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.

Seeing is Believing in Life – and Learning

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

So proclaimed Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like Wotton, I guarantee that we are all expert physiognomists. We may recoil at the notion when pressed and reassure ourselves that we value the inner, complex qualities of our colleagues and friends over their looks, but let’s not kid ourselves. The reality is that we are socialised to judge one another by appearance, continuously. If first impressions count, sociological theories from Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, Norbert Elias and Erving Goffman (to name but a few), inform us that those which follow are hardly less important.

Over the centuries, humans have altered their behaviour and physical appearance in the belief that socially acceptable conduct and countenance will confer individual distinction and success. We cling to youth because we tend to accept that ‘the younger we appear, the more likely it is that we are to possess socially useful attributes.’[i] But if the rhytidecteomy (corrective facial surgery), otoplasty (corrective ear surgery) or aesthetic rhinoplasty (corrective nasal surgery) are all a step too far – because of squeamishness or prohibitive cost – the way we dress provides a relatively convenient and often cost-effective means of communicating our diverse characters. As the nineteenth-century womaniser, disgraced academic and social commentator Thorstein Veblen baldy opined, ‘without reflection or analysis, we feel that what is inexpensive is unworthy. “A cheap coat makes a cheap man”’.[ii] Harsh? Perhaps, but as Joanne Finkelstein observes,

[t]o posit an equivalence between clothing and character, between the symbolic and real, may pose grand philosophical problems to the epistemologist, but the association passes as a truism in the everyday world of ordinary association.[iii]

The clarity with which our clothes communicate can be debated. Author Alison Lurie has suggested that our raiment is as expressive as any written or spoken language and has likened people’s style choices to syntax.[iv] Few scholars share her conviction, but we probably have sufficient awareness of sartorial faux pas – our own and those of others – to know there are rules and that we pay dearly if our dress contravenes them. We may also remember those occasions when a change of clothes affected – however slightly – our self-perception and behaviour: that boost of confidence when we last donned formal evening wear or that sense of relief when we exchange our work attire for sweat pants and T-Shirt at the day’s end. And this is not just ‘gut feeling’, there is science behind this.

In psychology, embedded cognition refers to the idea that we think and act with our bodies rather than our minds alone.[v] How we dress plays an important part in this. In 2012, American researchers conducted a clothing experiment that appeared to show people who believe they are wearing a garment associated with a successful professional (in this case, a scientist’s white lab coat) make a positive, if subconscious, change in their attitude and behaviour as they mimic the stereotypical characteristics of the garment’s owner (in the case of the lab coat, wearers become, like the scientist, more focused). Curiously, if people wear a garment typically associated with a successful professional, but which they do not believe actually belongs to one, their attitude and behaviour will not show any sign of positive change.[vi]

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that types of dress, or specific garments, have emotive or even intellectual force, although it is a comment on general attitudes to clothing that broad studies of dress and its social impact remain few. Psychologists have long recognised that subtle and ubiquitous social cues make socialised attitudes tenacious. To offer one example, experiments have shown that a lone female student taking a mathematics test in a room where all of the other students are male is likely to under perform. Why? Because the arena in which the girl is placed reinforces the stereotype that boys are better at logic-based activities.[vii]

All of this means that an awareness of the social and cultural baggage imbued in our clothing is of more than ivory-towered interest for schools, where uniform policies are almost universally enforced and where, as at Sherborne School, a change in students’ dress is commonly sanctioned for older pupils.

In June 2015, I conducted a clothing survey with male Sixth Form students (16-18 years old) from three local schools, Sherborne School (private boarding, boy), The Gryphon (state, co-educational) and Bishop Wordsworth’s School (grammar, boy). I am still writing up the findings of this research, but some initial conclusions are clear. In all cases, the schools’ uniform policy met with broad agreement. At Sherborne and Bishop Wordsworth’s School, the majority of the boys surveyed agreed with their school’s dress code and expressed a belief that the adoption of a suit and tie for the final two school years was a positive development. Boys perceive their Sixth Form dress to be more professional and smarter than their junior uniform and equate this aesthetic transition with a more focused and proactive work ethic. To quote a student’s response from one of Sixth Form interviews:

I think quite a lot of [Sixth Formers] do enjoy being in suits, at least … it’s a step away from [junior uniform] and you feel a bit, you look a bit smarter and you feel a bit older.

That said, male students enrolled in the Sixth Form at The Gryphon, where it is possible to swap junior uniforms for casual clothing, expressed similar levels of satisfaction with their school’s dress policy. Evidently, students accept the rules of their institution, which should occasion little surprise if they have chosen to remain a part of the community. Nevertheless, it is interesting that none of the (admittedly fewer) students I surveyed at The Gryphon reflected on changed behaviour or a different work ethic in their final years of study. Akin to the experiment cited above, there may be a sense that the donning of clothes associated with professional accomplishment has a more marked, and positive, impact on student attitudes and conduct when in school.

If there is a drawback to a formal uniform policy in the Sixth Form – which is typically characterised by the adoption of the suit and tie in boys’ schools (objects that are laden with cultural and historical significance) – it is that this attire does little to convey teenagers’ personality, akin to the uniform they wore as a junior. If a boy were to seek distinction through dress whilst clad in a suit, there was a suggestion in the survey I conducted that his character must reflect this atypical ambition for it to be readily accepted by his peers:

I’d say you have to be something or someone to be able to pull off looking slightly different … You have to, sort of, pull your weight if you want to wear something slightly out of the ordinary.

