The Passionate Spectator by Robert Sacheli

Patterns of History

Regalia, acetate collage on inkjet print, 27.5 x 27.5 in., 2010

On Savile Row, the pattern cutter’s art has always been an invisible one. Essential but undazzling, it produces the humble brown-paper blueprints that are translated into the luxury of a bespoke suit. For one Londoner, a cache of decades-old patterns in a tailor’s storage room—forgotten puzzle pieces that recorded the measurements of a generation of gentlemen—became the basis of his own art. The collages of Hormazd Narielwalla have given a new life to those paper fragments of lapels, sleeves, waistcoats, and trousers that were once destined for the shredder. They also pay handsome tribute to the stylish but unknown men who wore the suits. Narielwalla uses the patterns’ penciled markings and measurements as part of his works’ visual texture, shaping pieces from the paper’s curving, stylized forms that range from the whimsical (portraits of a mustachioed Edwardian-style dandy he dubs Oscar Hodgepodge) to the richly evocative (opulent details from Raj-era military regalia set against a desert of brown paper) to the sculptural (Memento Mori, a collection of skulls displayed in clear boxes like vaguely sinister but oddly beautiful jewels).

Oscar Hodgepodge, series 8, digital pattern collage inkjet print, 31.4 x 23.6 in., 2010


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Silently Stylish

We don’t care if Brad is in Black Label, Clooney is clad in Valentino or if Woody shuffles down the red carpet in Reeboks. The actor we’ll be watching most closely at Sunday’s Oscarfest is a fictional one: George Valentin.

Well, more accurately Jean Dujardin, the actor portraying him in “The Artist.” Concocted from a picture-perfect mix of swash (think Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as Robin Hood, Zorro or the Black Pirate), smolder (his near-namesake Valentino in anything), and the endearingly silly (think Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in full “Dueling Cavalier” mode), Dujardin’s performance as the eponymous artist has propelled him from well-known Gallic farceur to sensational international leading man in true Old Hollywood style.

And style, in fact, has more than a little to do with his ascendance. (Take a look at him doing some major smoldering of his own on the cover of this month’s French GQ, suave in «un smoking» by Armani.) While critics point to his fizzy physical comedy, his loving embodiment of stars of a bygone era or that nifty pencil mustache, we think they’re silently barking up the wrong tree.

The buzz in the screening room has more accurately nailed the secret of Dujardin’s (and George’s) screen success: This is a guy who can truly work a set of tails. In fact, we can’t remember any performer since Astaire for whom a full-dress suit has done so much—and vice versa.


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Libérte, Egalité, Elégance: The Politics of Style

An enameled American flag pin mounted on the notched lapel of an inoffensively bland dark-blue suit. That’s the sad snapshot of fashion’s influence in American politics today.’s house style historian and Washington bureau chief Robert Sacheli casts a fascinated glance at an era when politics and fashion were seen as equally vigorous­—and intertwined—male pursuits. Forget snooze-inducing ties, ‘80s anchorman haircuts, and sleeveless sweaters on would-be presidents (permanently, please). Travel with Sacheli to an era when dressing for political success required a cravat, classical curls, velvets, and a mighty fierce walking stick.

Waterloo may have been the site of Napoleon’s ultimate tumble, but his imperial ambitions suffered a kick in the breeches on a more intimate but equally decisive field of battle: Beau Brummell’s dressing room.

That’s the view of design historian Paula A. Baxter, who sees the duel between British and French men’s styles as a major influence on early 19th-century cultural history. For Baxter, a writer and adjunct professor of humanities at Berkeley College’s White Plains, N.Y., campus, it’s also just one reminder that the confluence of fashion and politics neither began nor ended with the Che Guevara T-shirt — and that it’s a sphere in which dandies have long exerted their elegant influence.

Dandies “have been around since antiquity,” said Baxter in a phone interview, and they’ve been “always acknowledged and appreciated. They were accepted with head-nodding encouragement — ‘Oh, yes, he’s a bit of a dandy’.” For Baxter, the list begins with Julius Caesar and extends through the centuries, encompassing a few intriguingly speculative entries (“Voltaire could have been a bit of a dandy”). For these protodandies, the aristocracies of style and intellect contributed as much to their influence as any political power.

In a former professional incarnation as curator of the Art and Architecture Collection of the New York Public Library, Baxter mined the library’s treasures to mount an exhibition titled “A Rakish History of Men’s Wear” a few years ago. She also explored one of the most tumultuous periods in political and fashion history in “When Rakes Ruled: French Masculine Dress of the Revolutionary Era,” a cover feature in Antiques magazine.

