English Lavender & the KGB

Journalists from around the world stood in a semi-circle before her, their arms and voices raised as they jostled to ask questions. Among the impatient crowd, all of whom were men, television cameras rolled and flash bulbs flared. Behind her, standing on the street outside, members of the public pressed themselves against a wall of glass to spectate on the event unfolding within. It was Monday, 16 July 1956 and Marilyn Monroe was in London. The Hollywood Star was attending a press conference at the Savoy to talk about her new film, a musical comedy that was soon to commence shooting at Pinewood studios, The Prince and The Showgirl. Wearing a black knee-length dress, matching heels and white opera gloves, Monroe was sitting beside her husband, Arthur Miller, who appeared agitated and crumpled, and her director and co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, who was poised and quite perfect. Playing with a recently lit cigarette in her right hand, Monroe seemed confident, but her smiles were hard rather than happy; she was bracing herself for the cross-examination.

One of the more impertinent journalists asked about her nocturnal dress: “Do you still sleep in Chanel no. 5?” An impossibly large grin stretched across Monroe’s face. “Considering I’m in England”, she began coquettishly, “let’s say I am sleeping in Yardley’s Lavender”. Monroe’s interrogators delighted in her wickedly smart retort and she looked justifiably jubilant.

The Savoy press conference is depicted in Simon Curtis’ film My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Yardley continue to clarify the connection between Monroe and one of their best-selling fragrances. Of course, whether Marilyn Monroe actually wore Yardley’s Lavender perfume was never really the point (and she may not have worn Chanel, either: records from perfumer Floris show that an order for six bottles of ‘Rose Geranium’ were placed by Monroe’s personal assistant Dorothy Blass in December 1959). Her quick-witted response did much to demonstrate her guile, which contemporaries doubted. The comment also added to Monroe’s libidinous allure, which was, and remains, central to her critical and commercial appeal. The significance that Yardley beauty products assumed for Monroe during the 1950s was momentary, but it is possible – and certainly interesting to ponder – that her riposte, delivered at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, provided inspiration for Soviet spies. Far from the public eye, hollowed tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder were being used by members of the Portland spy ring to send British nuclear secrets to Moscow.

The activities of the Portland spy ring were exposed on 7 January 1961 by Polish-born triple agent Michael Goleniewski (codenamed ‘Sniper’ by the CIA and ‘Lavinia’ by MI5), who had defected to the United States. Goleniewski alerted law enforcement agencies to a mole at the Royal Navy’s Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Apparently, details of Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought, had been leaked to the Soviets. Names were not disclosed, but suspicion quickly focused on former sailor, likely alcoholic and suspected security risk, Harry Houghton, who worked at the facility. Minimal surveillance soon revealed the other members of the spy ring: Houghton’s mistress, naval clerk Ethel Gee and Konon Trofimovich Molody, who masqueraded as Canadian Gordon Lonsdale, an apparently successful entrepreneur who sold jukeboxes and bubble-gum machines. Completing the sextet were quinquagenarian vintage bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen, whom Molody frequently visited.

The Krogers appeared to live a frugal life at 45 Cranley Drive, an unassuming bungalow in Ruislip, Middlesex. The impression of banality was purposefully deceptive. The couple were actually Morris and Lona Cohen, KGB agents. They had met in America, where they were born. Lona’s parents were Polish; Morris had a Ukrainian father and a Lithuanian mother. A graduate of Columbia University, in the 1930s Morris had fought in a volunteer division during the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. Whilst in Spain, he met Amadeo Sabatini, a long-serving Soviet spy, and gained his entrée into the world of espionage. Morris Cohen appears to have stayed loyal to the Americans during the Second World War, but on his return to the States, and as the Cold War began, he resumed his work for the Russians. At some point before 1954, he and Lona relocated to London, and to Cranley Drive.

The Krogers’ bungalow was no ordinary suburban residence. Upon entering the property in 1961, Special Branch officers discovered the bathroom had been converted into a dark room. The attic space contained a 74-foot radio aerial and a transmitter capable of reaching Moscow. Bank notes totalling $6,000 were also seized. Most surprising of all was the array of unassuming household bric-a-brac the couple possessed: a cigarette lighter with a false bottom, a torch with hollowed batteries, drinking flasks with secret compartments and metal tins of Yardley Aftershave Powder that contained microfilm with radio contact times. Details of the haul were disclosed at the spies’ trials. Molody, as go-between and mastermind, was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison; the Krogers to twenty. In each case, the sentences were commuted and the spies were exchanged for British subjects who had been incarcerated by the Soviets. Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee served the full length of their fifteen-year sentences. In a sort-of happy ending, they married a year after their release, in 1971.

