When Fashion loses Flair

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s autumn exhibition Hollywood Costume has got me thinking about fashion and fame and how twentieth-first century icons are no longer so … iconic. The exhibition charts the sartorial history of the Los Angeles’ dream factories from the silent films of the twentieth century through to CGI films of the twenty-first. The ‘transnaturing’ force that clothes possess, their ability to affect our moods, feelings and modes of behaviour, is very apparent when you consider the integral role that dress has in making cinematic stories credible, as the exhibition curator, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, explains:[i]

Costume design is not just about the clothes: in film, it has both a narrative and visual mandate. Designers serve the script and the director by creating authentic characters and by using colour, texture and silhouette to provide balance within the composition of the frame. The costume designer must first know who the character is before approaching this challenge.[ii]

More generally, Hollywood Costume highlights our enduring fascination with fame and the curious allure that garments worn by famous people possess, which ‘capture the public imagination, [and] ignite worldwide fashion trends.’[iii] Tangentially, the exhibition made me reflect, and regret, that whilst icons may still exist in music, the movies, politics and society, they are not the source of sartorial inspiration that they once were. They do not possess the individual flair of their celebrity forebears and they do not spawn innovative clothing trends of any notable length. In this sense, Hollywood Costume celebrates a time that has been and will never be again.

Influential Icons

David Beckham’s decision to wear diamond stud earrings convinced some men and scores of teenaged boys to follow suit with diamanté variants.[iv] The trend lingers stubbornly, but there is no widely agreed upon shape or size of earring that pierced males should purchase to ‘get the look’. No single jeweller claims to sell ‘the’ David Beckham earring, so far as I am aware. The imitation is therefore indistinct. Sartorial exemplars from the past tended to fair much better and their style still influences the present. Few exemplars could rival the influence of the Prince(s) of Wales.

The decision of Albert Edward, the nineteenth Prince of Wales, to undo the final button of his waistcoat endures, one hundred year’s after his death. The reason why ‘Bertie’ popped his button changes slightly with each retelling of the story, but a general consensus focuses on the portly prince’s desire for comfort. Whatever his motivation, the decision was personal. Be that as it may, the royal court followed suit, apparently out of respect, and it is still considered inappropriate for the final button of a man’s waistcoat to be fastened today.[v] Some tailors construct their waistcoats so that the final button cannot be fastened. River Island’s current range of waistcoats includes one version where the final button is clearly decorative rather than functional.

The sartorial legacy of this particular royal extends further.[vi] According to James Sherwood, as king, Edward VII introduced the dinner jacket, the white dress coat, the velvet smoking jacket, the loden shooting suit and the homburg and coke bowler hats.[vii] The king’s grandson, whose twelve-month reign was as brief and scandalous as his afterlife as the Duke of Windsor was long and luxuriant, had a similar passion for dress and proved similarly adept at instigating new trends. The Duke popularised double-breasted four button coats and side vents in suit jackets, to facilitate greater comfort and mobility.[viii] The eponymous Prince of Wales check was also named after him, although Edward VII had often worn it.[ix] The Duke also had a penchant for large tie knots and gave his name to the Windsor collar, which has a wider opening to accommodate a fuller knot.[x] He did not, however, claim responsibility for the Windsor knot:

‘The knot to which the Americans gave my name was a double knot in a narrow tie. It is true that I have always preferred large knots as being better than small knots.’[xi]

Other celebrities have given their names to men’s dress accessories. The Gladstone bag, used by Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and mentioned in many other fictional contexts, was named after the nineteenth-century British liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. I’m not sure whether the Gladstone overcoat, which was popular during Gladstone’s premiership, was also named after him. Fred Astaire and Cary Grant are frequently trumpeted as being arbiters of men’s style and although there is no Astaire Tweed or Grant Knot, the dress of both men has been much studied.[xii]  So, why is there no Beckham bracelet, Timberlake trouser (which would be apt given his provocative epithet) or Bieber Style Bible?

