Friday, May 29, 2020

The hidden meaning of Houdini's iconic suit

Last night I had the pleasure of joining Mike Caveney and Jonathan Levit "Behind the Bookcase" at the Academy of Magical Arts, where I shared some things I haven't yet posted to the blog. First and foremost was "the secret of Houdini's suit." So today I wanted to share with all and lay out my theory in full. Enjoy!


This is a famous photo of Houdini likely taken in early 1918. Here we see him in a black suit of clothes that appears in many other photos. And I mean many. In fact, I have not seen a photo or film clip of Houdini in everyday life taken between 1914 and 1918 in which he isn't wearing this same black suit. There's even a photo of him wearing it on a golf course!

So what's the story? Was this just a favorite suit? Or is there something else going on? I believe there's something else going on, and I have a theory of what that something might be.

Whenever Houdini does something inexplicable in his personal life, I always consider the possibility that it has something to do with his mother. Because it always does! At first I thought this was maybe a suit she bought for him. Or maybe it was one she simply thought he looked good in. That would probably be enough for Houdini to wear it everyday for four years. But as far as I can find, this suit first appears a few months after his mother's death. And that's the key.

This was a time when Houdini was displaying his grief in any number of ways. He even had new stationary and greeting cards made rimmed in a black boarder. I believe this suit was another part of his formalized grieving. I believe what we've been looking at all these years is Houdini in a mourning suit.

Mourning clothes are typically associated with women, but it was not unheard of for men at this time. Women's fashion dictated veils, etc., but the only real requirement for men was that it should be black. Also, in Jewish tradition, someone in mourning is not allowed to wear new clothes for a year. And that's another aspect of this suit that has always struck me as peculiar even before I landed on this idea. Houdini was fairly modern, even dashing, in his dress leading up this time. (Just look at him here.) But this is a very Victorian suit.

Houdini also had a specific hat that went with this suit with a thick hatband that can be seen in several photos. Turns out hatbands, typically made of crepe, were a feature of Victorian male mourning clothes. And according to The Vintage News, "widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death." Houdini appears to have worn this suit for, yes, a little over four years.

But I think the most convincing evidence is that he wore this suit to the 1916 dedication ceremony for the exedra he created for his parents at Machpelah cemetery. In a photo from the event we see others dressed formally in tail coats and top hats. But not Houdini. Obviously Houdini would have thought very carefully about how he dressed for such a sacred occasion, and it's unthinkable that he'd wear his old "everyday suit" if it didn't broadcast special meaning. Wearing this suit was making a statement which now seems abundantly clear. He was a man in mourning.

Below are a few choice images of Houdini in the black suit.

In the graveyard (1914).
In California with Jack London (1915).
At the exedra dedication (1916).
On the golf course (undated).
With Harry Kellar (1917).
Traveling to Hollywood (1919).

The last images I've found of Houdini in the suit are from his early days in Los Angeles in April 1919 when he came to work on The Grim Game. It may be telling that a young starlet commented in a fan magazine on the strange suit Houdini was seen wearing around Hollywood. So maybe he decided to it was time to give up the ghost. By May 1919 he is sporting a new suit and a youthful straw hat. This old suit appears to vanish.

But Houdini wore this suit for so long and in so many photos that it has become part of his iconography. It inspired Harvey Keitel's wardrobe in 1998's FairyTale: A True Story. It also appears in the 1976 biopic The Great Houdinis in the scenes following his mother's death. It's telling that the costume designer instinctively associated this look with mourning. The suit is not described in the screenplay, but in the novelization it says: "That coat he's wearing, she thought, that had to be thrown out. And that terrible hat. He looks like an immigrant. One more week without shaving, he'll look just like his father, the Rabbi."


So what do we think? Was this Houdini's mourning suit? Sound off in the comments below.

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31 comments:

  1. It was right in front of us the whole time. Bravo for catching this John! Sometimes he wore the vest, and other times he skipped it like in the 1914 graveyard photo. About the famous Siberian chain photo. Where do you think it was taken? In a back corridor of the Hippodrome? 278?