The exposure of the Portland spy ring came at a time of acute anxiety in the Cold War. In October 1957, the USSR had launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit around the Earth. The Americans were unable to match this feat until 1958. Understandably, they were deeply concerned at how quickly the Soviets had progressed in the Space Race; espionage was suspected. Three months after the Krogers’ home was raided, Fidel Castro declared his revolution in Cuba to be Socialist. This act humiliated America’s new president, John FitzGerald Kennedy, who received a drubbing from the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, when the pair first met in Vienna in June 1961. Recalling the incident at a later date, JFK admitted, ‘He beat the hell out of me’. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as the threat of Nuclear Armageddon threatened, there was good reason to believe the Communists were gaining the upper hand in the Cold War.

Simultaneously stoking and sating people’s paranoia about Mutually Assured Destruction, a new genre of spy fiction provided fantastic stories about the enemies in people’s midst. The villains thwarted by Ian Fleming’s James Bond were invariably larger than life caricatures with melodramatic schemes for world domination. The foe that surfaced in John le Carré’s novels, the first of which, Call For The Dead, was published in 1961, seemed all the scarier for their apparent normality and ability to hide in plain sight.

Two weeks after the police raided Cranley Drive, Marilyn Monroe divorced Arthur Miller. She spent much of the next six months recovering from physical illness and depression. News of the Portland spy ring’s discovery may never have reached her. If it did, it’s anyone’s guess whether the spies’ use of Yardley products recalled to her mind the comment she had made in the Savoy five years’ earlier. It is tempting to think the Krogers and their spy masters were attentive in 1956 and that they had been influenced by Monroe’s remarks. How better – and cruelly ironic – to disguise confidential secrets heading into Communist Russia than in containers depicting a popular brand associated with one of the Capitalist West’s best loved Stars.

An edited version of this article first appeared in Article Magazine.

A History of the Christmas Jumper

The following is a longer version of a piece that I was commissioned to write for George at ASDA. An abridged version appeared in the Sunday Express

Few Christmas traditions generate as much amusement and attention as the Christmas jumper, with the possible exception of the Brussels sprout. And like the sprout, the jumper’s ability to provoke is at the heart of its growing appeal. Last year, George at ASDA sold over one million festive themed jumpers. This year, they are anticipating to sell even more with an expanded range of over fifty designs for men and women, children and pets, which include favourite seasonal figures, winter landscapes and popular characters from Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally to Darth Vader. Such preparations are necessary: for many people in Britain the Christmas jumper has become jolly serious, with some of its most discerning wearers starting their online knitwear search three months before the Big Day.

The festive knitwear we enjoy today, which features 3d-designs, bright colours and bold patterns, has been popular for the last twenty years. The reindeer rollneck worn by Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) suggests the winter woolly has even reached cult status. How the Christmas jumper became this potent symbol of Christmas cheer is a global tale – at times surprising – of sport, High Society, science and rebellious style.

The Christmas jumper can be traced to the heavy, warm sweaters that were hand-knitted in Scandinavia and Iceland before the twentieth century. Characterised by contrasting bands of geometric patterns, which are popular in today’s Fair Isle knits, the jumpers distinguished men from different communities, one suggestion – now largely debunked -is that this was to identify their bodies if they drowned at sea. Had these jumpers been worn by fisherman alone, it’s doubtful the style would have spread fast or far. The jumpers became widely known because they were associated with another popular – and more upbeat – subject: The Scandinavian sport of skiing.

Skiers needed warm clothing as much as fisherman and as their sport developed during the first half of the twentieth century, initially in northern Europe and then in Austria, knitwear with bands of geometric patterns, their colours influenced by forest landscapes, became common skiwear. The influenza epidemic that ravaged the world between 1918 and 1919, claiming the lives of more people than the First World War, boosted the sport of skiing – and its style – by encouraging a greater focus on health and wellbeing. As affluent travellers returned from the ski slopes of Europe with their colourful knits, the humble jumper was elevated to a symbol of luxury and glamour. Hollywood stars, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, popularised the look and lifestyle of skiing for a majority of people who lived the dream by knitting jumpers for themselves.

