If a book absolutely, positively, had to be judged by its cover, then Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle would be just fine. This anthology of academic writing comes encased in black, and the cover features a shimmering Serpentine Dancer, her skirts twirling over her head and with her arms outstretched. We know this is a frame enlargement because the rainbow inks daubed on to the frame transform her rippling dress into the wings of a butterfly, or an exotic bird. She is framed by the darkness of the blank stage around her: a woman in a white dress, made into a spectacle by the twin arts of fashion and film. The cover is utterly appropriate and ravishingly gorgeous.
Before you even reach the title page, there are more dancers, swishing their skirts and pointing their toes, reproduced in silvered, coloured inks on matt-black paper. This is an academic book masquerading as a coffee-table tome. You could flick through it for hours (and I did) marvelling at these silver and full-colour illustrations, weighing the heavy paper in your fingers.
But at some point, one must stop flirting and dance with the one that brung you. That is to say, read the darned book. The good news is that that divine creation has been brought to us by the people behind the Fashion in Film Festival and as such it is comprises an intelligent and slightly idiosyncratic approach to its subject. This is not a simple skate through film-costume history. The several contributors are mostly academics and curators, in the fields of performance, design, fashion, literature and film, and their essays are arranged in three groups, relating to different eras.
“To the feminine mind nothing appeals quite as strongly as clothing, hats, or shoes – in fact finery of any kind,” opined Moving Picture World in 1916. Gentlemen spectators apparently preferred films with fighting in them. On finishing this fascinating survey of how the fashion and film industries met and grew together in the early 20th century, I’m inclined to excuse MPW’s sweeping generalisation.
Clothing, and fashion, are at the heart of everything that Hollywood has ever done. All film is spectacle, early film unambiguously so – and nothing epitomises the excesses of La-La Land more than the view of preening, primped movie stars lining up on the red carpet draped in borrowed couture and jewels. Baffling then, to remember that the first film actors were required to supply their own costumes. Turning up well-dressed to an studio (as the supremely stylish teenage Gloria Swanson did at Essanay) could secure you a chance at stardom. Even when studios had appointed a seamstress, numbers were so short that they would frequently be called upon to play roles on screen. In fact, Hollywood wardrobe departments would be staffed by many a former actress. And because few people kept proper records of who did what in the early studios, it is the memories of stars such as Swanson and Lillian Gish that often provide the clearest picture of how the costumes were supplied, chosen and recycled in-house.
To begin with, Michelle Tolini Finamore’s scholarly illustrated book examines fashion trends that made for great movie subject matter, from the exploited women working in sweatshops that churned out shirtwaists for America’s increasingly well-dressed urban working-class, to the extravagant picture hats that caused havoc in Nickelodeons, to the risque Paris styles that marked a lady out as a vamp. The idea that US fashions were practical and democratic and French ones outlandish and revealing kicks off a major theme in this book – the battle for fashion supremacy between first New York then LA with Paris.
Alexa Chung is described as an “It Girl” so often that it is safe, with apologies to Clara Bow, to go ahead and call her that. Which means that when she appears on the cover of British Vogue, as she does this month, the fashionistas take note. The Vogue cover story in question is a couture fashion shoot styled by the magazine’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers and photographed by the legendary Patrick Demarchelier. Did I mention that it is inspired by and named after one of our very favourite silent films: Chaplin’s heartbreaking, hilarious The Kid?