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    1. Yeah, I vacillated on posting the graveyard pic as he's not wearing the vest. But it's the "outfit" for sure. The hat is key. But, yes, you'll see a few pics sans vest.

      I think that pic was either taken on the top floor of 278 (which makes it easy to date as 1918) or at Dash's Flatbush house where the Houdinis lived from 1914 to 1918 (moving out of 278 -- another expression of his grief). But I'm pretty certain that's a home, not a theater.

      This really have been right in front of our eyes the whole time, hasn't it?

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  2. Nothing to see here. Like Thurston who wore the same tired suit. Was a favorite or too cheap to purchase another? Like your favorite pair of jeans, you just like them.

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  3. I noticed a pin or other small object attached to the left lapel in three of the photos: The Siberian Chain Escape, with Jack London, and with Kellar. Might it mean something?

    Since Houdini's mourning went really deep, it's reasonable to believe he wore black longer than most people would have. Also the adoption of black right after his mother's passing makes John's theory perfectly reasonable.

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    1. I'd love to get a closer look at that pin, but I'm betting it's somehow related to the war -- like a Victory pin.

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  4. Maybe he was wearing it when he got the news that she died and decided to continue wearing it since it was the last outfit he had on while she was still alive. For whatever the reason, he looked good in it so I have no complaints (other than I do prefer more stripes, lol).

    Also....I can't even get my brain to picture him actually golfing. Holding a golf club, sure. But actually golfing is something my mind can't quite imagine. Most likely because so many things I'm sure he did just wasn't shown (lack of means to capture those moments, etc). Like if I hadn't seen photos of him driving, I don't think I could picture that either!

    Now I'm thinking of things I wish there was evidence of him doing. Going down a sliding board. Doing a cartwheel (even though he was chained to enough wheels to give the idea of how that would look). Playing the piano. Holding his turtle.

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    1. According to Silverman he also played tennis.

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    2. Always wondered where Silverman got that. Do you have a page number for that reference? It might be in the Notes book.

      Lisa -- I too have trouble imagining HH playing golf for some reason. Jon Oliver, who owns this pic, told me when Milbourne Christoper saw it he said, "That's staged!" It's possible Houdini wasn't actually playing golf that day and just picked up a club for the photo.

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    3. The tennis reference is on page 205: Houdini was playing recreational tennis and golf, and had stayed trim. With the old boyish eagerness, he once again began tough training for swimming and staying underwater.

      The water training was prep work for his role as Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. But that movie deal never got past the brainstorming stage.

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    4. Ah ha! Okay. The tennis reference is sourced to Houdini's 1916 diary (which at that time was still in the Manny Weltman Collection). He doesn't source his reference to golf, but I bet it's this pic.

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    5. Thanks for the info in Notes! My copy of Notes is currently boxed away. Since that 1916 diary is no longer in the Manny Weltman Collection, where is it now?

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    6. It's in the collection of Dr. Bruce Averbook.

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  5. John your premise is very plausible. Others could say this is circular reasoning finding dots to connect to make it so. Others have written he cared little for his appearance/clothing, looking as if he had slept in his clothes. The photo of a wrinkled, wrongly buttoned Houdini, with the dapper, precisely attired Conan Doyle is telling. Or he could have been a creature of habit, wearing his "uniform" so he wouldn't have to be bother about what to wear each day...like Alfred Hitchcock wearing the same suit.

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    1. The whole Houdini as sloppy dresser thing I think came into being in the 1920s. Before 1914 (when he starts wearing this black suit) photos show him to be a pretty sporty dresser. He has walking sticks and diamond tie pins, etc. And remember that nifty all-white suit that we see him wearing in Australia in 1910.