Or another comment:

There’s not really [a] negative or positive [comment, it’s] almost snarky … sort of like, “Look, he’s doing something different, let’s comment on it, [to] make [him] sure we’ve noticed.

By consequence, leisurewear can become a more important vehicle to express individuality. Whilst this is possibly not so far removed from life pre-Sixth Form, the greater emphasis that is placed on differentiated work and leisure attire post sixteen seems to create a dual economy in dress, where boys feel a heightened sense of sartorial awareness and, more pressingly, a ‘need’ to get the rules of the more-advanced sartorial game right. Brands play an important, if complex, role here, for certain labels tend to be suitable for specific age groups:

I think SuperDry is a bit of a younger brand and then there was Jack Wills, but that was quite a temporary thing and then I think, as you get older you progress … So I think boys in our year particularly like Ralph Lauren.

This new sartorial landscape can, and often does, foster creativity and lead to much enjoyment, but it can cause confusion and anxiety as students try to assemble a wardrobe that conveys social, and not infrequently economic, status. In a boys’ school these pressures can be particularly acute, for two reasons. Firstly, there is a socialised notion that dress is a feminised area and is consequently an unsuitable topic for group and public discussion between male peers.[viii] Secondly, empirical research suggests males have a greater sensitivity to economic signifiers than females. Studies have shown that men are more likely to identify with, and look for, material signs of their peers’ successes than female counterparts.[ix] The upshot of this is that despite heightened talk of myriad masculinities and New Men, there is still much to suggest that traditional notions of what it means to be a Man – the lean, stoic breadwinner – prevail, and what is more, these are socialised ideas that many of the adolescent teenagers we teach already identify with.[x] To quote from another interview:

Honestly, we’re men, we don’t think about that crap … I think because it can be seen as a very feminine thing to spend a lot of time on your appearance. Therefore, we don’t get self-conscious about it because we’re like, “Yeah, like we don’t care about it”, you know what I mean?

Changing hundreds of years of societal values is a tall order, but a challenge to us all as educators (and of teachers of boys in particular) is surely to encourage discussion of dress and the, frequently subconscious, impact it has on us. Tutorials and PSHE lessons could provide times when the social shadow cast by our sartorial choices is considered explicitly, but academic lessons are no less important opportunities to discuss clothing matters, if only in a diffuse manner. Students can examine the clothing allusions in Shakespeare’s plays (English), consider the changing raiment of religious leaders (Philosophy), discover myriad examples of national dress (MFL) and learn how this is under threat from a bland and sanitised form of clothing that is conceived to be inoffensive (Politics) and a far cry the dress of rulers of the past (History). If, for example, you were to tell a class of male students that the lace ruff of Charles I in any of his Van Dyck portraits would cost as much as an Aston Martin in today’s prices (c.£200,000), you would surely spark their interest. You would, of course, simultaneously reinforce socialised notions about gender and dress, as you remind students about the status conferred by conspicuous consumption. And here lies the rub, for to help our students engage purposefully with their clothing, we need to confront our own attitudes about dress and think about the messages our workaday wardrobes convey (and the raiment of teachers and lectures has an interesting affect on learners)[xi]. It may be as Lord Chesterfield advised his son in 1784:[xii]

Dress is a very foolish thing; yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed.

 

[i] J. Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Cambridge, 1991), 89.

[ii] T. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, (Oxford, 1899), 112.

[iii] Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self, 110.

[iv] A Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 1988).

[v] P. Drexler, ‘Why it matters what we wear: Clothes influence how we view and interact with the world’, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201407/why-it-matters-what-we-wear (25 July 2014). Accessed: 30 September 2015.

[vi] H. Adam & A.D. Galinsky, ‘Enclothed Cognition’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48:4 (July), 918-925.

[vii] C. Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Difference Behind Sex Differences (London, 2010), 35.

[viii] H.Frith & K. Gleeson, ‘Clothing and Embodiment: Men Managing Body Image and Appearance’, Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5:1 (2005), 40.

[ix] C.S. Gulas & K. McKeage, ‘Extending Social Comparison: An Examination of the Unintended Consequences of Idealized Advertising Imagery’, Journal of Advertising, 29:2 (2000), 20.

[x] B.L. Wild, ‘To Have and to Hold: Masculinity and the Clutch Bag’, Critical Studies in Men’s Fashion, 2:1 (2015), 43-54.

[xi] T.L. Morris, J. Gorham, S.H. Cohen, D. Hoffman, ‘Fashion in the classroom: effects of attire on student perceptions of instructors in college classes’, Communication Education, 45 (1996), 135-48.

[xii] Quoted in The Fashioned Self, 124.

Philip II: A Man of Our Time

If they were privileged enough to behold this imposing portrait of Philip II of Spain, painted by an unknown artist around 1580, contemporaries would have been mightily impressed. The king-emperor (for Philip inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor from his father, Charles V) looked every bit the sixteenth-century general. His cuirassier-style armour, distinguishable by its bands of gilded decoration and blued steel, was highly fashionable and expensive. In his right hand, Philip holds a baton to designate his status as commander. His left hand rests on a plumed helmet, the feathers, decorated with gilt-work, are a further indication of his supreme rank. The king’s short doublet, white hose and shoes, emphasise his shapely legs, which demonstrate athleticism and virility; viewers were meant to believe this king, now in his fifth decade and with a prominently receding hairline, could wield the two swords that feature in this portrait to dangerous effect, not just pose with him them. Contemporaries may have drawn parallels between this pugnacious presentation of Philip II and Titian’s equestrian portrait of his father, painted in 1548 (below). They may have made connections with similar portraits of Philip, for he posed for several in different suits of armour.

