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!

 

 

 

 

 

Unmade Man: Making Sense of the Naked Male Model

Here is a link to a post I initially published with Parisian Gentleman. Following the recent spate of penis pageantry on the catwalk and the clamour of commentators to analyse this new… trend?, I thought I would add my pennyworth (from a historical perspective, of course).

(Anti)Social Media, Men & Luxury Fashion

I was pleasantly surprised to receive my pre-ordered iPhone 6 on the day of its release; I had been told to expect a wait of between two and three weeks. As it happens, the delivery was timely. Social Media Week begins on Monday and I shall be considering the relationship between social media and men’s luxury fashion in a panel discussion organised by Like Minds.

So what do I think of Apple’s latest game-changer? Tim Cook gave a stirring keynote address to launch the iPhone, its bigger brother the iPhone Plus and the much-anticipated Apple Watch, but the reality is that this latest version seems little different to earlier incarnations of the iPhone, at least this is my impression after two days of play. In one respect, however, my use of this phone will be different. Not because of the ‘new HD retina display’ or the ’64-bit desk-top class architecture’, but because the protruding camera – a clumsy design decision – means I shall invest for the first time in a protective case.

If my decision to buy a case was easily made, the process of obtaining one will be far harder because very few are available. Whilst some companies (eg. Knomo) have responded speedily to Apple’s latest product launch and provided online previews of cases and sleeves that will fill virtual shelves in forthcoming weeks, many luxury retailers, including Aspinall, Asprey, Bill Amberg, Mulberry and Smythson, have provided no information about future product launches. On reflection, and with further web browsing, this silence is all the greater because few of these luxury accessory brands presently offer more than a handful of iPhone and iPad covers. Next to nothing is offered for the owners of other makes of smartphone and the growing range of ‘phablets’.

Small branded accessories, from belts to wallets, have enabled the likes of Burberry and Gucci to establish a wider customer base where there is an inverse correlation between people’s brand savvy and their financial resources. The hope, presumably, is to offer a sufficiently diverse product range to enable customers to ‘graduate’ from small initial purchases to larger and commensurately more expensive purchases as they learn to appreciate the brand ethos and acknowledge the self-esteem it provides them. It seems odd that Aspinall et al. have not thought to do likewise. These brands all offer pricier ranges of luggage for which a technology case could provide a lucrative lead-in. The likely reason for this seemingly ‘uneconomic’ activity is that luxury brands continue to have a very limited engagement with social media, a phenomenon largely facilitated by hand-held technology. If the likes of Aspinall, Asprey, Bill Amberg, Mulberry, Smythson, pay little heed to the materiality of phones and ‘phablets’, is it any wonder that they do not fully recognise the creative and social applications of these devices?

Whilst it is very frustrating, the decision of luxury brands not to produce technology cases, or to provide a strictly limited range of them, may not be entirely lackadaisical. Through their paltry provision of technology cases, established luxury brands could be behaving in a similar manner to their most loyal customers by trying to flaunt their cultural capital. As a greater number of people are now able to purchase status-laden products, cultural capital, the ability to demonstrate connoisseurship and informed selection when choosing goods and services, has become more important in separating established wealth from newly acquired wealth. For an established luxury brand facing new sources of competition, one survival strategy in a crowded marketplace could be to focus on foundational collections that are unique, long-standing and largely inimitable because the required expertise and rarity of materials are hard to acquire. New product ranges (ie. technology cases) that might fit ill with a brand’s heritage are, prudently, left to newer companies that have been specifically established to produce them.

That said, regardless of whether a company is old or new the decision to sell products on the back of social media’s popularity may be easier said than done. The use of applications like Twitter hint at a pronounced gender divide that could make marketing tricky for all interested parties. I have done no systematic study to test this assertion, but if you look at the Twitter feed of the people you follow, there is likely to be a dichotomy between male and female tweeters, probably along the following lines: Men’s Twitter feeds tend to be chiefly compromised of recycled content (i.e. re-tweets). Original content is mostly mono-syllabic and declarative. Assertive statements, which might be aimed at specific followers, are given emphasis with a liberal use of exclamation marks, question marks and emoticons. By contrast, the Twitter feed of females tends to feature more original content. It is also characterised by being interrogative with questions directed to specific and general followers alike. Recycled content is likely to be prefaced with the re-tweeter’s thoughts.

Whilst these observations are very general and based on nothing more scientific than a trawl through the twitter feeds of friends and followers, I am struck by the fact that men’s use of Twitter seems to marry up with the conclusions of empirical sociological studies that have considered topics as diverse as male depression and men’s changed patterns of living after retirement. Cumulatively, the conclusions of these sociological studies suggest that a socialised notion of masculinity – where men should appear lean and physically able, stoic and refrain from discussing emotions, ‘manly’ and eschew activities that could make them seem effeminate, and compelled to excel in professional roles so as to provide for themselves and their immediate family – prevails and overrides the myriad masculinities that academics and commentators have attempted to delineate in recent years. The implication is that men’s usage of Twitter, and related social media, is likely to be characterised by anti-social tendencies – declaring rather than discussing, contrasting rather than considering, inclusive rather than expressive.

Unfortunately, these musings bring me no closer to finding a case for my iPhone 6 and a request for recommendations through Twitter is unlikely to yield much, at least from my male followers.

 

Ceci est une pipe

A Review of Colin McDowell’s The Anatomy of Fashion

This article was initially published with TACK Magazine.

 

The image of René Magritte’s 1929 painting, “La trahison des images” (The Treason of Images), revolved in my mind as I read The Anatomy of Fashion, the latest of fashion critic Colin McDowell’s books published by Phaidon. Magritte’s small beige and brown canvas depicts a smoker’s pipe in profile with the counterintuitive phrase Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) written below in cursive. Magritte’s provocative painting makes the point that art is representation, whatever its grounding in reality and however realistic it may sometimes seem: Viewers can no more stuff and smoke Magritte’s pipe than they can smell and touch Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers. McDowell’s Anatomy is Magritte’s “La trahison” in reverse; McDowell states that his book is “not intended to be an encyclopaedia,” and yet it is structured like one, reads like one, has the eye-straining font size of one and weighs like one – about 2 kilograms.

