Modern Vintage

Sophisticated. Simple. Retro. Wearable. These are some of the words that journalists have used to describe the catwalk fashions on display this week in Paris, Milan… and Salisbury. From Dior to Dolce & Gabbana, Giamba to Prada, the styles of Spring/Summer 2015 have been conspicuous for their strong silhouettes and attention to detail. There is an emphasis on sensible sartorialism, where practicality and plushiness harmonize. As Jo Ellison, fashion editor for the Financial Times, observes, fashion designers have got real.

Salisbury’s vintage-inspired fashion show, set against the backdrop of its thirteenth-century cathedral, a gothic masterpiece constructed in a single building phase that lasted just under 40 years, provided the perfect parallel to these continental collections. On one level, the flagship event of Salisbury’s annual Fashion Week could be seen as a subtle parody of how the fashion industry has come to rely on historical props and places for legitimacy. The latest round of international fashion shows emphasized how designers’ practice of dipping into fashion’s past for distinction has become routine. In Paris, for example, Raf Simons’ presentation for Dior was housed within a mirrored box in the Cour Carree, the Louvre’s oldest courtyard that has formally played host to Louis Vuitton shows. Simons’ collection was replete with historical references, chiefly from the eighteenth century according to Guardian writer Jess Cartner-Morley.

Brilliant though it was, the timing of Salisbury’s vintage event was almost certainly coincidental. The atmosphere within the Cathedral was one of celebration rather than criticism and condescension. The bursts of spontaneous applause that engulfed the models as they meandered across the medieval pavement in patent stilettos between tables dressed with 1950s china (all supplied by local shop, Beulah’s Attic), not to mention the striking effect of the strong shapes, rich colours and bold textiles against the grey Chilmark stone, engendered a profound connection – rarely witnessed at fashion events – between the sitters and the strutters. Tables buzzed as people recalled memories – to varying degrees hilarious, harrowing and humbling – of weddings, great aunts, children and first loves. The event clarified, far better than any sociological study, why former vogues remain relevant and prevalent.

In an era when the majority of clothes were still made or finished by hand, and with austerity measures providing a unique stimulant for clothing creativity, people’s dress was practical, personal and possessing of a genuine degree of quixotism that did not detract from its quality. No wonder, then, that contemporary designers and the companies they create for have tried hard to understand and utilise the appeal of retro raiment. If the joie de vivre within the Cathedral could have been distilled, branded and sold, the fashion industry would have found an elixir that would truly enable them to create clothes to die for.

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.

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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.

Women’s Style Through Time

The majority of my posts focus on menswear, but occasionally it pays to make an exception. On 27 September I am hosting a Fashion Through The Ages catwalk show as part of Salisbury Fashion Week. The show will focus exclusively on female fashion, so this got me thinking about the major themes in women’s dress…

 

It is often remarked that men are deterred by fashion because they find the constant cycle of clothing trends discomforting. Men prefer style, which exists, somehow timeless and protected, behind a sartorial hermetic seal. Women, on the other hand, relish the seasonal cycling of clothes. The length and weight of American Vogue’s September issue – 902pp, 1.8kg – may bear this out. But as so often with matters of appearance, looks can be deceptive. For all the talk of transition and seasonal transformation in women’s clothing, changes in style are really variations of a norm. If women’s fashion is examined over the longue durée, developments in dress can be whittled down to four themes.

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More Revealing

Between the fifth and nineteenth centuries, social conventions decreed that women should conceal their bodies beneath folds and layers of fabric suspended from deforming structures of bone, leather, metal and wood. At extremes, the female body became gigantic (à la wide-bottomed mantua of the eighteenth century) and minute (à la small-waisted dresses, emphasised by enlarged sleeves, of the nineteenth century). In contrast, contemporary female dress is more revealing, both figuratively and literally. Today, the majority of women have greater freedom to express their personality through the colour and cut of their clothing, irrespective of their wealth and religious belief. In the West, sculptural clothing designs that enhance a woman’s natural silhouette, along with the loss of layers and length to reveal flesh, make female clothing not only more revealing, but more provocative and demonstrative of a women’s power to attract, to assert her authority (over men and women) and to be an individual. Few designers understood this better than Alexander McQueen, whose visceral creations blend with the body and form a second skin that are sensuous and gloriously frank.

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More Accessorising

The power and provocation of female dress is increasingly heightened by the careful selection of accessories. In the past, clothing accoutrements and body adornments were worn by wealthy women to proclaim a social position that was at once privileged and circumscribed by their marital status. Today, women, like men, clamour to purchase designer bags, jewels and watches to display their independence and immutability in the face of social unease caused by economic instability. More ubiquitous, female accessories are also much bigger. The majority of women almost certainly own bags that are at least twice as big as those carried by their mothers; don bracelets that have longer and chunkier links and wear rings, made from a diverse array of materials, with bezels that are big in every dimension. As clothing styles have become increasingly homogenised, these enlarged adornments play a key role in signifying women’s collective and singular femininity.

