Homo Hermaphroditis


The following article, written for Parisian Gentleman,  is an attempt to understand the conspicuous hermaphroditism within the recent round of international menswear shows. It develops ideas from my previous post on the Great Male Revival.

Homo Hermaphroditis? A Look at How Culture Relates to the Styles of Spring/Summer 2015.

Retro-grade Raiment

This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion chaired by the fashion critic Colin McDowell. In contrast to his interviewees, who took advantage of their momentary media appearance by wearing a medley of tight-fitting glitzy garments, McDowell’s clothes were conspicuous for being unremarkable. Sporting a jacket and trousers in complementary shades of grey and brown, he would not have stood out in a crowd. But one item of McDowell’s dress did catch my eye. Draped around his shoulders was a taupe– perhaps fawn, possibly mushroom –coloured scarf embroidered with the Calvin Klein logo.


It is surprising how an unexpected visual stimulus can crystallise subconscious thoughts and catapult them to the front of your mind. Colin McDowell’s colour-keyed scarf was to be this stimulus. Calvin Klein is a brand that I largely associate with underwear, despite the huge window displays in its Regent Street store that showcase everything but. It is also a brand that I associate with the 1990s. In 1992, it was Mark Wahlberg’s arresting appearance, clad only in Calvin Klein briefs, that made underwear an item of designer clothing of the first order and highlighted the decade’s obsession with branded merchandise. When I saw the Calvin Klein logo on Colin McDowell’s scarf, I was suddenly cognisant of the present popularity of all things from the nineties. I became rudely aware that we are in the middle of a retro renaissance.


2013 or 1993?

Backpacks and baseball caps are ubiquitous. Denim, Doc Martens and Converse trainers have been rediscovered. Over-size jumpers, T-Shirts and branded sweatshirts are de rigueur. Tartan, patchwork textiles and paisley represent the height of sartorial sophistication. For some. The fashionable markers of the 1990s have become today’s symbols of supreme style. Sartorial trends, fads and movements are rarely without an accompanying soundtrack and so it is here. Dusted off or recently purchased, over ear headphones are once again playing grunge and other angst-filled anthems from the 1990s. Travelling about the capital in recent weeks, I have caught snippets of lyrics from Blur, Sum 41 and Nirvana. Adorned in the correct wardrobe and wired for sound, it is only appropriate that people are also choosing to sample nineties-style entertainment. There is much on offer. Highlights include the Spice Girls’ ‘mini’ reunion and the stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ satiric novel, American Psycho. It is apposite that the musical’s lead, Matt Smith, will be recognisable to many for playing the title character in the eponymous, and recently revived, Doctor Who franchise.

Back To The Future

The fascination with the nineties is odd on at least two counts. Firstly, the years between 1989 and 2000 are typically considered to be a period that fashion forgot. Secondly, what we are seeing of the nineties is only an insipid distillation of what the decade was about; or at least what I think it was about, having lived through it. At a recent concert, I heard teenagers belting out and butchering songs from The Dandy Warhols and Fat Boy Slim, among other artists. To my ears, these groups’ songs were hardly reflective of a tumultuous decade that witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet and New Labour in Britain, the Gulf War (part one) and a presidential indiscretion that profoundly skewed our perspective of politics and cigars.[i] In ‘Bohemian Like You’, The Dandy Warhols sing about a broken car, waiting tables and the arrangements for a friend sleeping over after a relationship break-up. The lack of engagement with the decade’s dramas hardly seems to matter, and is generally not remarked upon, for this renaissance is commercial rather than cultural. And why should it be any different? The teenage revellers whom I heard a few weekends ago would have first heard ‘Bohemian Like You’ from their cots as it played on a Vodafone commercial.


A Retrograde Renaissance?

The selections that companies and consumers are making from nineties’ popular culture suggests their intention is to bolster the enfeebled cult of commerce. They are seeking to cull the ephemeral euphoria that follows a retail splurge from a decade that experienced economic boom and distil it for a decade enduring economic bust. Akin to perfumers, who seek to capture and artificially prolong alluring scents, those who look back to the nineties are trying to rekindle the confidence and satisfaction of a time when the economy, and the culture it underpinned, was strong.[ii] Similar to characters in Woody Allen’s romantic whimsy, Midnight In Paris, people – particularly the young, who have never experienced a recession – are looking for a Golden Age to escape their present. They want to recapture a time when the bombast of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ seemed suitable and not merely satirical. This song, of course, had heralded the start of Tony Blair’s promising premiership in 1997.

midnight in paris top post-thumb-600x400-53668

In Woody Allen’s film, procrastinating writer Gil (Owen Wilson) inadvertently boards a time-travelling taxi at the stroke of midnight and experiences Paris during the 1890s and 1920s, meeting artistic luminaries from Pablo Picasso to the F. Scott Fitzgerald along the way. It is after a conversation with Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas in a Belle Époque club that Gil, in conversation with his 1920s-timetravelling-companion Adriana (Marion Cotillard), realises his flight from the present is futile:

Gil: I mean, look at these guys. To them, their Golden Age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade La Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around. I’m having an insight now. It’s only a minor one, but it explains the anxiety in my dream that I had.

Adriana: What dream?

G: I had a dream the other night – well, it was like a nightmare – where I ran out of Zithromax and then I went to see the dentist, and he didn’t have any Novocaine. You see, what I’m saying is these people don’t have any antibiotics.

A: What are you talking about?

G: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your Golden Time… That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.

According to media pundits and populist politicians, (young) men find the present particularly unsatisfying because they have suffered most from the economic downturn, which has shattered their pretension to social and political significance. True or not, it is hard to deny that men seem to be conjuring a Golden Age through their dress. Three-piece suits and tie bars, boutonnières and braces, cigars and slicked-back hair, are style signifiers from bygone periods when men’s social and political position was unassailable.

Logomania is dead. Long Live Logomania

The majority of decades down to the 1920s have been pilfered for patterns and jaunty accessories, but a quick look on Tumblr confirms that style cues from the 1990s are still preponderant on the streets. Susie Lau has argued that the resurgence of nineties style and conspicuous branding is not solely about ‘consumerism, tackiness and a lack of taste’.[iii] Instead of escaping to the past, young people are reclaiming brands and their devices to help them place themselves in the present. Too young to enjoy or critically interpret logos in the late 1980s and early 1990s, twenty- and thirty-somethings are now ‘wearing [logos] in [their] own way’, with intelligence and individuality.[iv] This is apparently most evident with T-shirts that make puns out of prestigious brands.


True as this may be, the actions of youthful consumers nonetheless show how culture – and clothing – has changed following the globalisation of the economy. In his seminal essay, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Fredric Jameson observed that there is an indissoluble connection between society’s conception of capital and the culture it produces. Presently, Western culture is increasingly abstract because its conception of money is abstract. The point is eloquently demonstrated by the inscrutable dialogue between cyber capitalist Eric Packer and his chief of theory, Vija Kinski, in Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.[v] Cultural messages now appear fragmented, even meaningless. Writing about the modern music industry, which has many parallels with the fashion industry, Simon Reynolds agues that the ‘gaseous nature of our existence’ fosters a lack of original thought and action.’[vi] The consequence is that we lack the imagination to do anything more creative than think of different ways of packaging former ideas. Fashion, like music, is frequently cyclical, but the circumference of chronological cycles is becoming ever smaller.[vii]


Ideas from the nineties are easier to reconstitute because of our proximity to them. The reason men appear more willing – if sometimes subconscious – proponents of this retrograde renaissance is that their social status is more sensitive to economic ebbs and flows than that of women. The abandonment of the (pin stripe) suit after the economic downturn made a clamorous sartorial statement that man’s dress is frequently linked to notions of economic prosperity. The suit had become a dangerous symbol of man’s greed, his financial and political recklessness. It was swiftly replaced with mix n’ match jacket and trousers that suggested he was humane and harmless.[viii] The addition of a backpack, baseball cap and sneakers clarified the casual look that men sought to create. Simultaneously, these items reaffirmed men’s social position by demonstrating their continued ability to purchase from established brands. The acquisition of products from previous decades, not least the 1990s, provided psychological comfort through the material recreation of an apparent Golden Age. Men’s sartorial subterfuge therefore chimes with recent scientific research establishing that clothes really do make the man.[ix]

As a working theory based on Colin McDowell’s scarf I think my observations hold, but I am mindful of Adriana’s response to Gil in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris:

That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words. But I am more emotional and I’m going to stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.

What she says has undeniable truth and merit.


[i] D. Eggers, ‘1990s’, Vanity Fair (October, 203), 150.

[ii] See, F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24 (1997), 246-65.

[iii] S. Lau, ‘Check the Label: The Logo Strikes Back’, because, 1 (A/W, 2013), 34.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] D. DeLillo, Cosmopolis (London, 2003), 77-88.

[vi] S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past (London, 2011), xix, 420.

[vii] Cf. C. Beaton, ‘Is It the Clothes or the Woman? (1946)’, Beaton in Vogue (London, 1986), 157.

[viii] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013), 125; D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[ix] J. Gaines Lewis, ‘Clothes Make the Man – Literally’, Psychology Today (August, 2012). www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201208/clothes-make-the-man-literally. Accessed: 5-xij-2013.

When Will I See You Again?

The catwalk’s homage to historical vogues

It is often remarked that a picture is worth a thousand words. The fashion photographs of New York Times’ octogenarian Bill Cunningham, not to mention the multitude of Instagram, Pininterest and Tumblr pages that are routinely updated with shots of the latest sartorial styles, gives credence to this adage.[i] Recent photographs from London Collections: Men and Pitti Uomo provide clues about the influences that have inspired next season’s collections. The cut, colour, material and texture of the clothes that were modelled at these events reveal that many designers have borrowed heavily from the past. In some cases, they have gone so far as to revive vintage patterns and silhouettes without any form of contemporary embellishment. Three of the more compelling trends centred on the suit, the coat and pocket wear.


