Designs of the City

By Film Noir Buff

It was the White Rabbit, trotting slowly back again, and looking anxiously about as it went, as if it had lost something; and she heard it muttering to itself `The Duchess! The Duchess! Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets! Where CAN I have dropped them, I wonder?’ Alice guessed in a moment that it was looking for the fan and the pair of white kid gloves, and she very good-naturedly began hunting about for them…

Even in his fearful panic, our white rabbit understands that he needs to present himself properly. This might explain an English disdain for the complex. Otherwise, one would always be late, even for one’s own execution. The English believe that roles are important and that the proper clothes announce that one authentically fits into a given role. This is why as a people they produce so many talented wardrobe and costume designers. I recently had occasion to speak with one very accomplished wardrobe designer.

Doug Hawkes – Costume Designer:

He and his wife (and partner) have worked on many wardrobe projects for shows like Brideshead Revisited, Jeeves and Wooster and House of Cards.

For a recent production, they used silk striped and polka dot linings for Peter O’Toole’s very otherwise conservative suits and smoking jackets. The linings are a bit like those Paul Smith is using at this time. Fancy vests and waistcoats for day wear are not risqué like they used to be and have entered the imagination of the conservative club land set. Younger men too are wearing fancy linings and waistcoats.

Mr. O’Toole is quite particular about his clothes and always wants a special wardrobe for his characters (which he likes to keep). He is especially interested in evening and formal clothes.

For example, Mr. O’Toole had them make a silk smoking jacket for him modeled off of an original from the 1950s, itself an interpretation of a Victorian style smoking jacket. The net result was to make the actor a jacket with more structure and more authentic styling like the original Victorian garment the 1950s garment was supposedly imitating!

I aksed some random questions about what looks produce what reactions in viewing audiences, some of his shows and what sorts of things the English like.

Natural shouldered suits or at least a more natural shoulder is more refined and gentlemanly while large shoulders are more aggressive and unfortunate.

One detail that had always seemed wrong to me was the loose arrangement of Hugh Laurie’s collar pins in the BBC/Granada production of Jeeves and Wooster. Mr. Hawkes knew exactly what I was alluding to. Apparently, the pin collars on Bertie in the Jeeves and Wooster series were too loose not because the wardrobe dept didn’t know better but because the fashion was for actors to refuse to wear detachable shirt collars too close around their neck because they felt uncomfortable to modern throats.

Also discussed from Jeeves and Wooster were those beautiful, knit country sweater vests both pullover and cardigan styles which were woven by little old ladies who understood the traditional weaving techniques and patterns. Modern knitting schools aren’t teaching this anymore. Plaid wool ties, and in particular in green are Mr. Hawke’s signature. Those plaid wool ties used in the country by male characters in Jeeves and Wooster were reproductions based on originals collected from a variety of sources.

Borsalino hats are the finest and carry a look which is plus Anglais que les Anglais. They serve well for historical productions and respond well to custom needs such as changes in crowns or brims to adjust for contemporary purposes.

Hats are just a bit retro, no? Well, that’s just it, Mr. Hawkes loves the styles of the 1920s through the 1950s with a lashing of Edwardian style.

He thinks of the English suit as the true 3 button, side vented jacket, three piece suit, fully lined with interesting pockets, pockets for watches, hacking pockets.

About the English, they miss a lot of eccentric humor and touch in clothes and décor on film for wardrobes or sets generally. Foreigners pick up the labyrinthe of elaborate clues on people or objects and love them. It’s not that the English are blind or dim it’s that they just consider it so normal it goes unnoticed. The English also tend to be more verbal than visual. It takes an outsider to admire the visual qualities of English style.

Brown suits are not popular with the English. Green is another color the English have problems with in the City. A true green stripe in a suit might evoke a wriggled up nose. However, it’s always a matter of degree with the English and if the green stripe were executed on the fabric with enough subtlety, it might become acceptable.

However, the English always consider tasteful a faint lilac or pink stripe that is pale and putty like. Also, a dark purple stripe on navy is quite rich looking. Sometimes the tone of the pink stripe appears almost orange-yellow to the eye at first glance.