Fallen Idols

A good answer would be that these three celebrities, and many more besides, probably do not know enough about the rudiments of men’s fashion to inspire, much less write about, clothing or dress accessories. Unlike Cary Grant and Hollywood stars of the past who styled themselves, many modern celebrities have style advisors.[xiii] Consequently, when stars are left to their own devices, they make mistakes. At last year’s royal wedding, David Beckham got it wrong when he wore his OBE on the wrong lapel (right as opposed to left).[xiv] Perhaps the main reason why celebrity vogues do not endure is because there is now a surfeit of ‘endlessly renewable celebrities’.[xv] In a world where many people seek to be, and claim they are, celebrities, the fame of an individual tends to have a definite, and short, shelf life. Tom Payne has considered the commercial and stylistic influence of modern celebrities by looking at the trend, and precarious fortunes, of their perfumes.[xvi] A bottle of celebrity fragrance claims to convey a distillation of the famous person’s best qualities, but the commercial success of these products has tended to be as fleeting as the bottled scent; although this does not deter new launches. Earlier this week, my hairdresser told me about the new James Bond fragrance, which GQ claim is the ‘the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.’[xvii] Helen, my hairdresser, thought it smelled pretty decent, too.

Victoria Beckham, who has produced several perfumes, including Intimately and Signature, helps to explain (albeit inadvertently) why celebrity perfumes tend not to endure. Apparently, Victoria ‘cherishes Creed, because the bottle looks good, and it’s the product of an old family firm.’[xviii] Creed can trace its origins to 1760 and so by conventional association possesses heritage, traditions, legitimacy and a cultural gravitas that similar products sold by J-Lo and Mariah Carey cannot claim.[xix] Perfumers like Floris[xx] and Penhaligon’s[xxi] have long realised the commercial advantage of naming scents after famous people, or timing product launches to coincide with auspicious occasions (usually royal weddings and coronations), but they have never based their financial strategy solely on the rotating fortune of celebrities. Moreover, the (British) celebrities that they have tended to endorse – members of the royal family and aristocracy – possess a fame that is more constant because it is imbedded in the political and social fabric of the country. In part, this also helps to explain why the sartorial influence of the Princes of Wales has been so extensive. That said, I think another element of our fascination with fame plays a larger role in explaining why the dress of the heirs apparent is considered so inimitable and yet is so copied: our love of the underdog.

The Royal Underdog

The position of the Prince of Wales must be, and must always have been, immensely frustrating. As heir apparent, the British throne is tantalisingly close, but sufficiently far from grasp. The prince exists in opulent limbo as he is condemned to play a part that has little effective power. This explains why heirs apparent have often led a fitful life – the Lord Edward (later Edward I) squandered money competing in continental tournaments during the thirteenth century; our present Prince of Wales champions organic produce and the right sort of architecture. This existence has often brought the prince into conflict with his anointed parents. For our purposes, it is interesting to note that Albert Edward placed his first order with tailor Henry Poole in 1860, a time when the influence of his father was declining due to his failing health. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert long seem to have been concerned about their son’s predilection for distinction dress.[xxii] As Tom Payne observes, we like to see our celebrities squirm and suffer a bit.[xxiii]  The relationship between the prince of Wales and the king provides a satisfying mixture of struggle, misunderstanding, dashed dreams and rebellion, which evokes pathos. Think of how dearly those heirs apparent who died prematurely were, and are, remembered; Henry, son of Henry II; Arthur (‘the Black Prince’), son of Edward III; Henry Frederick, son of James I, and I could go on. The sympathy that we have for this royal underdog, coupled with his heritage and legitimacy, may explain why Edward VII and the Duke of Windsor are style icons. Even the current Prince of Wales, whose double-breasted suits have been criticised on more than one occasion, is regarded as something of an icon. His attempts to deny it through self-depreciating humour make us warm to him all the more.[xxiv]

I have lurched from being the best-dressed man to being the worst-dressed man […] I don’t know why – presumably it sells publications. Meanwhile I have gone on, like a stopped clock – and my time comes around every 25 years.[xxv]

Branding & Belonging

The sartorial style of Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Prince Charles is iconic for another reason; it is individual. As the Duke of Windsor said, ‘I am credited with having influenced styles in my time. It was quite unconscious; I have always tried to dress to my own individual taste.’[xxvi] Granted, these men had the disposable income to invest in their wardrobes, but individual style is not dependant on wealth and, besides, in early twentieth-century London there were many clothing and dress accessory shops that men could visit for the look they wanted at a price they could afford.[xxvii] The same is true today. Since the 1970s, however, and the rise of ‘branded merchandising’, it is the labels and not necessarily the garments to which they are affixed, that have become the determinants of style and fashion for many men (and women).[xxviii] The growth of brands has been supported by celebrities, who seek to prolong, even perpetuate, their fame by wearing what pays rather than what pleases.