The combination of practicality and panache did much to promote wool and knitwear sales after the Second World War. Cheap, colourful and customisable, knitted jumpers were an attractive and commonplace wardrobe staple in the lean post-war years. Scientific advances and the development of synthetic fibres also made it possible to create jumpers that were warm, lightweight and flexible, which only enhanced their appeal. With a little
more assistance from Hollywood, the scene was now set for the festive jumper to make its debut during the 1960s.

The shawl collar cardigan, which was popular throughout the Sixties, and a must-have item in any Prepster’s wardrobe since, featured in a variety of Silver Screen contexts, worn by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), Robert Vaughn in The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1965) and Alain Delon in Les Aventuriers (1967). At the same time, the fashionable cardigan – and knitwear in general – became increasingly common in Christmas advertising campaigns as models replaced suits and dresses with up-to-the-minute style to entice consumers to buy a wide range of festive goods. The winter woolly was now associated with Christmas.

Whilst jumpers were increasingly worn during the festive season, they were still a long way from the multi-sensory sweaters we know and love today. As Kurt Griswold confronted angry neighbours, disinterested family and a mean-spirited boss to create the perfect holiday in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), he wore jumpers decorated with geometric patterns rather than reindeer heads, snowmen and Santa. Macaulay Culkin’s jumpers were no more festive when he defended his family residence from the “Wet Bandits” in Home Alone (1990), although he did have an impressive range of bobble hats, one of which included a repeat reindeer design. Christmas jumpers were similarly plain in the television-movie Christmas in Connecticut (1992), directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Tony Curtis. And yet, just ten years later, Colin Firth wore his striking black rollneck featuring a red-nosed Rudolph in the first of the Bridget Jones movies.

The pop-culture and catwalk of 1980s-Britain explains why festive knitwear developed attitude, and provides the final link in the story of the Christmas jumper. Throughout the Eighties there was renewed interest in vintage vogues. Boy George and the New Romantics, who wore dramatic and historically-referenced clothing, characterised this trend. In part, they offered a challenge to the period’s consumerism, which latched onto big-name brands, and the severity of Punk. Knitwear, which was authentic, affordable and flexible, provided an ideal means to create looks that were diverse, playful and individual. Fashion designers recognised this. Of course, the connection between knitwear and fashion was longstanding. In the 1950s, Coco Chanel had presented her knitted suit. Before her, Jean Patou had produced brightly coloured sportswear and Elsa Schiaparelli designed jumpers with abstract patterns. Fashion designers of the 1980s continued this tradition, but injected the angst and energy of the decade into their creations. The result was bright, heavily patterned jumpers like Joseph Ettedgui’s ‘Tiger’ turtleneck sweater and Patricia Robert’s multi-coloured patchwork Romany cardigan. The appearance of edgier knitwear on the catwalk made it widely desirable. Similar styles were soon adopted by stars of the Small Screen, including Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show, and by a variety of British television hosts, from Gyles Brandreth to Noel Edmunds.

The Christmas jumper has always had a particular appeal among Britons because of their enjoyment of quirky and playful humour, although it has become a source of merriment in America, where ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’ contests are held. Across Europe, traditional styles of jumper, which resemble those worn by twentieth-century skiers, have remained popular throughout the festive season. In recent years, the geometric pattern that characterised these early winter woollies has become more common in Britain.

It would be interesting to ask Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come about the future of festive knitwear. Three-dimensional printing and wearable technology would definitely make the winter woolly a greater sensory experience and the demand for novelty statement pieces, particularly among men, increases year-on-year. The influence of Christmas jumpers on other clothing areas, including jersey T-Shirts, sweatshirts and dresses, even accessories for pets, is likely to be another growth areas in years to come and ASDA, one the largest suppliers of festive knitwear, has begun to anticipate the trend this year as part of its expanded collection.

But to return to the present, the first two weeks of December are among the busiest for Christmas jumper buying in the UK and Christmas Sweater Day, which is an opportunity to support the work of Save the Children by fundraising in festive knitwear on 16 December, is fast approaching. So, some serious decision-making is called for if you’re planning to join the 19 per cent of Britons – 12.3 million people – who will be wearing a Christmas jumper on Christmas Day.

Icons of Style…

 …Or How Did Robert Pattinson Get So Stylish?

 This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

 

Are league tables of Best Dressed male celebrities an accurate barometer of men’s attitude towards style?

The ascendancy of Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who has remained in the top five of GQ‘s Best Dressed list since winning in 2010, makes me hope not; he’s usually photographed wearing jeans, T-Shirts and baseball caps. But it’s hard to tell.

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And The Winner Is…

It would be naive to think that Best Dressed lists were conceived in their various formats – …of a country, …of the world, …among celebrities, …among average Joes – as a purely journalistic endeavour, to record, for the present and posterity, an accurate, if chronologically specific, report on the state of men’s fashion. But there are an increasing number of indications to suggest that Best Dressed lists are devised almost solely to boost magazine subscriptions, by creating a social media storm of commentary and debate. For starters, the presentation of Best Dressed lists has become much less serious in recent years. Some are even humorous, or try to be; Esquire‘s ’75 Best Dressed Of All Time’ was topped and tailed by two rib-tickling choices, the caveman and the magazine’s iconographic hero, Esky. In 2010, GQ‘s annual Best Dressed list ranked the Fantastic Mr Fox fourth out of one hundred. The use of humour to make male fashion appear less foreboding to the sartorially scared gent might be helpful, but commentators (yes, the social media trick has worked) have been quick to argue that this makes the lists seem contrived. Or at least more contrived than they already are.

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This comment is not as cynical as it seems. Within Best Dressed lists there is always a striking correlation between the media noise surrounding a particular celebrity and their position in the Best Dressed league; the greater the level of hype around the individual, the higher the position they are likely to attain in the year’s list. The all-male British pop group Take That is a case in point. In 2010, they came out of nowhere to be ranked second in GQ‘s Best Dressed list. It is hardly coincidental that this was the same year in which they staged their fifteen-year reunion.[i] Nor is it really surprising that the middle-aged boy band came second in the list to Robert Pattinson. The British actor was riding high in the press following the release of the third film in the Twilight Saga series; the first and second films had been released in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Pattinson climbed a remarkable thirty-eight places from 2009’s Best Dressed list to scoop the top prize in 2010.

To Boldy Pick

Pattinson’s win also revealed the increasing importance of the silver screen to the sartorial league. In 2010, Pattinson was the only actor to feature in the top five. In the Best Dressed list for 2013, all bar one of the top five are movie stars. And they are a particular sort of movie star. Geeks. All of the Best Dressed actors have appeared in a major science fiction film or television series within the past couple of years: Tom Hiddleston (Avengers Assemble, 2012; Thor, 2011), Robert Pattinson (The Twilight Saga, 2008-2012), David Tennant (Dr Who (BBC TV), 2005-2013) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, 2013). The predominance of sci-fi among this year’s Best Dressed is actually not atypical. The three actors in last year’s top five had also starred in a recent science fiction film or TV series: Matt Smith (Dr Who (BBC TV), 2010-2013), Robert Pattinson (again) and Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, 2012). The theme is also evident within the Best Dressed of 2011; Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick Ass, 2010), Nicholas Hoult (Clash of the Titans (2010), Fable III (video game) (2010) and Robert Pattinson (again!).

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Mode à la Robert Pattinson

The complimentary connections between fashion and film have long been noted, but it does appear that movie stars have a greater likelihood of appearing in the upper echelons of Best Dressed lists than singers, sportsman and models.[ii] Again, Robert Pattinson’s Best Dressed success might explain why. According to e-journalists Mary Fischer and Adam Fox, it was Pattinson’s ability to dress up to the nines for red carpet events, where he was widely photographed in blue and burgundy suits, that assured his success.[iii] The media hype surrounding these events and the viral transmission of photographs and commentary recorded there, seems to have created a sort of flash-bulb blindness to Pattinson’s normal sartorial indiscretions. Whilst musicians and models do have high visibility events, nothing quite competes with the launch of a million-dollar blockbuster. Moreover, clothing plays an integral role in the characterisation of actors. This is not so true of songs, sport or modelling.

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As the star of a hugely successful science fiction movie franchise, Robert Pattinson appears to have had the wind beneath his wings. His three-year residency within GQ‘s top five Best Dressed seems almost inevitable. But there have been other science fiction films, many with more street and cinematic credibility between 2010 and 2013 than the Twilight films. There have also been scores of male actors who might, on the face of it, have had better, or at least more consistent, sartorial success than Pattinson over the same period; for example, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia, Source Code), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Avengers Assemble), Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises, TRON: Legacy, Inception), to name but a few.

So why Robert Pattinson?