      The thing that really sold me on this being a mourning suit is the fact that he's wearing it at the exedra dedication. Houdini had formal wear and a top hat, etc. The idea that he'd just throw on his everyday suit (his "favorite pair of jeans") for this formal and SACRED occasion that he'd been fixated on for years is just inconceivable to me. That and the large hatband, which I bet is crepe. When I found that was very specific part of male mourning clothes I knew all this had something to do with Mama's death. Even those who don't want to buy the whole suit theory might consider the hat as his visible mourning attire.

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    2. To be clear: In the 1916 exedra dedication photo Harry is standing to the left of the two Rabbis with his arms folded behind his back and wearing a fedora type hat?

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    3. Yes, that's him. And the hat is the same one we see in these other pics.

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  6. If you are right about your premise, it shows Houdini couldn't just wear a black arm band or other similar notice of mourning, but had to wear it on his entire suit. When Houdini mourned, he MOURNED.

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    1. Heck, he had new stationary made rimmed in black! If there was a way to show his grief (and in his mind pay tribute to his mother), he'd do it.

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  7. Very intriguing. Conducted my own search to see if I could find him in that suit prior to his mother’s death, July 17, 1913. The earliest I found him in that suit was photos taken September 1913 when he was traveling on board the SS Imperator to perform at Apollo Theatre in Nuremberg. This was the first time he was able to work again after his mother’s death. So far, so good, John. :)

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    1. Oh, I'd love to see those pics as I don't think I found any 1913 shots. I was looking at the pics of him and Bessie in Monte Carlo and while he's in black, it doesn't appear to be the same suit.

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    2. I just had another look at the Dec. 1913 Monte Carlo pics in Henning and he IS wearing the hat in one of them. And he might be in this suit, but it's hard to tell. It just might be the collar and bow tie are different.

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    3. "It just might be the collar and bow tie are different."

      Bess probably told him to change his shirt after a while. "Wait, is that....is that the same shirt you've been wearing everywhere?" "Yes?" "Okay, we need to get you another shirt out." "*reluctant sigh*" "Well you don't wanna be known as One-Shirt Harry. do you?" "No!"

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    4. Interesting you pointed that out Lisa. Harry seems to be wearing the same white dress shirt with candy cane stripes in the Jack London California photo and in the famous Siberian Chain Escape photo.

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    5. Yes, the striped shirt becomes the standard shirt he seems to always wear with this suit. You'll see it in almost all the pics starting in 1914.

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    6. I thought I was the only one who noticed that candy cane striped shirt. :)

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  8. Check out LOC images on page 220 and 221 of The British Tours. Here is a link to one dated 5 September 1913: https://www.loc.gov/item/2005684961/

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    1. Oh, yes, page 220 is great. That very well could be the first appearance of the suit. And on that same page you can see that fantastic shot of him in Southampton before his mother's death. A whole different Harry fashion wise.

      But the image on page 221 is not the suit. I wonder how certain we can be that's the Imperator in 1913? I think that might be him on the Imperator in 1920. That looks like Hollywood Harry in his post suit suit. :)

      Speaking of crossings on the Imperator...check out the famous pic of him and TR in 1914. Suit!

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  9. Lol, You can't trust LOC dates. So forget about p221. But the image on page 220 is dated 5 September 1913. And yes, the TR picture is the first one I checked out in my search. British Tours has some great images in 1913 and 1914; There is a Kevin Connolly photo on p195 signed by Houdini on 29 January 1913 while he was at Hull, but that suit is pin-striped.

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    1. It all fits. That Hull shot is pre mama death. And pinstrips! See, he was lively in his dress before THE event.

      I wasn't sure of the suit first appearing in 1913, but now you've shown it may have. I think maybe it's just a different collar in 1913. But it is black. And once 1914 hits, he's in that suit for the long haul. You'll have fun now at just how much you notice it. :)

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  10. By the way, in the HH/Jack London photo London is wearing a shirt and tie that looks modern. I didn't know the regular shirt and tie, still standard today, was around by 1915. A bit earlier than I thought.

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