Once upon a time there was a make-believe kingdom called Hollywoodland. This soon-to-be famous, enchanted countryside made stars out of ordinary people. From around the world, young men travelled with dreams to become famous, hoping that if reality was going to be turned on its head, then this was the place for it to happen. But to make stars and to persuade the world to believe in these stars, the kingdom needed public ceremonies for packaging. Film premieres and awards ceremonies were the vehicles used to meld fantasy with reality.
With the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing its nominees for the 84th Oscars and the awards to be handed out three weeks from today, now is the time to pay tribute to the man who received a Special Award at that first Oscars ceremony in 1929, and who remains a standout as a fashionable man, in part because his most famous creation dressed to impress.
Charlie Chaplin is best remembered for his work in the early days of the silent film era. Both in front of the camera and in his private life, Chaplin was the definition of style. The Tramp, the character he introduced in 1914 and made famous in 10 movies, was a vagrant who wore a bowler hat, a single-breasted black suit (often accompanied by a waistcoat), a white shirt with a wing collar, and a black tie. Making the outfit that much more impressive was the cane, which was essential to The Tramp's comedic performance, and today - as we look back - represents the epitome of style.
As Chaplin was at the height of his power during what I believe to be man's most inspiring fashionable period, he could afford in his personal life to look every bit the rake he really was. Taking four wives, two of whom were 16 years old when the relationships began and one of whom was 18, would today likely find him in prison, but back then merely added to his Hollywood mystique.
The pictures that survive of him when he was not in front of the camera show a man who took meticulous care of his wardrobe. He was impeccably dressed throughout the 1920s, standing next to Douglas Fairbanks; as well as in 1931, for instance, when he was in his early forties and he met Mahatma Gandhi in London. He often sported a high-collared shirt with a bow tie and he always looked comfortable, a must when wearing a suit.
What makes Chaplin such a modern-day inspiration in front of the camera is the importance he put on his wardrobe. Talkies had yet to be invented, which meant that to convey a feeling or express a meaning, clothes carried added significance. The Tramp sometimes wore a pocket square, and he was usually homeless. When not on set, Chaplin still dressed the part of a star as well as that of a successful businessman, which he was. (In 1919, he and Fairbanks and the Canadian actress Mary Pickford created United Artists.)
Off camera, Chaplin never seemed to forget he was Hollywood royalty and his attire lived up to that title. On film, Chaplin used what was at his disposal for The Tramp to be most effective and today's man must make a similar effort to find what works for him.
Michael Jabri-Pickett is the news editor at The National. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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