My students were not so impressed. Unaware of the style and cost of sixteenth-century armour, this was a painting of an angry-looking man in uncomfortable and oddly top-heavy get-up. The king-emperor’s legs were a source of scorn rather than marvel. I was struck by how alien my students considered the clothes of this portrait to be. Is this sixteenth-century garb really so different to what men wear today in terms of how it emphasises and exaggerates the silhouette of the body? It has long been fashionable for civilians to take their sartorial cues from the military. The trend has become more prevalent in the West, ever since ‘The Enemy’ was divested of its corporeal form and became an ideology, which is much harder to pursue and eradicate. Presumably, warlike clothes confer a (subconscious) sense of safety on their wearer.

Philip II

So, take another look: Aren’t Philip’s hose the equivalent of today’s skinny jeans – they both serve a similar sartorial function? His ruff, a proto turtleneck? The bands of decoration on Philip’s armour are surely close to the chunky zips and leather strips that decorate many of this season’s military-style outerwear? It wasn’t difficult to assemble a picture of how a twenty-first-century man might seek to channel Philip II’s military aesthetic, and be equally stylish in the process. My model wears Belstaff and Alexander McQueen, with accessories from Joshua Kane, Thomas Sabo and Globe-Trotter. The only thing missing is the plumed headwear, but let’s just see what next season brings…

Homo Hermaphroditis

 

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

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

Dialectic Of Men’s Dress

This post was written for Parisian Gentleman.

Pitti-Uomo-83

We’ll start with a few questions:

1) When wearing a necktie, should the tail extend below the front?

2) Name one occasion when it would be appropriate to wear a dinner jacket with shorts.

3) On a three-button jacket, would you fasten the top, middle or bottom button?

4) You are wearing a dark blue double-breasted jacket, light blue tie, white shirt and black trousers. What colour of trainers would you choose to complement this outfit?

5) You leave home in the morning with a pair of sunglasses and gloves. Realising that there is rarely an occasion when you would need to wear both of these accessories together, do you:

a) Wear them anyway because they’re beautiful; who cares that it’s overcast and mild?

b) Place them in your top jacket pocket for all to see, ensuring that the arms of the glasses clearly display the brand logo?

c) Feel slightly embarrassed and place both accessories in a shopping bag, deep pocket or any concealed crevice so passers-by won’t notice that you are incapable of choosing seasonal-appropriate clothing.

 (Answers at the end)

Thirty years ago, I suspect that even the most dedicated followers of men’s fashion would have been hard pressed to conceive of some of these questions, let alone answer them. MODs, Punks and New Romantics were avant-garde and dressed ostentatiously, but their raiment communicated through a vestimentary vernacular that was relatively straightforward for (Western) people to understand and adopt. Questions one and three would not have posed difficulties for eighties style aficionados, although their answers would doubtless differ to those of contemporaries. Today, these five questions are conceivable – they all derive from real and recent sartorial observations – but they are no less difficult to answer. The reason for this is that men’s vestimentary vernacular has become infinitely more complex within the last three decades. Double-breasted jackets are now routinely worn with trainers and catwalk models wear dinner jackets with shorts; in the show that I am thinking of – Nuno Gama Spring/Summer 2014 – the models also wore motorbike helmets. The blades of neckties can hang well below the waistline; ties can also be worn over pullovers.

photo 5

 

Styles that were once separated by chronology, geography and culture are now blended within a single man’s outfit, sometimes seamlessly; on other occasions, to create a deliberate clash. But even this observation, true as it is, does not completely capture the kaleidoscopic state of male clothing, for alongside men who mix n’ match, there are an increasing number who strive for aesthetic asceticism and grapple with ‘the lapel gape’, ‘the collar gap’ and ‘sleeve pitch’ in order to wear a suit with an exactitude that would impress an army drill sergeant; Parisian Gentleman’s Hugo Jacomet and Sonya Glyn Nicholson have written various articles on this theme.[i] The dandy, who is similarly fastidious in his approach to dress, although generally less austere, has returned, heralded by exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. I am currently researching the style of Cecil Beaton, whom contemporaries regarded as a dandy, for a series of lectures that will accompany an upcoming exhibition on his life at Ashcombe and Reddish House.[ii]

The question, which a number of commentators are now beginning to tackle, is why? Why are we living in a period with the greatest sartorial diversity since the nineteenth century, when Beau Brummell and Alfred d’Orsay popularised the wearing of trousers, contrasting colours and textures?

photo 1

Nineteenth-century essayist and social critic Charles Baudelaire thought Brummell and his ilk were ephemeral exemplars of societal ennui. He surmised that, ‘dandyism is especially likely to appear in those transitional ages in which democracy is not yet all-powerful and the aristocracy is only partially faltering and debased. In the confusion of such times certain men, déclassé, disgruntled, idle, but all endowed with native strength, may conceive the project of founding a new kind of aristocracy, which will be all the more difficult to destroy as it will be based on the most precious and indestructible faculties, and on the God-given gifts which work and wealth cannot bestow.’[iii] In the twenty-first century democracy is established rather than ascendant, but the social unease that Baudelaire believed to be the impetus for social recasting and sartorial innovation has spread far and wide since the economic slump of 2008. The indissoluble connection between finance capital and culture in our post modern world meant the collapse of the banking sector triggered a corresponding social crisis, as debt, unemployment and income gaps increased.[iv] As western models of male success continue to revolve around finance and fortunes, men suffered acutely.