It is a bitter irony that the development of photography, which enabled the individual dress of the Duke of Windsor to become noticed and so celebrated, gave rise to our present media culture in which celebrities endorse products that often look, and smell, alike. This growing sense of anonymity is reflected in Hollywood Costume. The advent of CGI means that actors no longer need to perform in costume. Full sets of costume may still get made, but only to help animators understand the colour, texture and movement of different fabric.[xxix] The technological sophistry of animated films makes them wonderful in their own way, but nothing, I think, competes with the magic of Hollywood in its golden age, when stars, much like other celebrities of the time, delighted in costumes that shaped and reflected their individual character. To be able to see some of the most famous movie costumes from a time when icons truly were sartorial exemplars is therefore a real treat.

Hollywood Costume at the Victoria & Albert Museum runs till 27 January 2013.


[i] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000), 1-11.

[ii] D.N. Landis, ‘What is Costume Design?’, Hollywood Costume, ed. D.N. Landis (London, 2012), 48.

[iii] ‘Hollywood Costume – Gallery 39 Panel Text’. www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-hollywood-costume/inside-the-exhibition/. Accessed: 15-xj-12.

[iv] I choose to give David Beckham the benefit of the doubt here, but some commentators have claimed his studs are diamanté.

[v] Previous monarchs (Henry VIII and Charles II) are known to have specified sartorial regulations for their courtiers, so perhaps we shouldn’t overstate the spontaneity with which Edward VII’s courtiers copied their king.

[vi] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 60-1.

[vii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2012), 33.

[viii] Ibid., 38.

[ix] Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 65.

[x] A. Musser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 77.

[xi] Quoted in Sherwood, Savile Row, 38.

[xii] For example, R. Torregrossa, Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style (New York, 2006).

[xiii] D.N. Landis, ‘Setting the Scene: A Short History of Hollywood Costume Design 1912-2012’, in Hollywood Costume, 13-14.

[xiv] ‘David Beckham narrowly avoids royal wedding faux pas.’ http://uk.eonline.com/news/239510/david-beckham-narrowly-avoids-royal-wedding-faux-pas. Accessed: 11-xj-12.

[xv] T. Payne, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity (New York, 2009), 183.

[xvi] Ibid., 176-83.

[xviii] Payne, Fame, 182.

[xx] J. Sherwood, The Perfect Gentleman: The Pursuit of Timeless Elegance and Style in London (London, 2012), 48-55.

[xxi] Ibid., 160-65.

[xxii] Sherwood, Savile Row, 32; Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 58.

[xxiii] Payne, Fame, 11-35.

[xxiv] Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 65-7.

[xxv] E. Alexander, ‘The Royal Look’. www.vogue.co.uk/news/2012/06/15/prince-charles-london-collections-men-speech. Accessed: 17-xj-12.

[xxvi] Quoted in Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 64.

[xxvii] C. Breward, ‘Fashion and the Man: From Suburb to City Street. The Spaces of Masculine Consumption, 1870-1914’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford and New York, 2009), 409-28.

[xxviii] P. McNeil & V. Karaminas, ‘Consuming and Creating Style’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, 405.

[xxix] J. Johnson, ‘The Challenges of MOCAP and CGI’, Hollywood Costume, 295-305.

One thought on “When Fashion loses Flair

  1. Wish I had the chance to see this exhibition. The effects of costume on screen can be extremely forceful and yet strangely subliminal. It was probably not until the 50th (!) or so viewing that I noticed a lovely and clever bit of costumery in the marvellous BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice from the 1990s. The division between the haughty Bingley sisters and Elizabeth having been emphasized strikingly through dress for a couple of episodes, the rapprochement between Elizabeth and Darcy is signalled subtly and yet strongly by the scene in which Elizabeth is introduced to Darcy’s sister: look closely and you’ll see they are wearing not *the same* outfit precisely, but the same colours – gentle blue offset by creamy white. Whenever they appear in the same scene thereafter, they are wearing complementary styles in similar shades. Whenever I watch it now I notice that and think ‘some bright spark thought that up and designed it… wow!’

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