The Suit

It is hardly surprising that the suit, which has provided the structure for men’s formal wear for at least the past 200 years, featured prominently at the recent fashion shows.[ii] The material and silhouette of the suits on show drew heavily from two particular decades, the 1920s and the 1950s. The prevalence of three-piece suits and plus fours in grey and brown cloth, argyle socks and Fair Isle sweaters in navy and green, as well as flat caps, recalled men’s fashion from the early years of the twentieth century. The Duke of Windsor would have been pleased, and not at all incongruous.[iii] Peak lapels and double-breasted waistcoats in a lighter palette of colours, along with the occasional fedora, seemed to recall the 1950s. If David Gandy (pictured above) looked like an extra from Gangster Squad, those wearing sweaters and plus fours would have blended seamlessly with the cast of Broadwalk Empire.[iv]


The Coat

When it came to the coat, designers seemed to have reached further back in time. The cut, deep-colour and opulent use of fur trims on the coats modelled for Canali and Comme des Garçons was reminiscent of the Victorian era. (The observation may be unwelcome, but the wide lapels in contrasting colours also bore a striking resemblance to great coats worn by officers of the German Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine during the Second World War.) The textured and embroidered fabrics that were used by Comme des Garçons and Dolce and Gabbana, in particular, were also similar to the three-quarter length fur-trimmed coats that featured in Prada’s fall and winter collection last year.

Pocket Wear

Pocket Wear

The influence of Prada’s 2012 fall and winter collection was also evident in the curious abundance of pocket (and lapel) ornamentation. Where Prada had adorned its Victorian-cum-military style coats with pens and tie-pins, which featured the bust of a Roman centurion, attendees at Pitti Uomo showed a certain amount of ingenuity by filling the pockets of their outwear garments with gloves, pocket squares and glasses (the key was to make one of the arms of the glasses visible, by hooking it over the jacket’s breast pocket). This detail on the upper left side of the suit and coat was a twenty-first century, and thus pacific, interpretation of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century military tunics that were decorated with rows of medals. There seem to be two schools of thought on why military and civic decorations are invariably worn on the recipient’s left. As ever, one version is romantic, the other is prosaic. Decorations were either worn on the left to be over the heart, presumably to draw attention to the sacrifice made in achieving the honour, or, they were worn on the left to avoid getting caught on the sash that supported the sword. Apparently, swords were traditionally worn on the left of the body because most officers were right handed. The weight of the sword was supported by a scabbard, or sash, that was worn over the right shoulder. The sash made the placement of medals on the right side impractical, if not impossible.[v] Whatever the reason, the present interest in decoration on the left side of the upper body hints at a fascination with military influences, and thus, the importance of masculine symbols. Men may be now be prepared to acknowledge their interest in clothes, but what they wear evidently still needs to be coded with references to their gender that extol the virtues of physical prowess.

For me, the main theme to emerge through the photographs of London Collections: Men and Pitti Uomo is that the past continues to play a significant and dynamic role in determining contemporary clothing styles. Seeing really is believing.

[i] For the current episode of ‘On the Street with Bill Cunningham’, see:  www.nytimes.com/video/2013/02/01/fashion/100000002039724/bill-cunningham-old-hat.html. Accessed: 2-ij-2013; http://satori.al/; www.portlandprepster.com.

[ii] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 4.

[iii] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 58-65.

[iv] ‘Shopping Snapshots: Jan. 31’. www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/01/31/fashion/20130131-BROWSING.html?ref=style. Accessed: 2-ij-2013.

[v] For some discussion on this topic, see: http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100202121023AAXHx4Y. Accessed: 2-ij-2013.

LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)

Well, I think, is it fashion [in] Britain, [was worth] something like £21 billion last year? I think men’s fashion is up to £9 billion. It’s vital for the economy and people don’t really realise. And when you think of £21 billion, it’s essential to our economy.

David Gandy, menswear model[i]


How would I sum up British [men’s] style? It’s that they seem to have a very interesting sort of dialogue with traditional English clothing, [which] makes it more enduring, [which] makes it almost less prone to the vagaries of fashion.

Toby Jones, English actor[ii]


Tailoring is enjoying a fashion renaissance, what are your do’s [sic] and don’ts [sic] in sartorial dressing?

I don’t myself. But I think the brilliant thing is that there is a whole new generation of men who are taking a really keen interest in tailoring and you only have to look at the rejuvenation of Savile Row to see that, both with some of the very established houses and some of the younger ones, and it’s brilliant because London is the home of menswear.

Interview with Dylan Jones, Editor of British GQ[iii]


LCMMuch of the domestic commentary surrounding this year’s London Collections: Men, which ran between 7 – 9 January, had a tinge of national pride, as the extracts above show: Britain, more specifically London, has become the menswear capital. These three comments, from a model, an actor and an editor, also challenge the entrenched notion that men are inherently disinterested in the clothes that they wear. Up to a point. Jingoism aside, it was interesting how little of the discussion surrounding LC:M considered the clothes. The importance of menswear to our economy, to our cities and to a younger generation of men and women, was frequently rehearsed, as though event organisers and participants felt compelled to justify the metropolis’ three-day clothing convocation. There were copious photographs on Instagram and slideshows on GQ with accompanying personal commentary, but verbal and written critiques about the modelled garments and the designers who created them were negligible.[iv] Some British newspapers featured photographs from the inaugural day of LC:M on their front page, but discussion of the event was cursory: London’s Evening Standard focused on celebrity-spotting;[v] The Guardian included excerpts from Dylan Jones’ introductory speech at Downing Street, which he made as chairman of LC:M. A brief overview of Topman Design was also provided.[vi] But both papers, along with The Daily Telegraph, seemed more interested in using the opportunity of a London fashion event launched from the prime minister’s residence to berate David Cameron for his sartorial blunders.[vii]

It’s Oh So Quiet

It seems odd that commentary on a menswear event should feature so few discussions about men’s clothing. Two reasons are frequently put forward to explain men’s ambivalence about dress: their suspicion of fashion and their aversion to gender-specific dialogues. According to Financial Times columnist Charlie Porter, ‘in the world of menswear, it has become the norm to say one is interested not in fashion but in style … Ask most men if they favour ‘fashion’ or ‘style’, and a sizeable majority would steer sharply to the latter.’[viii] Fashion is inconstant, capricious, even tyrannical, and men, in particular, are said to dislike this volatility and lack of control. Moreover, fashion is often perceived as an avowedly female preoccupation.[ix] Style, on the other hand, is timeless, fixed or changed but slowly. It provides assurance and thus, perhaps, legitimacy. The dichotomy that exists between fashion and style is apparent in Toby Young’s attempt to define men’s style (above).

Man About TownThe second reason why men are commonly said to be disinterested in dress stems from a dislike – or insecurity – in talking about their gender and different masculinities.[x] Research suggests that men do not like to be addressed en masse. They feel uncomfortable knowing that ‘other men within their age group feel the same way as them’ and they are averse to being targeted ‘in gendered terms.’[xi] This may explain why style magazines for teenage boys have never caught on; why style magazines for men (which are a relatively new product compared with their female equivalents[xii]) feature an array of sections, from health and leisure, to food, gadgets, women and cars – presumably to cater (subliminally) to different masculinities – and why television shows akin to What Not To Wear and How To Look Good Naked do not exist for men. The difficulty and discomfiture in adopting a gendered approach when addressing men is even apparent when a shared characteristic is referenced, as Philip Utz’s editorial in the recent gay-themed issue of Man About Town shows.[xiii]

But if men really are opposed to dress, whether or not they like discussing it, there would be no menswear industry. The menswear industry is presently prospering, as David Gandy points out (above), so another explanation for men’s antithetical stance on dress must be identified. Porter, in his FT article, hints at a reason: men’s attachment to the suit, an age-old article of clothing that symbolises ‘pride and certainty.’[xiv] Porter’s hunch has been explored further by art historian Anne Hollander, who has traced the evolution of the suit, and with it the ascendancy of men’s dress over female dress, from the Middle Ages.

Suits you, Sir

In brief, Hollander has argued that women’s dress has lagged behind that of men in terms of interest and innovation since the fourteenth century, the moment when male and female garb became noticeably distinct.[xv] While men’s clothing tended to accommodate, even extenuate, the contours of their physique, female clothing wrapped women in an impenetrable swathe of distorting material. Louis XVI’s endorsement of female tailors in 1675 exacerbated this sartorial divide, to women’s detriment. As women now clothed women, the influence of male dress on female raiment diminished. Women’s dress became more theatrical and evocative, with ‘ballooning skirts covered with bubbly furbelows, vast airborne hats festooned with ruffles and garlands, supported by mountains of frizzed and fluffed hair.’[xvi] In marked constrast, men’s dress became simpler. Through sartorial vogues in the English court, political upheavels in the French court and technological developments in cloth production, the suit acquired its modern form during the early years of the nineteenth century.


The genesis of the suit was also inspired by antiquity, which drew attention to the body’s natural form through sculpture. In Britain, the arrival of the Elgin marbles showed what male bodies should be like. This led to further refinements in the fit and silhouette of the suit, which culminated in the Brummellian aesthetic of closely tailored raiment and, by 1815, the widespread adoption of trousers by men. Simultaneously, male couturiers led by Charles Worth resumed making garments for women, a craft that is continued by the likes of Adrien Sauvage, who recently launched his Menswear for Women collection.[xvii] As men once again clothed women, female dress adapted elements of the male wardrobe, including the suit. The sartorial relationship between men and women was not entirely one-sided, but it was only during the latter half of the twentieth that men began to incorporate aspects of women’s dress in their wardrobes in an overt way, chiefly through the adoption of ornamentation and brighter, contrasting colours. From Hollander’s perspective, men were never disinterested in dress and averse to fashion; rather, they have focused on adapting a style of garment that has always suited them well.

Like other excellent and simple things we cannot do without, men’s suits have lately acquired an irksome esthetic flavor, I would say an irritating perfection. Their integrated, subtle beauty is often an affront to post-modern sensibilities, to eyes and minds attuned to the jagged and turbulent climate of the late twentieth century. Current millennial impulses tend toward disintegration, in style as in politics; but men’s suits are neither post-modern nor minimalist, multicultural nor confessional – they are relentlessly modern, in the best classical sense.[xviii]

Hollander’s argument helps to explain the casual response of Dylan Jones, who was recently asked about this clothing preferences:

Being the talisman for London Collections do you feel any pressure when picking an outfit in the morning?