I have previously suggested that the diversity of menswear accessories, from pocket squares to belt chains, reveals men’s attempt to rebrand themselves and prove, once and for all, that the stereotype of the greedy, feckless banker, is passé.[v] However subconscious the motivation, the profusion of styles that enable men to reaffirm a rugged masculinity or proclaim that they possess more feminine (read: desirable[vi]) qualities, suggest that many are recasting, or at least reflecting critically upon, their persona. Whilst the rudiments of this argument hold, the prevalence of sartorial sub-cultures, from the discipline of the East Londoners who wear their tie-less shirts buttoned up,[vii] to the gaiety of the Congolese Sapeurs recently depicted in a TV commercial for Guinness, reveals that men are responding to society’s changes very differently. The point is not unexpected, but it is little remarked upon; commentaries on dress rarely move beyond the dichotomy of ‘The West and The Rest’ or ‘Europe and America’.[viii]

photo 4

If Charles Baudelaire recognised the influence of society on an individual’s independent thought and collective behaviour, German Sociologist Norbert Elias sought to understand it. He observed that profound societal developments would always cause people to reappraise their public and private roles and so create new opportunities for individualisation.[ix] He also suggested that the growth and increasing complexity of society would cause interpersonal bonds to diminish. As the number of people in an individual’s personal and professional networks increased, their familiarity with each would decrease proportionately – it is probably possible to remain in frequent contact with fifty Facebook followers, but virtually impossible to do so with fifteen-hundred. The bitter paradox is that people living in today’s globally networked society are more likely to feel isolated and despondent than their forebears, who maintained closer connections with their kin group and knew far fewer people.[x]

photo 3

Norbert Elias speculated whether it would be possible to reach equilibrium between the social needs and desires of the individual and the demands of society. He did not consider whether things could go full circle. I wonder to what extent the present dichotomies in dress reveal that men are creating new identities and communities through clothing to realise a sense of belonging that does not exist because our culture, abstracted by its links to finance capital, is global and public rather than local and personal? It is striking how many popular male accessories are time bound and reference periods when men’s socio-economic position was firmer. It us as though the objects that once connoted material and social success can be redeployed, in some cases ninety years later, to achieve the same sartorial impact. The idea that clothes communicate through rules as nuanced as any spoken language (à la Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes) has never been explored that seriously by academics, but the complex fusion of historic and global styles might persuade us to think otherwise. Prima facie, the decision to wear an eighties-style white wristwatch with a red and gold zip-up jacket that could have been inspired by the orient or the Renaissance is a story of personal expression, facilitated by commercialisation and technological innovation, but the profusion of such dichotomous styles of dress over a geographically wide area within a chronologically specific time frame should leave pause for thought.

Aside from their novelty and sartorial accomplishment, these styles warrant attention because they could reveal more than they intend. When Hugo recently wrote that the Devil is in the details, he could have been more true than he realised, and for a completely different reason.[xi] If the observations of Baudelaire and Elias are right, such modish dress suggests a degree of heterogeneity and social divergence that has probably not existed since the nineteenth century. If clothes make man, as I recently argued, the garb of today’s gents reveal that he is very confused indeed.[xii] Is it possible, then, that the creative and commercial success of the menswear industry is a result of deep-set social anxieties?

photo 2

*Answers to introductory questions:

1) According to Drake’s of London, ‘In an ideal world the tie should reach the top of the trouser waistband with both the front and tail finishing at the same length. If this can’t be achieved, better to have the tail slightly longer than the front.’[xiii]; 2) The ‘correct’ answer should be never, but I am sure many stylists would argue that the wearer’s sense of comfort dictates what is appropriate, not the venue and crowd; 3) Conventionally, it is the second button of a three-button jacket that is fastened, but there is presently a preference for the top button to be done up; 4) If you refused to answer this question because you believe that trainers should never be worn off the sports field, good for you. Alas, present sartorial styles suggest that trainers of any colour could be worn; 5) If you chose option c), you probably own a copy of Alan Flusser’s Clothes and the Man, are aged over thirty and are still confused by question four. If you picked option a) or b) you should consider if your clothing choices are overly determined by what you see on Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest or Flickr. Invest in a copy of Alan Flusser’s Clothes and the Man.


[i] S. Glyn Nicholson, ‘Lapel Gape Never Again! Canvasses, Chest Pieces and Other Suit Mysteries’ (25 November, 2013). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2013/11/25/lapel-gape-never-again-chest-pieces-and-other-suit-mysteries; Eadem, ‘Seven Things to Look for in a Suit’ (3 September, 2013). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2013/09/03/the-well-dressed-rebel-seven-things-to-look-for-in-a-suit.

[iii] Quoted by G. O’Brien in Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion, ed. K. Irvin & L. Brewer (New Haven, 2013), 16.

[iv] F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24:1 (1997), 246-65.

[v] ‘The Suit Is Dead! Long Live The Suit!’. http://linleywild.com/2013/02/26/the-suit-is-dead-long-live-the-suit/.

[vi] J. Gerzema & M. D’Antonio, The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And The Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule The Future (San Francisco, 2012).

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

[viii] Recent online debates from The New York Times demonstrate this point well: M. Carey-Campbell, ‘Casual Dress Has Gone Global’ (3 February, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/02/03/the-casual-couture-of-the-average-american/casual-dress-has-gone-global. Accessed: 2 March, 2014; K. Gale, ‘Free Your Style, Free Your Thoughts’ (4 February, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/02/03/the-casual-couture-of-the-average-american/free-your-style-free-your-thoughts. Accessed: 2 March, 2014

[ix] N. Elias, The Society of Individuals, (ed.) Michael Schröter (London, 1987), 167-68.