MagrittePipe

The Anatomy of Fashion is divided into four parts. Section one, “The Body Unclothed,” consists of three sub-divided chapters that consider the colour, cut and texture of clothes, from classical times to contemporary. Section two, “The Body Anatomized,” analyses the cultural and sociological significance of human body parts, including the head, shoulders, knees and toes, which contain roughly half of all the bones in the adult skeleton. Section three, “The Body Clothed,” examines sartorial styles from the past and present in 43 page-long chapters that cover significant clothing trends and concepts—from Grunge and the New Romantics, to Capsule and Regal. The final section of the book provides a 5,000-year fashion chronology.
Comprehensive as it is, the book has no overarching thesis (although McDowell’s interest in the overlap between politics and dress, his suspicion of mass consumerism and his criticism of the fashion industry permeate his prose). At times his insights (or gripes) are plainly stated and explicit, like when he claims that modern designers “normally have a very short concentration span” and delight in “acres of news coverage,” but these statements are usually suppressed by the volume of anatomical facts (Did I mention the human foot contains 26 bones, 114 ligaments and 20 muscles, and supports “our weight throughout the 270 million steps of an average lifetime”?) and historical anecdotes (Did you know that the equestrian image of Charles I was in large part due to the fact that he had rickets? His legs were so weak that he wore boots to keep him upright.). Readers who are hoping to find the lively and lucid prose that characterises McDowell’s articles for The Business of Fashion will be disappointed; much like his Fashion Today, another encyclopaedic tome, The Anatomy of Fashion is not meant to be read through and will not reward any reader who attempts to do so.

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The Anatomy of Fashion is really four books sandwiched together. Each section has a slightly different—although equally irritating—layout, which makes use of half-size pages, columns, small fonts, thumbnail-size images with captions and expository quotations placed at 180 degrees to the main text. The design was presumably conceived to give the chapters character, and to help McDowell and Phaidon convince readers of their bold claim that they are adopting a “new approach to chronicling how we dress.” Yet in practice, the differing chapter designs express the disparate nature of their content. McDowell has tried to write a book that conveys some of the more complex ideas about clothing and fashion whilst retaining a conventional chronological and narrative structure, but the result is unsatisfactory (even if it is acknowledged that McDowell has pitched this book at a general, rather than academic, audience).

Material is not infrequently repeated across the books’ four sections. This is especially true of the third part, “The Body Clothed,” in which McDowell considers the semiotics of style under 43 arbitrary sub headings: “Establishment” and “Heritage” could surely be combined, and the same could be said of “Glamour” and “Regal,” and “Capsule,” “Convenience” and “Workwear.” Moreover, these short sections, along with the longer thematic chapters in section one, do not identify any key themes or turning points in the development of human dress.

If The Anatomy of Fashion breaks human dress into its basic elements as the introduction claims, it is left for readers to piece them all together and decide for themselves what the past 5,000 years of style might mean. If only McDowell had not been so quick to play down the encyclopaedic qualities of the book, which is surely its mainly selling point as it brings together content and concepts rarely found beneath a single cover, readers might have been more satisfied with the enlightening facts it provides (Did you know that Cinderella’s slipper was originally fashioned from fur so as to refer to the female genitalia, and only became known as a glass slipper due to a translation error?) and less cognisant of its lack of analysis and interpretation. However The Anatomy of Fashion was conceived, c’est une pipe—though not literally, of course.

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Colin McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London: Phaidon, 2013), HB Pp. 272. £59.95/$64.71 USD.

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.

EskyDingbat

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!).

Star-Trek-Chris-Pine-Benedict-Cumberbatch-Zachary-Quinto

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.

The Silence Of Style

In April, I delivered a lecture at the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design about ‘The Sounds of Style: How Clothes Communicate’. I argued that our dress conveys personal messages, regardless of whether we are cognisant of this when donning our glad-rags in the morning, and used the theories of Norbert Elias, Erving Goffman, Roland Barthes and Alison Lurie to suggest that anyone who really wanted to understand and enjoy their clothes, certainly anyone working within the fashion industry, should be aware of how they converse.[i] Barely two months have passed, but I realise that I shall need to tweak my pitch before the talk’s next outing. The central tenet of my argument remains unchanged; clothes talk and we can usefully analyse how they do this by thinking in terms of language, as Alison Lurie suggests.[ii] However, as I have recognised in recent posts, the clarity and volume with which our clothes communicate has diminished markedly over time. If the clothing of the sixteenth century shouted, that of twenty-first century merely mutters.

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Acceptable in the 80s

Remarking on the raiment of teenagers, a friend recently observed that they all dress the same. And they look like paupers. This may seem rather harsh, but my friend was making the point that young people today generally do not covey their personality through their choice of clothes. He thought boys were particularly bad at dressing: they wear, in the main, short branded T-shirts, so as to flash the waistband of their designer underwear, branded jogging bottoms or designer skinny jeans and pump-like footwear featuring the logos of popular sports retailers. The contrast with my friend’s youthful style could not be greater. Apparently, he would not have thought twice about wearing make-up, a skirt, or something equally gender-bending, when he was a twenty-something in 1980s-London. According to him, the 1980s represent fashion’s final flourish, when big shoulders, big hair, bold colours and even bolder shapes were common, if never completely de rigueur. Over the past twenty years, there have been no significant developments in fashion, for either sex.

