A few years ago fashion publisher Assouline came out with a little tome called The Trench Book, which attempted to remind all of us, in case we had forgotten, that raincoats were not just for flashers. Taking the same approach as the old Gap “Everyone wore khakis” ad campaign, The Trench Book featured minimal text along with innumerable images of people wearing raincoats – balmacaans as well as trenchcoats ‑ in order to substitute for any type of content requiring thought. If I recall correctly, the volume of pictures of raincoat wearers was supposed to indicate the ubiquity of trenchcoats and, by extension, how essential they are to our lives, whether it be looking good or keeping us dry at Yprès. Unfortunately, including publicity stills of a seven year-old Mary Kate and Ashley in spy mufti trenches and fedoras, and of Matthew Broderick as Inspector Gadget, tended to undermine the whole exercise (The latter seemed particularly ill chosen, like putting Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates in an ad for kitchen knives).
I mention Yprès in my flip insensitive crack above because trenchcoats earned their name as the performance wear of their day. As Will wrote not long ago John Emary’s Aquascutum coats were worn to Crimea, while Burberry’s supplied items of waterproof clothing to World War I officers. Like khakis after World War II, after World War I people wore their raincoats home, out and about because the convention against such informality, like much else, had been blown away.
One image from The Trench Book did hit home. A Jaguar E-type pulled up, its intentionally phallic hood cocked like a pistol. To the side, poised with febrile intensity, a man in dark sunglasses, dark turtleneck, dark everything, except the off-white shortish raincoat belted at his waist: John Phillip Law as the Italian comic book hero Diabolik.
In Mario Bava’s 1967 cult film Danger: Diabolik, Law, who died recently, spends much more of the film either in various ninja-inspired outfits or cavorting with his girlfriend on a bed of money than in trench and turtleneck. My suspicion is that in real life ninja outfits don’t become most of us, so I prefer the flair of the trench with the rather dramatic color contrast. Cinching the belt gives some shape to a classic-style raincoat, which otherwise can risk being rather sacklike. The various flaps and buttons on a classic trench can be dashing provided the wearer isn’t proportioned like a pincushion.
Unlike the ninja outfit, an ivory colored raincoat can be somewhat conspicuous. Several shades lighter than the usual muddy beige, it takes a bit of daring to pull off this bit of sartorial derring-do, by which I mean daring not to care if you catch people glancing over at it, or your friends asking if you’re trying to dress like Anne Hathaway. If Diabolik isn’t sufficient inspiration, take some from Paul Weller, but consider this: The system is corrupt. Faith in government is failing. The authorities are morally as well as fiscally bankrupt. They’ve already sold their souls and are now secretly planning to sell off their gold reserves to raise funds. The only thing they are concerned with is the appearance of order. That’s the premise of Danger: Diabolik and of the comic book it was based on, which rocketed to popularity following World War II. The titular hero, Diabolik, is only a hero in that he again and again exposes the hypocrisy and incompetence of the institutions around him, and that of their leaders. He steals from the rich, but doesn’t get around to giving to the poor. Fans of the comic have pointed out that in the aftermath of World War II, there wasn’t much reason for faith or trust in the political institutions of Italy’s immediate past. Diabolik was the anti-establishment crusader, a crusader without a belief except in the power of defiance. Defy the looks, and you can pull this off. I note that the length of the trench, which is similar to the current fashionable length for raincoats, is not the most effective in keeping your legs dry. But then, I don’t recall it raining in Danger: Diabolik.
It may have been mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and satirized in a Beastie Boys video, but if you take it on its own highly stylized terms, this is a very enjoyable movie. Comic book movies in particular seem to promise greater payoff the more we can will ourselves to suspend disbelief. Here, we should spend no more time thinking through the irreality of Diabolik’s cliffhangers than Diabolik himself spends on introspection as he twitches and jerks through a chase scene. Fortunately, even leaving clothes aside, this is an incredibly stylish movie, from the matching Jaguar E-types that Diabolik and his girlfriend drive, through the obviously stagey sets, to the final image of the master thief encased in gold as a living statue, his, well, diabolical laugh echoing through his abandoned underground lair as the curtain falls… Equally stylish is Ennio Morricone’s infernally catchy score. Marisa Mell is beautiful as Diabolik’s sexy sidekick, and Roman Coppola paid homage to all of the above in his marvelous little paean to a lost movie-making time (and Elodie Bouchez’s crotch). So see them both.
In addition, Bond fans will also relish seeing Adolfo Celi, Largo from Thunderball, while British character actor Terry-Thomas is reliably histrionic as the Minister. If you look closely you may see bits of scenery sticking out through the famous gap in his teeth.
If you dare, Aquascutum probably still sells a light-colored raincoat in the same style as Diabolik’s, and I’m sure a bit of internet searching can turn up cheaper interpretations. You may not care to wear a raincoat like the one pictured, or you may not wear it again after feeling a bit self-conscious. Not looking self-conscious is key to being well-dressed. How to hide feeling it is the rub. You can hope that your audience, like the angel Pygar whom Law played in Barbarella, “has no memory."
‑Réginald-Jérôme de Mans