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fashion_poll[1]

Pigeon-holing people is satisfying and necessary. Determining whom our friends, neighbours, colleagues and relatives look like and sound like; whether their political and religious beliefs and educational background make them left-leaning, right-leaning or somewhere in between, is important; so is an assessment of their earning power, which dictates whether they wear Accurist or Audemars Piguet on their wrists and Converse or Christian Louboutin on their feet. The act of placing people into cultural cubbyholes is generally considered helpful. It enables us to ascertain our role within the various groups we daily navigate. Moreover, the act is instinctive and universal, so our collective culpability renders us guiltless of any charges of insensitivity. Categorising is certainly innate, but Mark Pagel’s Wired For Culture inclines me to think that pigeon-holing and people watching is more Machiavellian than mild; they are advantageous and evolutionary-refined strategies through which we sort friends from enemies, the useful from the useless.[i] The need to classify, which stems from our drive to survive, explains the enduring appeal of status lists that rank the best and the worst, the boring and the wonderful, even if the compilation criteria often seems arbitrary.

A Best Dressed Briton

A few months ago, nine fashion experts and me were asked to nominate our ‘Best Dressed Briton’ for a feature in the October edition of BBC History Magazine (see image above).[ii] My nominee obviously had to be British, but to ensure the poll provided a suitable chronological coverage, I was also asked to suggest somebody from the Middle Ages (which effectively limited my search to England). The exercise caused me to think generally about significant sartorialists from the past who do not typically feature in ‘best dressed’ compilations. I was only able to nominate one person for the BBC poll, so here are three other contenders whose wares warrant more attention than they typically receive.

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1396-1467)

mielot_pres_det

Burgundy was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the later Middle Ages and its dukes used art, ceremony and fashion to exalt their authority; none more so than Duke Philip.[iii] Following the bloody assassination of his father, John the Fearless, at the hands of the French in 1419, Philip apparently wore black for the rest of his life. Black was more than symbol for mourning, however. By donning this expensive and much sought after cloth, Philip was sending a message to the French king, Charles VII, that he would have his revenge. Philip’s preference for black influenced sartorial vogues across north-western Europe and the colour remained popular well into the sixteenth century, particularly in Spain.[iv] The elegance and sophistication of black garments is still widely recognised today. When contemporary consumers opt for black, they recognise and enjoy the same body-altering properties that the colour possessed for stylish men and women in the Middle Ages. It would be interesting to speculate whether the Little Black Dress would have been conceived without Duke Philip’s sartorial legacy.

King Charles II of England (1630-1685)

charles-ii

Medinacelli

Often regarded as the ‘Merry Monarch’, Charles II is famed for his frolicking, feasts and fashion. On 7 October 1666, the king issued a radical clothing ordinance that did away with breaches and gowns. In place of this ostentatious raiment, male courtiers were now expected to wear a vest and coat. Charles’ clothing reform is significant for several reasons. Firstly, it determined the basic structure of menswear for the next three hundred years. Through these reforms Charles created an embryonic three-piece suit. Secondly, the reform promoted sobriety and championed the English wool trade. Thirdly, by rejecting French vogues, Charles created a fashion that made England appear culturally and politically distinct; the monarch became a fashion icon and, by association, English clothing styles gained newfound respect.[v]

Alain Delon (1935-)

images

images

The French-Swiss actor is undoubtedly the best-known of my ‘forgotten’ fashion icons. In April, he was featured as a ‘Style Setter’ on Mr Porter.[vi] However, to an Anglophone audience Delon’s films – even his most famous, Rocco And His Brothers (1960) and Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (1963), both of which were directed by Luchino Visconti – are probably still little known. Delon was called to Hollywood, but never mastered the English language sufficiently to become the leading star that his looks would have easily made possible. English grammar may have been unfathomable to Delon, but he was a careful student of English vogues and wore simple, traditional styles with a casual, occasionally arrogant, confidence. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of pronounced social and political disturbance and Delon was instrumental in demonstrating how conventional and long-established garments and outfits could become contemporary and relevant when infused with a bit of continental charm. Many of the street-styled men at Pitti Uomo appear to have been influenced by Delon’s aesthetic.

My Nominee

King Henry III of England was my nominee for the BBC History Magazine’s ‘Best Dressed Briton’ feature. The choice is slightly inaccurate, for Henry was as English as Philip the Good of Burgundy; his family descended from the counts of Anjou. In any case, Henry stood out for me as the most sartorially splendid and savvy from England’s medieval past.

King Henry III of England (1207-1272)

Henry III. Source: http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/medieval/history/highmiddle/england.htm

The fourth longest reigning monarch in British history, Henry III was an aesthete who used art and fashion to enhance his authority. Henry is the first English king for whom we have detailed household records describing the purchase of his clothes and jewellery. Royal accounts contain a detailed description of the king’s coronation and burial garments, which were fashioned from red samite, a heavy gold embroidered cloth.[vii] They also describe garments that reveal Henry III had a keen eye for detail. For Easter 1235, Henry III had three sets of garments made. The first were of burnet, an expensive and dark (blue) fabric, trimmed with miniver. The second set was made of murray, a brown cloth, trimmed with vair. The third set was made of green cloth and trimmed with the grey and red spring fur of the northern squirrel.[viii] Henry III was probably one of the first kings to really acknowledge the significance of sartorial style in politics. When he was trying to persuade his barons to cough up funds to support his second son’s planned conquest of Sicily, Henry had the boy dressed in a set of Sicilian coronation garments. The spectacle would have been doubly impressive as the meeting occurred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry was in the process of transforming. So, when contemporary politicians wear lapel pins and purple ties, they are really following King Henry’s lead.

Henry

The evolutionary imperative to pigeon-hole explains why the results of ‘best’ lists are frequently contested. When it was released, the BBC’s poll, which includes people as diverse as David Bowie and Ellen Terry, was criticised for not including the Duke of Windsor. My own addendum may well be criticised for only mentioning men and still failing to mention Person X, Person Y or Person Z, ‘who really should have been picked up in an offbeat league such as this’. But we cannot please everyone, as the lengthy email volley between a colleague and me about Henry III’s position in the BBC best dressed list goes to show….