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A similar, if less polemical, argument is made by Robert Elms in his sartorially themed autobiography, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads. Between 1965 and 1983, Elms’ formative years were influenced by profound changes in the style and sounds of London, a city still struggling to recover from the Second World War. During this period, changes in fashion followed fast. Much of the 1960s were dominated by the Mods, whose sharp fitting suits projected an uneasy confidence. By the close of the decade, Skinheads had displaced this sartorial asceticism, although they were no less fastidious about clothing details, as Elms’ fondness for his Ben Sherman shirt reveals.[iii] The 1970s were particularly turbulent and the rapid rate at which new fashions appeared reflects this. Elms suggests that David Bowie’s performance on Top of the Pops in July 1972 changed the sartorial rules overnight. It caused consternation in playgrounds the following morning, as fashionistas debated whether to follow this daring look, and ever after. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition, David Bowie Is, (which I still cannot get tickets to!) reveals how powerful his alluringly sexual look was, all the more so for being androgynous. The resulting confusion may explain why a multiplicity of styles, including soul and a brief return to the 1920s (an homage to Robert Redford’s starring role in the 1974 Gatsby movie), culminated in the Punk movement by the middle of the decade. The legacy that Punk enjoys, as evidenced by the Met’s summer exhibition, seems somewhat disproportionate to its initial popularity, at least in London, for the New Romantics were in ascendance by 1980. The ability of clothes to shock and awe was fading fast, however, and branded goods were beginning to flood the market. Elms expresses disappointment at this turn of events, but is seemingly relieved that the desire for ever-more distinctive dress was now stemmed by an almost universal subordination to the cult of brands:

[T]here was now one all-pervasive, all encompassing scene, one size and style fits all, which perfectly suited a generation which had grown up on the overpowering, unchallenged dominance of global brands from Microsoft to Madonna, Nike to Sony.[iv]

Growing up in the early 1980s, I remember how important it was to be seen wearing the right logo on your chest and feet. Adidas and Nike were the most popular brands, followed, I think, by Reebok. The Fruit of the Loom was frowned upon among boys, presumably because its logo was an assortment of fresh produce, rather than gender-neutral lines or an assertive tick. Denim was the leg covering of choice; jeans for boys and mini-skirts for girls. In the late 1980s, coloured and striped jeans were particularly popular. I remember owning a pair of green jeans (a brave choice) my father had a pair of red jeans (an equally brave choice) and my sister had a pair of cream jeans printed with red roses (no comment). Mercifully, I cannot recall an occasion when we all appeared together in our multicoloured denims, but this may have happened, especially as our jeans enjoyed two lives; when the knees wore through, they were recycled as shorts. This was not necessarily about thrift. If memory serves, frayed denim cut-offs were common and much loved. But that is it. The hierarchy of popular brands changed, but the sartorial staples upon which the various logos were stamped remained constant. Over a twenty-year period between 1965 and 1983, Elms documents at least six significant changes in dress. In the twenty years that followed this, I cannot recall any. Men’s fashion is now more diverse, but the penchant for pocket squares, three-piece suits, provocative T-shirts and correspondent footwear mimics old modes. Thom Browne’s truncated suits are the only innovative sartorial development in menswear that comes immediately to mind and this is very recent.

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Sartorial Whispers

The communicative ability of clothing has waned for two reasons: the establishment of democracy and the rise of multinationals. If democracy deterred people from dressing too distinctly, for fear of being deemed decadent or disruptive, the growth of multinationals largely eradicated the means to do so by steering consumers to homogeneous products through sassy marketing.

As I indicated in my previous post, the advent of democracy has promoted sartorial sameness by championing the twin cults of consensus and conformity.[v] People are deterred from looking different because this implies non-conformity and challenge. The consequences are not so deadly, but the French revolutionary rhetoric that declared citizens to be with Robespierre and his sadistic ideologues or against them, springs to mind. People have always used clothing to express their innate desire to belong, but the weakening, or abolition, of monarchial authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by the creation of nation states in the nineteenth century, seems to have acted as a catalyst for conformist behaviour and vogues. These were centuries in which civilian and military uniforms became increasingly common.[vi] This was also a period when the economy, facilitated by technological advancements made possible through the industrial revolution, became truly global.

Depending on their incomes, consumers now gained access to a wide range of goods through which they could indicate their status. Sumptuary legislation in the West had long been abolished and fashions that were once monopolised by society’s elite could now be enjoyed by all, given time and allowing for variations in materials and manufacturing processes. But the promise of limitless choice was illusory. Theodor Adorno, who develops a similar argument about consumers’ commercialised compliance, refers to a ‘pseudo individuality’.[vii] To cater for enlarged markets and to increase profit margins, multinationals divided their consumers into different demographic categories and supplied each with homogenised garments that could be made, marketed and sold with ease. The result, by the early twentieth century, was a ubiquity of unimaginative and ill-fitting clothes for the majority of consumers. And today’s clothing scence is not necessarily so different.

The Beckham dynasty’s involvement with fashion is an extreme example, but it seems to demonstrate the relative lack of clothing choice, as a single look is promoted to millions of consumers, and, perhaps more uncomfortably, it reveals our acceptance of this: both David and Victoria have launched perfumes; Victoria has her own fashion label, David is apparently considering the launch of his own; both have modelled for large clothing brands, from H&M to Dolce & Gabbana; their oldest son, Brooklyn, is the face of Burberry. As the fashion industry has grown, we appear to have become more content to let self-proclaimed experts, for the most part, advise us on what to wear. Celebrities, whom we worship and follow as extensions of ourselves, act as a via media and provide choice clothing edits bearing their seal of approval. It is as though the scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where there is uncertainty about a cerulean blue belt, is really how new vogues take shape.