After I warmed him up with some of my random questions, we decided to produce a show together, my script and characters, his wardrobe to highlight their attributes. A contemporary TV show centered on a City brokerage firm.

General costume guidelines:

For the middle managers, slightly dated three button high fastening suit with fine and subdued stripes with conventional, solid colored shirts and dark, small pattern ties or spotted ties (with the spots from 1-2 cm in diameter).

Single button heavy pin or chalk stripe suits with colorful linings and contrasting waistcoats (In a purple or pink silk maybe with a semi-crepe texture) or bold colorful shirts for the younger guys coming up. Heavy geometric prints or madder prints for ties.

For the bounder or phony, the necktie is the most use signal that he’s deceiving people by choosing the wrong necktie.

It is clear that the English do not disassociate the idea of color from the term conservative. In America, conservative is often seen as safe and drab and pattern-less. In England a rich woven purple tie with many different colored small lozenges can still be conservative.

Chelsea or derby boots (Chukkas) are a bit of the smart dresser because they allow you to wear a shorter pants leg and more of a cavalry finish.

Gieves and Hawkes would offer an example of a good conservative and upper class cut.

The different show scenes:

The first character, a powerful man at a merchant bank who maybe manages its brokerage arm his just getting off a phone call, he looks distressed. He would get a quarter inch striped shirt with a hard, spread turn down collar and a striped tie or maybe an interesting solid. Shirt stripe color choices would be: pink and white or blue and white or red and white (that damask, dusty plum like red) stripes from Harvie and Hudson.

A soft dark flannel suit with dusky chalk stripes and chunky Harvie and Hudson ties. Black Alan MacAfee or Church’s shoes. He would wear a belt with his suit, side tabs are considered more of a sports trouser. While on the phone, he would expose plain metal cufflinks in either and oval or oblong. He would have freer hair. He gets off the phone, sighs a deep sigh, pushes himself up out of his chair and heads out of his office to consult with his co-manager.

His opposite from the same background but a much nastier person apparently has had a similar conversation because he is uncharacteristically meeting the nice manager in the hallway (ordinarily, he would let the nicer manager come to him). First, to illuminate that he is more calculating and controlling, make up and hair would play a role. Shirt collars might be more angular, lapels would be more angular. Maybe a stick pin in his lapel or tie of a gold horseshoe or Fox, not strictly correct but outward, physical expression of his aggression. A sharp crease pressed in the trouser keeps the angle going up through the shirt and around the neck line and cuffs. Crisp and aloof. Oh, and slick hair.

Both of these senior guys would be wearing single breasted three button jackets with side vents in 15 oz cloths. No pocket squares.

These two senior managers complete their conversation half united in worry and half annoyed at each other. When the nice manager goes back to his office he makes a call and the first of several VPs summoned appears at his door minutes later. A guy who’s upper middle class and attended a good public school but he’s relatively uncontroversial otherwise. Navy plain two button suit and either blue striped Bengal shirt with a forward spread collar or a plain blue or white solid and a tie with a small repeat pattern on it. Black shoes, no pocket square (makes a statement in England and it’s considered eccentric).

The second VP is upper class, privileged and snotty and much more of a showoff. A stronger stripe to the navy suit, three button fastening with the higher closure. A spread collared shirt in either a white or a lavender solid. A satin finished solid tie or an interesting pattern to the solid. The satin tie yields a more interesting knot for either an Albert or half Windsor style tie knot which makes the image more suave. Silk knots for the shirt.

Black shoes, black belts for both and lighter weight suits, smoother, finer worsteds in 12 oz cloths which means our middle managers are wearing 13-14 oz suit cloths.

The third VP is a bit of a slob but still from a well to do background. We would put him in an Ecru shirt and an even lighter weight suit to ensure more creases in it for dishevelment purposes. Necktie in a four in hand knot with no dimple as if he had just pulled it through without bothering; he probably leaves his ties tied and just slips them on over his head every morning. Shaggy hair maybe an undone double breasted suit with belted trousers too tight for him and sliding below his belly.

The fourth VP fancies himself a dandy but buys the wrong sort of car and clothes. Shirt collar would be too high for his short neck, he would wear a tie with a nice dimple but the knot would be too large. Suit would have either a stripe or self stripe and would be slightly shiny maybe with some mohair in it. His shoes would be black, good quality but unfortunately duckbilled.