According to the pages of Vogue, “Alexa Chung channels her inner Charlie Chaplin in the the season’s most magical designs”. The outfits featured combine couture gowns by houses including Chanel, Valentino (!) and Versace with vintage hats (something of a trademark for Chambers), and classic Chaplinesque touches – oversized boots, baggy pinstripe trousers and even a spindly bamboo cane. It’s a fashion shoot rather than a fancy-dress act, so the source material has been interpreted, not replicated: Chung wears a peaked cap that’s more Jackie Coogan than Little Tramp, for example. But it’s not entirely fast-and-loose. You could view those designer dresses, embellished with pearls and sequins, as a nod to Edna Purviance’s upper-class character in the same film – meaning that Chung encapsulates the whole family. More likely, the Chaplin look has been chosen to offset all that opulence and to capitalise on Chung’s gamine beauty. She has long been celebrated for a certain “street-urchin” look that’s pure The Kid. In fact, she told Glamour magazine in 2012 that Chaplin inspired her dress sense, captioning a selfie with the words: “This is my Charlie Chaplin look – black trousers with suspenders and an Yves Saint Laurent shirt. Putting weird pieces of clothing together is what I’m good at.”
If you think it strange to see a woman taking fashion tips from a fictional tramp, played by a bloke nearly 100 years ago … well that does sound odd when you say it loud. But it’s not so off-the-wall as all that. Chaplin’s early years were spent in London music halls – that’s where he first performed, and where his parents had worked too. Male impersonators were popular in the halls, and fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart writes here about the immaculately turned out Vesta Tilley. When Chaplin first picked out his Tramp outfit, he may well have been thinking of this female twist on a masculine suit. The Tramp is in a kind of drag himself – in clothes that don’t quite fit, an outfit with aristocratic pretensions undermined by ragged hems.
According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing … While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.
The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer … The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.
For a woman to dress up as Chaplin may seem drab (the dark colours, the masculine cut) but that is far from the case. It’s a look that demands attention, and playfully blurs gender and class divisions, which is sexy and provocative in itself. In fact, aspects of the Chaplin look are hugely feminine and easy to wear: tight jackets and baggy trousers are flattering to many women’s body shapes. The tailoring can be softened by the casual fit, or even a buttonhole flower and lots of smudgy eyeliner. Just check out how many women on the fashion site Polyvore are channeling their own inner Chaplins. Female celebrities from Jessica Alba (when pregnant) to Brigitte Bardot have raided the costume box to pay homage to the star. And female Chaplin impersonations multiply on screen – including Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard but going far beyond that. Remember Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim? And the ultimate in tomboy-chic, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – her tennis-date outfit has Chaplin fan written all over it. More recently, Melanie Laurent’s character Anna, having lost her voice, adopts a Chaplinesque costume in the romantic film Beginners.
In 2011, Comme Des Garcons put female models in androgynous cut-up coats and jackets that reminded many onlookers of Chaplin’s Tramp. This spring, Vivienne Westwood called for a Climate Revolution in a sequined oversized bowler and Magic Marker moustache. Supermodel-of-the-moment Cara Delevingne, no less, also claims to be a Chaplin devotee – it must be the eyebrows.
So why Chaplin in 2013? Well, the extent of Chaplin’s fame means that he will never disappear as a cultural reference point. The fact that his image has been protected by the Chaplin association all these years means that the source of his signature style remains intact and undiluted, no matter how many fashion shoots, fancy-dress parties or street imitators get their hands on it – so he is always ripe for a speedy revival. I need not mention how The Artist nudged the silent era back into mainstream consciousness, nor that 2014 will mark the anniversary of the Little Tramp’s creation. The acting success of Chaplin’s granddaughter Oona Chaplin (who was also photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for a very slinky shoot in Vanity Fair last year) may have given him another boost in fashion circles.
But if you break the Tramp’s look down into its constituent parts, as Cook does in the extract printed above, you’ll see exactly why he resonates in a time of austerity measures, bank bailouts and Occupy camps. These days Chaplin’s bowler hat and pinstripe trousers signify something more specific than “gent” – the modern bogeyman, the City Banker. Just as Chaplin remixed the attire of the upper classes to cock a snook at their pretensions, we can dress up as his character today and thumb our nose at the financial institutions that so often determine our fate. To distort the armour of the City, with rags or sequins, with a smile and knowing wink, is to expose a chink in it. Chaplin would enjoy that, don’t you think?