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The Gosling Paradox

A possible answer is suggested by Adam Fox, who suggests that Pattinson is the Everyman, with ‘his greasy untamed hairstyle, coupled with his love of low-key clothes – jeans and T-Shirts topped off with unbuttoned button-downs – is fitting for his laid back lifestyle.’[iv] At the same time, however, and as I have indicated above, Pattinson is able to turn things around and scrub up impressively for red carpet events. His style is versatile and probably reflects the way that many men (and women) dress; casual and comfortable for daily wear, elegant and erect for formal occasions. Sartorial versatility was also a hallmark of male icons from the past, perhaps most notably Steve McQueen. But even here there is problem because Pattinson’s chameleon-like approach to dress is adopted by one other notable Hollywood A-Lister, Ryan Gosling, who has started to hit headlines for his casual and carefully disheveled look. Gosling has also received recognition in Best Dressed lists, although he has yet to rival Pattinson for longevity.

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But if there is something that Pattinson has got over Gosling, it is vulnerability. And I think this is key to understanding his sartorial appeal. Gosling can adopt the geek chic look, but any man who has seen the trailer for Gangster Squad might sense that it is just that, a look. In contrast, the edgy, vulnerable, non-conformist and simple roles that Pattinson has hitherto played – even in Cosmopolis, Pattinson’s wealthy and successful character is fragile – seems to fit with his character; this is a young man who does not appear particularly athletic and, as recent events have revealed, is unlucky in love. Pattinson’s simple, almost uncaring, approach to dress truly does seem to reflect his widely reported circumstances in life. This is something that men appear to engage with, especially as similar traits are apparent among the other top five finalists in GQ‘s Best Dressed competition. The model David Gandy might seem like an exception, but he has blogged about dogs (he is the first ambassador for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home) and is known for his love of cars; he is, therefore, very much a ‘man’s model’.

A Suitable Model

That men should be interested in the character of their sartorial role models is not all that surprising when you consider that male dress is remarkably homogeneous. In work, male dress is based around the suit, and has been for the past 200 years; in leisure, male dress is based around jeans and T-Shirts or sweaters (there is some seasonal variation). As the majority of men look alike, their characters will almost invariably assume greater importance, if individual distinctions are to be made.[v] The majority of male style icons are remembered as much for their ebullient and jealousy-inducing characters as for their glad rags; think of Beau Brummell, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, the Duke of Windsor, David Bowie, David Beckham, to name but a few. Of the icons of yesteryear, many commentators remark on how ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ they appeared. In part, this is because the absence of social media meant that celebrity scandals of the past did not hit the press in the same way that they do today, but it is also because the character behind the clothing matters to men.

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In his Icons of Men’s Style, John Sims observes that much of the men’s wardrobe – key looks, acceptable colours, standard silhouettes – has been largely the same for perhaps a century or more.’ To talk of changes within male dress, is to refer to ‘a ponderous, evolutionary advancement rather than … sweeping statements.’[vi] The majority of men are therefore anxious about stepping out and making a bold sartorial statement. If they do, it is usually because they have seen a friend or colleague do it first, and the chances are that this friend or colleague is adapting something that he saw a male actor wear on screen or in a photograph from Tumblr and Instagram. But if a male star is to be widely referenced for style – or anything else, for the matter – it is evidently important that he be trusted and understood first. Being in a sci-fi film also seems to help. The anxiety that men feel about their clothes is seemingly assuaged if they receive, or adapt, sartorial tips from somebody they think they can trust, and who better than somebody they perceive to be like them? This does not seem to be such an important factor in women’s style, which tends to change more frequently.

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All in all, then, it is not surprising that Robert Pattinson has lasted so long in GQ‘s Best Dressed league. It would also appear that, gimmicks aside, Best Dressed lists do reveal something quite significant – and telling – about the state of men’s style. Even if I do not quite approve of jeans and T-Shirts.


[i] D. Batty, ‘Take That reunion – Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow share stage’. www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/sep/13/take-that-reunion-robbie-williams. Accessed: 19-vij-2013.

[ii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (London, 1978), 304-310; Hollywood Costume, ed. D. Nadoolman Landis (London, 2012).

[iii] A. Fox, ‘Style Icon. Robert Pattinson’. http://uk.askmen.com/fashion/style_icon_150/150_robert-pattinson-style-icon.html. Accessed: 18-vij-2013; M. Fischer, ‘Robert Pattinson makes GQ’s Best Dressed list thanks to Kirsten Stewart’s cheating’. http://thestir.cafemom.com/beauty_style/14896/robert_pattinson_makes_gqs_. Accessed: 18-vij-2013.

