washerwoman, Mrs Watson, whom he asks to provide him with a disguise that’s a little less distinctive. But far from sympathising with Stratton’s plight, or recognising the promise of the benefit of his invention to humanity, Mrs Watson responds to the man in the white suit in the same way as the majority of people in the film — from the position of her own economic self-interest:

“Why can’t you scientists just leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”

Stratton’s white suit is the central symbol of this deeply emblematic film. Indestructible, even at extremes of high and low temperature, the suit’s cloth is designed to be as durable as metal, yet to remain supple and fluid as a liquid when it is worn about the body. The suit cannot be cut out with tailors’ scissors (an industrial blow torch is required), apparently defies the effects of wear, tear, and time (of which more later), and emits its own low-level, hi-tech, dirt-repelling electrical charge. The white suit’s whiteness is whiter than white, an absolute white, a vivid white that glows in the dark, and which dazzles every beholder. It’s a potent sartorial symbol, certainly, but what does it mean? Why might Sydney Stratton’s dazzling white suit resonate so strongly in 1950s Britain?

Playful dereliction in Hue and Cry (1947)

In the early 1950s, as Britain struggled with the slow process of post-war recovery, there still seemed to be an awful lot of cleaning up to do. Many familiar urban environments had been destroyed, and the bright, modern spaces of the 1920s had been transformed into landscapes of dereliction and decay.  From the permanently wet east London streets of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) to the bombed-out landscape which forms the children’s playground in Hue and Cry (1947), the palette of post-war Britain, as it is represented in contemporary Ealing films, is dark, grey, and grimy.

Dark, rain-soaked streets in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

As Lynda Nead has shown, the post-war British palette was overwhelmingly seen as grey: the grim greys of bombed out ruins and rain-slicked streets, the drab greys of old clothes and dirty rooms, and the enveloping, polluting greys of smog and fog. The grey “atmosphere of Britain defined the nation and its visual appearance in the post-war years,” writes Nead, and was regarded as “an index of its faltering historical progress towards a clean and modern future.” 

Piccadilly Circus in the smog of 1952

If darkness and greyness were the historic nightmare from which Britain was trying to awake then brightness and whiteness were the signatures of a new, spotlessly clean, modernity.

Domestic laundry product advertisements in the late 1940s and early ’50s represented the daily wash as a process of escape into a luminescent world, in which whites were not just white, but dazzlingly bright, as OMO continually reminded British consumers. Rival laundry brand, Oxydol, added the idea of whiteness’s longevity to its brilliance, eradicating that “dull grey look,” with an “entirely new whiteness” that would keep clothes “white for life.”

In the competition for the ultimate kind of washed-in whiteness, which quality wins out? The white that dazzles with its brightness, or the white that lasts a lifetime? What might constitute absolute whiteness? An immutable white, which overwhelms with its brilliance while remaining permanently, stubbornly opposed to grubbiness and grey? The ineffable whiteness promised by post-war laundry advertising is the white of Stratton’s white suit, an indestructible, radiant whiteness that, as his canny co-conspirator, Daphne, puts it to him in the film, offers an escape from Britain’s “endless losing battle against shabbiness and dirt.”

The white suit’s inviolable whiteness is the sign of its defiance to the grim, grimy, dirty greys that were seen to define Britain’s post-war palette. But if the suit’s radiance suggests the post-war desire for a pure and permanent state of cleanliness, its technical properties bind it up in the era’s fantasy of a bright new scientific future too. For it was in the 1950s that British consumers, prompted by the advertising industry, really began to think about the qualities and behaviour of different kinds of fabric. There were now so many new textiles and so many different choices! Semi-synthetic fabrics (such as rayon) which were formed from regenerated cellulose, competed with fully synthetic textiles (like nylon) which resulted from petroleum polymer chemistry.

British Nylon Spinners advertisement, 1955

Britain’s economy had long been sustained by the huge profits derived from spinning, weaving, dyeing, and exporting cloth produced from natural fibres like cotton and wool. Imbricated in the oppressive, unequal relationships of empire, Britain’s import market for raw materials was built upon colonial dependency–India harvested cotton, and Australia and New Zealand provided wool–while export success relied upon restrictive policies of national protection and imperial monopoly. By impeding industrial development outside the mother country, and continually promoting its own domestic interests, Britain’s textile industry had, by 1912, grown to become the biggest in the world. In the 1920s, British innovation had spearheaded the development of new semi-synthetic fabrics, such as Rayon, but international changes were afoot, and Britain was forced to reassess its imperial self-image as well as the complacent ideas it had long retained of its own industrial entitlement. Britain’s dominant position in world textiles was dealt one blow by the United States (whose domestic innovation freed it from reliance on British rayon) and another by India (a linchpin of whose independence movement was the successful boycott of British cotton). By the turn of the 1950s, Britain was importing more than it was exporting and traditional textile mills were closing at the rate of one per week.

British Nylon Spinners advertisement, 1955

Everyone from business owners to government departments realised that the textile industry was changing, and patterns of post-war investment rapidly shifted away from traditional spinning and weaving enterprises towards technological and scientific innovation. “Nylon, most famous of all synthetic fibres, is spinning a golden future,” claimed an advertisement for British Nylon Spinners (BNS).

British Nylon Spinners advertisement, 1948

The miraculous modern qualities of the new synthetic fibres were continually promoted in advertisements, both to consumers and to trade. BNS claimed for its fabrics a dizzying range of characteristics such as durability, lightness, elasticity, fire retardation and resistance to deterioration — exactly the same technical properties that are attributed to the fabric of Sydney Stratton’s white suit.

