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 Rakish Progress: The Image and Influence of David Hockney’s Style

The text of this post is based on a talk I gave at the Royal Academy on Saturday for RA Lates’ ‘A Hockney Happening’.

Before reading further, pause for a few seconds.

Close your eyes and conjure an image David Hockney in your mind.

So, what did your Hockney look like? Probably something like the photograph below. I’m certain you would have got the wave of blonde peroxide hair, perhaps slightly dishevelled, and the thick-rimmed, owl-like glasses. If your mental imagining captured more than Hockney’s face, you may have dressed him in a polka-dot bow tie or a knitted sweater. Bright, contrasting colours would have featured somewhere. If your Hockney had legs and feet, perhaps he was wearing bright socks, white sneakers, or, as below, something more lively.

It is possible that your Hockney was wearing something more formal, perhaps a suit, as in this photograph, below, from 1979, where Hockey is pictured opposite Cecil Beaton. The pair are relaxing in Beaton’s ‘Winter Garden’ (aka conservatory) in Reddish House, Wiltshire. Hockney was staying with Beaton at the time, to draw his portrait for an upcoming feature in British Vogue. The sittings did not start well, for Hockney’s bold style of drawing apparently highlighted Beaton’s wrinkles.[i]

The Hockney of this image looks ‘complete’. He possesses all of what have become leitmotifs of a style of dress that many commentators, including Mr Porter’s Jeremy Langmead, have described as ‘uncontrived’.[ii] But I don’t think this is right, for the Hockney ‘look’ did not have an immaculate birth. It evolved as Hockney’s personal and professional confidence increased, in much the same way that Cecil Beaton’s appearance had done decades before. The clue, I think, is Hockney’s socks. Today, you can choose to buy odd pairs of socks – it’s actually a ‘thing’ – but in the 1970s, this was not an option. If you wanted to wear odd socks, you had to separate the pair yourself. Hockney did this, and he was apparently inspired by poetry to so. As an adult, he recalled the following lines from a poem by Robert Herrick, which reveals much about his interest in juxtaposition and imbalance, a characteristic of his art as much as his appearance:

A sweet disorder in dress

Rekindles in clothes a wantonness.[iii]

Hockney’s brightly coloured raiment looks welcoming, friendly and jolly, but it is no less contrived for this, and I think the socks are the tell. Hockney has succeeded in creating a look of studied indifference that has helped him to become a one-man brand. His resolve to do this is similar to other artists, perhaps notably Jean-Etienne Liotard, whose incongruous appearance in eighteenth-century London – long beard and Turkish-style
clothing – apparently enabled him to charge more for his portraits than rivals, much to their annoyance.[iv]

In 1954, the Hockney look was incipient, as this self-portrait collage shows. Hockney was sixteen and still living in Bradford. Rationing after the Second World War was just coming to an end. Hockney’s early years were therefore probably very grey in both a literal, creative and intellectual sense. The colour of his clothing perhaps reflected a desire for stimulation and dynamism. It may have also been influenced by the second-hand clothes that Hockney’s father purchased from bankrupt estates through the clothing store, Sykes Vintage. Colour aside, the dark hair and large, NHS prescription spectacles do not make Hockney distinctive.

Hockney’s ‘look’ emerged with the dyeing of his hair. Apparently, Hockney and friends from the Royal College of Art saw a Clariol commercial on television that proclaimed ‘Blondes have more fun’.[v] The young artists needed no further encouragement and spent the afternoon dyeing their locks. Next came the glasses. In 1964, whilst driving
through Iowa City, Hockney apparently saw a pair of heavy horn-rimmed glasses in an opticians. He stopped to buy them, ditching his NHS prescription, because he wanted to look more professional.[vi] Hereafter, Hockney began to experiment with his clothing, but it is noteworthy that no matter how bright his outfits became, they were rarely overpowering.[vii] In all that he wore, and wears, there is balance and evidence of curation.

I think this explains why you would have been able to conjure such a clear image of David Hockney in your mind, and, why so many fashion brands and designers have taken inspiration from his wardrobe. For example, Hockney’s Californian colour palette was said to have influenced Osman Yousefzada’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. In the same season, Bill Gayten, the interim creative director at John Galliano, drew inspiration from Hockney’s ‘Bigger Splash’ (1967). Burberry’s homage to Hockney in 2005 is perhaps the best known catwalk collection to have conjured with his bold use of colour and contrasting textures.[viii] Advice on how to dress like David Hockney has also appeared online, via Mr Porter.