[x] Ibid., 129-30; R. Brand, ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’, New Statesman (25-31 October 2013).

[xi] H. Jacomet, ‘Bespoke Tailoring: the Parisian Devil is in the Details…’ (1 March 2014). www.parisiangentleman.co.uk/2014/03/01/bespoke-tailoring-the-parisian-devil-is-in-the-details.

[xii] ‘Do Clothes Make Man?’ (11 February, 2014). http://linleywild.com/2014/02/11/do-clothes-make-man.

Retro-grade Raiment

This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

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

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

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2013 or 1993?

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

Back To The Future

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

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A Retrograde Renaissance?

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

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

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

Adriana: What dream?

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

A: What are you talking about?

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

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

Logomania is dead. Long Live Logomania

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

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

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

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

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

What she says has undeniable truth and merit.

 


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

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

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Three Months In Paris

As the capital of couture and the City of Love, Paris holds a particular fascination for many people.[i] Famed for its style and influential fashion designers, from Gabrielle Chanel to Jean Paul Gautier, visitors and social commentators have long tried to define Parisian chic. In the first guest submission to Linleywild, Modern Languages student and fashion writer Jake Hall seeks to distinguish sartorial fact from fiction in pursuit of the enigmatic Parisian Gentleman. Offering a more nuanced view than Baldesar Castiglione, who considered the French overdressed, and thankfully enjoying better conditions than George Orwell, Jake reflects on three months’ of Paris living.[ii] Jake has written for various fashion websites. His own website is: www.stylejourno.blogspot.co.uk.

If The Shoe Fits

Stereotypes are strange. Subconsciously they provide reassurance that everything in life is how it should be. When experiencing cultures for the first time, they help us to feel comfortable within our new surroundings. They make us believe that we can know what to expect. But for all the comfort they provide, stereotypes can deceive. When I finally took the plunge and moved to Paris three months ago, I clung to the stereotypes that I had grown up with. Wearing my designer coat (well, diffusion-range – I don’t have the budget just yet) and clutching my leather suitcase, my stereotypes gave me confidence as I boarded the Eurostar and braced myself for the long journey from Paddington to Paris. I assumed that I knew what awaited me on the other side of the Channel.

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I was wrong. Very wrong. I did not descend from the train into the chic and romantic world that I had seen in the films. There were no women in designer gowns, no men in tailored suits and certainly nobody waiting to escort me to an opulent hotel. Instead, I stepped into the abyss of Gare du Nord, a wretched place. If anybody proffers a friendly greeting, you can be sure that this is to distract you from their accomplice, who is waiting to grab your wallet. I was at the mercy of a sea of unfamiliar faces, speaking an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar landscape. Things did not immediately improve. I left the station feeling bewildered, bemused and lost. Instead of walking directly to the hostel, which the website insisted was “impossible to miss”, I wandered unwittingly into a backstreet full of very short bald men who wanted me to sign some kind of petition. I hurriedly declined.

First Impressions

Only now, having lived in Paris for three months, can I look back on my first few hours in this iconic city and reflect on my disappointment. I felt as though I had been slapped in the face with a soggy baguette. There seemed to be no charm, no romance and no hope, only seedy alleyways and decidedly un-Parisian men. My trust in stereotypes was shattered. Hence the purpose of this article: to define, once and for all, the elusive ‘Parisian gentleman’. He is a man that everybody thinks they know, from his sharply-tailored monochrome ensembles, to his elegant accent and eccentric mannerisms. He is studied by many and revered by all. Since I arrived in Paris, I have searched for this man, with his pointed brogues and shock of black facial hair. I have seen a few archetypes, but something has always been askew. Either he has lacked an inch or two in height, or the lapel of his Dior suit has been creased from being pressed against the window of a crowded metro. Whatever the case may be, the men that I have seen have not matched my expectations.

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It is only recently that I have realised I am asking too much. Nobody is perfect. As a society we seem to expect all Parisian men, by reason of their birthplace, to be ‘the’ inimitable gentleman; the man we have seen portrayed in countless rom-coms. We expect him to possess the same artistic flair and intellect as the men we encounter in ‘must-read’ novels. It’s a tall order. Stereotypes exist for every race and nationality, but Parisian men (and women) seem to be held to higher sartorial and behavioural standards, just like their city. More than anywhere else in the world, Paris is relentlessly romanticised, to the extent that it will never be what people expect. The disappointment visitors feel when they plunge into the Parisian rat race is so profound that it warrants its own psychological condition, ‘Paris Syndrome’.[iii] Ironically, the definition of ‘Paris Syndrome’ is attributable to another stereotype, that of the Japanese tourist. Apparently, it is over-enthusiastic visitors from the East, armed with Nikon cameras and Metro maps, who are most crushingly disappointed by the metropolis’ inability to match media standards. The result is that they leave the City of Love suffering from ‘psychiatric breakdowns’.[iv]

Smoke And Mirrors

This particular expectation of Paris and its inhabitants is overly harsh, although bear in mind that I say this after living here for just three months. If anything, what I love most about Paris and its inhabitants is the honesty. Sometimes this can be brutal, often it is unsolicited. Every station in Paris, for example, displays signs warning of pickpockets. No beggar makes a secret of his desire to swindle you. Every waiter makes it abundantly clear that he is not there to ‘serve you’. The city does not attempt to sugar coat its flaws, yet the media continue to offer saccharine proclamations about beautiful landscapes and charming natives. The reality is that the Eiffel Tower looks decidedly unglamorous during the day and the ‘charming natives’ laugh in your face if you don’t speak French.[v] Despite its flaws, Paris remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world – the architecture is breath taking and the sprawling boulevards make perfect backdrops for the films that we have come to know and love. The media are willing to overlook the grime to focus on the spectacle. For this reason image and reality will continue to exist in separate spheres.

