One of my favourite portraits in history was painted by the very talented American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). It is of Thomas Lister, 4th Baron Ribblesdale, which is now in the National Gallery of Australia.
Painted in 1902 it reveals the public face, rather than the private life of a man we are invited to ponder. History tells us that his lordship was an Edwardian aristocrat, a landowner, soldier, sportsman and a courtier. There are many indicators in this portrait that tell us a terrific tale about his modish life at the top.
Milord is very aware, as indeed is the artist, that an image is all about other people’s perceptions. The painting reveals him as a gracious man, one sure of his own worth, used to being in control and confident in his ability to surmount any challenges.
King Edward ‘bestowed on him the soubriquet ‘The Ancestor’.
His asymmetric stance, where most of the weight is on one leg was an innovative pose first developed in ancient Greece. His immutable taste in all things is very refined and he has a great depth of knowledge. How do we know?
Well he is depicted against a cool classical setting. This lets us know that he not only knows about the roots of western civilisation, but also about ‘art’ per se and that he is used to the sort of renowned excellence the ancient Greeks aspired to and achieved during their so-called ‘classical’ period.
It’s what his own life is really about.
Ribblesdale is a man whose taste in clothes might be considered sober by many people. However they have been put together with a great deal of thought and, as an example of exquisite perfection.
They reveal that as a courtier he also knows about a publication found in the libraries of all serious scholars and men of learning for centuries.
Written by Count Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) Ill Cortegiano (The Courtier) (1528) became the manual that formed the basis for the ideologies and actions surrounding the behaviour of gentlemen for centuries. How do we know? Castiglione declared that a ‘gentleman’ always wore ‘black’ in his coat.
He also observed that a well-rounded man should seek attainments in physical (sports and war) intellectual (education, literary and musical accomplishments) as well as moral and social mores, all of which Ribblesdale achieved during his life’s journey in abundance.
There is one indication however, that despite all of the planning to achieve ‘perfection’ with the image he purposefully left to posterity, that his necktie, tied with great deal of dash, tells us that deep down he wanted to let us know he was a man who would take considered risks and had a great deal of personal flair. In his day he was considered a man of great personality and a ‘liberal’ politician.
Historically male garb reflects the wearer’s power, his wealth, his youthful joie de vivre or joy of life, as well as his sporting prowess, smouldering sex appeal and, even his beauty.
Over the years, fashionable male iconic images have reflected changes in politics, society, culture, economics, technology and, morality. Men’s fashionable styles have gone from being mature, serious and conservative to conceited, youthful and sexy in cyclical patterns.
In Australia men marauding about in ‘blue ties’ came under fire and in the news in 2013 when the first female Prime Minister indicated that the men of her political opposition were entirely unimaginative in making a white shirt and blue tie a uniform they rarely deviated from.
The silliness of it all was that most of her own party were ‘blue-tie’ men as well.
Blue is a ‘safe’ bet. It is a colour that’s assertive while conservative, offering us all an image of trust, calm, peace and dependability. Although it can also be classified as being both cool and predictable.
Red on the other hand while assertive means that its wearers want to be noticed, they want to appear authoritative and strong,
However it can also be taken for being threatening, stressful and in many ways, downright dangerous.
All cultures on earth have particular perceptions of, and about colour, which in its evolution has come to symbolize many things both collectively and individually.
Colour also has many variants, neither black nor white (technically not colours at all) with many more shades of grey in between. In that respect one could say colour is a metaphor for a man and his life.
A man’s tie and the way it has been tied, can tell us terrific tales of modish life at the top when sartorial splendour became one way to distinguish a true gentleman.
This happened from the seventeenth century onward when a man’s necktie first became a subject of passing fashion and fancy.
Since then it has always provided a good indication of the spirit of the times and men of style are now part of a tradition that has courted both women and history. The costumes men worn in the past, just as they are now, are an expose on the plush private world in which a man may find himself on his path to power on the political scene, in public life or otherwise.
George Byron Brummell (1778-1840) an early 19th century high priest of dandyism, put a great deal of effort into knotting his own batiste so the knot might appear casually done.
A man who moved in royal circles, the Beau decided exactly what well-dressed man should wear, remodeling the dress coat and decreeing that a man’s cravat (the forerunner of a tie) should be starched. His constant aim was supposed to be about sober exquisite perfection and his house, furniture, library, possessions and agreeable cool style were meant to match.
The preferred quiet taste of a successful lawyer or man of business attempting to take over the world by degrees became the suit, which really came into wider contention early in the 20th century.
It had been more or less invented by a youthful Prince of Wales in England in the second half of the 19th century.
He was a man who would be seen as a leader of both society and style from the late Victorian period into the Edwardian age, most especially during the halcyon days of elegance prior to World War 1 when he became King Edward VIII (1841-1910).
As a younger man Edward had the idea for a new style of man’s coat, one that didn’t have ‘tails’, that would take him casually to many different places throughout the day.
The ‘suit’ caught on fast and when made as a contrast to the pants worn with it, created the preferred laid-back casual look, especially when made of linen to deal with the vagaries of traveling about and abroad in an English summer.
Wintering in Egypt or on the coast of France or Italian Riviera demanded innovation from the English gentleman of substance and style who at no stage could let down his guard or standards.
If both suit and pants were bespoke and made out of a matching good English woollen cloth, preferably in a dark colour with perhaps the addition of a stripe, the suit became a badge of honour worn by serious men of business and commerce.
For those who missed their opportunity for ‘peacockery’, the new slimmer longer necktie designed especially to go with a new man’s suit met morphed into becoming a barometer that reflected their taste and mood in all matters.
Taste is an unsatisfactory word, however it does remain perhaps the only single word, which expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception. The rule of thumb was that the tie should always feature one of the colours of the shirt worn and be in a harmonizing, than a rather contrasting colour.
For men in a certain social sphere during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the suit and tie was all about peerless cut and precision, not ‘peacockery’, especially when produced by the tailors of Savile Row, at London.
The term “bespoke” likely originated on Savile Row, when cloth for a suit was said to “be spoken for by an individual customer ”
What a man wore reflected to all those people he encountered during his business day his status, common sense approach, his values, honour, valour and integrity. They were all-important attributes for any man, who was a leader in his profession and style, to project.
It really hasn’t changed much in over a hundred years, the longest period in history when men haven’t led a change in fashionable style.
A successful man of business and commerce, since the end of World War I, has been looked up to as a leader not only of taste and style, but also of the society they kept. They needed to make doubly sure that they got it right. Today it seems they have explored most options, going from single to double breasted suits and back again.
If the ‘science of colour’ choice however, proves anything at all, then male politicians would be wise to keep wearing blue.
Colour is certainly something that always attracts our attention, although unless we have studied its meaning as an interior designer, architect, graphic designer or as modern stylists do, to name a few, it’s not something we instinctively know about or understand.
Today colour is a huge study for everyone wanting a career in the creative industries, including the all-important marketing and promotional spheres.
It is no co-incidence McDonald’s uses ‘red’ as its main colour and yellow as its secondary colour. Red doesn’t entice people to linger longer than it takes to eat their food, because its all about passion and action and it tells us to move on. Yellow which is associated with friendliness, helps us all to still feel happy after we leave so that you want to come back for more.
The same principles apply to the colour in a man’s tie.
They can wear orange if they want to show us that they have enthusiasm and energy; although it also means they have an ego, so we need to beware.
Green is dependable, although it could reflect that the wearer is stubborn and envious.
Violet is all about appearing calm and in control and, as a bonus, conveys ideas of peace and spirituality.
Pink reveals compassion and understanding and its bonus is that it is also about thoughtfulness, youth and happiness so you can see why it can come into fashionable contention often.
Brown is entirely dependable, solid, which is why back in the 70’s most people in the ‘public service’ wore brown. It worked well in corridors of power, that were also painted out in brown and beige and considered by the majority of people both dull and ‘boring’.
Then we get into neutrals, well the name itself will tell you about their bland,, mostly indecisive nature. Grey is a mixture of black and white and while it may appear to reflect confidence and efficiency, it can also be about being on the fence of indecision and insecurity. Sitting on the park bench of life.
All of this is in reality, but a furphy and a distraction for men seeking to secure their true position in life because it depends importantly now, just as it did in times past, on how able a man proves himself to be.
Looking the part has always been important and so if any man wants to look and feel a success then my advice would be that he ‘should look as if he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forget all about them’*.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013
*with thanks to George Byron (Beau) Brummell (1778-1840)