Practical criticism: when fops go bad

In these days of turmoil and world change, the British media stopped thinking about war, recession and the future of the free world last week to consider a prank call broadcast by two high-profile BBC presenters. Louche comic Russell Brand (notorious here for shagadelic excesses, though the wider world may know him as the star of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and chat-show host Jonathan Ross (cheeky chappy and film buff) left a series of taunting messages for actor Andrew Sachs. So far, so sniggering: but the ensuing hullaballoo led to tabloid outrage, Parliamentary harrumphing, resignations and disciplining.

But the monkey has his mind on higher things, namely: what are these chaps wearing? Both Ross and Brand are notable not simply for sauce and provocation, but for their extravagant mode of dress. Ross favours florid suits blaring in cerise and purple, pink pinstripes and frock coats. Brand, on the other hand, works a skinny Goth look - black as the grave, big mussy hair, smeary eyeliner, entwined with thin scarves and belts and spindly tchotchkes. He looks thrown together, a bit dirty, as if he'd just crawled out of someone's bed in a hangover and a hurry. It isn't tidy but it's nonetheless highly dandified.

Know what these guys are? They are fops: eye-catching, stuff-strutting, rarely pure and never simple. A fop isn't a sissy - Ross and Brand may dress queer but their braggadocio is insistently straight. I'll try not to bang on about Restoration drama every week, but there's really no better guide to the politics of self-presentation. The late 17th-century theatre created the stock character of the fop - over-dressed, ultra-fashionable, with a hotline to the latest in gloves, coats and periwigs. As ever, the names tell the story: Lord Foppington in The Relapse, Sparkish in The Country Wife, Novelty Fashion in Love's Last Shift. Top of the fops is Sir Fopling Flutter in Etherege's The Man of Mode, who 'wears nothing but what are originals of the most famous hands in Paris', and whose first appearance whips the other characters into a label frenzy as they ask where he got his suit ('Barroy'), trimmings ('Le Gras'), shoes ('Piccar'), wig ('Chedreux') and scent for his gloves ('Orangerie! You know the smell, ladies').

Heady stuff. But does the stage truly admire men who dress up? Let's see, after the click:

Men use business suits to project assurance and authority, as we discussed in the first of this series. Sober cut, sober colours - not so much 'look at me' as 'respect me.' Modern-dress productions of classics put rulers in suits - like the current Ralph Fiennes Oedipus or the RSC's Hamlet and Richard III. Don't mess is the message. But if a chap makes his entrance bright colours, outré cuts, unusual displays of flesh or flounce: welcome to dandyland.

Where does the power lie? In blokes who dress down or up? A fop undeniably catches the eye - you want to know where he brought his clobber, and even more how he found the nerve to wear it. But if Restoration drama teaches us anything, it's that no-one trusts a fop, and that the people who gawk at them nonetheless can't wait to see them humiliated. These characters never get the girl, the fortune, or the joke. In fact, they are the joke. Lord Foppington is everybody's laughing-stock, while poor Sir Fopling - who for all his flash is endearingly gauche and needy - is gulled and slapped down.

It's no surprise that Ross and Brand, riding high on a pile of press cuttings and the apple of every lens, may have felt invulnerable even as they slipped into a fuchsia jacket or skinniest jeans. But a spectacle isn't loved, and a world dressed in grey was waiting to turn on them. Look on Sir Fopling, boys, and despair.

Has the monkey got it wrong? What do we make of men who dress like a dandy? Let me know what you think.

November 4, 2008 12:01 PM | | Comments (1) |


ross is a fop — fops aren't cool, they don't dump the carrier bags in the hall on return from the shopping trip, they don the clobber immediately and go out to enjoy being seen. hence the vulnerability, the weakness of being an enthusiast -- how wossian was colley cibber playing sir novelty fashion, later elevated to the peerage as lord foppington, in an immense heap of a wig: "nothing should be seen but his Eyes". that's why ross's verbal libertinism comes over as inept; he'd really rather talk about his post-carnaby drape -- too much? too little? too puce? — than his guest's tits. brand, though, is a dandy; dandies were a post-french revolution development based on the principle of denial, of saying no — the coolness, in fact froideur, of a ruthless rejection of the norm, a sublimation. (i met three exquisite goths in smithfield on halloween, of a grave formality that would have done credit to the hearse crew of a victorian undertaker.) ok, he's messy, but calculated messy.

the trouble with playing a full fop or a dandy is that extremity of costume annexes a man's performance, it demands to be played for comedy — rare is the actor tough enough to play facepaint, hairpowder and silk stockings for tragedy (malkovitch in dangerous liaisons an exception). while women learn early to cope with impossible outfits without jettisoning a non-comic character. not fair, is it?

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on November 4, 2008 12:01 PM.

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