The Parisian Gentleman

Like his city, the ‘Parisian Gentleman’ is never quite what you expect, although that is not to say the two don’t have style. Parisian men have a unique way of dressing that has evolved in tandem with the rapidly expanding horizon of menswear. Androgyny and individuality are now both welcome. The ‘Parisian Gentleman’ will not infrequently wear a tailored suit with a patterned handkerchief poking from his breast pocket, or a pair of classic leather brogues with a pair of quirky socks. Black and white, by an overwhelming majority, are the colours of choice for the modern gentleman because this new breed of ascetic dandy knows that the devil is in the detail. In Paris, the distinction between daywear and eveningwear is increasingly blurred, so you’re just as likely to see a gentleman in dark slim-fit jeans and a crisp white shirt during the day, as you are to see him in tailored shorts and a bow tie. But Parisian style is not impractical. Urban life is tough and the city is, frankly, always freezing. For this reason, men appear to invest more in coats that are both sickeningly chic and sickeningly expensive. Every man has his own variation, but the classic navy pea coat and Burberry trench coat are the most popular choices – businessmen tend to wear them over a slick two-piece suit, more casual gentlemen team them with dark denim and leather boots.

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The one distinction between English and French style is this sense of uniformity. France is a country renowned for its patriotism and tradition – the words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are ever-present – and its attitude to dress follows suit.[vi] Times are changing, but experimentation will probably only be tolerated to a certain degree. This is not necessarily a bad thing as innovation can often be done for its own sake, cluttering an otherwise flawless outfit. Besides, Parisian men find more sartorially subtle ways to express their personality – monogrammed bags, block-coloured scarves and unusual jewellery are just a few examples. Like the city itself, where real style is only found when you explore beneath the surface, the dress of the Parisian Gentleman may not be as polished as his stereotypes suggest, but it is far more interesting when you notice the characterful details. In essence, the Parisian man matches his outfit to his character – his presentation has wit and an abundance of charm. My wardrobe has followed suit. Piercings and gaudy knitwear have been replaced with moisturiser and a navy dress coat. A floor-length black scarf has become the accessory of choice. I never leave with home without jewellery. It is now the cut of my black trousers that makes them interesting, rather than the print. Men here respect men with style and, thankfully, I have received nothing but compliments from my European counterparts.


[i] C. Breward, Fashion (London, 2003), 172-82.

[ii] B.Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, tr. G. Bull (London, 1967), 135; G. Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (London, 1940).

Pull Yourself Together

A Belt & Braces Commentary on Modern Man’s Silhouette

This article was originally published with Parisian Gentleman.

 

Getting It Under My Belt

I’ve never liked belts. They disrupt the clothed silhouette by gathering and puckering fabric. They form an unsightly bulge beneath jumpers and look awkward peeking below a waistcoat, along with the tie end, untucked shirt and tummy.

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The resulting effect is to make the garments that cover a man’s torso and legs appear as if they belong to different people, as though two Matryoshka dolls had been erroneously paired. Belts conspicuously emphasise the poor fit of the garments they are holding up and in many cases, cruelly highlight the corpulence of the person wearing them. But this is to assume that belts are solely functional. Increasingly, street styled gents appear to be wearing belts for display rather than decorum. In recent weeks, Tumblr’s dedicated followers of fashion have featured men whose belts serve a similar function to those worn by WWI soldiers and Batman; that is, as a prop to hang important accessories – a Bell & Ross pocket watch costing £1,800, for example.

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But before we rush to proclaim the utility belt’s coming of age, not all of the objects slung from it are practical. In a photograph that I saw last week, a sitting room-styled gent poses with an ochre-coloured tassel suspended from his woven leather belt. Complementing the colour of his floral shirt, it would seem that the tassel is being worn much like a pocket square, as an object of decoration.

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Belt Up

Ilse Fingerlin’s Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Belts of the High and Late Middle Ages) is probably unknown, certainly unread, beyond a small circle of German-speaking, dress-loving medievalists.[i] Under appreciated though the book may be, the fact that it was published testifies to the enduring sartorial and sociological appeal of the belt. Whilst its usefulness varies in direct proportion to the fit of the bifurcated garments to which it is attached, throughout history and across the world the belt has been available in various colours, materials and styles. It can be easily, and relatively cheaply, customised with studs, embroidery, branding or a different buckle, proclaiming anything from ‘Handle With Care’ to ‘Keep Calm And Party On’ ((slightly) more tasteful expressions are available). The belt’s flexibility delights the pragmatist and the peacock in equal measure. That said, I still don’t like it and for the past three years I have not worn one.