[iv] Fox, ‘Style Icon’.

[v] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 98.

[vi] J. Sims, Icons of Men’s Style (London, 2011), 6.

Light Up! Cigars & Man’s Self Esteem

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

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A Three-Step Process

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

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A New Man

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

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

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Old Dogs & Tricks

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

Burning Desire

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

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

They Don’t Make Them Like That Anymore

This article was originally posted with Parisian Gentleman.

 

The Style & Symbolism of Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper & Cary Grant

Man’s stock appears to be falling. He is suffering a public relations crisis.

Three years ago, Hanna Rosin cogently contemplated ‘The End of Man’, as his physical size and strength are of little consequence in our post-industrial society.[i] Four months ago, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen baulked at the ‘new sex appeal’ promoted by James Bond’s twenty-third cinematic outing, which preferences Man’s pectorals and glutes over his personality and gumption.[ii] The debate about Man’s societal role and public presentation gives a new twist to age-old discussions about ‘great men’ and icons, particularly from the golden years of Hollywood. Cohen suggests that Man’s present focus on physical perfection has emasculated him. To make the point, he compares Daniel Craig’s Bond with Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill in Hitchcock’s 1959 film, North By Northwest:

Grant – for all his good looks – represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy – a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have.[iii]

craig

Richard Cohen berates Bond, and his creators, for presenting an image of Man that he finds distasteful. He approves of Bond’s choice of tipple (Macallan Scotch), but wishes the super spy possessed some of the intellectualism and sophistication, even some of the physical flaws, of former Hollywood icons, like Grant. But Cohen’s argument doesn’t quite stack up. Lost in his polemic, he loses sight of the wood and the trees. He acknowledges that Bond is ‘zeitgeisty’ and that his focus on physical form reflects contemporary male concerns, but overlooks the fact that a character like Roger O. Thornhill – ‘short, a man of a certain age’[iv] – would probably not appeal to the majority of modern movie goers. Grant was of his time, in the same way that Bond is now of his. It is Cohen, rather than our culture, that is chronologically confused. But what does this mean for those men hailed as icons of style from the Silver Screen? The question can be explored by looking at three very different leading men, Fred Astaire (1899-1987), Gary Cooper (1901-1961) and Cary Grant (1904-1981).

We Three Kings

Astaire-Canotier-peak-lapels-820x1024Astaire was theatrical, Cooper was taciturn and Grant was trendy. We each have our favourite, but these three men all had sartorial flair. Slender and short in stature, Astaire favoured wide peaked-lapels, typically on double-breasted jackets, to emphasise the width of his upper torso and the thinness of his waist. Jackets were usually without vents, so as to hug the hips and create a crisp silhouette as Astaire flung himself across the stage and screen.[v] Pocket squares and boutonnières added colour and texture to dark-coloured suits and further emphasised the width of Astaire’s chest. It also made his head, which was variously described as being akin to Mickey Mouse and a Bartlett pear, less prominent.[vi]

634638670937789142_12aClothes were used to conceal Cary Grant’s physical imperfections, too: his thick neck, sloping shoulders and wonky walk.[vii] Whilst narrower armholes on jackets created the illusion of height, large tie knots and shirts with higher collars helped to balance the proportions of the neck.[viii] Acutely sensitive to how he appeared on film – he (briefly) retired from Hollywood in November 1952 because he thought that he was too old to be a convincing leading male at the age of forty-eight[ix] – Grant was loyal to tailors who served him well, from Oxxford of Chicago, to Hawes & Curtis and Kilgour of London.[x] Shopping on both sides Atlantic and familiar with English and American styles from his upbringing, Grant’s image possessed the confidence of the New World and the charm of the Old.

cooper-pg1-829x1024The same was true of Gary Cooper, who bought from Brioni in Rome, Anderson & Sheppard in London and Brooks Brothers in New York, among others.[xi] Raised in an American frontier town, which introduced him to the bold colours and textiles of Mexican garments, Cooper was educated in Edwardian England, so became equally familiar with Tweed and the three-piece suit.[xii] More so than Astaire and Grant, whose sartorial style was sometimes so polished that it looked positively clinical (think of Grant in his grey three-button Kilgour suit in North by Northwest and the matching grey tie[xiii]), Cooper seemed to enjoy the mix of different textures and colours. In his 1952 film High Noon, in which he plays the world-weary Marshall Will Kane, we get a glimpse of Cooper’s sartorial play as he wears a dark polka dot string tie with a black and grey striped waistcoat. Unlike many of the other male actors in the film, Cooper’s character also wears a penny collar shirt.