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More Androgynous

Homogeneous clothing, a product of industrialised manufacturing skilfully marketed through popular media, blights both sexes and distinction in dress is now hard to achieve, despite the revealing nature of accessorised outfits. But it is not just that one man or one woman looks like any other member of their sex, it is that both sexes look increasingly alike, as women borrow from men and men borrow from women. The development of new leisure activities following the industrial revolution established a greater need for specialised sportswear regardless of sex. Androgyny in dress is also a consequence of increasing social equality, where men and women increasingly work and play alongside each other in identical roles. Or could our enduring interest in gender-bending performers, from David Bowie to Lady GaGa, suggest that androgyny appeals to the homo-erotic side in all of us; men who like the gamine look and girls who like beautiful boys…

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Consistently Uncomfortable

Sartorial similitude and the desire to achieve distinction in dress would also account for the one constant in women’s fashion: discomfort. If a misogynistic paternalism once decreed that women wear restrictive clothing to reflect and enforce their social limitations, the ability to dress more freely also hides snares for contemporary women, who pronounce their femininity, and try to appear distinct, by wearing signifiers that once proclaimed their subordination. A majority of women wear debilitating footwear for the much of the working day and carry (large) bags suspended from their wrist or arm. Margaret Thatcher revealed how the female bag could be transformed into a symbol of feminine strength – the verb ‘to handbag’ exists because of her – but her posthumous sartorial fame shows how women still endure psychological and physical pain through clothing choices that enable them to attain roles perceived as successful and meaningful by society. As in the past, so women in the present continue to be judged on their clothing decisions, from their height of the heels to the length of their skirts. The history of women’s dress reveals that constant change, far from eroding continuity, can compound it.

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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.

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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.

Here’s Looking At You … Henry VIII

History is working hard to woo new audiences in the twenty-first century. In an age of Wiis, iPhones and Twitter, History’s association with writing, memorising dates and reading books is more likely to deter than delight. I encounter many people, from plumbers and hairdressers to baristas and train commuters, who tell me that they really loved history at school. Truly. But they just didn’t have the aptitude to remember dates, as if:

(a) Study of the past prioritises the rote learning of chronological events, and

(b) Historical careers are genetically predetermined.

A crucial element in History’s PR campaign is the television documentary. Few subjects have experimented with as many different types of televisual genre as History. Docudramas, reenactments, role-playing, reality experiences and characterful presenters, from the doctrinaire David Starkey and the sagacious Simon Schama to the Everyman’s Tony Robinson, have all been used, with varying degrees of authenticity and success, to help people understand that knowledge of the past is relevant and interesting. The most commonly deployed audience-winning tactic, which works within many of the aforementioned televisual formats, is the recreation. Whether it involves cooking an age-old dish, reconstructing a building through authentic techniques, CGI, or, aiming to be trans-disciplinary and showing that the humanities and sciences are not diametrically opposed, forensic facial modelling, History has tried them all. Unfortunately, the payoff is poor, for historical reconstructions are usually naff; royal palaces look gaudy, food is unpalatable and busts of our ancestors look more ‘high school project’ than ‘high-end science’.

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The latest historical reconstructions, which shrewdly tap into the popular ‘What If…?’ school of history, are the product of three months of research that sought to investigate how powerful and popular personages of the past would look today. Published in The Daily Mail last week, the results appeared under the electrifying copy:

 Queen Bess with botox. Fake boobs for Marie Antoinette. And Henry VIII’s hair transplant.[i]

The historically-inspired recreations of William Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, Horatio Nelson, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, determined by historian Susannah Lipscomb, are certainly interesting, and raise fruitful questions about the evolving language and significance of clothing in our society, but the results appear just as dodgy as other reconstructionist attempts.

Henry VIII … The Bouncer?

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According to Lipscomb’s research, as presented in The Daily Mail, England’s ‘great’ King Henry, would have enjoyed reigning in the twenty-first century. For starters, divorce would have been a much easier process.

He was the original bling king, with hats dripping in pearls and rubies on his fingers. He would embrace TV, but not to become a celebrity — he never cared what ordinary people thought of him. His aim was to make a serious impression on the power elite, to impress upon them that he was the boss — he saw himself as an Old Testament king with a direct line to God. Today, he would have a hair transplant to hide his receding hairline. He also has a tan, because he spent so much time riding and hunting, and shoes with heels to make his stature — over 6ft tall — even more impressive.[ii]

This seems reasonable enough, although the artist does not appear to have been paying attention (perhaps he zoned out at the discussion of dates?), for Henry VIII sought to personify his power; he did not want people to think he was a pimp. It is well known that Henry’s weight increased dramatically during his thirty-eight-year reign – his armour from 1512 indicates that his waist measured 35 inches; his chest measured 42 inches. His armour from 1540 had a waist measurement of 54 inches and a chest measurement of 57 inches[iii] – but he was deeply concerned about his image, more so than Lipscomb appears to suggest. The bust of Guido Mazzoni, which probably depicts Henry at the age of eight or nine, shows a young prince in exquisite garments, much like the portraits of his reign.[iv] It is doubtful, therefore, that Modern Henry would wear a crucifix necklace or a ‘Simon Cowell-type suit.’ Like his royal successors, and in particular the corpulent Edward VII, it is more probable that Modern Henry would have a longstanding relationship with one of London’s Savile Row tailors; perhaps Huntsman, one of the most expensive outfitters on the Row, or for his later years, the more relaxed and comfortable Anderson & Sheppard, the tailor of choice for Prince Charles.[v] Henry would have surely realised, or been ever-so-delicately informed, that a double-breasted suit was a better option than an all-too-revealing one-button suit jacket, considering his great bulk. An athletic and military-minded man, particularly in his youth, Henry would possess a range of dress uniforms from Gieves and Hawkes. He likes to cut a dash, so an expensive watch – perhaps Cartier, like Bill Clinton?[vi] – and distinctive footwear – monks? – seem more plausible than the high heels Lipscomb suggests. If Henry were alive today, I imagine that he would be an amalgam of various figures; he would possess the sartorial style of Edward VII – Henry would definitely have an eponymous knot or tweed[vii] – the pugnacious assertion of Winston Churchill and the media mastery of Tony Blair.

Marie Antoinette … Or Babs Windsor?

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The recreation of Marie Antoinette seems equally problematic. According to The Mail, the Queen of France, ‘was a fashion diva. But she was also far from being a natural beauty’.

When her name was suggested as a suitable bride for Louis, courtiers saw her portrait and were horrified: she had too high a forehead, they said, wonky teeth and tiny breasts. Marie Antoinette had been teased in her teens about the flatness of her bust. It’s likely, if she were alive today, she would want breast implants. She certainly underwent appalling 18th-century corrective dentistry, so I’m sure she would have been delighted with the small pearly whites our makeover has provided. She loved clothes and was a great trend-setter, buying four pairs of shoes every week and changing her outfits three times a day. She also liked to signal her mood by changing her hairstyle. We’ve given her a fringe, to disguise her high forehead, and we’ve let down her 3ft-long tresses, Beyoncé-style. She’s wearing a peacock feather fascinator, and the whole impression is sexy, daring and unrestrained. After all, Marie Antoinette was the original It Girl. She might never have said ‘Let them eat cake,’ as legend claims, but I’m sure that today she’d be saying: ‘Let’s party!’[viii]

Marie Antoinette was naive, but she was not oblivious to public opinion as the Diamond Necklace Affair of 1787 reveals, although her reputation, and that of the monarchy, did suffer for her association with gemstones and the deluxe.[ix] She expressed some concern for the under-privileged, although her experiment at Hameau de la Reine was viewed critically by many (perhaps Modern Marie Antoinette would consult with Prince Charles about his Trust and Duchy Originals line?).

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It is therefore difficult to say whether Marie Antionette would have been more Paris Hilton or Princess Diana. I think she would have close relationships with a handful of couturiers, perhaps John Galliano or, prior to his death, Alexander McQueen – troubled souls who would seem like kindred spirits. Jewels would be exquisite, perhaps from Van Cleef & Arpels or Verdura.[x] The Queen may make some concession to shop on the High Street, but she probably would not indulge to the same degree as the Duchess of Windsor. It is also doubtful that Marie Antoinette would look to pop stars, even Beyoncé, to influence her Look, although she would probably count several A-Listers as friends and supporters and enjoy an effortless repartee with them at public functions, much like Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. What is certain is that Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe, actions and words would provide content for all manner of hard- and soft-copy publications, just as they did for the Moving Tableau of Paris in the eighteenth century.

Lost In Time

Historic reconstructions and What If? questions about the past make for interesting and entertaining exercises, as my musings above attest, but there are fundamental points that The Mail‘s presentation of Lipscomb’s research does not bring out.[xi] For starters, it seems to be assumed that the reanimated historic characters would possess only a superficial grasp of contemporary media and celebrity culture and be suckers for cosmetic procedures. They would not understand the contrived virtue that derives from verism, nor would they be able to harness social media or modern technology to create and distribute enhanced images of themselves. The money and attention to detail that Henry VIII – and his peers – lavished on art and architecture suggests that he would have recognised that today’s ‘power elite’ includes daily Tweeters, Instagram and Tumblr users.[xii] He may well have understood, far better than the Windsors, that social media could provide a vehicle to exalt and exculpate his dynasty, for it enables the followed and their followers to collude in shaping a palatable image of celebrity and power.

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To demonstrate just how weak the citadels of power and celebrity have become, three days after Lipscomb’s research was featured in The Mail, The Financial Times reported a story about a Chinese official, Fan Jiyue, who removed his conspicuously expensive watch when visiting Sichaun residents recovering from last month’s earthquake. Fan Jiyue presumably felt that the opulence of his watch would clash crassly with the beleaguered environment in which he wanted to express support and understanding. Unfortunately, the tan lines on Fan Jiyue’s wrist were less easy to remove and ‘netizens’ soon posted pictures, which were just as quickly blocked by the Chinese government.[xiii] The ability to share information at lightening speed has done much to advance the cause of democracy. Displays of invidious consumption (à la Thorstein Veblen) that highlight distinction seem to be increasingly frowned up, especially for public figures. It is possible, then, that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette would have subscribed to the so-called ‘UN style’, where garments are of ‘a kind of hybrid, globalized style, a product of consensus whose main virtue is its simplicity, not to say invisibility.’[xiv] But this really would not make for good televisual reconstructions. Had Lipscomb pursued this route, History’s PR campaign would have suffered a considerable setback.


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 2, 437.

[iv] D. Starkey, Henry: Virtuous Prince (London, 2008), 133.

[v] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 62-71; 150-57.

[vi] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 256-57.

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

[ix] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London, 1989), 171-77.

[x] S.D. Coffin, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels (London, 2011); P. Corbett, Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweler (London, 2002).

[xi] For much of what follows I am indebted to Tom Payne, with whom I had a delightful Twitter chat: @wilddoughnut; @tomwesleypayne.

[xii] Many studies have shown how medieval and early modern rulers harnessed contemporary media with Machiavellian cunning, for example: T.C. String, Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot, 2008); L. Silver, Marketing Maximilian: The Visual Ideology of a Holy Roman Emperor (Princeton, 2008); Spektakel der Macht: Rituale im alte Europa 800-1800, ed. B. Stollberg-Rilinger, et al. (Darmstadt, 2008).

[xiii] J. Shotter, ‘China calls time on luxury watches’, Financial Times Weekend (4/5 May, 2013), 18.

[xiv] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 236.

The Scent Of Man

‘I like your perfume. I can tell when you’ve been in. It always smells clean and fresh afterwards.’


Taken at face value, this is a reasonably nice complement. If I were to add that it was paid to me by a man – a burly, white-haired security guard, to be precise – whose uniform, worn on a daily basis, exudes a mild whiff of body odour, the complement becomes cringe worthy, if not downright bizarre. I have become accustomed to the occasional remark about my dress from male and female colleagues, which for reasons of low-esteem I frequently Tweet, but another man remarking about my scent put me on edge. And this was not the first time, and it has not been the last time, that my apparently pleasant odour has aroused the olfactory senses of my fellow sex. Not that I am necessarily averse to the attentions of men, you understand.

parfums-saint-valentin-noire-de-serge-lutens-2737437bvcrs_2041

On another occasion, a female friend and colleague asked me about the application of perfume, as she complained that hers never seemed to last the day. Originally from continental Europe, the lady in question expressed surprise that I smelt so nice when Englishmen generally did not, or else smelt of nothing in particular. I explained that I apply my fragrance directly to my body after showering in the morning. Impressed, and eager to experiment for herself, several days later my friend reported that the tip had worked and she could now enjoy satisfying whiffs of her perfume throughout the day.

Sanitising Society

I am not alone in noticing people’s increasing interest in scent. Whilst style magazines have always advertised fragrances, samples of which are impregnated on fold-out tabs that are universally non-descript and sneeze-inducing, a large number now include editorial commentary on the latest and most sensuous of these smells. In Esquire’s first UK edition of the Black Book, one of their ten pages of ‘Essentials’ is devoted to scents.[i] Our obsession with smell – and I think ‘obsession’ is the right word – is age-old and sociological. In his seminal study of human manners and behaviour, German sociologist Norbert Elias noted how people’s inclination to regulate their behaviour increased in tandem with the density and complexity of their society. As commercial and political developments made personal and professional relationships more common, and commensurately more important, so people began to worry (more) about how they presented and represented themselves. Personal hygiene and etiquette became an immediate focus of attention, especially for those who inhabited the ever-mobile and malevolent world of the princely court.[ii]

220px-Louis_XIV_of_France

Decorum-induced dilemmas created a rich literature in guides that advised readers – almost invariably princes – on correct comportment, which included dining etiquette, dress and personal hygiene. These were the very first self-help books. We know that England’s ‘evil’ King John (1199-1216) bathed roughly every two weeks.[iii] In the later medieval period, the Order of the Bath drew on the cleansing and purifying associations of washing to bind newly dubbed knights to England’s monarch.[iv] But as so often the case with matters of elegance and appearance, it was the French monarchs Louis XIV (1638-1715) and Louis XVI (1774-1792) who made cleanliness, and sweet smelling unguents, de rigueur among the elite.[v]

Seductive Serge Lutens

In her recent book, The Perfume Lover, fragrance writer and perfume consultant Denyse Beaulieu admits to being a bouquet bigamist, among other things. As she cheated on her husband with the ‘Monsieur’, so she began to cheat on her perfumer, Serge Lutens.[vi] I have worn a large number of fragrances, but my redolent relationships have always been monogamous. Currently, I wear Lutens’ Serge noire.

Un choix porte au cœur tous les dangers:

celui d’être vous meme.

Merci avec nous de prendre ce risque![vii]

So reads the provocative complimentary card that accompanied my recent Serge Lutens purchase. The words are well chosen. The evocative names of Luten’s fifty-plus fragrances, and the olfactory descriptions that accompany them, reveal his scents are not conventional: Nuit de cellophane (transparent thrill), Muscs Koublaï Khän (a radiant fur), Bornéo 1834 (if it has to be said, a patchouli), Mandarine – mandarin (sparkling citrus), and my two personal favourites, Five o’clock gingembre (candied, peppar) and Serge noire (incense stirred by the smell of burnt wood). Lutens is relatively new to the world of fine fragrance – his first collection, which included four perfumes, was launched in 1992 – but his complex and idiosyncratic scents, undoubtedly inspired by Morocco where he is now based, give wearers a thrill and a sublime satisfaction that feels truly unique, even though this is increasingly unlikely to be the case.

o.1041Serge noire, which conjures two of my favourite smells, leather and tobacco, is far removed from Davidoff’s GoodLife, which is floral, citrus, oh-so-fresh and one of the first fragrances that I can remember wearing, probably fifteen plus years ago. I still have a small amount of the perfume left, which I doubt I shall ever wear. I’ll preserve what remains for the memories. My move from a floral to a foggy fragrance could be age-related. As with many presentational experiments, first forays tend to be loud and piercing, and GoodLife is certainly pungent. Subtly – I hesitate to say sophistication – tends to come with maturity and experience. On the other hand, my change in scent may not be personal at all. It is entirely possible that my preference for something a little spicier has been subconsciously influenced by societal mores.

The Spice Of Life

Financial Times’ columnist Caroline Brien is one of the many commentators who have remarked on the intensified interest in fragrance, among men and women. Brien’s analysis is subtler than most, for she argues that there is a particular prevalence for scents with an oriental twist.[viii] She argues that the rise of Arabic and Asian perfumers is a reflection of the geographical shift in luxury markets. This is undoubtedly a significant point. According to Mark Tungate, 40 per cent of all luxury consumers now reside in Asia.[ix] But I think there is more to it than this. The relative ubiquity of oud (‘a rich scent from the resin of the Agar tree’) and nude (‘rich, sensual and, while not quite in the 1980s “enters a room before you do” category, makes an obvious statement’[x]) make eastern, or eastern-inspired, fragrances distinct. Western fragrances are typically floral. It seems plausible that the relative ubiquity of these oriental ‘olfactory themes’ is as likely to reflect society’s current economic ennui as much as the location of the world’s new luxury buyers. The edgy, perhaps slightly odd, scents that eastern perfumers provide parallels the very obviously edgy and angular designs that have been such a prominent feature of catwalks in London, Milan and New York. Remember Craig Green’s collection at London Collections: Men in January? (the picture will jog your memory). The scents and clothes that we are being encouraged to wear, really do focus on the notion a second skin, for purposes of defence.

vui_2892-450x675

Exotic scent is also transporting. It can take its wearer, mentally if not physically, to warmer and more pleasant shores. The effects of this can be twofold. For the wearer, the fragrance comforts by offering a fleeting escape from their recession-based woes. It could also boost confidence. A passer-by, who might have similar thoughts of travel on breathing the bouquet, could associate the wearer with disposal income and the ‘high life’, thus making them appear resilient to the doldrums of debt. This is not (necessarily) extravagant theorising. Various commentators have noted that people are generally inclined to exalt their wealth during times of economic stringency. A rise in the number of men booking into tanning salons has been attributed to their desire to appear well travelled and economically secure.[xi] Again, we come back to defence.

Message In A Bottle

mariah_careyFortunately, fragrance, like tanning appointments or headwear, which also appears to be selling well in our straitened times, is a reasonably cheap way of making a noticeable statement about wealth. Quite deliberately. Ever since couturier Paul Poiret launched Rosine in 1911, luxury brands have sold perfume as a canny way of enticing more consumers. As Mark Tungate observes, the ‘pretty glass bottles were prisms through which everyday consumers could glimpse a life of luxury.’[xii] But the evanescent elixir is more powerful than this, for as Tom Payne has noted with reference to Mariah Carey’s M perfume, it can give expression to the celebrity’s name its bears:

Had you presented [the perfume] as a gift, then you were presenting Mariah Carey, and offering your beneficiary the chance to smell like her. In this way a famous person becomes reproducible and has the power to be everywhere. This is something more pervasive and subliminal than other sorts of merchandise, such as Desperate Housewives dolls or a Martha Stewart fitted sheet. Even so, it is successful because it is fleeting. As we inhale it, we are aware of moments to be seized.[xiii]


Men are no less subject to this subtle psychology than women, as the Christmas launch of a new James Bond fragrance revealed. According to British GQ, the fragrance is ‘the most dangerously sophisticated fragrance in the world.’ No comment. In buying fragrance, be it celebrity endorsed, spicy or floral, many of us would probably agree with designer Edward Meadham, who has said that fragrance completes a story and ‘makes the ‘character’ of [a clothing] collection more three-dimensional.’[xiv]

hero_7488

A Poisoned Chalice?

But lifting the lid, or plunging the vaporiser, of our favourite bottled fragrances carries a risk that is perhaps far greater than that of any item of apparel that we wear. As Denyse Beaulieu realised when making Seville à l’Aube with perfumer Betrand Duchaufour, a significant quantity of the components within perfume are pheromones that frequently smell of the primal and the base, of unwashed body parts and detritus. When the balance of scents is perfected, the smell of damp dog is mercifully depressed, but the effect of the pheromones is not (necessarily). So, whatever you wear, and however you apply it, be wary of burly security men and their disarming compliments.


[i] ‘Scents’, Esquire (UK): The Big Black Book (Spring/Summer, 2013), 135.

[ii] H. Hitchings, Sorry! The English and their Manners (London, 2013), 53-97.

[iii] T.D. Hardy, Rotuli de Liberate ac de Misis et Praestitis, regnante Johanne (London, 1844), 115, 137.

[iv] A. Weir, Henry VIII: king and court (London, 2001), 14.

[v] D. Beaulieu, The Perfume Lover: a personal history of scent (London, 2012), 18-26.

[vi] Ibid., 134.

[vii] For the Anglophone reader: ‘Choosing to be yourself is not without its perils. Thank you for taking the risk with us.’

[viii] C. Brien, ‘New season, new scents’, Financial Times Weekend: Life & Arts (February 16/17, 2013), 4.

[ix] M. Tungate, Luxury World: The past, present and future of luxury brands (London, 2009), 4.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] S. Armstrong, ‘Bronze age man’, The Sunday Times: Style (Sunday, 17 March 2013), 62.

[xii] Tungate, Luxury World, 2.

[xiii] T. Payne, Fame: what the classics tells us about our cult of celebrity (New York, 2009), 182.

[xiv] E. Ings-Chambers, ‘Breathe In’, The Sunday Times: Style (10 March, 2013), 18.

The Chap in the Hat

Hats_Now

Hat-clad men are now ubiquitous and their choice of headwear is commensurately conspicuous, as if there were a sartorial safety in numbers. At this year’s fashion shows in London, Milan and New York, flat caps, fedoras, baseball caps, bowlers, homburgs, stove pipes, Stetsons and variants of the sombrero, have been modelled on and off the catwalk in a variety of materials and colours. Even Pope Benedict XVI’s ‘flamboyant headwear’ has come under scrutiny in the press.[i] The trend for male headwear is clearly influenced by past styles, but it intrigues because unlike other sartorial revivals of recent years – the pocket square, the tie bar, the boutonnière and the lapel pin – the hat has no direct association with the suit, a staple of male dress for the past two hundred years.[ii]

Hats_Past

Hats for Cash-strapped Consumers…

According to London-based milliner Lara Jenson, ‘the recession is a perfect environment for hat design to flourish. Hats and headpieces have long been worn to signify wealth and status and in an economic downturn they have been fashionably worn to this effect.’[iii] Jenson’s observation may go someway to explain the popularity of headwear this year, but it doesn’t satisfactorily account for the fact that men’s millinery mania is curiously specific. Whilst modest hats – bowlers and flatcaps – are popular, there is an evident preference for rakish variants, not least the fedora and Stetson.

milan6What might this suggest? Well, possibly, that men are (sub)consciously using their headwear to communicate something about themselves. In an interview with the Financial Times, designer Flora McLean comments, ‘I was told the other day that people wear hats to explain what they can’t say with their faces.’[iv] As to what men’s headwear can say that their faces cannot (or will not), the preference for the fedora and Stetson is telling. For these hats are frequently the headwear choice of ‘real men’, cads and heroes from history and fiction, men like Indiana Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Al Capone and J.R. Ewing. Could it be that the hat is being worn to signal man’s strength… and relevance?

… Or a Cure For Gender Headaches?

The argument that men are not well suited to postindustrial society has been forcefully, and convincingly, argued by Hanna Rosin.[v] Rosin asserts that:

The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. Last year [2009], Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, who campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, and who vowed to end the “age of testosterone” … Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation[vi]

Rosin’s ideas have been taken further by Guardian columnist Victoria Bekiempis, who suggests that men’s ‘spooked machismo’ explains the heightened relevance of ‘cowboy’ politicians, such as Ronald Reagan and George W Bush (both of whom wore Stetsons), in America. The ideas and actions of men of this ilk, which enshrine and endorse ‘phallocentric leadership’, reflect deep uncertainties about the role of the male in modern society.[vii] But America’s (male) politicians are not alone in appearing powerless before recent world events. Within Europe, whilst Berlusconi performed and Sarkozy prevaricated, it was Germany’s Angela Merkel who seemed to be plotting the course for future financial security.

And it is not just in politics that men’s societal role is being challenged. Daniel Craig’s flaunting of flesh in Skyfall provoked harsh criticism from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who expressed ‘pain’ about the amount of time Craig evidently spent in the gym preparing for James Bond’s latest outing. [viii] Cohen implies that Craig’s physical regime and supplements are unmanly, even womanly. They are substitutes for ‘cleverness and experience’, which was a hallmark of male film stars in the days of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. Cohen is challenged by OUT Magazine’s Mark O’Connell (among others), who suggests that he is subconsciously expressing a fear of treating women, or men who seem to behave like women (i.e. gay men), on equal terms.[ix]

If The Hat Fits

The reason why gender insecurities might encourage the wearing of hats is historical, for clothing of the head has always demarcated the sexes. Whilst women’s heads were almost entirely enveloped by fabric from the earliest of times, men’s heads were either bare or covered with a high hat.[x] The top hat, popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, represents the zenith of high headwear. Borrowing from Freud, some commentators have suggested that this style of hat was a phallic signifier, a symbol of male potency and dominance.[xi] As if to demonstrate the point, in 1920, the German artist Max Ernst created The Hat Makes the Man, a picture depicting four phallic towers made up of hat photographs cut from sales catalogues.[xii]

CRI_97242

Whilst it is not the case that every hat-wearing male has gender hang-ups, the current preference for fedoras and Stetsons – even the wearing of a yellow bowler hat or a red stove pipe hat, which is pretty provocative – does possibly show how underlying and widespread societal concerns shape our outlook and dress, even if we are not fully cognisant or in agreement with them.

Head On, an exhibition about headwear and contemporary clothing runs at the London College of Fashion until 23 March 2013. www.fashionspacegallery.com


[i] H. Rochell, ‘Let the Devil wear Prada – the man in the Vatican was dressed by Christ’, The Times (Tuesday, 12 February 2013), 6-7.

[ii] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: the evolution of modern dress (New York, 1994).

[iii] L. Foreman, ‘Head Lines’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (Saturday/Sunday, 16/17 February 2013), 4.

[iv] Ibid., 4.

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

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] V. Bekiempis, ‘The cowboy in crisis, or male anxiety in American politics’, The Guardian (Tuesday, 25 October 2011). www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/oct/25/cowboy-crisis-male-anxiety. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[ix] M. O’Connell, ‘Pecs and Ass: the age of Daniel Craig’, OUT Magazine (4 December, 2012). http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2012/12/04/pecs-and-ass-age-daniel-craig. Accessed: 16-ij-2013.

[x] C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion: a new history of fashionable dress (Manchester, 1995), 13, 15.

[xi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 128.

All That Glitters

VibratorThere is something compulsive about gold. The legend of King Midas is cautionary, but the expression ‘Midas Touch’ is usually offered as a complement, rather than a condemnation. Throughout history, golden objects have been prized above others. Think of the death mask of Tutankhamun, England’s Gold State Coach or the jewellery of Van Cleef & Arpels, Verdura and Tiffany.[i] Think also about people’s desire to gild objects of more ordinary status, from a backpack and a pair of trainers, to a barbecue grill and a vibrator.[ii] There is even a museum of gold, the Museo del Oro, in Bogotá.[iii] But as much as gold appeals, it is a substance that we have had cause to feel uneasy about, as the Prince of Morocco reveals in scene two of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

O hell! What have we here?

A carrion Death, within whose empty eye

There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.

All that glitters is not gold;

Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Had you been as wise as bold,

Young in limbs, in judgement old,

Your answer had not been inscroll’d:

Fare you well; your suit is cold.

Cold, indeed; and labour lost:

Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!

Gold confers an ethereal and transient distinction upon people during their lifetime, but, cold and inert, it cannot prevent against corporal decomposition after death, although this has never deterred people from being buried in gilded tombs (à la James Brown and Michael Jackson). As Roland Barthes said of gemstones, gold is stubborn and cruel because it is ‘nothing but itself.’[iv] Barthes actually thought gold to be ‘mediocre’, ‘a dull, yellowy metal.’ He acknowledged its power, but insisted that this derived from the fact that it was not ‘convertible or useful’ and, consequently, of no ‘practical application.’ As a result, ‘pure gold, whose usefulness was almost entirely self-referential, became superlative gold, absolute richness.’[v] Whilst Barthes emphasises the inanimate nature of gold, he nonetheless implies that it has bewitched us: we extract the ore and mould it to suit our fancies, chiefly to demarcate hierarchies within social and political relationships, but the essential composition of gold remains unaltered. Ultimately, it is gold that changes us. I can imagine that Barthes would have enjoyed Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which encapsulates the mysterious and malevolent force of gold by describing a quest to destroy the One Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.

SauronOne Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Whose Precious?

Tolkien’s choice of a gold ring was deeply significant. His trilogy simply would not have worked with any other piece of jewellery. Brooches, bracelets, circlets and crowns have a certain allure, but they do not possess the requisite social connotations for an epic concerned with obligation, commitment, sacrifice and greed. Well versed in history, Tolkien would have understood the significance of rings in creating and maintaining relationships. Since at least the nineteenth century BC, the ring has been a unique signifier of reciprocal obligations. Egyptian stone carvings depict pharaohs and their queens distributing gifts of rings to reward loyal officials.[vi] Rings were still being worn as signifiers of allegiance some 3,000 years later. Surviving gold rings from the fourteenth century are inscribed with loyalist rhetoric, including Vivat Rex et Lex (‘Long live the king and law’).[vii] Ring inscriptions could also provide good wishes for the New Year, an important time for the exchange of gifts in princely courts, or they could contain sweet nothings between lovers, along the lines of tout le vostre ([‘I am] all yours’).[viii] Regardless of their shape, ornamentation and inscription, rings have been used throughout history to symbolise the bonds that bind people; none more so than the wedding ring. Jewish wedding rings, engraved with the plauditory phrase mazel tov (‘good wishes’), tended to be particularly exquisite and conspicuous because the bezel resembled a house, representing the new couple’s home and the Temple of Jerusalem.[ix] Ironically, the gold ring’s association with marriage indicates why the social lustre of gold may have tarnished and why rings are rarely worn by men.

The Value of Work

Roland Barthes has suggested that gold (and gemstones) have lost their appeal through a gradual process of democratisation. First, the magical quality of gold (and gems) was lost as the women who typically wore them acquired a more active role within society, making the wearing of expensive jewellery impractical. Second, and consequently, jewellery was increasingly made in a variety of non-precious materials, from glass to wood. Third, the range and moderate price of jewellery meant that it became a ‘next to nothing’. Jewellery was no longer worn in its own right, but as accompaniment to an outfit.[x] Barthes’ assessment is simply constructed, but it well reflects (Western) society’s general repulsion at excessive personal adornment and the prevailing suspicion that people who devote too much time or money to their appearance are idle, shallow, or both. As Michael Kinsley has reported in a commentary on Hillary Clinton’s ‘exhausting stint’ as Secretary of State, displays of conspicuous leisure or consumption are no longer regarded as valid barometers of social significance: ‘now you prove your importance by showing others just how much you work; for us, the “the highest form of ritual obeisance is to tell someone: ‘You must be very busy.’”[xi]

Ferrari

And being busy means adopting the right clothing. In the case of men this usually means the suit. The suit is far from being the sartorial straightjacket for which it is occasionally criticised, but it has changed little in 200 years.[xii] The hegemony of this perfect, even iconic, garment seems to have convinced the majority of men that ‘a single costume fulfils a single esthetic purpose, and requires a single idea to unify its visibly separate parts.’[xiii] This effectively means that adornments to the suit are rare, subtle and (if done well) complementary. Men do lavish money on at least one dress accessory, their watch, but these precision instruments have a practical purpose – it could be said that they are the quintessential gauge of efficiency in the modern workplace – whereas a ring does not. The other point to note about watches is that they can big – think Breitling and Bell & Ross – whereas rings are conventionally small and delicate. For this reason, they are not uncommonly regarded as effete.

The belief that the ring is an inherently female accessory is a product of lingering nineteenth-century sentiments. Men’s unease about wearing gold rings is elucidated through the failed attempt to introduce male engagement rings in the 1920s. Looking to create new markets, American jewellers tried to persuade men that they should wear engagement rings along side their fiancées. A range of rings, all with very masculine – and seemingly predatory – names, was manufactured, which included “The Major”, “The Master” and “The Stag”.[xiv] The rings were produced in ‘rugged materials such as iron or bronze’ and their advertisements referenced the ‘ancient custom’ of men wearing finger rings.[xv] But the endeavour flopped. The rings did not catch on because the notion of ‘masculine domesticity’, which a (gold) wedding band symbolised, only became synonymous ‘with prosperity, capitalism, and national stability’ during the World War Two.[xvi] [As an aside, men’s difficulty with sartorial styles that challenge notions of their gender was brought home to me earlier today, when I ran into an old friend. Remarking on my (beautiful) pink loafers, he said that I must have balls the size of church bells to wear such footwear in our neighbourhood, and laughed heartily after doing so.]

The Signifying Signet

SignetAssociated with leisure and the opposite sex, (gold) rings are not widely worn by men. Aside from the wedding ring, the signet ring, traditionally worn on the little finger of the non-dominant hand, is the most common. But the signet suffers from a quite specific image problem. Whenever I have discussed having a signet ring made, friends and family have demurred. To them, signet rings are an effete and needlessly ostentatious signifier of perceived social status and worth.[xvii] Conventionally displaying family crests, they are anachronistic and unwelcome reminders of a class system. Signets are odd-fashioned in another respect. Originally used as stamps to seal and authenticate documents in pre-literate societies, signet rings seem quaint in a society that relies on technology to communicate its ideas.[xviii] The oddity and awkwardness that now seems to surround the signet ring was vividly apparent in 1871, when France surrendered to the recently unified Germany at Versailles. As the official seal had gone astray, the French Minister Jules Favre sealed the Franco-German Treaty with his own signet ring:

this, ironically for the arch-Republican Favre, was set with an intaglio portrait of Louis XVI, and had been given to him as souvenir when he acted as a lawyer in 1850-51 to the family of Naundorf, the Pretender whose claim to be recognised as Louis XVII was regarded as most justifiable.[xix]

Prince CharlesIt will be interesting to see whether the current vogue for vintage and bespoke will lead to a revival of the signet ring. It is anecdotal, but I have noticed an increasing number of women wearing signets over the past couple of years. This trend, if such it is, continues a long history of women adopting and adapting aspects of the male wardrobe.[xx] It is also noteworthy that certain firms in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter, have started to offer apps, online ordering and personal testimonies. It would appear that the jewellers are gearing up for another attempt to convince us/(?men) that the social value of gold rings remains high.[xxi] The timing is propitious. As Prince Charles, who always wears a signet ring on his left pinkie, is now hailed as a style icon, they may just succeed.[xxii]


[i] Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels, ed. S.D. Coffin (London, 2011); P. Corbett, Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweller (London, 2002); Bejewelled by Tiffany: 1837-1987, ed. C. Phillips (Yale, 2006).

[ii] JLee, ‘Top 10 Weirdest Things Dipped in Gold’. www.toptenz.com.top-10-weirdest-things-dipped-in-gold.php. Accessed: 26-j-2013.

[iv] R. Barthes, ‘From Gemstones to Jewellery’, The Language of Fashion, ed. & tr. A. Stafford (Oxford, 2005), 59.

[v] Ibid., 60.

[vi] D. Scarisbrick, Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty (London, 2007), 8-9.

[vii] D.A. Hinton, Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain (Oxford, 2005), 241.

[viii] Ibid., 240-1.

[ix] Treasures of the Black Death, ed. C. Descatoire (London, 2009), 60.

[x] Barthes, ‘Gemstones’, 61-64.

[xi] M. Kinsley, ‘A million air miles is too many, Hillary’, The Week (19 January 2003)15.

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

[xiii] Ibid., 112.

[xiv] V. Howard, ‘A “Real Man’s Ring”: Gender and the Invention of Tradition’, Journal of Social History, 36 (2003), 840.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 832.

[xvii] M. Bernard, Fashion as Communication (London, 2001), 60-63.

[xviii] Scarisbrick, Rings, 9.

[xix] Ibid., 56.

[xx] See my earlier post, ‘LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)’.

[xxii] H. Seamons, ‘The Prince of Wales: Style icon’. www.guardian.co.uk/fashion/gallery/2012/jun/13/prince-charles-style-icon. Accessed: 26-j-2013.

LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)

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

David Gandy, menswear model[i]

 

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

Toby Jones, English actor[ii]

 

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

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

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

 

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

It’s Oh So Quiet

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

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

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

Suits you, Sir

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

london-collections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imitation as Flattery

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

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

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

A Tailoring Tyranny?

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

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

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

Hackett2


[ii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xiv] Porter, ‘Peacocks’, 1.

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

[xvi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 73.

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

[xviii] Ibid., 3.

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

[xxi] Ibid., 366-70.

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

[xxiii] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 11.

[xxiv] Ibid., 112.

[xxv] Ibid., 98.

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

Fashion’s Past & Present

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

Original Sin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Familiarity Breeds … Fashion

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

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

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

marilyn-monroe-chanel-no-5

 

Oriental Excess

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

Gendered History

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

tdesigns

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


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

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

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

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

[v] Ibid., 30.

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

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

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

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

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 36.

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

[xiv] Kelly, Beau Brummell, 207

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