In using the belt to flaunt desirable characteristics and qualities, Modern Man is aping his medieval ancestors, who suspended daggers, purses and gloves from their belts, as much for each of use as to signify power, wealth and physical aptitude.[ii] The belt was similarly important for women because it emphasised the womb and highlighted their power as child bearer and mother, as Jan Van Eyck’s painting, The Arnolfini Wedding (1434), shows; more especially as the large-bellied bride is not actually pregnant.[iii]

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But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, the mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, the sartorial and sociological knowledge of how to wear the belt has been acquired, rather than earned, and so any sense of how to wear it appropriately is obfuscated. Hence, perhaps, the frivolous tassel in the photograph. Today, belts are a convenient, even lazy, way of making ill-fitting trousers stay up. There is no need to be cognisant of the size of one’s body, or to consider the trousers’ drape, because the belt will hold things up regardless; or, as is the preference for certain (young) men, it will suspend said bottoms lower to reveal the waistband and brand of underwear. Essentially, this means that I dislike belts for what they represent, rather than what they are.

In the past, men’s clothes were attached by an interconnecting system of hooks and eyelets. Each garment was fastened to another to form the overall structure of the outfit. At a time when all garments were bespoke and handcrafted, it was imperative for men (and women) to know their body’s size and to appreciate how the various articles of clothing that constituted their garments were put together, whether or not they dressed themselves. This sartorial know-how died hard. In the twentieth century, long after doublets and hose had been superseded, Edward Windsor and his tailors devised innovative ways to ensure the ducal wardrobe retained its structure without looking too formal.[iv] It has been suggested that the Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli wore custom-made shirts that fastened under the groin, to prevent them from rising up. But die the knowledge did. The duke and magnate were privileged men, but their style was a beneficiary of their wealth, rather than a cause of it. They understood how the clothed silhouette determined sartorial success or failure. Modern Man, rich or poor, seems content to let multinational companies dictate his size and style.

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Brace Yourself

The belt is not alone in incurring my sartorial censure. I also dislike clip-on braces. They, too, epitomise how Modern Man’s attitude to the structure of his outfit has slumped. I like, and wear, braces that attach to trousers by means of internal buttons – two pairs at the front and one pair at the rear – because they support even the most well-fitting of trousers from rising or sagging. Gravity being what it is, or as Isaac Newton explained it, a garment worn from the waist is always going to hang better if it is suspended from the shoulders, rather than being clamped directly against the skin, regardless of whether it is bespoke or off the peg. Buttoned braces become an integral part of a garment’s structure, whereas clip-on braces pull and mark the trouser fabric and often cause the waistline to bow. Above all, clip-on braces appear as thought they an after thought. It as though their wearer has realised that his trousers do not fit, or that he wants them to hang more freely, only after wearing them. The majority of off the peg trousers do not contain brace buttons, but this is changing. Slowly. Hackett now sell a range of braces with interchangeable ends that clip and button to trousers. The braces are sold with six buttons that can be sewn into any pair of trousers and they are not difficult to add.

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It’s A Stitch Up

I have focused on bottoms, but men also muck up their tops. In the past two weeks, I have seen three different men wearing off the peg jackets with the rear vents sewn together. I am not against off the peg tailoring – let’s be clear about that – but I struggle to grasp how men can buy clothes that don’t fit them. I suppose the point might be similar to women and their bras. I am really no expert here, but whenever I watch reality-based style programmes, unsuspecting women are always being berated for not knowing their cup size. To varying degrees, we all suffer from sizing myopia because we are content to accept unquestioned the sizing labels sewn into mass produced garments and believe that our unique physiques will snugly fit them. This is as much about personal self-esteem issues as it is Theodor Adorno’s belief that our faculties for critical thought have been weakened, if not obliterated, by contemporary consumer culture. The result is a ubiquity of similarly styled and poorly fitting garments that require belts and braces to hold them together. Given time, I hope the renewed interest in historic garments and vogues will engender an appreciation of how clothes should be worn. But if not, perhaps the belt tassel will become a trend and distract people from noticing Man’s sartorial sluggishness?

 


[i] I. Fingerlin, Gürtel des hohen und späten Mittelalters (Munich, 1971).

[ii] B.L. Wild, Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’,Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395; Idem, ‘A gift inventory from the reign of Henry III’, English Historical Review, 125 (2010), 535-36.

[iii] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London, 2013), 77.

[iv] E. Dawson, ‘Comfort and Freedom’: The Duke of Windsor’s Wardrobe’, Costume, 47 (2013), 205-206.

Put A Sock In It

…A Short History of Hosiery

They are inexpensive, gender neutral, almost completely concealed by leg coverings and footwear and worn over an inconspicuous part of the body. Socks would seem to be a humble sartorial staple. But we shouldn’t be fooled, for they are one of the clearest communicators in the language of dress. Brightly coloured or boldly patterned, holed or threadbare, incorrectly paired or garishly white, few items of apparel attract as much attention, and opprobrium, as a pair socks. Last year, Mark Ronson’s decision to wear chilli-red socks with his dinner jacket, and so flout the cardinal rule of Black Tie (that it must be black, of course!), sparked debate on GQ’s website.[i]  In 2007, Paul Wolfowitz was taken to task for wearing holed socks on an official visit to a Turkish mosque.[ii] The irony, and humour, of the World Bank President wearing threadbare hosiery was acute because of the long-standing use of The Holed Sock as a metaphor for poverty and limited social means. More recently, men’s decision to shun socks and flash their ankle flesh, à la Thom Browne, has provoked a spirited discussion about when and where socks should be worn. The heat of the discussion has increased in direct proportion with the summer’s rising temperatures, as some people (almost invariably men) stubbornly persist in wearing (white) socks with sandals.[iii] Socks are clamorous communicators. Their history deserves to be told.