No. Apart from today, I usually get up in the morning and put on a blue suit and don’t worry about it until I take it off. So, no, I don’t really worry about what I wear.[xix]

It seems strange that an editor of one of Britain’s leading men’s style magazines and the chairman of LC:M would publicly imply that he doesn’t think much about his dress. If Hollander’s argument is accepted, Jones’ lack of worry is less a reflection of disinterest, rather an his assurance in his suit, which has subtly evolved over the centuries to form a garment that is classically modern. Hollander’s thesis also explain’s Beau Brummell’s retort that ‘folly is the making of me’.[xx] Rather than making light of his personal situation, Brummell was more likely remarking on the fact that he was not doing anything especially novel with his dress. Much of his sartorial inspiration came from antiquity, as he explained in Male and Female Costume.[xxi] Brummell was therefore mocking society, who rushed to embrace his sartorial style without ever really grasping its significance.

Imitation as Flattery

Parts of Hollander’s argument do not completely convince. Men’s response to dress may owe much to the sartorial superiority of the suit, but the notion that women’s dress is beholden to male garb is more difficult to establish. Hollander’s book also has some curious omissions: Savile Row is not mentioned, nor are the clothing reforms of Charles II’s court in 1666, which did much to establish the modern form of the male suit.[xxii] The Macaroni style and Zoot Suit are largely passed over, although Hollander does suggest that fringe groups, ‘the powerless’, have continually adopted modes of dressing that are as ‘remarkable and fantastic’ as they are fleeting.[xxiii] Nevertheless, her thesis goes far to penetrate the paradox of men’s attitude to dress.

menscollections-london-aw13In my previous post (Fashion’s Past & Present), I suggested that trends in men’s clothing often eschew the past. I could have said that, on the whole, they are also tend to veer away from many present and futuristic vogues. This is because in championing the suit, men have, consciously or otherwise, refrained from combining ‘different programs’ of dress. For the majority of men, ‘a single costume fulfils a single esthetic purpose, and requires a single idea to unify its visibly separate parts.’ Put simply, men do not wear ‘sweatpants with the white tuxedo jacket, as women’s fashion indicates she might.’[xxiv] The ubiquity of the suit at LC:M demonstrated its hegemony in contemporary menswear. Even the more avantgarde collections by J.W. Anderson or Topman Design used the suit, or key elements from it, for satorial structure. By adopting a holistic approach to their dress, men have tended to innovate with subtle variations, rather than changing the fundamental structure of their outfit, hence the present popularity of pocket squares and tie bars, which ornament the suit.

In my last post I also indicated that men look to other men for sartorial assurance and incorporate clothing styles from those whose characters appeal, individuals like the Duke of Windsor, Beau Brummell or (whisper it quietly) David Beckham. By contrast, women tend to focus on items of clothing and pay less attention to the wearer. I think the reason for this is that men have become accustomed to visual homogeneity among their peers. When people look alike or very similar, their character assumes greater importance. Consequently, those men with distinctive characters will tend attract greater attention and interest, which may lead to imitation.[xxv] Consider the raconteur Beau Brummell, who did not wish to be noticed because of the clothes he wore. As women’s dress has always been less uniform than that worn by men, so the clothes and not the females within them attract more attention, at least initially.

A Tailoring Tyranny?

The suit is now the staple of many male wardrobes. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, it has become one man’s symbol of ‘pride and certainty’ and another man’s symbol of sobriety and oppression. David Walliams’ observation, if not his sartorial preference, encapsulates this sense of sartorial ennui:

Menswear in general can be so boring and I’m so jealous when I see womenswear and think, ‘I’d love to wear that’, because it always just seems more inventive, but I think men are at last catching up.’[xxvi] 

Men may not like to be addressed in gendered terms and may feel uncomfortable discussing their clothing. Some men also perpetuate the notion that the significant women in their lives select what they wear, as though clothes shopping is trivial and inconsequential. This is the argument David Cameron used when his curious sartorial choices came under recent scrutiny. Cameron blamed his wife (a designer for Smythson, no less[xxvii]) for his poor sartorial judgement.[xxviii] Representatives of the menswear industry, from male models to editors, may also feel uneasy defining and defending their work, but however tongue-tied men become about their raiment, it is evident that they do take a lot of care, pride and interest in their clothing, even if some now feel that the suit is showing its age.


[ii] Ibid.

[v] E. Martin, L. Watling & M. Frith, ‘Ronnie and Liam rock and roll out of men’s fashion week’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 8-9.

[vi] S. Chilvers, ‘Fashionable address: No 10 stages homage to men’s fashion’, The Guardian (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[vii] S. Shakespeare, ‘Cameron addresses his fashion disasters’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 17; L. Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters? Speak to Samantha,’ The Daily Telegraph (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[viii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on parade’, Life & Style: Financial Times (Saturday, 5 January 2013), 1.

[ix] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 10-11.

[x] On plural masculinities, see S. Nixon, ‘Exhibiting Masculinity’, in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. S. Hall (London, 1997), 296-314

[xi] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London, 1993),193-94; C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 214-15.

[xii] American Vogue launched in 1892, Harper’s Bazaar in 1867. Apparel Arts (later American GQ) and American Esquire launched in 1931. C. Breward, Fashion (Oxford, 2003),122.

[xiii] P. Utz, ‘Editor’s Letter’, Man About Town (Autumn/Winter 2012) , 32.

[xiv] Porter, ‘Peacocks’, 1.

[xv] Also see, A. Hollander, ‘The Modernization of Fashion’, Design Quarterly, 154 (1992), 27-33.

[xvi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 73.

[xvii] E. McCarthy, ‘Walk like a man’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 28-29.

[xviii] Ibid., 3.

[xx] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 207.

[xxi] Ibid., 366-70.

[xxii] P. Wollen, ‘Unembraceable’, London Review of Books (19 October 1995), 42-43; P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 49-50.

[xxiii] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 11.

[xxiv] Ibid., 112.

[xxv] Ibid., 98.

[xxviii] Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters?’, 12.

Fashion’s Past & Present

There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis where the stretched limo of cyber capitalist Eric Packer is pelted with rocks and smeared with paint and human excrement as it meanders conspicuously through a crowd of anti-capitalist protesters at Times Square. Safe within the limo, Packer and his chief of theory Vija Kinski reflect coolly on the violence outside, as a man sets fire to his body. Packer is momentarily transfixed, but Kinski is unfazed. Her chilling verdict is that this form of protest, much like the causes that have spawned it, ‘is not original’. The exchange between Packer and Kinski, which occurs in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, encapsulates a profound sense of disenfranchisement with the modern economic system. This sentiment was remarkably prescient for a book published in 2003. The recent film adaptation of Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson, tapped into the financially frightened zeitgeist and was marketed as ‘the first film about our new millennium’.

Original Sin?

VogueA harsh critic might offer a similarly bleak verdict of the financial behemoth that is the global fashion industry, which is estimated to be worth $1,306 billion per annum.[i] In a recent interview, Valentino Garavani seemed to bemoan the increased commercialisation of an industry that he has worked in since a boy of seventeen: ‘Everything has changed; fashion became a profession, a money-making career.’[ii] As it has grown, the fashion industry has fought hard against accusations of exploitation – of models and child manufacturers – and is periodically accused of a lack of originality in its drive to sell more wares. In a revealing, albeit minor, way this point comes through in The September Issue – and it’s parody The Devil Wears Prada – when Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington debate whether certain combinations of clothes have been photographed for Vogue before:

GC: Well there’s two coats here and I’m sort of undecided about them.

AW: It is similar to the one we did in July.

GC: It’s not because you’re thinking of the one we shot and didn’t run. I’ve shot them twice, but we have not had them in the magazine. The coat didn’t run.

Originality poses particular problems for clothing because sartorial decisions are so prominent. As I have indicated before, people generally seek to be individual, rather than different.[iii] What we wear reveals so much about us, so we try commensurately hard to get it right. When choosing an outfit a myriad of decisions – conscious and subconscious – are made, based on the ‘look’ that we want to achieve and a withering self-interrogation of how we think people will actually perceive us wearing it. Adopting a new style of garment or a range of atypical colours can make an outfit novel, but if the cumulative effect is too different, too removed from our usual shapes and palette, the effect can be nugatory. I still rue the day that I thought an apple green roll-neck was a good purchase (although I have said before that I am colour-blind). By contrast, perpetually abiding by a tried and tested look becomes worn and dated. The best option, as Tom Ford observed in an interview with Bridget Foley, is for fashion to be new and old simultaneously:

BF: Invention is rare today. Reinvention is more the method of the moment, no?

TF: From music to film, everything has been about sampling, recycling. I mean, vintage clothes – people wear vintage now to the Oscars […] We seem to have some deep-seated need for familiarity, and at the same time, an obsession with newness. Culturally, there needs to be a quick understanding and a sense of comfort with things that hit us. We still want something new and fresh, but somehow if it can be something old yet something new, that’s the best thing. We can accept it quickly, which is why all these old brands are so important right now. It’s part of this trend of taking the familiar and making it new – an old brand like Gucci, an old brand like Vuitton, an old brand like Dior – and transforming it.[iv]

But designers also need to take care because the desire for ‘quick understanding’ and acceptance means that they too are pigeonholed, as Ford explains:

We do get typecast. If Lee [McQueen] sent out a collection that was like one of mine, you’d think it was dull and boring, too commercial. We all get typecast. Miuccia Prada is the intelligent designer; Tom is the sexy designer; Yves was the delicate, fragile designer who wore his heart on his sleeve. It’s just how a lot of us construct ourselves to the outside world.[v]

Familiarity Breeds … Fashion

Familiarity in fashion is important because it provides that reassuring sense of the past that we evidently crave whilst also offering a frame of reference, a tested – better yet, proven – approach to wearing a particular outfit that can be subtly tweaked, just so much that it becomes our own. This helps to explain why designers have frequently looked to the past to find inspiration for their creations and why fashion companies invoke the past to provide potential consumers with the assurance of familiarity to buy their products. A recent squabble between two perfumers over Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, shows how important fashion’s past is to its present. Dior’s current television campaign uses doyens from the golden age of Hollywood to market J’Adore perfume.