Talking to her about that article’s themes elicited insights on the social impact of men’s fashion, spiced by some beau monde gossip 18th-century style. If Anna Wintour presided over a graduate history seminar, she’d sound a lot like Baxter — though not quite as irreverent.

Dressing for revolution

“I completely got Marie Antoinette,” says Baxter of director Sofia Coppola’s portrait of the queen as a tragic fashionista. The Bourbon aristocracy was “really mindless, and the bitterness that built up to explosion [in the Revolution] had to be something profound. Clothing was a red flag of social and financial inequity, and the whole notion of fashion was a hot-button issue” for a nation whose ruling class was living — and dressing — in quite another world as the rest of the populace.

Paris under Louis XVI provided all the dangerous and sensational ingredients for revolution in both fashion and government. “The real drama of 18th-century life was playing out in Paris,” a city that Baxter finds was a crucible for the modern metropolis in which money, class, celebrity, and politics were driving forces of urban life. It was a magnet for the ambitious: “Political figures from the provinces such as Danton and Saint-Juste came to the capital” to make their mark.

Fashion periodicals emerged here during the last quarter of the 18th century, growing in influence and reach among a sophisticated audience of upper-class and aristocratic readers, particularly men. One of the most influential, Gazette des salons: Journal des dames and les modes, was edited by a defrocked priest, Pierre de La Mésangère. It surveyed men’s and women’s fashions and found rich material for social commentary in a Paris that “was street theatre every day,” says Baxter.

There was much for de La Mésangère (“a very canny man, a quite remarkable person [who] kept a keen eye on everything”) and his fellow fashion scribes to cover, as men’s styles became one of the most visible monitors of social change. The ancien régime’s male costumes were as rigid and codified as its court etiquette: coat, waistcoat, and knee-length breeches were the unvarying elements. As disenchantment with the Bourbons grew by the late 1770s, ruling-class fashion also lost its appeal for aristocrats such as the Petits-Maîtres, or élégants, who turned to what Baxter describes in her article as  “elaborate dress and ambiguously libertine morals” and used fashion-forward British trends in men’s wear as the basis for their ensembles. (A decade or so earlier, London’s Macaronis had shown their well-turned-out backs to the establishment by dressing in exaggerated version of French court fashions.)

Periodicals had “a recoil effect as fashion crossed the Channel between France and England,” says Baxter, and British style — and one style maker in particular — would have a profound influence on how French men dressed in the next decades. Young Parisians took up the tailored lead of their London counterparts, as the more restrained and refined style anglaise, with its allusions to the squire and the sportsman, came to the fore.

Dress became less about broadcasting status though opulent display. Instead, the philosophies of fashion and government shifted to emphasize the importance of the individual. The idea of democracy was on the rise in the tailor shops as well as the political salons of Paris.

Liberating men — and their legs

The Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat was among the many Revolutionary leaders who found aristocratic fashion morally repellent, and his call for a more democratic approach to dress, based on styles appropriated from the working classes, was echoed by activists seeking wider social reforms. Eventually, fashion and freedom would become inextricably intertwined, most powerfully symbolized by a pair of pants.


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Elegance Made Casual: The Enduring Style of Fred Astaire

astaire-1.jpg“The Passionate Spectator” columnist Robert Sacheli previously delivered a lengthy appreciation on Fred Astaire. Here, inspired by a new biography on the style icon, he takes a curtain call.

Despite the best intentions of our Founding Fathers, Americans have long been crazy for aristocrats — particularly when it comes to emulating their style. In the 1930s, fashionable men looked to a pair of princes for their cues. One, the Prince of Wales, aka the Duke of Windsor, was a bona fide blueblood, and the influence of his Fair Isle sweaters, midnight-blue dinner jackets, and country-house suits was reflected in the gentlemanly swank of Esquire’s fashion illustrations and in the haberdasheries that catered to the well heeled.

When he foxtrotted off with that divorcée from Baltimore, the dapper Prince abdicated more than an imperial throne. He passed the title of ranking monarch of male fashion to a royal from another powerful, if slightly more mythical, land: Hollywood. Fred Astaire’s reign would prove to be a long one, and his enduring imprint on American style is a legacy as remarkable as his films.

While most of us have happily been content to sit back and watch the man dance, Astaire has long been a magnet for cultural historians, and Joseph Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar, stepped up for his turn on the floor last year with his brief biography, “Fred Astaire” (Yale University Press). The book wasn’t exactly rapturously received (the New York Observer pronounced it “intellectual slumming” and “priggish”), and an extended excerpt in the Hudson Review shows that the carping is justified.