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In The Beginning

If there is still a conundrum about the initial appearance of the chicken and the egg, there is no such quandary concerning the sock. Jesus has an eponymous sandal, but the wearing of socks predated his birth by several centuries. The oldest surviving pair of socks comes from Egypt and dates from between 250 and 450AD.[iv] Greek citizens, however, had worn rudimentary foot coverings since the eighth century BC. In its present form, the sock is a relatively new item of clothing. The material of many modern socks, cotton and nylon, did not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth century, respectively. The task of producing socks was facilitated by developments at the end of the sixteenth century; chiefly, the opening of knitting schools at York (1588) and Lincoln (1591) and, perhaps more importantly, the invention of the knitting machine in 1589. Unfortunately, the initial reception of this novel machine was rather poor. According to one story, Queen Elizabeth I refused to acknowledge William Lee’s labour-saving device with a royal patent because she did not like the stockings it produced; she favoured softer silk variants that were imported from Spain.[v] Another story suggests the monarch was less concerned for her own comfort than the economic prosperity of her kingdom; she refused Lee a patent because too many of her subjects would become unemployed if the knitting machine were to be widely used.[vi]

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baggy sox

Style quandaries and economic concerns aside, Queen Elizabeth’s reluctance should not have been surprising. In the sixteenth century, sartorial decorum still required women to hide their stocking-covered legs and feet beneath the folds of their skirt. Men’s legs and feet were on show, as they had been since the late medieval period, but they were clothed in hose, a tight-like garment that was fastened to the doublet.[vii] Prior to the creation of trousers in the nineteenth century, there was no particular need, or demand, to change the way that men and women dressed their feet. Not until the widespread adoption of trousers (c.1820s, but initially by men alone), and the abandonment of the doublet and hose, was there a need for a shorter garment to cover the ankle and foot. The result, a creation of Thomas Kelly and Hugh Ryan, is commonly termed the ‘tube sock.’ Kelly and Ryan’s design was modified, with ribs being added in the 1840s to help the socks stay up, but the modern sock has remained much the same ever since.[viii]

War Horse

If socks came of age during the nineteenth century, they probably found their voice in the late twentieth century. One catalyst for this change was  the internecine conflict that engulfed Europe and much of the world between 1803 and 1945. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, mechanised warfare was a dream of the future and joining the cavalry was still frequently a perk of birth. Protecting the feet of the common solider, the infantryman, was therefore of vital importance. But whilst shoemaking technology advanced considerably over this period, the fact is that many soldiers who fought in the trenches during WWI did so in boots that were ill-fitting and poorly considered.[ix] Socks provided much needed, if still minimal, comfort.

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It is unclear – at least to me – whether there is a direct correlation between the mass production of socks during the World War and their increased supply after it, but the first style of patterned socks to become widely popular was the argyle. This design, which will always be associated with the inimitable Duke of Windsor, was developed by Pringle in the 1920s. Argyle socks seem to mark something of a sartorial turning point for socks because whilst they were  still worn for protection and comfort, they had, like the patterned and beribboned stockings of old, now become a conversant piece of people’s daily wear. Early sock designs seem to have conjured associations with aristocratic leisure pursuits, which is not surprising as many fashions descend from the society’s elite, but it was the Punks and New Romantics of the 1970s and 1980s, who experimented with bright colours and bold patterns, combined with the increasing popularity of continental sportswear brands, that contributed most to the sock’s colourful, striped, spotty and cartoon character adorned future.

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The relatively inconspicuous nature of socks means that they provide a suitably enticing canvas for people to express their personalities. Moreover, unlike other items of male clothing that are  increasingly challenged for injecting too much individuality into an outfit – the tie is a particularly good example considering its conspicuous absence at June’s G8 summit[x] – the sock has lasted, and probably will continue to do so, because its practicality cannot be doubted, unless you are a devotee of Thom Browne. The fact that personal expression in (men’s) dress is now largely confined to the feet reveals much about contemporary clothing attitudes, but as the examples of Mark Ronson and Paul Wolfowitz reveal, this makes the sock’s sartorial shout all the louder for it.

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[i] N. Carvell, ‘Style Debate: Should Black Tie Socks Be Black?’ (November, 2012). www.gq-magazine.co.uk/style/articles/2012-11/22/black-tie-tuxedo-colourful-socks-style-debate. Accessed: 26-iv-2013.

[ii] ‘Holes found in Wolfowitz’s style’ (January, 2007). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6316765.stm. Accessed: 26-iv-2013.

[iii] T. Van Den Broeke, ‘Summer Survival Guide #1: The Rules of Going Sockless’. www.esquire.co.uk/style/shoes/4050/rules-of-going-sockless. Accessed: 8-ix-2013.

[v] ‘Sock History’. www.lonelysock.com/SockHistory.html. Accessed: 26-vij-2013.

[vi] T. Gunn, Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet (New York, 2012),185.

[vii] M. Hayward, ‘Hose’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 280-81.

[viii] Gunn, Fashion Bible,182.

[ix] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons: Military Footwear in the Age of Empire’, Shoes: A History From Sandals To Sneakers, ed. G. Riello & P. McNeil (London & New York, 2006), 116-37.

[x] V. Friedman, ‘The no-tie decree is a poorly dressed-up message to the world’, Financial Times (22/23 June, 2013), 9.

Icons of Style…

 …Or How Did Robert Pattinson Get So Stylish?

 This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

 

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

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

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And The Winner Is…

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

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

To Boldy Pick

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

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Mode à la Robert Pattinson

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

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

So why Robert Pattinson?

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The Gosling Paradox

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

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

A Suitable Model

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

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

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


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

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

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

[iv] Fox, ‘Style Icon’.

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

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