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Rebellious Raiment

But whilst our clothes may now only whisper, they have not entirely lost their voice. Alan Flusser considered it ‘ironic’ that the Great Depression of the 1930s had acted as a stimulus for men’s fashion. He notes that American Esquire was launched in 1933, just four years after Black Thursday.[viii] But the connection between sartorial styles and cycles of financial boom and bust is strong considering the power of persuasion that multinational brands possess. In the democratised West an economic crisis, which causes acute social anxiety and momentarily destabilises companies’ market positions, is very likely to stimulate sartorial change as people reflect on their social positions, how they are perceived and how they present themselves. If enough consumers from similar backgrounds are sufficiently disenfranchised and feel the desire to rebrand themselves or the need to be more thrifty during this turbulent time, a sartorial shift occurs. This sounds very mechanistic, and I’m sure Elizabeth Wilson would demure, but I do not think it is coincidental that major changes in dress have occurred during times of socio-economic stress. Think of the 1930s (Zoot Suit), the 1940s (Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’) and, as documented by Robert Elms, an almost constant period of sartorial readjustment between the 1960s and 1970s. The changes that Thom Browne’s innovative take on the suit have spawned occured in tandem with our recent economic collapse.

Portfolio Portraits

This seems rather bleak. The flip side, I think, is that as the clothing industry has become increasingly crowded, designers and editors have begun to think far more critically about the role that clothing plays in our society. They are more inclined to experiment, to appear distinctive, and they are more inclined to consider the cultural and historical context in which clothes are, and have been, designed and produced. As last week’s graduate fairs revealed, there are plenty of young designers out there, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who appreciate the communicative power of clothing. And they are producing garments that talk every bit as loudly as their sixteenth-century predecessors.


[ii] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 3-36.

[iii] R. Elms, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads (London, 2005), 48-49, 56, 61-62.

[iv] Ibid., 264.

[vi] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 18-36; E. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London, 2013), 35-40.

[vii] T. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London, 1991); Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, 64.

[viii] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 6.

Beards In Politics

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I had intended to write about men’s beards, or rather the barbers behind men’s beards, but as I have touched on the subject of men’s facial fur before, by offering a brief biography of the beard from the Middle Ages into Modernity (here), I wanted instead to think more broadly about the beard’s social significance. Like loos, shoes and watches, beards are barometers of society’s changing values.[i] In my previous post, I suggested that:

[T]he history of the beard reveals much about our desire as humans to be unique, to create a style and look that is all of our own. And yet, the way that the bearded man has been interrogated throughout history also says much about humankind’s tendency to judge and distance itself from what is different.

I should have recognised that the questioning, at times condemnation, that has tended to confront bearded men also reveals something about people’s desire to belong. Standing out because of his hairstyle choice, the bearded man has perhaps always been perceived as something of a non-conformist. The sense of ‘otherness’ that bearded men may feel (and I do, from time to time) has probably increased in direct correlation with the urge to conform, which has grown stronger in the West due to the establishment of democracy. In my previous post, I cited several examples of contemporary consternation concerning men’s facial hair.

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Beards of Biblical Proportions

Before the dilution and dissolution of monarchical authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, kings and princes were preminent in determining social mores and vogues. As the German sociologist Norbert Elias observed, aristocrats and other prince pleasers who inhabited the royal court adopted styles of behaviour, appearance and raiment that appeased their monarch.[ii] This point is perhaps more apparent within the absolutist court of le roi soleil Louis XIV, but it is no less applicable to the English court at an earlier date.[iii] In 1535, Henry VIII determined that he would grow a beard. In so doing, he changed the facial hair fashion for his male courtiers and, more generally, the English aristocracy. According to the Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow:

[King Henry] commanded all about his court to poll their heads, and to give them example he caused his own hair to be polled, and from henceforth his beard to be knotted and no more shaven.[iv]

There are similar examples of royal fiat in the eleventh century, when England’s newly-arrived French aristocracy wore their hair long to reflect the attitudes of their king, William II. The long hair vogue did not long survive William’s death, as courtiers were encouraged to cut their locks when Henry I ascended in 1100.[v] This was undoutedly a physical signifier of the moral sobriety, and thus better governance, that Henry promised to provide in the coronation charter that he issued to secure his rule; according to clerical chroniclers, the reign of William had been characterised by arbitrary and licentious behaviour, symbolised by shocking sartorial styles and longer hair. What better way for Henry to signify a break with the past than change hairstyles? This was a shrewd move, but it was not new. Charlemagne, famed rightly or wrongly for his handle-bar moustache, wore his hair short to deliberately distinguish himself from his predecessors, the Merovingians, who wore their hair long. Indeed, only members of the Merovingian dynasty were permitted to have long locks, for this was a symbol of their right to rule.[vi] Shorter hair and beards did not always denote decorum and prudence, though. In 1043, alarm was expressed within the German empire because ‘men cut their beards […] and – shameful to behold! – they shorten and deform their garments in a way most vile and execrable.’[vii] Beards, through their Biblical associations, conferred prestige in an age when rulers enjoyed singular authority and appearance was generally expected to demarcate a person’s status. But things were to change.

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Dressing for Democracy

The establishment of respresentative institutions and the compromised position that the remaining Western monarchs endured after the eighteenth century could not but reduce their political and moral authority. Consequently, princes no longer played a decisive role in determining societal mores and vogues. The beard seems to have suffered, like a lot of personal signifiers that were popular prior to 1600, because of its associations with monarchical rule; it was deemed too distinctive and individual. Excessive preening was regarded as a manifestation of the moral and political corruption of Europe’s kings and courts. Symbolising the old regime, beards were like rocks obstructing the swelling democratic tide.

