I finally got around to seeing The Artist this weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly both as a classic film buff and as modern movie-goer who’s grown weary of roller-coaster camera moves, rapid-fire edits, and computer-generated artificiality.
As anyone who’s seen it knows, formal wear is very prevalent in the film as befitting a story set in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood. What might not be so obvious was the way it is subtly utilized to enhance the character of George Valentin, the film’s protagonist.
The first thing I noticed was that the movie opened with George wearing a black bow tie with his white-tie ensemble, a major sartorial faux pas. But when the sequence then cut to George at the premiere of his latest film wearing proper full dress I realized this aberration was used deliberately to differentiate his on-screen persona from his off-screen one. In fact, George may have been employing it as a schtick to separate himself from other actors, a trick he advises aspiring actress Penny Miller to utilize as well.
George’s white-tie ensemble continues to play a major role in the film as a metaphor for his glory days as a silent-film star. It is what he wears on stage while basking in the adulation of the audience at the aforementioned premiere and it is also the attire worn in his life-size portrait displayed so prominently in his mansion. Then when he is ousted from the spotlight by the advent of talking pictures and loses his fortune in the stock market crash it becomes the last possession he pawns for desperately needed cash. There is a brief moment when he later spots a full-dress ensemble in the window of a shop and imagines himself back in the limelight but it is soon dashed by the realization he can never go back to those leading man days. He is a relic of a by-gone era while young Penny has shot to stardom by embracing the modern wonder of “talkies”. Thus it is telling that when Penny devises a way to reinvent George for the new age of cinema he appears on screen not in the stodgy top hat, wing collar and tailcoat of yesteryear but in the streamlined black-tie dinner jacket embraced by the Jazz Age generation. (He even sports a turndown collar shirt, a distinctly youthful innovation of the time.)
Curiously, the same wardrobe stylists failed to properly execute a key detail of impeccable formal wear: always display an impressive amount of white linen. Specifically, a full-dress shirt’s stiff detachable collar is meant to stand tall and proud in order to nobly frame the wearer’s face while the tailcoat’s sleeves are intended to be short enough to expose at least half an inch of elegant single-link shirt cuffs. However the collar worn by George looked suspiciously similar to today’s underwhelming attached wing collars while his shirt cuffs rarely if ever saw the light of day (or of evening), robbing his outfit of some of the dramatic contrast that’s particularly important in a black-and-white film. Movie stars of that era would have known better as Fred Astaire so aptly demonstrates: