“Ah; people just don’t dress like that anymore.” How many times have you heard someone say that, usually while looking at an old film or photograph? And how many of you believed it? I know I did, for a very long time.
I spent my teenage years during the seventies, which to me was just one big, long mountain range of endless polyester. Seasonal dressing, as far as I knew, didn’t really exist. The only difference back then in dressing for warm, cool, or cold weather was the addition or subtraction of a synthetic sweater, jacket, or coat. Old films and photos were the only places I saw texture, weight, or richness of fabric, so, being just a kid, I assumed those things were extinct. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was shocked, actually shocked, the first time I saw—in the flesh, so to speak—a pair of heavy flannel trousers, and a real Harris Tweed jacket. Actually, I should think anyone would be shocked when first seeing Harris Tweed—the heaviness, the intensity of the colors, the texture—all good fabrics, to me anyway, have a magical quality about them. The first time I saw linen I went quietly berserk, and remain the world’s biggest fan of that fabric, wrinkles and all.
So then, I surmised, these fabrics did still exist; it was possible to dress like the old movie stars—
But I was puzzled by one thing: why weren’t more men doing it? Obviously a certain large number could be dismissed for simply not caring about clothes, or being rightly shocked at the expense, but ALL of them?
I began to realize that when people say ‘they just don’t dress like that anymore,’ in their heads they were probably thinking, “Mere humans CAN’T dress like that—it’s impossible.” In other words, they see the old stars as sartorial gods you can’t compete with, and that is sad. And totally untrue.
I happen to think that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was one of the best-dressed men I’ve ever seen. This afternoon, I was flipping through my Doyle New York catalog of the Fairbanks auction, which took place last year. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it before, but I was mildly surprised to find that Fairbanks occasionally wore wool fedoras and one-sided cufflinks. You could not pay me to do either.
Now if you think I’m just beating up on a defenseless dead man, or that I’m placing myself on a sartorial par with Fairbanks, you’re entirely missing the point. One of my favorite episodes of the old ‘STAR TREK’ is when Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scottie are sentenced to death on an alien planet by re-enacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Since they must play the part of the Clantons (who lost), and history cannot be changed (?), there is no apparent way out. How do you compete with history? Spock tells them how—he knows the bullets aren’t real, and using his Vulcan ‘mind-meld,’ he convinces them, too. Essentially, he is telling them that the ‘emperor’—the bullets—have no ‘clothes.’ In the ensuing gunfight they are impervious, and the Earps and Doc Holliday get blown away.
Well, I’m not Spock, I’m not Vulcan, and even if I was both I’m not in the same room with you, so a ‘mind-meld’ would be out of the question (although the mental image of my pinching the side of a guy’s nose and mouth with thumb and forefinger, while staring into his eyes and repeating the mantra, “You can dress just like the Duke of Windsor” is kinda funny). Still, I’d like to take a shot at convincing you that the old movie stars were guys, not gods. I won’t do this by tearing them down, or by using worn-out clichés like “they put their trousers on one leg at a time, like everyone else.” That won’t work. I think there’s a shorter, more direct, more motivational approach.
Let’s take all the guys now living who care about clothes. They can be broken down into two groups: the ones who are intimidated by the old icons, and the ones who aren’t. The former group is certainly well-dressed technically, but the latter group has more glamour and dash about them. Yes; it’s visible. Which group would you rather belong to?
Remember, the old icons were just guys. Guys with a whole LOTTA help. $150 bespoke suits and $100 bespoke shoes sound dirt cheap to us now, but this was at a time when fifty cents would buy a full dinner for two people. During the Great Depression, the average off-the-rack suit cost fifteen dollars.
Few movie stars run to the tailors today. They run to the gym—and then hide their chiseled physiques under some of the ugliest clothes imaginable. Unlike stars of today, who are almost uniformly good-looking from birth, the stars of the thirties weren’t always good-looking to start out with: Clark Gable, before he learned how to groom himself, was hideous. Now if you take a guy, groom him, and dress him in head-to-toe bespoke, you know what he’s going to look like next to the average Joe? You got it—a god. But remember the alchemy is visual, not literal. Anything that was done to them can also be replicated on you.
If you think any of the icons were somehow more deserving than you are, you are doing yourself a tremendous disservice. Let me be really specific here: if you truly want to dress in that league, you cannot think they were even SLIGHTLY better than you are, not even by so much as an ounce. As Spock said to Kirk, even the tiniest doubt would be fatal. Andre Churchwell, for example, is clearly intimidated by no one—and it shows. He is the Real Tabasco, and looks more like a Laurence Fellows drawing come to life than any man past or present. Speaking of past or present, if those two temporal concepts could be eliminated, I’d say that Fred Astaire was trying to dress like Bruce Boyer, rather than the opposite.
So, in the simple words of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, Sr.: “It can be done.” When it comes to the old icons, admire their presentation by all means. Learn from them. Just don’t deify them.