Adored by critics and film-goers alike, the Best Picture Oscar-winning film The Artist is worthy of the many accolades it has received. After we parsed the tuxedos worn during the 2012 Oscars ceremony, we’d like to share some of the charming elements of the winning film with you today – most especially the men’s clothes!
Set in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, for our purposes, The Artist occurs during the golden era of classic men’s style in the US. At the time, talkie films were emerging, and actors like Fred Astaire were beginning their ascent into stardom. The picture is beautifully shot in black and white film, and like the main character George Valentin, the film is mostly silent. The occasional sound effect and appropriately tinny, vaudevillian music are the only accompaniments. For the viewer, it takes a little while to adjust to such a drastically different viewing experience – the sound is noticeably quieter, the vivid colors and textures of HD film are gone, and the shooting style is restricted to era-specific camera methods, most often from stiff floor-mounted cameras. Clearly, the director went to great lengths to mimic the original features of a silent production. The plot relies heavily on facial expressions, context, and body language to convey the development of the plot. At the very least, The Artist is the most interesting and unique film composition of the awards season.
For those of you who have not seen the film, and would prefer to not have the plot revealed, please continue down to the section entitled “The Clothes.”
In 1927, George Valentin (a likely reference to Rudolph Valentino, the famed early silent film star) is the immensely popular silent film star under contract with Kinograph Studios. His dog Uggie is his film sidekick by day and his loyal companion by night. At the opening night of Valentin’s most recent film, he bumps into a female fan, Peppy Miller, who is there to get his autograph. A photo of the moment is featured in the paper the next day, and when Peppy turns up as an extra on his next film, the studio manager Al Zimmer (played by John Goodman) tries to throw her out. Valentin steps in, and insists that she participates. Valentin is clearly taken with her, and with a little guidance from her famous associate, the film turns out to be the start of Peppy’s successful film career.
In 1929, the stock market crash is looming and Kinograph decides to discontinue silent films in favor of talkies, citing Peppy as one of the new faces of Hollywood. Disbelieving, George finances and produces his own silent film. Sadly, it is a pitted directly against Peppy’s new film and is a total failure. Valentin’s wife leaves him, and he is destroyed financially and professionally. We reconnect with George as he is living in a dingy tow room apartment, having sold all of his valuable possessions. Clearly haunted by the loss of his livelihood, Valentin sets his private film collection on fire. His dog brings help, and George is hospitalized for injuries sustained in the fire. Peppy visits him in the hospital, and learns that he was found protecting one film, which she discovers was the film George insisted she join. George awakens at Peppy’s house, and while wandering he discovers a room entirely filled with his auctioned property – all purchased by Peppy. Distraught, he contemplates suicide, but Peppy finds him in time. They reconcile, and recalling George’s talent for dancing, Peppy makes a musical with him. In the last scene, we see a restored Valentin happily dancing with Peppy, amid fully articulated sound. When asked to do the scene again, George responds “with pleasure” in heavily accented French, revealing his hesitancy to join the talkies.
Considering the director’s concern for technical detail, I had high hopes for the film wardrobe – especially for the male characters. Other than main actor George Valentin, not many men have a chance to display their clothes for more than a few seconds. The one exception is Al Zimmer, but even he is rarely onscreen for long.
Other than a few tweed suits and sportscoats, we mostly see evening wear: tailcoats and tuxedos. Throughout the film, Valentin wears the same tailcoat and vest, switching only between white and black bow ties. In fact, black bow ties were never worn with a tailcoat, unless you were the server at a restaurant or if you were attending a funeral. Even then, most men would have worn a black waistcoat and not a white one.
Tailcoats & Tuxedos
Valentin’s waistcoat is made of white piqué cotton fabric and has cloth-covered buttons, but it is soft and it has the cut of a day waistcoat, not an evening waistcoat. This means the V is rather high, whereas traditional evening vests would have had a deep U or V cut to display one’s shirt front and studs properly. Also, evening waistcoats would have been starched – not soft. On top of that, the vest is a little to short at the bottom, leaving the main actor’s waistband exposed many times and revealing the shirt underneath.
The evening shirts in the 20’s and 30’s had stiff detachable collars, but in the movie, you only see modern day evening shirts with attached, unstarched collars. At least they tried to use single cuffs for tailcoats and double cuffs for tuxedos!
The tailcoat trousers lack a double galon stripe, even though this remains the absolute standard for men’s evening wear to the modern day.
His shoes are only clearly visible in one scene, and it seems like he wore black patent leather oxfords without a captoe, which was absolutely correct back then.
However, it is doubtful that a man of his resources would have worn an adjustable bow tie – it’s a faux pas for formal occasions as it is! He much rather would have donned a sized one that fit his neck.
The tailcoat itself has lapels that remind me a little bit of the late 1920’s, although the trousers are full cut and more 1930’s style. Most people assume that clothes during that period were all the same, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the 1920’s suits were cut more closely to the body, and trousers were much narrower. In the 1930’s the drape cut created more room over the chest, lapels got wider, and the shoulder and pants became fuller. In The Artist, the blending of the genres deprives the leading man of authenticity in his dress. What a shame!
At the very end of the movie, we can see the two main characters dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In the close up, you can see that Dujardin wears a tuxedo with flaps on the pockets – again, a highly informal detail that no elegant man would have worn back then.
On the other hand, I must say his mustache looks always superb! Also, the ties and suspenders he wears look very 30’s. His casual suits and jackets are neither 1920s nor 1930s, but something in between. With regards to the fabric, it seems like they tried to find something more authentic but the cut of the waistcoat – with the bottom button fastened – is not the way most elegant men wore it back in the day. His dressing gown looks pretty decent. Towards the end, you can see that they visually showed his desperation by providing him with slightly baggy, ill fitting clothes. Overall, despite the film’s obvious attractions, I must to say that I am pretty disappointed with the men’s clothing. Compared to Downton Abbey, the costume designer did a really poor job in terms of authenticity and accuracy.
While the film techniques and approach of the silent film may be very authentic,most of the clothes are clearly modern. Most people will probably not notice the inappropriate men’s clothes, but you and I do! It seems strange that they were unable to source proper period clothes from the 1920’s and 1930’s era. What did you think of George Valentin’s clothing?