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Democracy, which championed the twin cults of community and consensus, promoted cohesion and conformity. Qualities prized in individuals were those that enabled them to work better with others. It seems paradoxical that political freedom should promote similitude in style, but an atypical or avant-garde appearance seems to have been increasingly interpreted as a sign of disunity, non-cooperation and alienation from the norm and majority. Facial hair certainly seems to be incompatible with today’s democratic politics. By my reckoning, the last American president to sport facial hair was William Howard Taft (1909-1913). The last British prime minister to have facial hair was Harold Macmillan (1957-1963); most of his immediate predecessors had a moustache. In France, the moustachioed Alain Poher had acted as an interim president in May 1974, following the death of Georges Pompidou. Poher had acted in this capacity before, in 1969, following the death of the last elected and moustachioed president, Charles de Gaulle (1958-69). The last chancellor of Germany to have facial hair was Adolf Hitler (1933-1945). This is despite Germany’s continued fascination with facial hair and various competitions that celebrate bold and beautifully shaped beards. All male members of the Britain’s Cabinet are currently clean-shaven; two male members of America’s Cabinet have moustaches, albeit small ones. In my last post, I remarked upon the public criticism that two Australian politicians received from Prime Minister Julia Gillard for growing beards during parliament’s summer recess.

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The Beard Comes Back

The beard is not all bad, however; its present popularity indicates that much. It is interesting, though, that modern men’s facial hair can be broadly grouped into two styles, excessively manicured or excessively unkempt. Francois Verkerk (pictured at the very top) is the epitome and pin-up for the first group and Johnny Harrington (pictured below) is the exemplar and poster-boy for the second group.[viii] The two styles appear very different, but they are alike in playing to the theatrically of facial hair. They both seem excessive and look like parodies of beards worn in the past. But to what end? Before I risk over analysis, it should be said that many men grow beards and moustaches because they see other men with beards and moustaches; they follow a trend. However, I think it is possible to go further.

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I am tempted to link the omnipresence of facial hair with Man’s perceived need to assert, or reassert, his masculinity. In previous posts I have suggested that the ubiquity of hat-wearing, cigar-smoking, pocket-square accessioning and jacket and trouser-mismatching men is linked to a crisis in male confidence that has been sparked by a series of compelling articles that claim Man’s role in society, at least the role he currently occupies, is coming to an end. Man’s brawn, ambition, apparent lack of humour and culpability for the banking crisis is all counting against him.[ix] The succession of sartorial trends that we have witnessed so far this year, from pocket squares to boutonnières, headwear to elbow patches, has therefore been part of a (sub)conscious attempt to re-engage with, and redefine, his sexuality. Facial hair is an especially suitable signifier for this endeavour in that it is a unique and obvious mark of masculinity. Interestingly, though, the two broad styles of facial hair are overtly playful, even moderately amusing. Man is therefore being assertive in reclaiming a symbol of his masculinity that the democratised West has seemingly condemned, whilst being somewhat disarming, even self-depreciating, by opting for facial hair that is excessive, either because of the conspicuous amount of wax or the conspicuous absence of it. This is quite a cunning ploy, for the beard is here communicating on two levels. On the one hand, it powerfully recalls older associations of male power because it has become an uncommon sight in modern society. On other hand and through the way that it is styled, the beard demonstrates the softer qualities that society now demands of Men. In this sense, the beard is not merely a barometer of societal values, it can be read as a polyvalent signifier of Man’s fluctuating fortunes.

Barber Factoids

For readers who were expecting, and would have preferred, a post about barbers, here are a few history-related barber facts to sate your fury:

  • Virtually all of England’s medieval monarchs appear to have had beards. We know the names of some of their barbers: Henry III’s (1216-72) barber was Richard. His son and successor, Edward I (1272-1307), had barbers called Stephen and Walter.
  • In 1256, royal orders provided instructions for the decoration of Henry III’s wardrobe, which was described as the place ‘where [the king] was accustomed to have his head washed.’[x] Presumably, this was also the place where his hair was cut and his beard was trimmed.
  • During his trial, King Charles I’s beard grew long. Parliament refused to pay the royal barber and the King wouldn’t let anyone else near him with a blade. (After being found guilty, Charles was beheaded on 30 January 1649.)

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[i] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 52, 65-68, 170-76.

[ii] N. Elias, The Civilising Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, tr. E. Jephcott (London, 1994).

[iii] N. Elias, The Court Society, tr. E. Jephcott (New York, 1983); P. Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven and London, 1992).

[iv] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 366.

[v] C.W. Hollister, Henry I (New Haven and London, 2001), 331.

[vi] P.E. Dutton, ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (Basingstoke, 2004), 3-42.

[vii] C.S. Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilising Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideas, 939-1210 (Philadelphia, 1985), 179.

[viii] W. Pavia, ‘From a kitchen fitter in Milton Keynes, to a catwalk sensation’, The Times (Wednesday, 27 February 2013), 4-5.

[ix] L. Gratton, ‘Make room at the top’, Financial Times (4/5 May, 2013), 8; F. Angelini & J. Gillespie, ‘By George, he’s got it!’, The Sunday Times (5 May, 2013), 20; E. Mill, We don’t make men like we used to’, The Sunday Times (19 May, 2013), 4; S. Armstrong, ‘How to make men a laughing stock’, The Sunday Times: Culture Magazine (19 May, 2013), 14-15.

[x] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of Henry III (Loughborough, 2012), xi.

The Careless Talk of Clothes

I want to talk about summer, so of course it is raining.

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The recent spell of barmy sunshine has provoked a sudden and seismic change in people’s wardrobes. The same happened last year and the years before that. It will happen again next year. Dark body-covering clothes, sartorial staples upon which we have relied for the past few months have, with haste and a certain amount of naivety, been ditched in favour of bright and often all-too-revealing variants. T-shirts are particularly prominent this year, a trend that is probably connected with the emergence of the ‘Celebrity’-cum-‘Designer’. Various media personalities, including Oliver Proudlock and Rihanna, have combined their knowledge of fashion and a desire for brand extension and followed in the footsteps of Victoria Beckham to launch their own fashion labels. Lacking any form of fashion training (I imagine), the ‘celebrity designers’ have started small and are building their businesses by flogging, in the main, printed T-shirts. Even celebrities who lack the requisite nous to succeed as an entrepreneur have contributed to the present ‘T-shirt phenomenon’, as many have taken to wear shirts with provocative, or simply odd, slogans. David Hasselhof has been photographed in a ‘Don’t Hassel the Hof’ T-shirt’; the model Laura Bailey has appeared in a black tee featuring the enigmatic phrase, ‘She Died of Kisses’, and Russell Brand has worn a typically irreverent vest with the dictum, ‘You’ll Go To Hell For What Your Dirty Mind Is Thinking.’[i] Not surprisingly, what was once a humble summer staple has become a must-have item.

