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.
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog