The name Noël is rare these days, which shows consideration by parents who would otherwise condemn their children to a life of typing alt-137 or whatever other accommodation to the computer keyboard is required to get two dots to appear above the e. The dots are the symbol for a diaeresis, a symbol which means that each of two consecutive vowels is pronounced, so that No-el is not mispronounced as Nool. And this is all relevant as The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has an exhibition "Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward" at Lincoln Center Plaza through August 18.
Mr. Coward of course was the very stylish man about whom Lord Mountbatten said on the occasion of his 70th birthday, "There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people." And Mountbatten was not exaggerating all that much.
Like contemporary entertainers, Coward sought publicity and was very conscious of his public image. Unlike many of those same contemporary public figures he understood the rules in order to take advantage of them. Coward for example achieved a minor additional notoriety for appearing on stage wearing a dressing gown in a play in 1924 (this when some men still wore shirts to swim in public) and later repeated himself in other roles and public appearances. But the question I have had at the back of my mind for years was in regards to his dinner jacket.
As background, the dinner jacket first appeared in the latter half of the 19th century, and early on was a derivative of the smoking jacket, worn at home. And at that time, dinner nee smoking jackets were as likely to be burgundy, bottle green, dark blue or some other color as they were black (indeed, midnight blue dinner jackets may have been more popular than black until the introduction of ready to wear clothing before the Second World War).
That said, I had heard it said that the clothes Coward was wearing in that famous black and white photo at the top of this essay were neither black nor midnight blue but brown, a state of affairs that rattled my limited understanding of evening clothes to its foundation. Of course, in those days I did not know to take into account the entertainer's insatiable desire for publicity (by now I am sure that photos of the publicity seekers at the recent Academy Awards are burned into too many of our brains). But I never saw Coward in person before his death in 1973 and was unable to verify whether the rumor was true. Well, it was. His brown evening clothes are on display in New York, and they are worth the visit.
-Dressing gown and dinner jacket photos by Rose Callahan for A Suitable Wardrobe