After everyone arrives, they discuss the looming crisis they decide that the VPs must call a meeting of the brokers. The four VPs leave the middle managers and head into a conference room. Upon entering they are met with a couple dozen chattering city lads which the camera picks up from left to right in various stages of undress with jackets on the backs o their chairs, loosened ties and rolled up shirt sleeves. They would be wearing plain color shirts in blue, white and a few blue stripes. Neckties would be very loud prints or wovens. The VPs address the city lads and fill them in on some of the goings on. Faces become worried looking.

The next scene, one of the bank’s directors and his entourage is entering the bank lobby to address the crisis with the two senior managers. He is wearing an overcoat; a slightly lighter weight and longer than normal length covert coat which he takes off and hands to a bank employee along with his briefcase. This reveals his charcoal three piece suit with a fine white chalk stripe with a single vent and a ticket pocket on the jacket. A dark tie with a small but bright pattern on a purple or wine striped shirt. Still no pocket square! Onyx on gold or on silver cufflinks. His barrister would wear a very dark charcoal suit and a pink and blue striped shirt with a navy tie with red fleur de lys on it.

Outside on the street, the head of a large media company is getting out of his car. Apparently a large story is breaking. He is wearing an overcoat in petrol blue (or chestnut brown) wool1. A very well cut double breasted suit in a definite self herringbone stripe in either navy or charcoal. The shirt would be a soft, pale blue self herringbone shirt with a grenadine tie in a red or a darkest chestnut brown. He flashes a pair of gold twist barbell cufflinks and a gold Jaeger-LeCoultre duo watch. Wearing black glace leather wing tip brogues, he storms into the bank as well.

A third man is entering the bank too. He is the scion of one of the bank’s founders and the largest shareholder. He has come up through the business. Handsome and athletic he strolls in rather confidently under the portrait of his father in the banks entry hall. His overcoat slung over his arm, single breasted three buttons, and two piece charcoal suit with a thin silver pinstripe, a lilac end on end shirt with an Eton tie sporting a four in hand knot2 and polo helmet cufflinks. Again he would have no pocket square but he would have a reversible silk and cashmere scarf (ala Alex Begg) with a modern looking geometric print on it. His shoes would be in a saddle shoe style but all one type of calf leather and in solid black.

There is a meeting and voices are raised.

In spite of the severity of the concern, there is an agreement to adjourn to get ready for a previously scheduled dinner that evening for the same characters. Set at a nice hotel restaurant. The senior people arrive directly but the city lads roll in after having stopped at a local watering hole in their work clothes. Even after hours, appearing in a pub, even a city pub, in dress clothes would be looked at quite strangely.

Most at the dinner would be wearing dark solid suits, white shirts, some of them with a self stripe and ties would vary from regimentals for ex-military men to quite bright and fancy ones for the brokers. An occasional double breasted suit and odd vest would appear.

The two senior managers would be wearing three piece lounge suits, one wearing a blue pinstripe suit, the other a slightly bolder striped shirt. One would wear a striped tie, the other a small pattern polka dot tie on the other.

The bank director and the scion would be as they were before but the media mogul travels with his own wardrobe and changed into a single breasted suit with some mohair in a violet navy, a pale green shirt in a pistachio shade with a Richard James tie in a traditional pattern with a lot of bright, absurd colors in it. He would wear the same belt he wore earlier in a black lizard.

Although he missed the earlier meeetings, the CEO of the bank makes his entrance with his wife on his arm. He would wear his charcoal herringbone with a faint grey stripe in a two button jacket slightly open with his scarlet braces showing from time to time underneath over his shirt with two shades of blue butcher stripe on a white background with a straight collar and a very boring navy tie with an almost unnoticeable pattern on it. He has just given his double breasted trench coat and his charcoal trillby to the hatcheck. As he extends his hand to shake those of the attendees, we can see his cufflinks; silver engraved with the silhouette of a nude woman.

1 Variants. He would put him in either a petrol blue coat with a brown suit or a brown coat with a blue or charcoal suit. The brown would be a red tobacco brown, maybe even with a purple stripe.

2 As if the tie said everything and the knot meant nothing.

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