Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Light Up! Cigars & Man’s Self Esteem

We all know that smoking is bad for us. Granted, it took several centuries to realise this. Initially, we thought that smoking might actually be healthy. In 1946, for instance, Camels cigarettes, supplier of ‘costlier tobaccos’, ran an advertising campaign in America that proclaimed, ‘More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette’. But then science clarified things; or ruined things, depending on which side of the smoking fence you sit. Those familiar with the ‘hit tv series’ Mad Men, will recall the disquiet and distress when Sterling Cooper had to confront scientific research indicating that smoking could have damaging consequences for Lucky Strike‘s customers: cue arguments, sullen stares, inspirational marketing strategies, lots of Whiskey and stress-induced chain smoking. And yet, smoking seems to be making a comeback. Derided and eventually ostracised, (male) smokers are now fighting back. And they are doing it with stealth and style.

Smoking

A Three-Step Process

At first, there were articles. Various newspapers drew attention to an array of burgeoning London bars that are welcoming smokers with open arms, that is bona fide smokers and not just purveyors of the new-fangled electronic cigarette. The articles were fittingly illustrated with photographs of said (real) smokers, sitting on sunny terraces, their faces beaming. It looked as though they were imitating adverts from 1940s and 1950s in which Hollywood stars, from Bing Crosby to Basil Rathbone, extolled the virtues of people’s five- or thirty-five-a-day habit. Then came the men’s style magazines. In their inaugural Black Book, Esquire’s UK editorial team included ten pages of ‘Essentials’ that all savvy and genuine gentleman should consider owning. The fifth entry was devoted to cigars. Ten brands were featured, from Cohiba’s Piramides Extra to Trinidad’s Robusto Extra. Thirdly, and finally, we had the models and even more photographs. Over the past few weeks – weeks not months, for this is an incipient trend – an increasing number of my favourite sartorial haunts on Tumblr have featured photographs of male models posing with cigarettes and, by far more common, cigars. Sometimes the smoker looks insouciant. The cigar is a reflection of his lifestyle and warrants no justification or specific attention. In other photographs, the cigar is brandished in a manner that recalls sixteenth-century portraits of rakish aristocrats, who clasp the hilt of their sword in a faux-threatening manner. The pose hints at a martial prowess that has probably yet to be realised. But regardless of how the cigar is held, it makes a strident statement about the smoker’s masculinity.

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A New Man

And this, I think, is the key to understanding the smoking renaissance. This is part of Man’s search, quest even, for a new identity. It seems to be widely accepted, or at least grudgingly acknowledged, that the straitened circumstances we now endure, where headlines about unemployment, debt and poverty are omnipresent, were caused by men. Not all men, but men who are typically inveighed to represent the worst of our sex when the time suits: greedy, ruthless, selfish, aggressive men. Some of the guilty have been purged and punished. Bob Diamond has fallen from his lofty position as chief executive of Barclays Plc and James Crosby, former chief executive of HBOS, has humbly offered to return his knighthood. But the sins of a few have tarnished many. The reputation of Man is at a low ebb. It would not be going too far to say that Man has been emasculated. To be honest, the writing has been decipherable on the wall for some time now. Last year, Louise Mensch led the charge against the Murdochs in the context of the News of The World hacking allegations. Around the same time, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, lectured Greece about the need to pay its taxes, momentarily forgetting about her own tax-exempt status. Most recently, the death of Margaret Thatcher reminds us all that women can easily match wits with men. Never has Hanna Rosin’s verdict about The End of Men, the title of her 2012 book, seemed more prescient (and she makes a pretty convincing argument anyway).

Traumatic social upheavals almost invariably provoke widespread soul searching. For this reason, they can engender change in how groups of people choose to present themselves. There has always been a close connection between sartorial shifts and social crises. Think about the Zoot Suit in 1930s America or Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ for women after the Second World War. Humbled and hurting after His recent fall, Man is looking to rebrand himself. I think this explains the bewildering number of style trends – or fads? – that He has experimented with this year. Some of these trends promote Man’s softer side – boutonnières (real and synthetic), pocket squares and, more recently, elbow patches – while others, which allude to efficiency and practicality, promote His traditional role as provider and protector – tie clips, glasses (albeit placed uselessly in top pockets), attaché cases, three piece suits and even hats, which confer height and have associations with The Frontier and Humphrey Bogart. The cigar is the latest item to be invoked in Man’s rebranding exercise. And it’s a shrewd move.

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Old Dogs & Tricks

By smoking, Man is copying his style icons and looking back to a time when his social position seemed unassailable. Think of the following Hollywood smokers: Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, who is reputed to have smoked three packs of cigarettes a day (as well as cigars), Cary Grant, Gene Kelly and Gregory Peck. The list could go on. The men who starred in movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age seem suitable role models for today’s troubled Man because they are frequently said to have been genuine. They had integrity. Commenting on Gary Cooper, Ralph Lauren has said that he was ‘handsome, honorable, honest’, he ‘was just authentic.’ Giorgio Armani has said much the same about Cary Grant, whom he says possessed ‘charm’ and an ‘easy manner’. These were also men for whom the much-maligned term ‘metrosexual’ most definitely cannot be applied. Smoking cigars, as opposed to cigarettes, makes this point very clearly. Smoking cigars was for ‘real’ men and anointed monarchs, men like Winston Churchill and Edward VII, an inimitable trendsetter who, like Sir Laurence Olivier, had a brand of cigars named after him. Men who smoke cigars possessed a refined palette for rich tobacco and were successful, for then as now cigars are considerably more expensive than cigarettes and, God forbid, ‘rollies’.

Burning Desire

Men’s decision to declare their burning desire for smoking, and editors’ apparent willingness to support this, appears to be a reasonably safe gamble. The smoking ban in England is now six years old and, rather like the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War which was thoroughly dismantled in the decades that followed its signing, it seems that people are now questioning whether the decision of politicians was too harsh. We seem to be becoming more tolerant towards smokers. This is certainly the impression you get from television and film. For several years now, male smokers have been repopulating the small and silver screens. Various scenes in Tom Ford’s 2009 film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man focused on smoking, including one very sensuous interaction between Colin Firth and the Spanish model, Jon Kortajarena. Smoking featured heavily in Simon Curtis’ 2011 film, My Week with Marilyn, which made specific reference to Laurence Olivier’s eponymous smokes. Then there is Mad Man, which regularly shows men and women puffing away, as though the act of smoking was an essential part of daily life in the 1960s, which it very well may have been for people in the ad trade.

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These appearances have prepared the way for smoking to be seen as (slightly) more acceptable. In Seeing Through Clothes, Anne Hollander analyses the close connection between film and fashion trends. Whilst films do not really steer clothing trends, she argues that they amplify them. Sartorial vogues in the most remembered films always manage to tap into the zeitgeist. Hollander gives the example of Jack Nicholson’s watch cap in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The cap had been around for a long time before the film, but its appearance on Nicholson’s head gave it a new lease of life. Much the same is true of Man’s decision to invoke the cigar in his current rebranding exercise. The move is not original. But this matters not. The best marketing concepts rarely are.

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