Being The Part

In early Hollywood films, the lead character, the goodies and the baddies, were often distinguished by subtle wardrobe differences. For Cary Grant this was perhaps less the case, as his suits never seemed so different to the other male protagonists, even if they did fit better, but Fred Astaire was particularly good at making sure he stood out. In his 1938 movie, Swing Time, a film that opens and closes with a sartorial gag about ‘cuffs’ on trousers, Astaire ensured distinction by wearing a double-breasted dinner jacket in the evening dance scenes with a ‘floppy’ bow tie. Nearly all of the men sharing these scenes wore single-breasted suits, wing collar shirts and conventional bow ties in white or black. Astaire also had a boutonnière and a pocket square, whereas other actors had one or the other, or neither.

The distinction that stars attained through their dress reveals how the film industry has changed – and with it, notions of the icon. When Astaire, Cooper and Grant were making their films, Hollywood had an increasing number of make-up artists, stylists and costume designers, but the leading stars often dressed themselves, sometimes with their own clothes.[xiv] This personal touch is a far cry from today, where an actor’s wardrobe is sourced for them, frequently to endorse a particular couturier or brand. Personality is particularly important when pondering the nature of icons. For film stars of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood are never revered for their dress alone. They are eulogised for what they represented, often a moral integrity or an aversion to excess, of which their dress was a key signifier.

cary-grant_northbynorthwest

And so we begin to see why Richard Cohen’s attempt to conflate the societal significance of contemporary and classic film stars is misplaced.

The personal touch of these halcyon days meant that an actor’s personality shined through into their performance, no matter how consummate they were. Reflecting on his respect for Gary Cooper, Ralph Lauren has spoken about the actor being ‘convincingly authentic’. He was ‘handsome, honorable, honest.’[xv] Giorgio Armani has said much the same about Cary Grant, whom he thinks possessed ‘an easy manner, his ready wit and charm complemented by his ability to wear clothes effortlessly.’[xvi] The truth was probably the different. Grant spent an achingly long amount of time copying actors whom he thought were stylish, like Jack Buchannan, Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.[xvii] Fred Astaire was similarly focused on the perfection of his appearance. His personal relationship with Ginger Rogers may have suffered as a result.

But above all [Astaire] put effort, relentless effort, into making his own vision about the art of the dance look perfectly effortless.[xviii]

But back then, Hollywood stars, though hounded by paparazzi – a term coined from Frederico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita – had an ability to craft their image, almost surgically in the case of Grant. The world generally received stars as stars chose to present themselves, which is not at all how it works today, as technological developments have made media moguls of us all. As Anne Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue has said of New York Times’ street style photographer Bill Cunningham, ‘we all get dressed for Bill.’

A Different World

Technology is probably the single most significant factor that has transformed the film industry and perceptions of its leading stars’ style. Lacking the CGI wizardry of today, films between the 1930s and 1950s used clothing to provide audiences with visual cues about the actors’ state of mind and emotions. Think of Gary Cooper’s open shirt collar and waistcoat as he prepares to confront Frank Miller in High Noon, or his torn suit at the end of Mr Deeds Comes to Town. In Hitchcock’s 136-minute thriller, North by Northwest, ten different scenes focus on dress and appearance, which means that an actors’ clothing is explicitly referenced, on average, every thirteen minutes. Key clothing props include Grant’s tortoise shell shades on the train and his plain-sight camouflage as a ‘red cap’. The scripts of these earlier films were also different than those of today, as much depended on the actors’ chemistry with one another to convey a point. Consider the dialogue in North by Northwest, when Cary Grant’s character, Roger O. Thornhill, becomes acquainted with his heroine, Eve Kendal, played by Eva Marie Saint, on a Chicago-bound train:

North-by-Northwest-005

CG: …honest women frighten me.

EMS: Why?

CG: I don’t know. Somehow they seem to put me at a disadvantage.

EMS: Because you’re not honest with them?

CG: Exactly.

EMS: Like that business with the seven parking tickets.

CG: What I mean is, the moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending that I have no desire to make love to her.

EMS: What makes you think you have to conceal it?

CG: She might find the idea objectionable.

