March 29, 2010

A Short Step to Eccentricity

Dressing well is not a straightforward matter. Even for those in the know, the difference between classic elegance and ridiculousness is slight, the pitfalls awaiting missteps great. Everyone will tell you to be an individual, to mix things up, to not be too studied, or too ‘put together’. Acquire an air of relaxed formality, they will say. Yet one is to know one’s palette, and work within it. And of course, the basic rules must be observed. All well and good. But to a man without a friend in the know this can be bewildering. Just as watching Tiger Woods videos won’t improve your swing, watching the world of fashion will not usher you into it. The basics – fit, cut, cloth, colour – are not obvious. The ambitious but misguided may feel like they are really cutting it, when in fact they have made themselves into mere caricatures. This is the basis of all those magazine ‘experts’ and TV media hacks who make their living pointing out where the celebs went sartorially wrong. Perhaps the rich and famously stupid can get away with it. The man on the street may not fare so well.

My case in point, so as not to embarrass anybody, is Mr. Charles James Mathews, 1803-78. As an English comic actor, his public appearance may not be thought to have been in earnest. It was all ‘just so’, and yet all ‘off’. I imagine it took quite some considerable skill on the part of Mr. Mathews to achieve such a studiously eccentric and nonsensical appearance, without obviously transgressing any rules of formal wear. A couple of details ground the look: the umbrella is charming, the moustache in keeping with the times, the shoes all too ordinary. The rest, while retaining a clear sense of the English gentleman, does enough to make one question his sanity. His posture accentuates the stomach and narrows the shoulders (too many men stand like this without realising it). His trousers are on the long side, breaking at the knee, the shin, and above the shoe, and giving the impression of limpness. So, no backbone, and no strength. A fop, to be sure. The jailbird reference in the trousers is a screaming faux pas and the jacket, with big metal buttons and plaid lining, invokes a cross between a policeman and a bookie. The hat is as like to produce a rabbit as to be doffed at the ladies. In short, this is a man at whom one would laugh, unless he tried to sell you anything, in which case you would run away. The laughter, from Mr. Mathews' point of view, was sought. Unless you seek it too, be mindful.

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