In the one and a half-minute film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a tardy and flustered Charlize Theron arrives back-stage at a Dior fashion show, which is taking place in one of Louis XIV’s grandiose palaces. As Theron rushes to slip into her shimmering gold dress and head out to the catwalk, the camera pans around the dressing room to reveal Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe waiting to strut their stuff. For a perfume launched in 1999 to claim such heritage maybe unconvincing, but few who watch this glitzy confection will be counting the years, I expect. If Annaud has done his job, audiences will be as rapt about J’Adore as the CGIed Marilyn Monroe, who is shown cradling a bottle of the fragrance as the film reaches its climax. With a tad more legitimacy, perhaps, Chanel have recently used photographs, interviews and audio to capture Marilyn Monroe’s apparent, and oft-repeated, preference for Chanel No. 5, of which she famously wore five drops in bed. Invoking Monroe to promote Chanel No. 5, the perfumer has been quite explicit that this enhances the ‘legend’ of the scent.

Heritage is equally important for the tailors along London’s Savile Row, even though they are selling a very different product and, in some cases, use their past in a less conspicuous manner, which can sometimes manifest itself as a barrier to potential consumers. Such is the illustrious history of many of the Row’s tailors, who have clothed royalty from Buckingham Palace to Hollywood, that they have often eschewed any form of advertising. Even in Beau Brummell’s day, ‘the tradesmen of the area around Savile Row … did not put anything in their shop-window or a nameplate on the door. It was a question of exclusivity and the nuances of class.’[vi] And if the advent of Abercrombie and Fitch on the Row is the sign of things to come, a certain amount of sartorial reserve – even snobbery – might not be a bad thing.[vii] Things have changed somewhat, though, largely because of Richard James, who was the first of the Savile Row bespoke tailors to advertise in men’s style magazines and who, in 2000, ‘really went for it’ by obtaining the lease for the largest shop along the Row and installing large windows ‘that showed the world what we were doing inside. It was the opposite of the traditional Savile Row tailor and that’s not a criticism.’[viii] In this sense, the extent to which a fashion brand engages with its past has a profound impact on its modern image, its products and, thus, its customers. A fashion company’s past can promote new business or preserve that which already exists. An illustrious past can be championed, as in the case of Tom Ford, who reintroduced bamboo and the horse bit to Gucci, or it can be used to shroud a company in a mystique to maintain a sense of exclusivity and privilege.



Oriental Excess

The management of fashion’s past has had a significant impact in the East, which is set to account for nearly half of the world’s total outlay on luxury goods by 2020.[ix] Scores of high-flying Chinese have bought western brands to flaunt their newfound wealth, sometimes ill advisedly: when government officials were snapped wearing £1,500 Hermès belts, there was a veritable media storm. Initially, well-established brands that conferred heritage and legitimacy on the nouveax riches sold well in the East, but no longer. Burberry, which has sixty-six stores in China, and Louis Vuitton, which has thirty-nine, have become ubiquitous and consequently less desirable. By contrast, ‘stealth-wealth brands’ like Prada and Bottega Veneta, are faring better.[x] A look at when these four companies were founded may seem to throw the argument about the importance of heritage in fashion on its head. In ascending order of age, the companies are as follows: Bottega Veneta (1966), Prada (1913), Burberry (1856), Louis Vuitton (1854). But the buying preferences of the Chinese recall the observation of Tom Ford; namely, that consumers like their clothes and clothing apparel to be at once old and new. Whilst Burberry and Louis Vuitton are considerably older than Prada and Bottega Veneta, their marketing is now as commonplace as the scarves and leather holdalls they peddle. For the design-conscious Chinese, these companies are old in two senses: their length of operation and their length of trade on the streets of China. The former is acceptable, but the latter is not, hence the popularity of old and ‘new’ brands like Prada. In a society that is becoming saturated with brands, subtly is key. As Gemma Soames notes, ‘The cool crowd tend to leave the obvious labels behind – Louis Vuitton almost marks you out as a novice.’[xi]

Gendered History

If there is a slight difference in attitude regarding fashion’s past between the East and the West, there is a greater contrast between the genders. Trends in men’s clothing generally seem to eschew the past, which is often regarded as frivolous. Women’s clothing, however, seems to have a more dynamic and positive relationship with past styles. If Charlie Porter is right, this could be because men do not share ‘the female romance for the catwalk.’[xii] Aspects of male dress are making a comeback – the pocket square and tie pin are obvious examples – and today sees the launch of London Collections: Men,[xiii] but the influence that fashion icons like Beau Brummell, the Count d’Orsay and Edward VII possess over modern men’s style stems largely from the characters they were and the lives they led. Dressing like these ‘heroic’ figures is an incidental step towards being like them, which often seems to be a greater concern for men. I doubt the pocket square and tiepin would have made such a convincing comeback if it had not first been worn by men’s men like Dan Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Even Beau Brummell, trendsetter extraordinaire, remarked that ‘it is folly that is the making of me.’[xiv] By contrast, the women icons of yesteryear, women like Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, who are gracing the screen once again thanks to Dior, have perhaps always seemed enigmatic. Their dresses and accessories attract attention because of their intrinsic beauty and workmanship, rather than because of who is modelling them. Whilst this observation may not be a universal truism, it shouldn’t surprise that fashion’s past is viewed in a gendered perspective when that is how fashion’s present is seen.


Either way, the fashion brand that ignores its past, clearly jeopardises its present. Fashion brands that lack the familiarity and legitimacy of heritage could do worse than take a leaf out of Thom Browne’s book. Browne’s eponymous collections appear to derive from historical vogues. His monotone aesthetic recalls the sartorial code of Beau Brummell and his eyewear range looks as though it is taken straight from the eighteenth-century factory, price tags notwithstanding of course.[xv]

[i] E. Van Keymeulen & L. Nash, ‘Fashionably Late’, Intellectual Property Magazine (Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012), 53. www.cov.com/files/Publication/8fc11e54-27e2-4da3-9323-0663dd0a5746/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/45a27275-df92-475b-9e11-11154b0c1061/Fashionably%20Late.pdf.

[ii] ‘The Inventory: Valentino’, FT Weekend Magazine (January 5/6, 2013), 7.

[iii] ‘Clothes are not just for Christmas’, December, 20 2012.

[iv] Varia, Tom Ford (London, 2004), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30.

[vi] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 204.

[vii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, Life & Arts: Financial Times (January 5/6, 2013), 1.

[viii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 199-200.

[ix] G. Soames, ‘Orient Express’, Style: The Sunday Times (18 November, 2012), 35.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 36.

[xii] Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, 2.

[xiv] Kelly, Beau Brummell, 207

[xv] Ibid., 186-208; www.thombrowneeyewear.com.

Dress to die for

There is a close connection between art and clothing, as scholars like Anne Hollander have shown.[i] Both are forms of creation that provide people with the potential to alter perceptions of themselves and their environments. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was cheaper to pose for a portrait and dress in the fine fabrics kept within an artist’s studio than commission a new set of garments.[ii] A portrait would generally last longer than clothes, too. But as much as paintings can project an image, they also reflect one. The clothes, fabrics and ornamentation in which people chose to be immortalised reveals much about the practicalities and principles of former periods. This is particularly the case with one of my favourite artists, the Sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. In little more than a decade Bruegel created over forty-five paintings. In the early 1560s his work borrowed heavily from another Flemish artist, Hieronymus Bosch, and tended towards the surreal, but throughout his painting Bruegel was keen to depict the life of the Netherlands as accurately as possible, from daily vignettes to clothing. This realism lends his paintings, which often feature over one hundred people, a deep sense of humour and pathos. The reality and posthumous reach of Bruegel’s work also stems from the fact that he concentrated on contemporary social concerns, issues that are perhaps as pressing today as they were six hundred years ago.

Triumph of Death

Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, possibly my favourite painting, focuses on a topic that fascinates and frightens people in equal measure: death. The large oil painting, recently re-dated to c.1566-67, depicts a smouldering wasteland where frightened men, women and children try in vain to restrain a relentless troop of murdering skeletons.[iii] The painting is violent and packs a visceral punch. In the foreground, a paralysed king is cradled by a skeleton holding an hourglass, indicating that the ruler’s time is nearly up. Nearby, a starving dog gnaws at the neck of a baby, who lies in its dead mother’s arms. Just beyond, a group of skeletons work industriously to drown several men in a blackened pool. In the background, two ships are sinking, two men are being hanged, one man is about to be beheaded and another is fleeing from two dogs and a skeleton clutching a spear. Sinister stuff.

The Triumph of Death is beguiling because whilst it conveys the malaise caused by political and religious upheavals in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, the complex and intricate painting, which is depicted in a palette of warm browns and soft greys – hues that are frequently in vogue for Winter fashion collections and interior decoration – draws the viewer in. The painting thereby has much the same effect as a siren from an emergency vehicle: it compels us to gaze and explore, even though we know we probably shouldn’t because what we will find can only cause distress. The allure of The Triumph of Death is also due to the fact that Bruegel depicts the customs, pastimes and clothing of the Netherlands with painstaking accuracy: a cross section of social hierarchy is depicted in the painting, from the king, to a richly arrayed nobleman and noblewoman to a cardinal and jester. Musical instruments and scores and a backgammon board and playing cards are also shown. It is curious, then, why death in this painting is associated with the colour white: several of the skeletons are draped in white toga-like garments and white coffin lids, painted with crosses, serve as shields for the advancing skeleton army.[iv] Black, the colour usually associated with dress in death, is conspicuously absent from the painting.

