The Curmudgeon by Bill Thompson

Who’s the Dandy?: Oscars Edition

You can’t watch the Academy awards. Not in person, in any case, unless you’re a seat-filler. It’s by invitation only, to Academy members, and the Academy determines the guest list. So how do you get to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Why, your name is endorsed by your Academy branch’s executive committee, then you are sponsored by two existing Academy members, and membership is by invitation of the Board of Governors. So when it seems like the judging criterion is a bit biased, that’s because it is, thank you very much. And if you don’t like it, well, we’ll just pass you over for membership this year.

But they do throw a heck of an awards show. Actually, they throw four, but only one is televised; because who wants to see overweight, balding technicians get Oscars for Science and Technology?

The Oscars is supposed to be a classically formal affair. Dinner dress has been the norm, but full dress has not been unheard of. (On the Awards Parade Formality Continuum, the Academy Awards fits in somewhere between the snooty Tonys and the extravagant Golden Globes.) Before we go further, let’s set the bar high with Kirk Douglas at the Oscars in 1950. That’s how it’s done.

No one opted for dress suits at this year’s Oscars. Well, host Billy Crystal tried. (No, Zach Galifianakis and Will Farrell, presenters in all-white dress suits and cymbals, don’t count.) Billy Crystal’s suit was just awful. The jacket was cut well enough, but everything under it was four shades of wrong. White tie is an exacting mistress who will not tolerate tepid commitment. Crystal could tell something was wrong, too; he seemed uncertain and ill at ease wearing it. It seemed as if the clothes themselves shamed him into dressing down into a less-distracting dinner suit for the second half of the show. That’s too bad, really; Crystal’s age and gravitas have grown him into the role of Oscars host, one who should be able to confidently wear proper white tie. The brash young outsider joking his way through the show has matured into a latter-day Bob Hope, who gives the Oscars the self-deprication it so desperately needs to be accessible to Joe America, and keep it from sinking into a self-congratulatory event for Hollywood insiders who take themselves far too seriously.

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Laurence Fellows: Master of Menswear Illustration

spring342fx1.jpgIn the spring of 1934, a gentleman with a neatly trimmed mustache casts an eye in the direction of the door to an office waiting room, temporarily distracting him from the copy of Esquire he’s just picked up. Is he waiting for a stockbroker? A dentist? A divorce lawyer?

We can tell he’s a man of means and sophistication from his outfit. He’s sporting a lightweight double-breasted suit in a strong check pattern. His blue shirt has a starched white collar and cuffs, and his Guards tie is finished with a four-in-hand knot. His blue pocket square is a few shades paler than his shirt, and matches his socks. His shoes are brown cap-toe balmorals. A gray homburg and rattan cane have been casually placed on an adjoining chair.

Wearing a checked suit in town is something nearly unheard of, but this man pulls it off smashingly. We know he’s confident in his clothes and his world—because the world he inhabits is the creation of an artist who signs himself L. Fellows. And you can be sure that in the months after this illustration appeared, far more checked double-breasted suits were seen on city sidewalks.

If you’ve ever cracked open an old Apparel Arts magazine or vintage Esquire from the ’30s to the ’50s, you’ve seen the distinctive fashion art of Laurence Fellows. But who was this Fellows fellow, anyway?

Fellows was born in Ardmore, Pennsylvania in 1885. He was trained in illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and honed his trademark “continental” style studying in England and France. But the real story begins when he returned to the States in the early 1910s and burst on the scene as an eager and talented young artist.

Fellows found work contributing to satirical magazines like Life and Leslie’s, and his European-influenced style was fresh and new, reflecting the sleekness and stylization that led to Art Deco. His work was so fresh, in fact, that he found many of his better-known contemporaries, including John Held, Jr. and Ralph Barton, were adapting his stylistic elements for their own use.

Fellows’ style during this period was very mannered and graphic, with thin black outlines enclosing flat expanses of tone and compositions that emphasized graphic weight and balance over fussy illustrative detail. His bread and butter throughout the 1920s was his work for the Kelly-Springfield Tire company. He brought an idea to the Kelly advertising manager for a series of magazine ads featuring “smart cars and smart types of people.” It was the beginning of an assignment that lasted for nearly a decade. The ads are still smart and fashionable today (and becoming collectible, by the way). (more…)

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