ICI advertisement, 1954

If the new, synthetic fabrics heralded Britain’s entry into a new technically-driven modern future, then so too did new, efficient methods of factory production. Illustrating its claims with a crowd of eager consumers, ICI described a world in which every market demand could be quickly fulfilled by the “continuous transformation of raw materials into finished products,” via processes whose “new standards in production efficiency,” seem, despite the advertisement’s nod to ICI’s “skilled engineers”, to operate entirely independently of anything as messy or unreliable as human labour.

ICI advertisement, 1955

Another ICI advertisement claimed that a science-driven space-age future had already arrived, thanks to their development of “alkathene”, a material which, just like Sydney Stratton’s innovative artificial fibre, was “no thicker than a hair” yet able to withstand “ultra violet rays” and temperatures as low as “108 degrees below freezing.”

“we might need to clear the lab”

The Man in the White Suit situates itself within the context of the promise offered by new post-war conglomerates like ICI and BNS, of a future filled with new science, new industrial efficiencies, and brand new, futuristic textiles. The northern mills in which Stratton–with his first-class Cambridge chemistry degree–chooses to base his wild experiments are explicitly positioned on the cusp between old industry and new science: they make modern, synthetic fabrics, but their successful production of cloth seems, in the brave new world of the laboratory, much more a matter of chance than design. Key to Stratton’s success (and a great source of the film’s comedy) is the fact that no one apart from him possesses any sort of knowledge of organic chemistry, or its industrial application to the manufacturing of modern textiles. From the laboratory staff who are completely clueless about the operation of their state-of-the-art electron microscope, to wealthy mill-owner, Birnley, whose daughter scoffs at his lack of knowledge of the potential of the long-chain molecule, no one in the factory has a clue what they are doing.

“I hate this dirty little town”

It is only Daphne, keenly aware of her own exchange value in a brutal capitalist system where everything (including women and their bodies) can be bought and sold, who is able to understand the practicalities, as well as the radical potential, of Sydney Stratton’s endeavours.

“it looks as if it’s wearing you”

While Stratton — endearingly wide eyed, but permanently blinkered — regards his invention as a combination of individual achievement and scientific progress, Daphne understands first, the broad creative potential of his ideas, and later, the threat that the brilliant, indestructible white suit poses to a world of capitalist production that turns forever on the fiction of built-in obsolescence.

Through Daphne’s eyes we see how the suit begins to “wear” Sydney: in it, he becomes a medieval knight, a mystical lodestar positioned outside the modern economic system, whose beacon illuminates the petty conflicts and strategic alliances of modern capital and industrial labour. For her, Sydney’s suit exists in a utopian no-place of ineffable whiteness far beyond the grime and grey of “this dirty little town.”

“don’t let him leave the building!”

The white suit’s remarkable attributes certainly make it seem fantastical, but following the logic of the film, it is rather its exteriority to the system, and its exposure of capitalism’s many contradictions, that makes its existence a complete impossibility. The white suit — in all its luminous, shining utopian potential — must be ritualistically destroyed for the fragile stability of Britain’s post-war industrial consensus to be maintained.

In the film’s final moments, as he stands cornered and friendless by Birnley’s factory gates, the indestructible fabric of Stratton’s white suit begins to disintegrate and float away into the town’s damp streets and foggy air. An experimental oversight has resulted in the cloth’s instability, which is seized upon and ripped apart with delight and relief by the pursuing crowd. A white lamb sacrificed at the mill’s dark, satanic altar, Stratton stands before the building in his underwear, a figure both ludicrous and prophetic. And, as bosses and workers finally disperse, the audience is left wondering whether it is in fact Stratton, or the industrial capitalist system represented by the crowd, that has no clothes.

The white suit in the wardrobe

As Stratton’s suit’s disintegrates, so the film’s fantasy of the bright British future that’s suggested by a cloth that’s permanently strong, spotlessly clean, and whiter than white, is torn apart as well. In the end, The Man in the White Suit asks more questions than it is perhaps able to answer, yet many of these questions still resonate today: how do we encourage investment in commodities and concepts that are truly built to last? How might we create economies that are focused on ideas of sustainable production rather than those of built-in obsolescence? How do we manage the threat posed by technological innovation to the lives (and livelihoods) of working people? How could we create working cultures that really value creativity? How might we reform industries and markets so that the development, making, selling, and buying of everyday things is fairer and more equal for everyone involved? And all this, you ask, from an Ealing comedy? The Man in the White Suit is certainly a film which, if you’ll let it, you’ll find open to many readings, the majority of which lie beyond the chromatic scope of this particular essay.

It would, however, be remiss of me not to mention the film’s extraordinary soundscape, and, in particular, the sonic world of Sydney’s laboratory experiments, whose rhythmic “gurgle glub gurgle” was created by sound editor, Mary Habberfield with the help of a viscous glycerin solution, a straw, and an amplified metal tube. Surely this is one of the greatest and most recognisable sound effects in modern cinema? (Tom has spotted its use in many different films and TV series, including, most recently, Disney’s Obi Wan in which he enjoyed the sound’s associative nod to Alec Guiness). It’s also the only cinematic sound effect to have spawned a novelty hit record that was produced at Abbey Road studios by George Martin in 1952.

The Man in the White Suit is available to stream via StudioCanal

Further Reading

Charles Barr, Ealing Studios (1977)

Lynda Nead, The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (2017)