The Death of Kings

The dress associated with death differs across time, cultures and faiths.[v] In Sikhism, women tend to wear white when mourning. Elderly male Hindus are dressed in white for their funerals; married women, by contrast, are usually clothed in brighter shades of red or pink. In the West, black has tended to be the dominant colour in funerary dress since the Roman period, although because of the pagan associations early Christians were admonished for wearing black in mourning.[vi] An modern online guide to funeral etiquette recommends black dress and stresses the need for extreme sartorial conservatism, so as to give due respect to the deceased.[vii] If the advice offered is strictly followed, the congregants at funerals would be indistinct and virtually amorphous. This is black at its most sombre and disturbing.

The reason for the discomfitPhilip the Goodure about black is historic and specific. Black clothing was worn by the ducal house of Burgundy and by their Habsburg relatives in Spain, most notably Charles V and Philip II. The black worn by King Philip, a monarch who presided over the Spanish Inquisition and who launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I’s England, came to represent his suspicious character, religious asceticism and political intolerance.[viii] But these negative associations did not exist when one of Philip’s ancestors, Duke Philip III (the Good) of Burgundy, first wore black. Duke Philip donned black to mourn the loss of his father, John the Fearless, who had been murdered by the French in 1419. The decision to adopt monotone garb was a political statement more than an emotional one, for it was a subtle way of defying the Duke’s overlord and signalling that John’s death would not be forgotten or left unpunished.[ix] A sartorial statement had to suffice until the young duke (he was twenty-two years old) was in a stronger position to take his revenge. The opulence and fame of the fifteenth-century Burgundian court ensured that Philip’s sartorial statement was adopted in other princely courts by devotees of the latest vogues. The excitement caused by the Burgundian court’s black raiment indicates that dress associated with death has not always been associated with conservatism or foreboding, certainly not for the elite.

The household accounts of King Henry III of England, who died in 1272, reveal that the king was most likely buried in his coronation garments of 1220.[x] These were fashioned from red samite and ophreys. Samite was an expensive silk often woven with patterns. Ophreys were gold embroidered decoration. The description of this regalia elsewhere in the accounts abounds with superlatives (albeit in a formulaic manner). This unusual method of recording reveals how significant these items of clothing were considered to be:

…a large gold crown with the most beautiful gems, a large brooch with the most beautiful rubies, a large ring with a large [and] very beautiful ruby, a gold [and] regal sceptre, three gold rods, regal and long.[xi]

The king’s burial garments are probably those depicted on his bronze-gilt effigy in Westminster Abbey, the church he re-built to honour his predecessor and patron saint Edward the Confessor.

James Brown1

In some ways, things haven’t changed that much. When James Brown, the ‘godfather of soul’, died in 2006, his body was put on public display within a bronze-gilt coffin in his eponymous arena in Augusta. For each of the three days of public commemoration, Brown’s body was dressed in a different set of clothes.[xii] The funeral of the ‘king of pop’, Michael Jackson, two years later, was similarly elaborate and cost in the region of $650,000.[xiii] Like Brown – and Henry III – Jackson had a gold-plated bronze coffin. The coffin was closed, but dress still had a significant role in the funeral proceedings, as Jackson’s brothers all wore a sequined glove in tribute. The desire, or need, to have an elaborate funeral and manipulate all elements of one’s appearance in death – to ‘play to the crowd’ – is proportional to the legitimacy that public events confer on celebrities, be they politicians or entertainers. Dress at a funeral is particularly important because it is the final occasion for the deceased to make a lasting impression and the only opportunity they have to directly shape their posthumous legacy. Approximately 20,000 attendees and onlookers were present for Michael Jackson’s funeral, but closer to 2.5 billion people watched the proceedings on television.[xiv]

James Brown2

Personal Possessions

The commemoration of a person’s life is necessarily public, but the onset of death is also a time for personal reflection. Deceased royalty, rock stars and politicians may appear in their finest raiment for their funeral, but they have often made sartorial choices that reflect personal feelings about their life and beliefs. For example, England’s ‘evil’ King John, who died in 1216, had a typical royal funeral in every respect (as much as civil war and a French invasion would permit). He was buried with mock regalia in a splendid tomb topped with a jewel-encrusted effigy within Worcester Cathedral. Later inspection of the king’s body revealed that he had chosen to be buried wearing a skull-cap. It is not clear what motivated this unusual addition, although it has often been thought that John wished to atone for his impious actions as king: John was notorious for failing to fast on feast days and he was widely suspected of murdering his nephew, who had a (stronger?) claim to English crown.

Cadaver Tomb

In the medieval period, a more striking, and public way, of expressing contrition and humility at the time of one’s worldly exit was to be buried in a cadaver or ‘double-decker’ tomb, to borrow Erwin Panofsky’s term. Cadaver tombs consisted of two effigies placed on top of each other, rather like a bunk bed. The upper-most effigy depicted the deceased at the apex of their earthly success and showed them in their best clothes and jewellery. The effigy below depicted the deceased as a rotting corpse, which is reminiscent of the skeletons in Bruegel’s Triumph of Death. By commissioning one of these costly tombs, the deceased thereby acknowledged that glory is fleeting and that death awaits all. Cadaver tombs were particularly popular on the continent and several French kings, including Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II, are buried in tombs of this design.

Queen Victoria’s instruction that she was to be buried in her wedding dress and veil was unlikely motivated by feelings of religious guilt akin to her thirteenth-century predecessor, but her choice shows still further how personal decisions about dress in death have always assumed a great deal of importance for the deceased. Moreover, although black is a colour frequently associated with Victoria in her later life, it was not by any means the only colour of death, even during a period when the rigid structure of mourning dress was established, both in fact an romantic literature.

A Fashionable Death?

The cessation of rigid proscriptions for mourning attire means there is, in theory, scope for greater flexibility in death-related dress. For some, black is still the appropriate – and only – colour that should be considered, but there have been attempts to challenge this. In 2009, so the story goes, Leonor Scherrer, daughter of designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, realised that she had nothing to wear for the funeral of Yves-Saint Laurent. So, she resolved to launch her own brand of ready-to-wear funeral garments.[xv] Scherrer was interviewed for various fashion magazines and her concept was generally welcomed, but it does not appear that her couture line was launched.[xvi] Today her website refers to a funerary service and home, rather than a clothes line. The apparent failure of Scherrer’s enterprise may indicate a preference for sobriety and black at funerals, or more likely an ambivalence to change what has become established custom, but the amount of money and popular interest that is generated by the death of celebrities means that an alternative couture line will probably exist before too long, whether black or not.

[i] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975).

[ii] V. Cumming, Understanding fashion history (London, 2004), 84-7.

[iii] L. Silver, Pieter Bruegel (New York, 2011), 296.

[iv] I do not think it likely that the colour is meant to represent Calvinism.

[v] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 373-90.

[vi] B.L. Wild, ‘Funerals: post-1100’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 220.

[vii] R. Bickerstaff-Glover, ‘What do I wear to a funeral?’. http://etiquette.about.com/od/Funeral/a/What-Do-I-Wear-To-A-Funeral.com. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[viii] J. Harvey, ‘From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009),19-28.

[ix] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 78-91.

[x] D.A. Carpenter, ‘The Burial of King Henry III, the Regalia and Royal Ideology’, idem, The Reign of Henry III (London, 1996), 427-62.

[xi] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of King Henry III of England, 1216-1272 (Loughborough, 2012), 250.

[xii] ‘Stars turn out for Brown funeral’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6219659.stm. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] ‘Funeral Haute Couture’. http://lustrass.com/2010/12/01/funeral-haute-couture/. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

[xvi] S. Muncey, ‘Death in Fashion’. www.shopcurious.com/curious-trends/Death-in-fashion.aspx. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

Looking the Part: Two Reviews

Power and Style

Dominique & François Gaulme, Power and Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012). Hardback. £50/$75.

Since antiquity, and possibly before, those in power have understood the importance of dressing appropriately. From penis sheaths and eagle feather headdresses to bejewelled crowns and Cartier watches, leaders across the globe and throughout time have used clothing to demarcate – and sometimes disguise – their positions of unique authority. The history of powerful people’s raiment is the subject of a new folio-sized volume by Dominique & François Gaulme. Lavishly illustrated and weighing a hefty 2kg, Power and Style: A World History of Politics and Dress looks impressive, but like the sartorial choices of certain notables described within it, the Gaulmes’ tome is possibly a case of style over substance. For starters, the promise of a ‘world history’ of dress is not quite fulfilled. The volume’s fifteen chapters roam reasonably widely, but their focus is on Western dress; and more specifically, dress from North-West Europe. The dress considered is almost entirely that worn by men. In the introduction, the authors explain that discussion of women’s dress will be reserved until the final chapter, because ‘women’s legitimate political power is very recent;’ the curious qualifier about ‘legitimate’ power is left unexplained.

The structure of the volume is narrative, rather than thematic. Whilst this approach has much to commend it; not least, the ability to grasp how sartorial vogues have changed over time, there are large chronological gaps between some of the chapters. For example, where chapter four considers the third and fourth centuries AD, chapter five concentrates on the fourteenth century. Chapter seventeen focuses quite specifically on the reign of Edward VII (1901-1910), but chapter six looks broadly at twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. These jejune rifts, which are characteristic of earlier works of fashion history, make it difficult to identify themes and to compare and contrast the approach to power dressing across different epochs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, especially considering one of the authors is an anthropologist and historian, is the fact that the book does not offer much by way of critical commentary or engage with current debates about the role and meaning of dress. There are passing references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss and Norbert Elias (chiefly within the first chapter), but it is left for the reader to draw conclusions about the changing significance of dress in political contexts. A whole raft of rather elemental questions flashed through my head as I read the book, but none of them were satisfactorily answered: What impression did political leaders seek to create with their raiment? What impression did they create? Who made the garments worn by powerful people? How long did it take them and how much did it cost? Why are certain items of clothing and body parts given more emphasis in some cultures? To what extent did leaders create new vogues or depend on tradition to cast their image? Why have some of the clothing styles and dress accessories of rulers endured, when others have not?