So, the burning question: how can you achieve the Hockney look for yourself? After dyeing his hair, Hockney is said to have imagined London’s Bond Street where everyone had peroxide-blonde locks. Hockney was not so taken with the aesthetic appeal of neon blonde, but he was excited by the fun of dyeing hair and the dramatic results it produced.[ix] It is rare to be able to experience what an individual looks and feels like in his clothes, but for Hockney, this may just be possible, that is, if you are prepared to accept that blondes have more fun…

[i] B.L. Wild, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (London, 2016), 83-86.

[ii] S. Chilvers, ‘Why David Hockney is my all-time style hero’, The Guardian (23 January 2012), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jan/23/david-hockney-my-style-hero (accessed: September 2016).

[iii] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 2 1975-2012 (London, 2014), 146.

[iv] C. Baker, ‘An Artist in the Age of the Enlightenment’, Jean-Etienne Liotard 1702-1789, eds. C. Baker et al. (London, 2016), 18

[v] C. Simon Sykes, Hockney: The Biography, Volume 1 1937-1975 (London, 2011), 97.

[vi] Ibid., 153.

[vii] Ibid., 134, 180; Hockney Vol. 2, 33.

[viii] Chilvers, ‘David Hockney’.

[ix] Hockney Vol. 1, 110.

A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton

It’s been a busy month following the publication of my book, A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton by Thames & Hudson in Europe and America. Last week, on 14 March, to mark the international release of the book, I was joined by celebrated interior designer Nicky Haslam to discuss Cecil Beaton’s style and sartorial legacy in the sumptuous surroundings of Savile Row tailor Huntsman. Nicky and Beaton were long-time friends and so it was very special to hear episodes from the Sixties about Beaton’s clothing and changing attitudes to dress; Nicky said that no matter what the occasion, Beaton always looked perfectly attired! It meant much to talk in Huntsman because this is the only one of Beaton’s Savile Row tailors to still occupy the same space from the time he was a customer. To celebrate the event, the shop had been beautifully decorated with various photographs of Beaton, generously provided by the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s. We were incredibly fortunate to have Richard Young taking photographs (who has copyright over all images featured here).

The book has also featured in various magazines and newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, El Pais, Esquire (UK), The Cut, London Fashion Week: Daily and The World of Interiors. And that is not all!

I am talking about the book at various events around the UK during the coming months and it would be lovely to see lots of people there… Up next is a talk at the Victoria & Albert Museum (5 April) and an ‘in conversation’ about Beaton’s clothing and photography between photographer extraordinaire Tim Walker and me as part of Bath In Fashion (18 April). I think tickets for both events are still available!






Framing Fashion

Why Taking The Money Shot Has Never Been Harder

An edited version of this article was originally published with the London College of Fashion’s Pigeons & Peacocks.


 “They’re supposed to be soft like that. They’re supposed to be backlit. It’s maybe all the things she doesn’t like, but that’s what they’re supposed to be.”[i]

The disagreement between American Vogue’s Creative Director, Grace Coddington, and Design Director, Charlie Churchward, which features in R.J. Cutler’s documentary The September Issue, revolves around a Brassaï-inspired shoot that features young women posing in a Parisian-looking bar in 1920s-style dress.


Coddington wanted to preserve the soft colour and blurry quality of her photographs; Churchward, responding to concerns from Editor Anna Wintour, wanted to ‘pump them up’. The exchange added spice to Cutler’s film, but it highlights how approaches to fashion photography have changed over the decades. Coddington and Churchward were not engaging in a personal spat; rather, they were advocating different photographic approaches. Coddington, who has worked with some of the century’s most acclaimed photographers, from Lord Snowden and David Bailey to Helmut Newton and Patrick Demarchelier, relies on personal instinct rather than personal computers to create her pictures. In Cutler’s film and in her recently published memoirs, Coddington acknowledges her old fashioned inclinations, although claims she is no technophobe. Churchward, on the other hand, wants to use technology to boost and enhance images, to make them as bright and clear as possible. He also seems averse to anything too different; in the film, at any rate, his counsel is always tailored to Wintour’s wants. The personality, the magic and the  fantasy that make Coddington’s work stand out seems to have increasingly little place beneath Vogue’s celebrity-centred cover.

If she could have spared the time, Coddington would have enjoyed two recent London exhibitions that celebrated the life and works of Norman Parkinson (National Theatre)[ii] and Erwin Blumenfeld (Somerset House).[iii] Like Coddington, both men injected their personality, or personas, into their photography. Parkinson, with his carefully dishevelled moustache, revelled in the pseudo-aristocratic air that he created. His mischievous sense of humour is evident in many of his photographs, which often make play with authority and tradition; like his 1963 image for Life magazine, which features Melanie Hampshire and Jill Kennington talking to two British bobbies, or his 1975 photograph for American Vogue, where a red-clad Jerry Hall swings a red Communist flag in front of red Communist poster board.

Models Talking to Policemen

By contrast, Blumenfeld, who worked almost entirely from his New York studio, seems to have been a more foreboding, perhaps even arrogant, figure. Feelings of self-doubt may have contributed to his bizarre death; he is said to have repeatedly run up and down the Spanish steps in Rome to trigger a heart attack. Blumenfeld’s instense and exquisitely choreographed photographs, which are characterised by rich textures and a limited colour palette, reflect his troubled personality, for beneath the beauty lurks something sinister and dangerous. Whenever I think of Blumenfeld, I picture his blonde-haired ‘Virgin in the City’, which seems to have been produced in homage to the movie poster for Fritz Lang’s dystopian epic Metropolis; or his promotional images for Chesterfield Cigarettes, which feature a sultry femme fatale with dark red lipstick and coordinating fingernails nonchalantly inhaling and exhaling. Unfortunately, the back-story that plays such an integral part in the photographs of Parkinson, Blumenfeld and Coddington is conspicuously absent from much modern fashion photography.


In part, this is inevitable. Parkinson and Blumenfeld were working at a time when commerce, technology and democracy were opening up the world. They were among the first photographers to capture the exotic sights of faraway destinations and to experiment with new advances in technology. Their work was pioneering and it has stood the test of time because of its novelty. A novelty that scores of photographers have tried to reinterpret, as shoots by Julian Broad and Elena Rendina in July’s Harper’s Bazaar demonstrate. But the images that Parkinson and Blumenfeld brought to life through their lens are not iconic simply because they were the first of their kind. Their photographs are revered and imitated because they are so characterful and technically accomplished. So here’s a paradox. The development of new photographic technologies, not to mention editing software, has probably increased the photographer’s ability to create and conjure, and yet many contemporary fashion shoots are devoid of texture, diverse colours and exotic landscapes. Where have the Parkinsons and Blumenfelds gone?

The photographs that sell clothes and desirable lifestyles in fashion magazines today are almost invariably composed with solid colour backgrounds. Movement from models is limited. This might be because models now tend to be A-list celebrities and there is a limit as to what can be asked of them. With agents, contracts and health and safety to consider, I wonder if Angelina Jolie or Anne Hathaway would balance on a white Doric column, as did Appollonia van Ravenstein for Norman Parkinson and British Vogue in 1973? Where fashion shoots are more imaginative, and when A-list celebrities do not feature, the editing of the photographs is often distracting, as is the case with Stéphanie Sednaoui’s pictures in July’s Italian Vogue. Independently produced style magazines, like the recently produced and already critically acclaimed Article, are generally more creative than the giants of Condé Nast and Hearst, but this is usually due to the layout of the magazine and the use various grades of paper, rather than through photography. In fact, the contribution of photography to the marketing of fashion seems to have reached a low ebb. Magazine adverts and their accompanying photography now tend to serve as enticements for online movies. Omega and Dior have recently released photographic films and in so doing follow Persol and Dunhill, among others. Fashion houses, like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney have combined film and photography to create interactive moving images for digital magazines like Post.


This is not to say that contemporary fashion photography is now wholly digitised and banal – and as a fashion historian, rather than a fashion photographer, I am really in no position to judge this, anyway – but I do think that advances in technology and the cult of celebrity make it harder to produce images of the purity of Parkinson and Blumenfeld. Another notable point is that Parkinson and Blumenfeld (even Grace Coddington) had a certain disconnect with the fashion world. They never seem to have been completely enamoured with their editorial employers and resented perceived infringements of their artistic licence. Their relative distance from fashion may have enabled them to see what many career-hungry photographers do not, and today there are many more want-to-be fashion photographers. As Anna Wintour has remarked about Bill Cunningham, a cycling octogenarian who chronicles style for The New York Times, “he sees something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us. And in six months’ time, you know, that will be a trend.’[iv] Is it possible that the outlook of Parkinson and Blumenfeld enabled them to inject a unique objectivity and discipline into their photographs?