In it, Epstein comes off as alternately snarky, sour, and worst, clueless about musicals — as expected for a highbrow whose works include a volume called “Snobbery.” He’s also not been done any favors by his copy editor. Among other gaffes, he manages to misspell the name of one of Fred’s frequent co-stars, Helen Broderick, and refer to Van Nest Polglase, RKO’s master of the 1930s Big White Set, as an exemplar of Art Nouveau and mangle his name as well. Epstein’s biggest head-scratcher, though, is his assertion that for all the pure joy that Astaire radiated to generations of audiences, he falls short of being a genius. Instead he’s an undeniably talented, perfection-obsessed, but basically dull fellow who can somehow dance up a storm. As Miss Broderick might dryly retort with an appropriate eye roll, “Oh, yeah?” (more…)

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Murphy’s Law

automotive-ball-400-w.jpgAfter a long interruption, presents the final installment of Robert Sacheli’s article on Gerald Murphy. For convenience’s sake (and to refresh your memory), we have combined all three parts into this one post. 

Fresh from his assiduous assessment of Lucius Beebe, Sacheli seeks to rescue the reputation of another forgotten 20th-century American dandy for whom life itself was the greatest work of art.

 * * *

Murphy’s Law
By Robert Sacheli

“The true dandy was not the most foppishly dressed, the most stylish, the most flash-mannered; he was primarily an artist of talent.” — From a biography of Count D’Orsay, part of Gerald Murphy’s collection of quotes.

If any American dandy in Jazz-Age Paris could look at an automobile part and think “I could wear that,” it was Gerald Murphy.

Photographer Man Ray captured Murphy and his wife, Sara, arrayed for the Comte Étienne de Beaumont’s 1924 Automotive Ball, one of string of fetes that made the nobleman’s name synonymous with up-to-the minute, headline-grabbing party giving.

Here is Sara, bizarre but chic in what looks like a foil dress and oversized driving goggles, accented by the strings of pearls that were her trademark. Gerald, also in goggles, wears tights, gauntlets, and a breastplate into which he has been welded. A fanciful, ziggurat-shaped helmet towers on his head, half metallic wedding cake and half Constructivist chimney.

One element lifts the ensemble from witty party get-up to something approaching art: the side-view mirror attached to his left shoulder. With it, Murphy simultaneously embodies the glamour and power of both master and machine, linking a chivalric nobility to speeding promise of modern life.

That mirror also reflects what made Murphy’s dandyism so potent: his life-long ability to transform the everyday into the extraordinary though an alchemy of imagination, energy, and an innate sense of style. But unlike other dandies over whom history exerted its nostalgic sway, Gerald Murphy’s personal and aesthetic visions were always firmly fixed on the future.

For Gerald and Sara, that future first unfolded in a procession of charmed years whose keynote was a unique kind of grace. Rooted in their love and manifested in their gifts for friendship and for living, it was a grace that nourished some of the most innovative talents of the early 20th century. In the years when their own future darkened, it was a grace that sustained them through the cruelest of losses. (more…)

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Coffee Time

bob-coffee.jpgOn September 17 I had the pleasure of speaking on Lucius Beebe at the Coffee House, one of Beebe’s own clubs. It’s a bastion of a vanished Manhattan, an outpost of the bohemian artists-and-writers world of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s still governed by its founding credo from 1915: “No brokers or bankers and perhaps no drama critics. No card playing. The club to be for sculptors, artists, foreigners, illustrators, authors, editors, professors, sportsmen, lawyers, actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, inventors, composers, statesmen, judges, etc.”

Revered above all is the organization’s Rule Six: “No Rules.”

I’d visited the club on several occasions and found its members welcoming and quirky, and easily fell into the pleasant time-warp of its atmosphere. So when my biographical series on Beebe appeared on this spring, I tapped the self-promoting spirit of the Junta and proposed that I return to the Coffee House, this time as a dinner speaker. My offer was accepted.

The 30-odd attendees were seated at a single, long table. Ringed with the Windsor chairs that date to the club’s early years and anchored by towering chandeliers at both ends, the table was a convivial raft fueled by food and drink and lively conversation, one that for a couple of hours floated serenely free from the New York that clamored a few floors below.

Folks were eager to talk about Lucius, and one of the members, who worked at the Herald Tribune during Beebe’s glory days as a columnist, remembered being intimidated by his “fancy Dan” presence. Dandyism, too, proved to be of fascination, and I was pressed to offer contemporary exemplars. I abetted myself well in explaining the nuances of the Gay Talese vs. Tom Wolfe match-up. (more…)

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