What little analysis there is exists largely within a series of nineteen page-long interpolations that focus on a random assortment of dress accessories and modish trends, from tattoos and diamonds to loafers and whiskers, all of which seem to have little or no explicit reference to powerful dress. There also appears to be one significant editorial oversight. The first sentence of chapter five, which considers the fourteenth-century Burgundian court under ‘Philip the Good’, opens with the sentence: ‘This third meeting was scheduled to take place on the bridge at Montereau, far to the south of Paris.’ The pronoun implies that the ‘third meeting’ should already be familiar to the reader. It is not. A sentence, or two, seems to have been omitted.

That all said, the book is of value for bringing together a huge assortment of exquisitely produced paintings and photographs of powerful men’s clothing, even though these images are not the subject of specific commentary and are not directly linked to the text. The book is also useful as a collection of anecdotes about famous people’s costume. In this sense, it would serve as a handsome introductory volume for those who wish to learn more about men’s fashion through the ages. However, whether such people would pay the prohibitively expensive cover price is another matter. Publishing the book in time for Christmas was therefore a shrewd decision.



Grace Coddington, Grace: A Memoir (London, 2012). Hardback. £25/$35.

The importance of perception is inevitably a major theme in the memoir of Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue and ‘heroine’ of The September Issue, a film documentary about the making of Vogue’s 820-page September 2007 magazine. The memoir charts a fascinating career, which has seen Coddington occupy commanding positions on both sides of the camera. For nine years, Coddington worked as a model after winning a competition in British Vogue in 1959. In 1968, she joined British Vogue as a junior editor. After a brief and mouvementé period at Calvin Klein, she started work at American Vogue when Anna Wintour became editor in chief in 1988. From the perspective of somebody who sees herself as being both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in the fashion industry, the memoir discusses the evolution of magazines, modelling, and haute couture on both sides of the Atlantic. It also reflects upon the rising fortunes of American Vogue, which Coddington argues has become a global brand under Wintour’s stewardship.

Coddington’s decision to write an autobiography was influenced by the release of The September Issue. In the film, Coddington and Wintour are cast as Vogue’s quarrelling matriarchs: the warm-hearted and idealistic stylist at odds with the cold and calculating businesswoman, ‘a protégée of the higher-ups at Condé Nast’. Coddington plays down this ‘rivalry’ in her memoir, but it is apparent that a tension, whatever the brilliant creative results, does exist between them. Whilst Coddington is impressed by Wintour’s transformation of American Vogue (and the fashion industry), she seems to have become increasingly dismayed by the consequences of this success; chiefly the expansion of the Vogue brand, which incorporates ‘the worlds of art, business, technology, travel, food, celebrity and politics’. Coddington repeatedly states that she is not a ‘fashionista’ and now rarely socialises with designers at all; she prefers to spend time with her partner Didier … and her beloved cats. At times, Coddington’s stance seems naïve, even anachronistic. She is unapologetic about her reluctance to embrace technology and make use of computers; she got her first mobile phone in 2006 and has her assistant print off her emails. But this is, perhaps, to be expected. Reflecting on a career that has spanned fifty years, Coddington writes as if her era is waning whilst that of Wintour’s is waxing. Throughout the memoir there is a profound sense of pathos, as Coddington believes that the fashion industry is now less interested in clothes (although she still dresses the models she works with herself). Instead, the spotlight has focused on the transient fortunes of stars, whom Wintour first put on Vogue’s cover. What this means, curiously enough, is that Anna Wintour’s remarks at the beginning of The September Issue, which were ostensibly directed at people who deride the fashion industry out of ignorance, apply to Grace Coddington rather well:

I think what I often see is that people are frightened of fashion and that because it scares them or makes them feel insecure, they put it down.

Through her writing there is a sense that Coddington has become somewhat frightened and intimidated, certainly bewildered, by what the fashion industry has become. That said, her decision to write a memoir, to publish a book about her cats and, however reluctantly, to participate in the filming of The September Issue, suggests she is beginning to come to terms with, and embrace, a fashion industry that is now very different to what it was in 1959. By charting the dilemmas, doubts and uncertainties that have confronted her and by trying to make sense of a whirlwind period of change, which she was often oblivious to at the time and which put her in strange and paradoxical situations, Grace Coddington has written an engaging book that provides an insightful and refreshing view of the modern fashion industry.


Through a Glass…


If the eyes are truly the windows to our soul, it is surprising that spectacles have generally suffered from a bad press in the West. Eyewear is currently in vogue, regardless of whether corrective lens are necessary, but it has not always been so, especially for men.


James Bond. Source: http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/14367

The current popularity of eyewear has undoubtedly been influenced by the ubiquity of bespectacled characters in movies and television dramas: Oliver Proudlock, a posh twenty-something in the reality show Made in Chelsea, sports a pair of tortoise shell frames, seemingly when the mood takes him. The process of adapting books into blockbusters has helped the pre-pubescent Harry Potter and the wizened master spy George Smiley to universalise eyewear, if not necessarily their specific frame styles.[i] Even James Bond has contributed to the cause. Pierce Brosnan wore glasses for the Bond franchise’s nineteenth offering, The World is Not Enough. Admittedly, 007’s specs were Q-Branch issue blue tinted x-ray lens, but they fooled casino punters, who appeared to regard them as a modish dress accessory, befitting of a debonair Brit in black tie. The specific preference for thick-rimmed frames has probably been encouraged, certainly normalised, by a slew of Geek-Chic American sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory and Ugly Betty. The idea that dramas of this ilk would inspire spectacle wearing seems counter intuitive. The protagonists in these shows are archetypal losers. Rather like Clark Kent’s frames, the glasses worn by these characters imply physical weakness and hint at inner neuroses and anxiety; all of which is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase, ‘never hit a man with glasses’.

Buddy Holly. Source: http://www.rockbackingtracks.co.uk/index.php?main_page=product_music_info&products_id=781But our interaction with the screen, big and small, is complicated. Seeing an item of clothing on television or in a movie can enhance its status, even elevate it from sartorial obscurity and derision, especially if it is worn by a character we love; and we all love Leonard Hofstadter, Ph.D., and Betty Suarez. Anne Hollander uses the example of Jack Nicholson’s watch cap in One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest to explain this phenomenon.[ii] The cap was a common dress accessory prior to the film’s release in 1976, but after Nicholson’s appearance everyone wanted it, to achieve ‘a sense of glamour by association.’[iii] In the world of eyewear, Buddy Holly’s shiny black Mexican imports caused a sensation in the 1950s, even though they were purchased for practicality; his vision was 20/800 in both eyes.[iv] According to Gregory DelliCaprini Jr., fashion editor of www.billboard.com, Holly’s specs even encouraged stars to become more glam:

Without Buddy Holly’s glasses, [pop-culture experts] say, the world would likely never have seen John Lenon in his granny-style glasses nor Elton John in his oversize frames. For that matter, it might never have seen Madonna in her cone-shaped bra or Lady Gaga in her meat dress.[v]

Steve Jobs. Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2012/10/03/untold-stories-about-steve-jobs-friends-and-colleagues-share-their-memories/This may be claiming too much, but the clamour for celebrity looks and ephemera cannot be denied. Lunor frames similar to those worn by Steve Jobs were reported to be selling ‘more briskly’, following the announcement of his death.[vi] The apparent scramble to possess a piece of Jobs’ image, even if in replica, is not so different to the ransacking of episcopal and royal palaces that followed the death of a bishop or prince in pre-modern societies. The death of these political leaders ‘opened up a fissure in the fabric of society’[vii] and created a ‘marginal period’[viii] before a successor was appointed. Possessing, or destroying, objects of the recently deceased enabled individual feelings of anxiety to be collectively expressed. The fact that people now to react to a celebrity’s death in a similar way reveals much about the entrenchment of celebrity culture in modern society.

Hollander’s research hints at another reason for the surge in spectacle wearing. She argues – convincingly – that the advent of film and photography has made us more discriminating. Sharper resolution achieved through technological advances has made us adept, and thus increasingly inclined, to ‘read’ clothes and brands on film as signifiers of income, occupation and background. And as life imitates art, so we apply these forensic skills to the sartorial choices of friends and colleagues. Wearing styles of glasses that are popularly regarded as fringe – even wearing glasses at all – could therefore provide a means of becoming ‘undetectable’ or finding sartorial freedom.[ix]


Colonel Sponsz. Source: http://tintin.wikia.com/wiki/Colonel_SponszEyewear has often been portrayed negatively in the West, chiefly because of its association with bookish learning and old age. For the same reasons, the reception of glasses in the East has tended to be more positive, following Confucian teachings.[x] In a previous post I suggested that fictional villains often have facial hair; well, they also wear glasses (beware the character that sports both!).[xi] Of the twenty-nine James Bond villains that have appeared in film, two were bespectacled (Max Zorin and Elliot Carver). Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Le Chiffre suffered from optical deficiencies. Nazi officers are frequently depicted with a monocle, whether in Hergé’s Tintin or Hogan’s Heroes.[xii] In Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, Baron von Pregnitz (‘Kuno’), wears a monocle, which adds to his slightly unsettling demeanour.

The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:

‘Excuse me. Do you know Naples?’

‘No. I’ve never been there.’

‘Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.’

‘Perhaps so,’ I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink, well-shaven face by means of some horrible surgical operation.

Mr Norris Changes Trains. Christopher Isherwood.