But all is not lost. The London exhibitions of Parkinson and Blumenfeld’s work, not to mention the ubiquity of historic references in contemporary clothing collections, suggests that fashion designers and editors are reengaging with the past to make their clothes stand out in what is now an increasingly crowded market. The advent of Instagram and Tumblr, which has made Scott Schuman’s of us all, is also rekindling interest in photographs where the image takes centre stage; and all the better if the exposure and colours of the image are imperfect, because this reflects the story, if not necessarily the reality, of the snapped subjects. Towards the end of The September Issue, Grace Coddington ruefully remarks that she “got left behind somewhere because I’m still a romantic. You have to go charging ahead, you can’t stay behind.”[v] I hope that renewed interest in fashion photography from the past makes people realise that romanticism and modernity are not incompatible.

[i] The September Issue: Anna Wintour and the Making of Vogue. A Film by R.J. Cutler (2009).

[ii] R. Muir, Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion (London, 2012).

[iii] Erwin Blumenfeld Studio, ed. N. Blumenfeld Charbit, F. Cheval & U. Eskildsen (Museum Folkwang, 2013).

[iv] Bill Cunningham NewYork. A Film by Richard Press (2010).

[v] The September Issue.

Cuffs, Ruffs & Contours: dressing men’s necks

This post was originally published with Parisian Gentleman.

Charley: The young ones have no manners. The other day at the carwash, a young man looked me up and down and asked me if I was a natural blonde.

George: What did you say?

Charley: I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘well let’s just say, if I stood on my head, I’d be a natural brunette with lovely breath.

George: You didn’t?

Charley: I did.

The ribald exchange between the despondent Charley and the depressive George Falconer in Tom Ford’s movie adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is an impertinent, if wickedly funny, addition. The dialogue is Ford’s. It does not feature in Isherwood’s original novel, and nor can we imagine it doing so. The pun works in the movie because it pierces the enveloping darkness and distracts, if momentarily, from the apparent inevitably of George’s suicide when the dinner party with Charley ends. For me, the pun also works on another level. In choosing to use a gag that references the sexual innuendo about matching ‘collar and cuffs’, Ford could not have been oblivious to the obvious sartorial allusion and the fact that his personal dress is often remarked upon for the sharpness of his actual collar and cuffs. I like to think Ford is having a bit of fun, finding another way to put his subtle mark on the movie. To his credit, he does this without compromising the integrity of Isherwood’s deeply moving story. Fundamentally, and for my purposes most pressingly, Charley’s ripe rhetoric reveals how sartorially – and culturally – significant the collar and cuffs are.


Stuff & Nonsense?

According to Alan Flusser, a doyen of modern men’s dress, 1827 was a particularly significant year for the collar. This is when a certain Mrs Montague, of Troy, New York, no less, cut the collars from her husband’s shirts, because they were a nuisance to iron. ‘Thus was born the detachable collar.’[i] Flusser is right, but his no-nonsense guide to fine dress overlooks the fact that Mrs Montague’s act of sartorial vandalism – even if her husband’s shirts were ‘filthy’ – was to revive a style, rather than create one.

Since the sixteenth century aristocratic men (and women) had been wearing detachable collars or ruffs, as the starched and frilled variants are invariably termed, to denote their membership of an early modern Leisure Class. Like their American successors, whom Thorstein Veblen theorised about in the nineteenth century, the early adopters of the ruff, whose head was literally ‘held high in an attitude of disdain’, indicated to all that they were unable to undertake practical labours, and did not need to.[ii] The ruff had an avowedly sociological purpose, as portraits of Ançien Régime aristocrats reveal. It was also delicate. If the intricately cut and embroidered starched lace got wet, it would instantly droop, which would have been a fitting, if frustrating, reminder that facades can slip.

The powerful portraiture also shows that the silhouette of men’s dress between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was generally tubular, although toward the end of this period shoulders were narrower.[iii] So long as the sun shone, the ruff increased the man’s physical size and, simultaneously, drew attention to the terminus between the body and head.


Sexually Charged

More so than the ankles and waist, the neck has always been an alluring erogenous zone. This point is possibly more apparent for women, whose garments occasionally feature plunging necklines revealing, and crucially also concealing, their chest. That said, an increasing number of men (including Tom Ford) seem keen to flash their ‘man cleavage’ or ‘he-vage’, as the practice is derogatively referred to. For men, a delicate balance needs to be struck. Revealing a lot of neck and chest seems to work if you have a carpet of chest hair à la Tom Jones. A time machine to transport you back to the Seventies would also be a boon. To reveal too much neck and lack the chest hair can bring on the charge of effeminacy. There is another issue. For a man to wear an open neck or loose collar is, and always has been, to signify that he is casual in mode and ‘off duty’. Serious men wear their collars fastened and tight. Too tight for some. The Men’s Dress Reform Party, active in England between 1929 and 1940, declared:

