Men of style

Cary Grant looking distinctly dapper in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959), the film that sealed his status as a style icon

From Soho to Shoreditch, from Brighton to Manchester, to wander through today’s most fashionable shopping streets is to reach the conclusion that men’s style has never had it so good.

No longer is the dedicated male follower of fashion restricted to choosing between a Savile Row commitment of time and money or the lowering racks of Marks & Spencer readymade menswear department. They aren’t reduced to hunting down tailors in the East End, or cult classics in back-street specialist shops, or culling their trophies from obscure deadstock sales in the American Midwest. These days a man’s every whim and preference is catered to. Young designers such as Rad Hourani and Charles de Vilmorin are producing genderless couture collections, there are more denim shops than you can shake a stick at, there is Japanese-style casualwear in organic cotton, there are whole emporia devoted to that hipster favourite, bleu travail (French workwear to you and me), and off- and online second-hand options from eBay to Etsy.

But with so much choice, what has become of that awe-inspiring phenomenon, the male style icon? Well, today’s young men might be spoilt as far as retail opportunities go, but I like to think that those of us born in the twentieth century lived through that mythical creature’s Golden Age.

He was rarer historically than the female variety, perhaps because the choice of clothing for men has largely been more limited, but also down to the fact that over centuries a man’s experimentation with what he wore was considered at best suspect, at worst degenerate – and regularly ridiculed. But heroes of stylish men’s dressing emerged nonetheless, brought out of the shadows and into the mainstream in the early years of the twentieth century by Hollywood, their style writ large on a big screen and capitalised upon when the film studios realised male stars brought in as much money as the ladies.

They didn’t begin as fashion plates, however. Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino had their female fans swooning at premieres but initially played exotic figures, such as the Latin lover and the glowering sheikh, invented to satisfy the fantasies of their (largely, but by no means exclusively) female admirers. They didn’t inspire men to dress up in Bedouin robes or matador outfits, except possibly in the privacy of their own homes.

Brett Anderson

But with the ’30s and ’40s, when exquisitely tailored men’s suit became the acme of style and sophistication for men, the gentlemen in the audience began to sit up and take notice. It might have started life in film as merely the foil for a Garbo or a Ginger Rogers, but the well-cut suit ended up with a starring role of its own, particularly with the advent of the dance movie. Fred Astaire, his impeccable figure honed in the ballroom, was the perfect clothes horse for a sharp suit, and more than that, he accessorised it beautifully. The hat tipped to the perfect angle might have been born of insecurity over his thinning hair, but he made it his trademark; ditto the co-respondent shoes on which the spotlight so often lingered. Cary Grant, cited by so many suit-wearers as their icon, took this baton and ran with it. Always dapper (not to mention a pioneer of cross-dressing, in Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn, 1938) it was playing Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) that confirmed his iconic reputation. Despite having to compete with the exquisite Eva Marie Saint for attention in the film, it is Cary Grant’s wardrobe that provides key plot pivots – the character whose identity has become confused with Grant/ Thornhill’s wears his trousers too short and is double-crossed by Saint when he needs to remove a suit to have it cleaned.

We baby boomers, though, had it even better where role models are concerned. We saw the sharp suits of mid-century dandies give way to the edgier style of stars such as Steve McQueen, Albert Finney and Sean Connery. The double-breasted jacket surrendered to the windcheater, the four-button cuff to the Sea Island cotton polo shirt. And when the music scene overtook the silver screen for mass appeal, it ushered in icons altogether more subversive and gender fluid.

Ferry, Bowie, Anderson and Cocker have that unerring confidence that is the essence of style

Not every rock star, of course, is a style icon: they’re all performers for whom style must be a trademark, but some, loosely speaking, are art-school alumni and some are circus performers. As a general rule, the look pioneered by the aesthete – Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Brett Anderson – translates from stage to catwalk to high street, whereas the circus act (Elton John’s giant sunglasses and platform boots, Sam Smith’s inflatable suit) does not. The greater freedoms represented by the music of the ’60s and ’70s in sexual identity and mores also crossed over into an individual’s sense of style. My own husband, not as far as I know gay (but it’s all a spectrum, right?) cites as his role model the construction worker from the Village People in his plaid shirt and steelworker’s boots, an oily rag provocatively dangling from his back pocket.

In the end, in all communities, what marks out the style icon from the dabbler, the great dresser from the fancy dresser, is a rare but unmistakable ease in how they wear clothes: a one-ness with the wardrobe. Ferry, Bowie, Anderson and Cocker have that casual insouciance, that unerring confidence and that interest in adapting and perfecting their look for its own sake, over time and changing circumstance, that is the essence of style. So we can hope that in the twenty-first century and beyond, the more choice we have in who to be, the happier we are going to feel in our clothes and in our skins. And that, in the end, is what matters.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, August / September 2023, Style Maven

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