Choosing not to wear glasses in public is probably the most prevalent example of someone suffering for their style. Adolf Hitler wore glasses in private but never for official engagements. His speeches were written on a special typewriter with larger letter stamps. Leading Nazis wore spectacles (and monocles), but it was important that Hitler’s figure, which became increasingly deified after he proclaimed himself Führer in 1934, bore no hint of physical fragility.[xiii] In at least one case of eyewear extremism, looks have even killed. Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Horatio Nelson’s second in command at Trafalgar, died of bowel problems supposedly caused by leaning over maps when he should have been wearing his spectacles. Even John Lenon, whose bespectacled portrait has become near iconic – more so following the release of Yoko Ono’s 1981 album Season of Glass, which featured his blood-flecked frames on the cover – never wore glasses when performing live.[xiv]

… Made in Italy

It is ironic, but not necessarily surprising if we think about the history of other dress accessories (if spectacles are dress accessories?[xv]) and people’s desire for individuality, that eyewear should have started to become unpopular at the moment it attained popularity. Reading glasses were developed during the thirteenth century. They were worn by clerics, and thus scholars, and fashioned from exquisite materials, including ivory, tortoise and precious metal. Refinements to the frame and the use of inexpensive metals made glasses readily available across Europe. As the lustre of academia and quality workmanship faded, the ‘mystique’ of eyewear went too. ‘Glasses came to be seen as a crutch.’[xvi] Optometrists’ association with St Jerome, whom they had adopted as their patron saint, did much to reinforce this dismissive verdict. St Jerome was famous for completing a Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) from Greek. Further developments in the manufacture of frames, particularly the creation of celluloid in the mid-nineteenth century and Optyl in the mid-twentieth century, enabled more dynamic, anthropometric and colourful frames to be made.[xvii] These technological innovations created new markets for sunglasses, which were popularised by Hollywood actors and the nonchalant JFK,[xviii] but the multi-colour and multi-dimensional frames worn by the likes of Elton John[xix] and Dame Edna Everage[xx] revealed how dowdy prescription spectacles were.

Steve McQueen. Source: http://www.elawood.com/2010/09/persol-po-714-steve-mcqueen.html

The idea of commissioning known designers to create eponymously branded frames generated a new clamour for specs and gave birth to the modern eyewear business.[xxi] But many Western producers struggled to compete with Asian competitors, who saturated the market with cheaper variants. The result was a realignment of the eyewear business: ‘Since the Asians couldn’t be beaten on price, a new strategy had to be devised – a few manufacturers decided to gamble on moving the category upmarket and competing on prestige.’[xxii] By geographical accident, optometrists located in the north of Italy were best placed to benefit from this commercial soul searching. Situated in the mountains, in close proximity to the motor industry and basking in sunshine, Italian eyewear manufacturers led the field in making aviation and motoring lens. One of the oldest and most prestigious of the Italian eyewear companies is Persol. The company’s name is derived from its products, which were per il sole, ‘for the sun’.[xxiii] Celebrity endorsements from the likes of Steve McQueen and shrewd product placement in movies like The Italian Job, did much to generate a cult status for Persol and Italian eyewear in general. Many eyewear companies boast that their frames are ‘hand made in Italy.’ A newer brand like Illesteva, which markets its products as both contemporary and classic, has gone a step further by proclaiming their frames are designed in New York and made in Italy.

… Brightly?

I wear glasses and enjoy doing so.  My expanding collection of frames includes, Cutler & Gross,[xxiv] Illesteva,[xxv] Persol,[xxvi] Prada,[xxvii] Ray Ban[xxviii] & Tom Ford.[xxix]  The current ‘geek gone cool’ vogue, which is encouraging a return to vinyl records, Fairisle tanktops and slicked hair, has done much to promote, or at least prepare the ground for, the wearing of eyeglasses among a larger number of people. The fact that specs are slightly nerdy is, currently, less of an issue and the longer that bespectacled nerds appear on screen, the longer this will remain so. The present reverence for the past is also encouraging many eyewear brands to re-issue vintage frames – think of Oliver Peoples and their ‘Gregory Peck’ range – or, in the case of newer manufacturers like Thom Browne, to launch vintage-inspired frames.[xxx] This cyclical trend reveals how important history is to fashion. Past epochs are easily distinguishable from the clothes that were then worn. Harnessing or adapting these styles makes and maintains traditions and legitimacy, which has always been an important concern for clothing. The significance of tradition and legitimacy – choosing when to wear frames; choosing a style of frame that was worn by a celebrity or is made by a particular brand – seems to be a more pressing issue for the bespectacled because glasses make such an obvious physical statement. They proclaim, possibly more immediately than any other prop save crutches and bandages, a bodily impairment. For this reason, a history of eyewear also reveals how the sartorial kudos of eyewear can plummet. And if history does repeat itself, the current popularity of glasses means that a decline and fall in spectacle wearing may not far off as people seek a different means to project their individuality.

Thom Browne sunglasses. Source: http://www.esquire.co.uk/2011/10/the-launch-thomas-brown-eyewear/


[i] J. Mullan, ‘Ten of the best pairs of glasses in literature’, Guardian Review (Saturday, 30 January 2010), 11.

[ii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975), 305. Also see her comments on the mini skirt, 360.

[iii] Ibid., 305.

[iv] C. Passy, ‘Framing a Young Rocker: The Man Who Picked Glasses for Buddy Holly’. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203833104577072583452885006.html?mod=slideshow_overlay_mod#. Accessed: 8/xij/2012.

[v] Ibid.

[vii] S. Bertelli, The King’s Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, tr. R. Burr Litchfield (Pennsylvannia, 2001), 39.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 346-8.

[x] M. Lipow, Eyewear; Brillendesign; Lunettes (Cologne, 2011), 14.

[xi] ‘Hair Today and … Tomorrow’. October, 14 2012.

[xii] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 204.

[xiii] F. Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (London, 2002), 44-8; I. Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998), 280-81.

[xiv] N. Handley, Cult Eyewear: The World’s Enduring Classics (London, 2011), 61.

[xv] Neil Handley observes that many optometrists abhorred the fact that eyewear, which they considered to be a medical instrument, was becoming freely available on the high street, sold by a new breed of ‘shoptician.’ Handley, Cult Eyewear, 7-17.

[xvi] Lipow, Eyewear, 12.

[xvii] Ibid., 71-2; 265-66.

[xviii] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 226.

[xix] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 117.

[xx] Ibid., 31.

[xxi] Lipow, Eyewear,130.

[xxii] Ibid., 270.

[xxiii] Handley, Cult Eyewear, 44-7.

Counting the cost

The price of looking good through the ages

…I would add that he should decide for himself what appearance he wants to have and what sort of man he wants to seem, and then dress accordingly, so that his clothes help him to be taken for such, even by those who do not hear him speak or see him perform anything at all.[i]

Thus is Federico’s recommendation for the how the perfect courtier should appear in Baldesar Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). A person’s dress, like their hairstyle,[ii] plays a huge part in how they are initially perceived. The drive to look good and distinguish oneself – to create the right impression – explains why fashion is, and always has been, big business; the UK men’s fashion industry is currently worth c.£21 billion per annum. But things are not what they used to be, as the changing cost of fashion shows. Celebrities and dynasts may still spend more on dress than the average Joe, but this is as nothing compared to what aristocrats and socialites of old spent on their raiment.

Royal & renaissance razzmattazz

King Henry III of England (1216-1272) was an aesthete. He invested time and money in various artistic projects during his fifty-six year reign, mostly notably the lavish rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. Henry also liked to look good. In preparation for the Easter festivities in 1235, Henry had various garments made, including three robes, two cloaks and two surcoats, one with sleeves and one without. Fur was bought to line the garments.[iii] In total, the cost of the king’s dress for this one occasion was £32 3s. 4d.[iv] The sum may seem modest, but if we allow for monetary changes over the intervening seven hundred years, the approximate cost of King Henry’s garments in today’s prices is about £17,000 ($27,300[v]).[vi] The price quoted includes only the cost of fabric. Tailors employed by the king would probably have been paid between 3d. and 6d. daily (c.£540; $868), although it is not clear how many were employed on this occasion and how long they took. It is equally unclear how many tailors were employed to make the garments and textiles for the wedding of Henry’s sister, Isabella, to the Emperor Frederick II later that year. The total cost of Isabella’s trousseau was c.£380 17s. 9d., or in today’s money £202,906 ($326,969).[vii] The household accounts of King Henry III of England indicate that roughly 40 percent of annual expenditure went on clothing or clothing accessories (including jewellery). Members of the aristocracy spent similarly large sums of money of clothing, if on an lower scale to their monarch. The domestic accounts of Bogo de Clare, son of the earl of Gloucester and Hertford, indicate that just over a quarter of yearly expenditure went on cloth, clothing or dress accessories.[viii]

Much the same was true in renaissance Florence, where ‘up to 40 percent of a family’s resources could be invested in and represented by their clothing.’[ix] One of the biggest spenders was Lorenzo di Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Between 18 July 1515 and 17 August 1516 the de facto ruler of Florence bought 50 garments of 17 different styles, complete with 17 different linings. He made 15 separate orders for undergarments and head, leg and footwear. He also commissioned over 12 items of military-associated clothing and had four garments embroidered.  In total, these purchases cost Lorenzo 5,214 ducats. In today’s prices, this would be equivalent to £2,131,584 ($3,434,897).[x] Other Florentine aristocrats spent similarly large sums of money on dress. The accounts of the Infanghati family reveal that 73 florins were spent on jewellery and clothing accessories between 31 May and 26 November 1417. A further 140 florins was spent on cloth. In all, the family forked out 213 florins (£88,608; $142,785), which was probably more than the annual salary of the second chancellor of the Florentine republic.[xi]

La belle époque

The eighteenth-century elite continued to spend money on fashion, but on a reduced scale. At the apex of society, members of the royal court still spent large sums of money on clothing. Between 1771 and 1788 the total expenses of the queen of France rose from 1.056 million livres to 4.7 million livres, a 480 percent increase.[xii] On the eve of the Revolution, the clothing expenses of Marie Antionette remained high. The queen spent 212,187 livres (£1,000,196; $161,426)[xiii] on dress in 1787 and 190,721 livres (£899,011; $1,448,396) in 1788.[xiv] Festive occasions provided opportunities for particularly large expenditures on clothing. Coats made for the weddings of the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI (1770), the Comte de Provence (1771) and the Comte d’Artois (1773) cost 64,347 livres (£307,369; $495,283), 35,726 livres (£170,654; $274,985) and 31,695 livres (£151,399; $243,958), respectively. By contrast, Parisian nobles were now spending, on average, no more than 3 percent of their wealth on their raiment.[xv] After the Restoration, royal expenses on dress increased sharply. It is estimated that Joséphine de Beauharnais, Emperor Napoleon’s first wife, spent 1.1 million livres (£2,654,025; $4,273,015) on clothing every year. But this dazzling excess marked the beginnings of the end for such conspicuous consumption.