 …the time has come when, for instance, the young neck of boys, as well as those of girls, should have their share light of air and not least for the sake of the precious thyroid gland which so largely controls the proper development of body and mind.[iv]

The Party went on to suggest that unless boys’ necks were released from their sartorial shackles, their future as leaders of the country would be jeopardised. This is not to say that they would have necessarily approved of the billowing cravat, the bulk of which reduced the size of the collar during the seventeenth century.[v] This ephemeral flowering around the neck was to be the last time the collar played second fiddle to the neckwear. Ever since, men’s neckwear has been subordinate to – quite literally under – the collar. The collar has been adapted and cutaway to accommodate certain types of neckwear, notably during the mid-eighteenth century, but the stiff and vertical fabric that frames the neck and shirt has survived through to today.[vi] The collar is generally less ostentatious, but the fact that it is no longer detachable means it has acquired an important role in men’s shaping dress and aspects of their masculinity.

Which Collar?

According to fashion consultant Tim Gunn, The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion mentions 194 different necklines and collars and 19 different types of cuff.[vii] Alan Flusser’s list is more restrained, but still includes seven styles of collar (buttoned down, point, pin, Windsor, English spread, tab, rounded).[viii] For certain types of collar, there are various names. Flusser’s rounded collar is sometimes referred to as a club or penny collar, for example. The Windsor collar is probably now more conventionally referred to as a cutaway collar; the English spread as a semi cutaway. But the names are a secondary concern. More important is how the collar is worn. And here many men struggle. Despite wearing a suit – and I’ll focus on ‘business’ wear – that determines the silhouette of his dress, and envelops everything else that he wears, there is a tendency among men to view elements of their outfit – shirts, ties, socks, cufflinks – as entirely separate. For example, younger men in England have long had a preference to wear their tie with a bulky Windsor knot à la Premiere League footballers. The confidence and assertion that is proclaimed through this woeful sartorial choice is often lost, however, because the knot is frequently squeezed to fit a point or ‘conventional’ collar. A cutaway collar would be the better choice here. That said, rules can be broken, or at least bent a little bit. Occasionally, I like to wear a cutaway collar with a four in hand knot. The wide collar opening, which exposes more of the tie fabric as it passes around the neck, looks at once traditional and modern. The visual drama – if that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic – can be enhanced if the collar and cuffs are white and the shirt fabric has a light colour or pattern. Gordon Gekko, protagonist in the 1987 film Wall Street, did much to blacken the sartorial reputation of shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs, but this style of shirt, generally with less dramatic colour extremes, is becoming popular again.


Another collar-related style is also becoming more prevalent, albeit in a geographically specific area. In a recent book Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom have drawn attention to the ubiquity of (generally) young men in the London Borough of Hackney who wear their shirts with all of the buttons done up, and without a tie.[ix] The authors rightly assert that:

The simple act of fastening a shirt’s highest button and the plainness of the look it creates belies a variety of intricate and complex intentions.[x]

The look is neat, but odd because of the conspicuous absence of a tie. It is rebellious and, perhaps, ever-so-slightly aggressive, associated as it is with the Mods. The decision to button-up also makes a statement about masculinity. In the same volume, Alexander Fury observes that:

A woman is buttoned into her clothes; a man buttons himself into his. At least, that’s what convention has told us since the mid-19th century, the last time the true gentleman didn’t dress, but was ‘dressed’ by his valet.[xi]

Men’s collars are no longer as strident as the ruff worn by their sixteenth-century forbears, but this does not prevent them from being a significant element in the fashioning of their image. A short collar can indicate conformity and rebellion. It can enhance or compromise perception about men’s masculinity. That said, modern men’s collars will remain as effective as a ruff on a damp day if it is not first understood that this is one area where size most definitely does not fit all.


[i] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 67.

[ii] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1969), 90-91.

[iii] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1978), 109, 114, 123.

[iv] B. Burman, Better and Brighter Clothes: The Men’s Dress Reform Party, 1929-1940, Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009), 132.

[v] Laver, History of Costume, 117.

[vi] Ibid., 160.

[vii] T. Gunn, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible (New York, 2012), 120.

[viii] Flusser, Clothes and the Man, 75-78.

[ix] G. Jonkers & J. van Bennekom, Fantastic Man. Buttoned-Up: a survey of a curious fashion phenomenon (London, 2013).

[x] Ibid., 7.

[xi] Ibid., 59.

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.