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Careless Talk

I can’t help but think of the story of the emperor’s new clothes when I scroll through the multitude of thumbnails on websites of predominantly white ‘premium cotton’ T-shirts featuring unfathomable designs, often in black but occasionally in brighter colours. In truth, these designer T-shirts don’t look particularly special, but consumers will part with sums ranging from £50 to over £100 to bring a little bit of celebrity magic into their lives. What is interesting about the present attraction with T-shirts that seem different and stand out is that people will frequently spend money without first spending time to understand what is printed on the front. To illustrate:

A colleague recently wore a white T-shirt with a panorama of the Berlin skyline printed across the front. Below the photograph were a few sentences describing the city’s music scene, in German. I asked my colleague if he had bought the T-shirt in Berlin. No, came the reply, from TopMan. He had never been to Berlin. Strange, I thought, but fair enough. Surely he read German, though? No, he learnt French at school.

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I cannot think why somebody would buy a T-shirt, or any object for that matter, featuring a photograph of a city they had never visited with words they cannot read, even if the photography and the typeface were appealing. But this is not an untypical example and I am not being unduly unfair on my colleague (I hope). Earlier this year, Amazon had to withdraw T-shirts based on the now ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm’ war slogan. The online retailer was selling T-shirts with exhortations to ‘Keep Calm and Rape Her’, ‘Keep Calm and Knife Her’ and ‘Keep Calm and Punch Her’.[ii] Apparently, the offensive slogans were not identified before printing because a computer algorithm had automatically generated them. Unfortunately, human intervention does not necessarily prevent such mishaps. Several years earlier, men’s clothier Burton had to withdraw T-shirts featuring a Russian neo-Nazi slogan that called for ethnic cleansing. Designers – evidently non-Russian – thought the words had simply meant ‘Be proud of Russia’.[iii]

White Noise

The inanimate selection of T-shirt slogans and the apparent ambivalence of the people who parade them on their chests seems a far cry from times past when clothes communicated directly and deliberately. All is not lost. In March, Vivienne Westwood’s medieval-inspired Autumn/Winter collection included garments that featured text supporting climate change policies.[iv] It is still the case that clothing communicates through the cut and colour of what we wear and when. But there is a danger that clothing, if we see it as a language along the lines sketched by Alison Lurie, is losing its grammatical structure and becoming increasingly incoherent.[v] Recent editorials about Anna Dello Russo’s fashion philosophy, in which ‘fashion is about looking fashion’, and menswear shows in Milan, Paris and London, where ‘publicity seekers don the latest – or even more outrageous – styles to feed the pack of street photographers’, indicate that the clamour of our contemporary clothing is in danger of becoming white noise.[vi] It was not always so, as two current exhibitions, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion at the Queen’s Gallery and Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library, reveal.

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Propaganda: A Dirty Word?

Propaganda is term with an enormous amount of intellectual baggage. Originating in the seventeenth century, the word and its meaning was transformed and blackened as a consequence of the internecine conflict of the twentieth century. Originally referring to the dissemination of a particular message through persuasive techniques, from the nineteenth century propaganda was increasingly associated with the use of misleading information, typically in the sphere of politics. The British Library’s exhibition shows how propaganda was used across a variety of media to galvanise support for the war effort, including textiles.

Fabrics and clothing items had long served as conduits for communication because they could be modified without excessive cost or effort. In the medieval period, belts were a popular choice for communicating ideas.[vii] In the twentieth century, headscarves were favoured. Their large surface area made them ideally suited to patriotic and pugnacious messages.[viii] Worn by women in factories, perhaps even by male soldiers, British scarves featured rousing excerpts from Churchillian rhetoric. One particularly fine example depicts a street map of London with arrows highlighting ‘the famous buildings bombed or burned out’. The scarf’s border contains words from Churchill’s speeches.[ix] The colour of many of the wartime scarves printed in Britain and America – predictably, red, white and blue – were recalled in a pocket square that Drake’s released last year to commemorate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The silk square featured soldiers, policeman and a stylised version of the Gold State Coach.

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In a similar vein, the exhibition of Tudor and Stuart finery in the Queen’s Gallery emphasises how clothing conveyed social rank and political messages.[x] To a certain extent, communication through dress was clearer (and easier?) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and earlier, because sumptuary legislature limited the grades and colours of cloth and fur that people could wear. The laws were not vigorously upheld, but transgression could result in confiscation of the offending article, a fine of £10 per day (presumably until said item was handed over) or three months in jail. There was even an incentive scheme for informants.[xi] Sartorial restrictions could also spark novel forms of communication, as evidenced by wartime Japanese kimonos. Sumptuary legislature remained in force in twentieth century Japan (as it did to a lesser extent in the west where sobriety in dress was championed over extravagance), but patriots could still air their views by choosing brighter and narrative-based linings for their garments.[xii] This may have amounted to a whisper, rather than a shout, but it shows that individual expression was desired and possible.