Prudence & sobriety

By the start of the twentieth century, the attitude of aristocrats and leaders to dress had changed dramatically. King George V (1910-1936) was conscious that the cost of court dress should not become burdensome for those required to wear it and encouraged previously worn suits to be purchased from Moss Bros.[xvi] The king’s sensitivity to the cost of court life may have been heightened by the fate of many of his relatives, fellow European monarchs who were swept from power in a wave of revolutions after the First World War. Post war sobriety is explicable, but the preference for demure dress has lasted long. Diana, the ‘People’s Princess’, wore designer garb from Versace and Catherine Walker, but none of her outfits, currently on display at Kensington palace, really rival those worn by her predecessors.[xvii] Diana’s wedding dress, made by Emmanuel in 1981, reputedly cost £9,000 (c.£92,520; $148,600). In 1997, the auction of 79 of Diana’s dresses fetched $5,600,000, just over half of the annual sum that the first Empress of France spent each year on her wardrobe.[xviii]

Whilst the wedding dress of the people’s new princess (or rather, duchess), Kate Middleton, is thought to have cost £250,000 ($400,000), her clothing usually attracts attention, and praise, because it is cheap.[xix] In September 2011, Cosmopolitan magazine ran an article detailing Kate Middleton’s latest high-street purchase: a teal pencil skirt with black polka dots and a velvet trim boucle jacket in cobalt blue; all of which cost £65 ($104). Apparently, Kate had been deliberating over two pairs of earrings, but left one (‘a simple pair of feather earrings’ costing £8.50 ($14)) at the counter. The title of the article proclaimed: ‘Kate Middleton’s just like us! She loves Topshop too.’[xx] More recently, the frugal clothing of the prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, has hit the headlines:

While the primeminister’s wife wore an abstract dress by designer Erdem Moralioglu for her appearance on the Labour conference stage last week, Mrs Cameron opted for a high street dress – voted “the best Marks & Spencer dress yet” by The Times in May […] Mrs Cameron has found her wardrobe under scrutiny this week and seems to have been choosing affordable clothes – wearing a Uniglo sweater and Zara shoes earlier in the week.[xxi]

For a public figure with a social or political responsibility to wear their wealth on their sleeve is to court censure. Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in America, where the dress of the president and first family has always been politically difficult territory. President Obama’s ‘look’ is a careful study in sartorial restraint. His blue worsted, two-button suit designed by Hart Schaffner Marx and costing c.$1,500 (c.£930) is a wardrobe staple;[xxii] and with good reason. In a 2007 interview, David Letterman complemented Senator Obama on his dress:

 ‘That is a tremendous suit […] a very electable suit.’[xxiii]

The Jorg Gray 6500 Chronograph watch worn by President Obama is also modestly priced and, like Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, is widely available to anyone who wants a replica. The President’s watch retails at $350 (c.£217)[xxiv]; copies of Kate’s dress can be snapped up for $1,100 (c.£680).[xxv]

Adding it all up

So why has the sartorial style of rulers and tycoons lost its sparkle … and price? In part, the decline in spending over the centuries is apparent rather than actual. Certain clothing items cost more in the thirteenth century than they did in the ninteenth century because they were scarce. Items produced by hand or sourced from distant countries were in short supply and cost more to obtain. To use a non-clothing example: in 1285, Bogo de Clare paid 12d. for two pomegranates. Each fruit was expensive, costing £25 ($40) in today’s prices, because they were rare. Whilst a pomegranate may still be deemed an ‘exotic fruit’ and cost more than a Granny Smith, it is rarely more than £1.50 ($2.41) because scales of economy, made possible by the industrial advances of the nineteenth century, have improved the technology of supply. Industrial advances also mean that intricately worked cloth can be produced by machine for a fraction of the cost and speed that it took during the early 1800s. Where handiwork still forms part of manufacturing process, the ability to relocate premises overseas where labour is cheaper, has lowered sale prices. Elaborate gold brocading can now be bought online from Hand & Lock, which makes some of its products in India.[xxvi] Advances in the manufacture of cloth and clothing accessories means that it is now less possible to spend as much money on fabrics and textiles as royal and ducal families did in the past.

It may seem odd, but the development of deposit banks was another factor that lowered the cost of clothing. In pre-capitalist societies, before people had a secure place to store and save their money, wealth was worn. As Ann Rosalind Jones & Peter Stallybrass note, ‘[w]hat good does gold do lying around when it can be enjoyed in the form of food or clothes or land or buildings or any of a hundred forms of sociability? When there is no capitalist banking system, […] hoarding [of wealth] tends to bring social discredit, whereas conspicuous consumption, by sharing the wealth around, brings credit.’[xxvii] If ready cash were needed, articles of clothing were pawned. It has been suggested that the word ‘pawn’ derives from the Latin for cloth (‘pannus’). In French, ‘pan’ meant skirt and pledge. [xxviii] As economies became increasingly monetised and as banking systems developed, wealth was more commonly stored in deposit, rather than in current assets.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the declining cost of dress is political. The collapse of the French monarchy in the eighteenth century and the dissolution of many more monarchies after the First World War furthered the spread of democracy, sometimes in a roundabout way. Political emancipation – possessing the right to vote – had an enormous impact on people’s attitudes to social position. Whether in politics or business, to appear to flaunt one’s wealth, or individuality, could prove increasingly costly. In the campaign leading up to the 1960 presidential election, JFK’s wife was often criticised for her “continental” style of dress that seemed alien to many of the American electorate.[xxix] Dress is equally important in the present presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama:

While campaigning, Romney has turned to jeans and a plaid shirt, a look that says he’s down with the people. Obama has little choice but to look presidential at all times […] [He] wore a navy blue suit during the first debate, but switched to darker charcoal – a move that signaled his understanding that the public wanted more of an alpha male.[xxx]

The demonstration of one’s wealth through clothing and dress accessories had once been a key strategy in the maintenance of legitimacy and office. Today, legitimacy – certainly in the public sphere – is most frequently derived from the ability to appear empathetic, and ‘like’, others.

It’s all in the detail

The desire to express one’s individuality and wealth may have been stifled by societal mores, but it would be impossible to stem it entirely. In a market place where anyone can access designer brands and bespoke tailors and where sumptuary laws no longer exist, it is interesting to note that accessories, the finishing touches to an outfit that lurk under cuffs, collars or folds of fabric, are becoming increasingly intricate and pricey. If a bespoke Savile Row suit costs in the region of £3,000, men’s watches can easily cost many times this amount: Van Clef & Arpels’ Midnight Cerf pink gold watch with an alligator strap retails at £75,350, a pair of William & Son 18ct gold fly fishing reel cufflinks cost £3,200.[xxxi] Whilst the price of fashion has declined over the centuries, the cost of not looking one’s best, or in the words of Federico, looking as ‘he wants to seem’, can evidently still be as dear.

[i] B. Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1976), 136.

[ii] See my earlier post, ‘Hair today and … tomorrow. The Beard: a meandering history’, 14-x-2012.

[iii] B.L. Wild, ‘The Empress’s New Clothes: A Rotulus Pannorum of Isabella, Sister of King Henry III, Bride of Emperor Frederick II’, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, 7, ed. R. Netherton & G.R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge, 2011), 16-17.

[iv] A layman’s guide medieval money: one pound (£) consisted of 240 pennies (d.) or 20 shillings (s.). One shilling consisted of 20d. The only unit of specie in thirteenth-century England was the silver penny, weighing c.1.5g of silver. ‘Pound’, ‘Shilling’ and ‘Mark’ (two-thirds of £1, or, 13s. 4d., or, 160d.) are terms of account.

[v] Throughout, all conversions into dollars have been calculated via www.xe.com.

[vi] The currency conversion is based on calculations made by The National Archives, Kew. Their converter only compares prices from 1270, but the level of accuracy here is tolerable. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[vii] Wild, ‘The Empress’s New Clothes’, 10-16.

[viii] M.S. Giuseppi, ‘The Wardrobe and Household Accounts of Bogo de Clare, A.D. 1284-6, Archaeologia, LXX (1920), 1-56.

[ix] C.C. Frick, Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes, and Fine Clothing (Baltimore & London, 2002), 223.

[x] Ibid., 113, 167.

[xi] Ibid., 82.

[xii] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 35.

[xiii] The figures can only be approximate, as they have been put through two currency converters: www.pierre-marteau.com/currencyconverter/fra-eng.html and www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xiv] Ibid., 71.

[xv] Mansel, Dressed to Rule, 3.

[xvi] Ibid., 142.

[xvii] ‘Diana: glimpses of a modern princess.’ www.hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace/whatson/dianasdresses. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xviii] Ibid., 149.

[xix] C. Wischhover, ‘Kate Middleton’s wedding dress cost more than $400,000; see it up close starting today’. http://fashionista.com/2011/07/kate-middletons-wedding-dress-cost-more-than-400000-see-it-up-close-starting-today/. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxi] ‘M&S dress for Samantha Cameron’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8297386.stm. Accessed: 28-x-12.

[xxii] www.hartschaffnermarx.com. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxiii] L. Barton, ‘Near-identical suit, but still a fashion flop’, The Guardian, 4 March 2009, 10.

[xxiv] http://barackswatch.com. Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xxv] ‘Buy Kate Middleton’s Wedding Dress’. http://allthingschic.net/2011/09/buy-kate-middletons-wedding-dress.html. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxvi] Mansel, Dressed to Rule, 148. www.handembroidery.com Accessed: 28-x-2012.

[xxvii] A. Rosalind Jones & P. Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge, 2000) 28.

[xxviii] Ibid., 27.

[xxix] S. Frankel, ‘Why Britannia wasn’t so cool for Michelle’, The Independent, 29 January 2011, 3.

[xxx] E. Wellington, ‘Mirror, Mirror: fashion politics: what they wear could sway whom we elect’, www.philly.com/philly/style/20121024_Mirror_Mirror_Fashion_politics_What_they_wear_could_sway_whom_we_elect.html. Accessed: 29-x-2012.

[xxxi] ‘The Wish List’, Spectator:Life, Autumn 2012, 56-9.