EMS: Then again, she might not.

 The verbal volley is light and edgy. The parallel scene in Daniel Craig’s first Bond film Casino Royale, when he meets his female partner Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, leaves much less to the imagine – because technology has cursed us with shorter attention spans and we need to be told what to think about our male and female leads? – At times, the dialogue is simply crude:

Casino-Royale-Daniel-Craig-Eva-Green

EG: …What else can you surmise, Mr Bond?

DC: About you, Miss Lynd? Well, your beauty is a problem. You worry you won’t be taken seriously.

EG: Which one can say about any attractive woman with half a brain.

DC: True. But this one over compensates by wearing slightly masculine clothing and being more aggressive than her female colleagues, which gives her a somewhat prickly demeanour. And, ironically enough, this makes it less likely for her to be accepted and promoted by her male superiors, who mistake her insecurities for arrogance…

EG: Alright. By the cut of your suit you went to Oxford, or wherever, and naturally think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain. My guess is that you didn’t come from money and your friends never let you forget it, which means you were at that school by the grace of someone’s charity – hence the chip on your shoulder […] Now having just met you, I wouldn’t go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that you think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government’s money and off your perfectly formed arse.

DC: You noticed?

EG: Even accountants have imagination.

And so we’re back to where we started, with the glutes.

Icons & Anxieties

Richard Cohen’s personal anxieties might diminish if men like Cary Grant returned to Hollywood blockbusters, but it wont happen, at least not in the immediate future. Films – and the clothing their stars sport – can generally only impress if they engage with the zeitgeist, if they in someway endorse contemporary societal mores.[xix] Presently, people want male action figures to be well-toned, so that is what they will get. As Tom Payne has explained, our relationship with celebrity and fame is complex, as we reserve the right to worship and denigrate our idols as we deem fit. This has always been the case, but developments in (social) media have conspired to give us, the viewers and voyeurs, ever more power to get our own way.[xx] It is hardly coincidental that many of the Silver Screen stars whom we acknowledge as icons reached the peak of their careers before the term paparazzi was coined in the 1960s. Today, our stars don’t last long at all, even if they do burn more brightly than their predecessors when under the spotlight. This explains why we no longer really have icons. For Hollywood figures of the past, like Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, this is actually rather good news. They will continue to inspire – perhaps more than ever – because they now represent something immutable and steadfast, something so different to today. And as the characters remain timeless and appeal because of their distance and difference, so too will the clothes they wore to work their magic.

The End of Man may be nigh, but at least we’ll go out looking grand … and buff.


[i] H. Rosin, ‘The End of Men’, Atlantic Magazine (July/August, 2010). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[iii] Cohen, ‘James Bond’.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 30.

[vi] G. Bruce-Boyer, Fred Astaire Style (New York, 2004), 6.

[vii] R. Torregrossa, Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style (London, 2006), 61-66, 68-72.

[viii] Ibid., 63-64; ‘Style Icon: Cary Grant’. www.thewelldressedman.net/style-icon-cary-grant. Accessed: 9-iij-2013.

[ix] Torregrossa, Cary Grant, 134.

[x] Ibid., 62; E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 100.

[xi] G. Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper: Enduring Style (Brooklyn, 2011), 186; Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 79.

[xii] Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper, 172-73.

[xiii] Flusser, Clothes and the Man, 159.

[xiv] D. Nadoolman Landis, ‘Setting the Scene: A Short History of Hollywood Costume Design 1912-2012’, Hollywood Costume, ed. D. Nadoolman Landis (London, 2012), 13, 19-30.

[xv] R. Lauren in Bruce Boyer, Gary Cooper, 8.

[xvi] G. Armani in Torregrossa, Cary Grant, ix.

[xvii] Torregrossa, Cary Grant, 42-57.

[xviii] J. Epstein, ‘The Astaire Way to Paradise’, The Hudson Review (Spring, 2008), 130.

[xix] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1993), 305-307.

[xx] T. Payne, Fame: what the classics tell us about our cult of celebrity (New York, 2009).

When Fashion loses Flair

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

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

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

Influential Icons

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

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

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

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

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

Fallen Idols

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

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

The Royal Underdog

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

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

Branding & Belonging

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[viii] Ibid., 38.

[ix] Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 65.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xvi] Ibid., 176-83.

[xviii] Payne, Fame, 182.

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

[xxi] Ibid., 160-65.

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

[xxiii] Payne, Fame, 11-35.

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

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

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

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

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

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