A is for…

If the sartorial syntax of the past was generally clear, why is this not necessarily the case today? The question may seem slightly unfair. Clothing examples from the past, whether portraits or garments, have survived because of their political, religious or financial importance. They are rarefied and generally atypical examples of how clothing communicated when money was no object, which is the case for many of the garments on display in the Queen’s Gallery exhibition. To compare a contemporary Serge de Nîmes’ T-shirt costing £55 with a lace collar from the seventeenth century that would cost over £200,000 in today’s prices – the price of an Aston Martin – is to do an injustice to the modern fashion industry, and its acolytes.[xiii] It must also be said, lest it appear that I am demonising T-shirts and all who them, that  T-shirts are a relatively cost-effective, if unimaginative, way of communicating ideas directly, which explains their use during war and their adoption by fundraisers and campaigners today. However, using a flat surface to communicate by means of bold print lettering does suggest that an appreciation of the communicative subtleties of dress has been lost.

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The present production and purchase of T-shirts also indicates that brands and their consumers are not as discriminating as we might expect. I suspect the reason for this is nothing so profound as the amount of choice that we all now have. Sumptuary regulations no longer exist for many people and expectations about what to wear at work, on the weekends and at weddings, are much looser than they were even ten years ago. We might be suffering at the moment, but many of us are also wealthier and can afford to purchase at least some of the items made by the large fashion houses. Social changes mean that dress has become democratised – to invoke that problematic phrase again – and appearing as an individual is consequently more difficult. The implication of what I am saying is that people will now buy and wear anything just to appear unique. As bleak as this may be, this is undoubtedly true in some cases. The same would have also applied in past, to some extent. Far bleaker, I think, is that the ‘T-Shirt phenomenon’ suggests we have become compliant consumers who will meekly buy what we are sold. We respond passively to the clothing choices that we are given, rather than actively seek to determine the goods that we can buy.

Rebecca Willis highlighted this point in the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine earlier in the year. Willis questioned around forty woman aged between 18 and 84 with regard to what they find pleasurable and peevish about fashion. The verdict, which was as critical of fashion magazines as fashion houses, was that women wanted ‘more style, less speed and more sleeves’.[xiv] But if magazines and multinationals are culpable, so are we. Now that we can generally have what we want, whenever we want it, we appear to have become complacent about editing the sartorial information with which we are harassed and are disinclined, or deterred, from making personal and informed choices about what we could, and should, wear. In a sea that swells with clothing choices it is easy to drown. Consequently, we are perhaps more inclined to latch onto magazine or celebrity-inspired trends that emerge buoy-like from the scudding drifts and appear to offer sartorial safety. Unfortunately, as fashion’s past has always made clear, looks can be deceptive and in the case of T-shirts they can be positively offensive.


[ii] T. McVeigh, ‘Amazon acts to halt sales of ‘Keep Calm and Rape’ T Shirts’. www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/mar/02/amazon-withdraws-rape-slogan-shirt. Accessed: 21-v-2013.

[iii] ‘Racist T-shirt withdrawn’. www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/159392/racist-t-shirt-withdrawn.html. Accessed: 21-v-2013.

[iv] L. Leitch, ‘Paris Fashion Week: Vivienne Westwood autumn/winter 2013’. http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG9904329/Paris-Fashion-Week-Vivienne-Westwood-autumnwinter-2013.html. Accessed: 28-v-2013.

[v] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000).

[vi] S. Marsh, ‘Neon furs, micro minis and killer heels at 50: What Vogue’s Anna Dello Russo wears to work (sometimes all at the same time)’, The Times Magazine (Saturday, 27 April 2013), 28-35; J. Fallon, ‘Looking Sharp in a world of slouches?’, M (Spring 2013), 38.

[vii] B.L. Wild, ‘Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’, Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395.

[viii] P. Rennie, ‘London Squares: The Scarves of Wartime Britain’, Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945, ed. J.M. Atkins (Yale, 2005), 229-37.

[ix] J.M. Atkins, ‘An Arsenal of Design: Themes, Motifs, and Metaphors in Propaganda Textiles’, Wearing Propaganda, 264.

[x] A. Reynolds, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion (London, 2013), 13-27.

[xi] Ibid., 18.

[xii] J.M. Atkins & M. Otaka, ‘Propaganda Precedents: Pre-1930 Propaganda Textiles’, Wearing Propaganda, 82.

[xiii] In Fine Style, 15, 88-89.

[xiv] R. Willis, ‘Clothes: a manifesto’, Intelligent Life (March/April 2013), 48-54.

Fashion’s Future: A History

This is a slight departure from typical postings to reflect on this year’s London Vogue Festival that I visited over the weekend.

imagesCAY7A7UYI fear that the dialogue I am about to paraphrase might weaken my argument, but it shouldn’t and I hope it doesn’t. The dialogue comes from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park; more specifically, from the scene where the ‘blood-sucking’ lawyer, bolshie mathematician, bemused palaeontologists and boggle-eyed grandchildren are being shown around the Park’s laboratory by the ebullient entrepreneur, John Hammond. After watching a Velociraptor hatch, the bolshie mathematician, effortlessly played by Jeff Goldblum, observes that Hammond’s company has been preoccupied with thinking about what it could do and has not thought enough about what it should do. Breeding dinosaurs in the twenty-first century has ethical, and all manner of health and safety, implications.

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I was reminded of this remark as I listened to Natalie Massenet and Paul Smith at the Vogue Festival. The connection between long-dead lizards and two ‘living legends’ may seem spurious, although the ferocity of carnivorous sauropods may rival the temper of some of fashion’s grandes dames and messieurs. But Goldblum’s retort chimes with one of the key messages from Massenet’s and Smith’s talks, as they urged want-to-be designers, stylists, journalists and photographers to reflect critically on their motives and to think what they can contribute to an already crowded industry, the small size of which is grossly disproportionate to its enormous economic and social clout. A desire to work in the fashion industry and a belief that this should be the inevitable outcome after studying at one of the UK’s many fashion colleges, is as sound as it is increasingly difficult to realise. Much of the difficulty lies in the fact that aspirant fashion entrepreneurs harness social media, follow incipient trends and base their oeuvre on established designers and brands. Students focus on what they can do with existing concepts and technologies. They devote too little time to thinking about what would really work best for them and their ideas, which is what they should do.