Appendix

From: Ben Wild
Sent: 11 September 2013 17:58
To: XX
Subject: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear ??,In their October issue, BBC History Magazine is running a ‘Best Dressed Briton’ feature. I, along with 10 other fashion-related bods., have been asked to nominate our best-dressed. Perhaps inevitably, I have chosen Henry III!The BBC want to make a big thing of this and I would love for Henry III to win, so without any pressure whatsoever (!), have a look at www.historyextra.com/bestdressed and vote!
All the best, B.
From: ?? 
Sent: 12 September 2013 09:01
To: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear Dr Wild
Whilst I would be the first to agree that you have an eye for ‘the cut of the cloth’ and have admired the latest sharply-tailored addition to your wardrobe, I feel I cannot in all conscience comply with your latest request regarding some medieval monarch or other. Surely anybody with the most basic grasp of both British history and fashion would agree that Lord Cardigan’s 11th Hussars were, and remain, the best dressed amongst the Britons? I am frankly surprised that I would have to point this out to a man of such standing in the field as you. I attach a picture to demonstrate my point. No need for thanks, ?? 
From: Ben Wild
Sent: 12 September 2013 10:00
To: XX
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear Mr ??,
The Lord Cardigan’s 11th Hussars are indeed splendidly attired, but if they demonstrate the importance of dress in political and military scenarios, they are surely only following in Henry III’s regal footsteps. Long before the Hussars, Henry showed how dress could be worn to exalt authority (royal or otherwise), and long before the Hussars, Henry demonstrated the significance of military garb when he wore a specially commissioned gambeson, complete with dags and gold-embroidered decoration, during the siege of Kenilworth castle in 1266 – the longest siege in English history. So, whilst the get-up of the Hussars is aesthetically pleasing (suitably illustrated by your pretty picture), I would suggest that it really is Henry III who first established the significance of colour, cut and texture in clothing. The Hussars’ raiment demonstrates what King Henry III first proved.
B.
From: ??
Sent: 12 September 2013 10:24
To: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Ben,
An interesting (if flawed) thesis. I fear you miss the point. You were asked to choose the best dressed Briton, I believe. The argument you have presented is for the person whose dress sense has had the most influence or impact on British fashion – this is not at all the same thing as the best dressed! I personally fail to see how some bloke going rusty in his shiny tin suit outside a castle in the Midlands can compare with the pleasing and tightly trousered look of the cherrypickers! Yours, ??  
To:??
Sent: 12 September 2013 11:11
From: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
On the contrary, Henry being so well dressed – the best dressed – explains his enduring sartorial significance, a significance that is no way diminished by the fact that people may not be aware of the events of his reign. That said, the fact that Henry III currently commands 16% of votes in the BBC poll indicates some acknowledgement of his historic contribution to clothing. The ‘pleasing and trousered look of the cherrypickers’ would doubtless have been less appealing had not Henry III first shown how to make effective use of dress; his gambeson at Kenilworth, which was a padded garment subtly embroidered with gold, rather than ‘a shiny tin suit’, makes this point well.
B.
Ps. On a technical, if mildly pedantic, point, I don’t think tin can rust.
From: ??
Sent: 12 September 2013 11:39
To: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear Ben,
It seems that Henry’s gambeson and its subsequent impact on fashion form a central pillar of your argument. To my knowledge the most recent and obvious modern manifestation of this ‘padded garment’ would be the winter uniform of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army during the Korean War. If you are seriously suggesting that Henry’s sartorial legacy is to be found in the massed ranks of the PLA (hardly the best dressed men in China, let alone anywhere else) then I fear you have a long and hard struggle to convince the great British public of your case. Regarding your post script, whilst I accept your point, I believe it only serves to prove mine. It would seem your knowledge of metallurgy is superior to that of fashion! 
Regards etc., ?? 
To: ??
Sent: 12 September 2013 13:41
From: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear ??,
The fact that you have need to resort to the PLA hints at a worrying desperation in your argument. Few commentators would go so far as to say that an individual has had a decisive influence over a single item of costume. Charles II’s clothing reform of 1666 was significant in establishing the rudimentary form of the modern three-piece suit, for example. ‘Beau’ Brummell’s military-inspired tweak was also important, but it is not really possible to draw a straight line between a single clothing item of the past and present. What certainly is true is the fact that figures of the past have demonstrated how clothes can be worn to project messages about beliefs and authority. The gambeson is merely one example of how Henry III’s eye for sartorial splendour and shrewd political understanding made him well dressed and, in the clothing stakes, commensurately influential. I have confidence that the British public will understand this distinction, just as they would know that tin oxidises without necessarily having a profound understanding of matters metallurgical.
All good wishes, Ben.
From: ??
Sent: 12 September 2013 14:26
To: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear Ben,
I fail to see how I have ‘resorted’ to anything. I merely used the most current example of a gambeson, if we take it to be a ‘padded garment’ (your definition) suitable for military wear (as you infer from your description of Henry loitering around Kenilworth) that I knew of. It can be quite plainly seen that the sparkly finery that Henry swathed himself in has, in fact, degraded over time to a workaday battle smock favoured by the heathen Communist hordes. If this is indeed Henry’s legacy, then a mighty poor one it is. Further, I still maintain that the main thrust of your argument misses the point completely. Influential does not necessarily mean best dressed – Johnny Rotten and Vivien Westwood were highly influential in the world of fashion, but are we really to consider the Sex Pistols best dressed? Regarding the British public and metallurgy I find your faith in their knowledge touching, if misplaced.
Yours etc., ??.  
To:??
Sent: 12 September 2013 16:59
From: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Dear ??,
I will not dignify your comments about Henry’s ‘battle smock’ with a response. I think my argument is sufficiently clear: influential does not necessarily mean best dressed, but I think Henry III is influential, in part, because he was best dressed. In the 1970s, I would imagine that a good number of people considered the Sex Pistols to be well dressed, at least dressed in such a way that made people want to imitate them.
Ever yours, Ben.
From: ??
Sent: 13 September 2013 08:47
To: Ben Wild
Subject: RE: Best Dressed in Briton
Ben,
You will be relieved to know that against my better judgement and purely in the interests of professional unity, I have voted for Henry III. How a man whose sole visible contribution to modern fashion is a rather drab garment used to keep the Communist hordes warm in winter can be called ‘The Best Dressed Briton’ continues to elude me, but, nevertheless, I am always willing to support a colleague (however misguided). This has not been an easy decision to make and I must confess to feeling somewhat………dirty. 
Yours etc., ??

[i] M. Pagel, Wired For Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation (London, 2012).

[ii] C. Hodgman, ‘Who’s the best-dressed Briton in history?’, BBC History Magazine (October, 2013), 51-56.

[iii] B.L. Wild, ‘Secular dress: later medieval’, Encyclopaedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker et al. (Leiden, 2012), 498.

[iv] J. Harvey, ‘From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford, 2009), 19-43.

[v] D. Kuchta, The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550-1850 (Berkeley, 2002), 1-16.

[vi] ‘Style Setters: Mr Alain Delon’. http://www.mrporter.com/journal/journal_issue108/3. Accessed: 4 April 2013.

[vii] D.A. Carpenter, ‘The Burial  of King Henry III, the Regalia and Royal Ideology’, idem, The Reign of  Henry III (London, 1996), 429.

[viii] B.L. Wild, ‘Empress’s New Clothes: A Rotulus Pannorum of Isabella, Sister of King Henry III, Bride of Emperor Frederick II’, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, 7, ed. R. Netherton & G. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge, 2011), 1-32.

2 thoughts on “The Forgotten Best Dressed

  1. Am I right in thinking there was an accountant in the middle ages – possibly later (drawing up a dim and dark memory) who was one of the first people to write a book on fashion? He would get my vote! x

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