Look & See

Before his interview with Alexa Chung, Paul Smith talked about the importance of Looking and Seeing, a mantra he must have repeated at least twenty times within ten minutes. He mentioned a photography book, The World in 1900, which provided colour inspiration for one of his collections. He spoke about visits to libraries, holidays around the world and taking pictures – with actual cameras, rather than hand held-devices. He gave a mini lecture about Henri Matisse’s The Snail. Throughout his introductory excursus, Smith’s tone was genial, but he made a dismissive remark about the knowledge that is lying shelved, dormant and dusty in public libraries. He stressed the need to have a point of view. The urgency and pleading in his voice indicated that he has met many vacuous and bland designers and stylists. As British Fashion Council chair, Massenet was more diplomatic, but she emphasised the importance of studying hard, in a manner reminiscent of Michelle Obama. And there were more references to taking photographs, which Massenet did as a child, and the reading of books. Two titles were mentioned and recommended, Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualisation and Faith Popcorn’s The Popcorn Report.

The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954

The Times, They Have Changed

They did not say so explicitly, but Massenet and Smith seemed to suggest that the fashion industry, like so many others, could easily become bland and homogenised. Smith used the example of weekend supplements in newspapers to show how quickly innovations now become incorporated into the norm. The Times was the first British paper to offer a coloured weekend supplement, but competing papers followed suit and cancelled out the The Times‘ briefly attained USP. A few weeks earlier, photographer Liam Bailey had made a similar point to soon-to-be graduates of the London College of Fashion. Reflecting on the ubiquity of social media in the industry, Bailey suggested that the volume of tweets, images and tags has become so great that they produce only an annoying white noise. Familiarity has truly bred contempt.

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This is a far cry from the Sixties and Seventies, the era of Massenet’s and Smith’s youth and inspiration. But the fashion innovations of this period, much lauded as they are today, were not necessarily borne of a Golden Age, although this is how the story is usually told. The opportunity for global travel certainly increased and although prohibitively expensive for many, television, movies and magazines, notably Holiday, brought the world closer through glossy, dream-like images. But the swing of the Sixties was largely a response to significant social unrest. Wartime conscription had not long ended (1954 in Britain) and the confusion and suspicion that developed after the defeat of Germany led in to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, which still lingers today. Within America, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, not to mention the protests about escalating troop numbers in Vietnam, caused extreme disillusionment, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Throughout the West, increased debate about racial and gender inequalities made it clear that long-held notions about the structures of society were changing. This social upheaval precipitated the fall of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who seemed stubbornly out of touch, but it could be a boon to fashion designers like Mary Quant, models like Grace Coddington and ambitious academics like Roy Strong, who became director of London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1967, at the age of thirty-two (the same year that the thirty-six–year-old Thomas Hoving became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1973, at the age of thirty-eight. The social upheavals of this period caused problems, but in so doing they created opportunities. In some respects, then, this may have been a Golden Age, for although the thirty-year-old Alexa Chung may sit on the Vogue Festival stage and attempt to interview Paul Smith, it is doubtful that the next director of one of Britain’s august national institutions will be at the beginning of their fourth decade.

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Dealing With Democratisation

This is not to say that the twenty-first century despises youth and that all has been done, although Cristóbal Balenciaga claimed something similar when he retired in 1968. Natalie Massenet’s successful concept for Pret-a-Porter was made possible by present technologies. Paul Smith’s company is expanding globally because of increased global connectivity, facilitated by technological innovation. The point is that the rise of social media, which has made our global community at once bigger and smaller, has levelled the playing field enormously. Opportunities now exist for all and not just a few. The inevitable consequence is that standing out, seeming unique, is almost certainly more difficult than when Quant, Coddington and Strong were starting out, especially in a world that now fosters the notion of democratisation, an ill-defined but widely used term that I understand refers to the lifting of barriers to entry.coam-381a-f70-x-97084The message from Natalie Massenet and Paul Smith was far from bleak. They did not tell the fashion students to go home and change focus, consoling them for being born three decades too late. What they did was to make a clarion call for increased integrity. Within our small global community, and our even smaller fashion industry, they said that it was vital for designers, stylists, photographers and writers to foster a greater sense of individuality by reflecting more critically on their experiences and by seeking knowledge – Looking and Seeing, as Sir Paul would say – all of the time. In effect, this means acknowledging that our personal stories – our past – and the heritage of the people and places that we encounter, play a crucial role in who we are and what we do. Paul Smith socks have vibrant stripes and appear remarkably contemporary for this, but they are as likely as not inspired by colours from a weathered beach house and the interior of gothic church that Smith snapped himself using a pre-digital camera. Other fashion brands embrace their heritage and craft more explicitly, whether it be long-established companies like Burberry or new entrepreneurs like shoe maker Justin FitzPatrick. Recent fashion trends in (men’s) fashion have all shown a studied regard for the past, as previous postings have tried to show.

Smith – certainly not Massenet – did not suggest that technology should be shunned and banished, but it should be tamed and used when appropriate. Smith would probably say (I don’t think he did) that technology should be used more to See, rather than Look. As with most things, it is about getting the balance right. According to the chair of the British Fashion Council and one of Britain’s most revered fashion designers, this means we all need to understand the importance and benefit of harnessing the best of the past and present in the work that we do. To demonstrate the creative synergy of the present and past, and to make a seamless concluding segue, it seems entirely appropriate to end by citing one of the last tweets of this year’s Vogue Festival from Sasha Wilkins, aka Liberty London Girl:

Overriding theme of #voguefestival reiterated by Mario Testino is that you must have a super defined point of view to succeed creatively.