The Cartoon Wardrobe
Whence comes the sudden urge to don a particular shirt, or jacket, or pair of shoes? Wardrobe selection can be a troubled area for those of us who think perhaps just a little too much about the clothes we wear. But in recent years, since becoming a parent, a new, decidedly unlikely, source for clothing inspiration has emerged in my life. I speak of the illustrated male, the cartoon, the drawings in my children’s picture books.
Examples abound of the nattily attired cartoon male in the classic illustated books. Babar, originally published in the 1930s, is always immaculate in his three-piece emerald green suit, beautifully set off by a crisp white shirt and bright red bow tie. It’s the details I love - the perfect amount of white shirt cuff peeping out from the sleeve, his smart white shoes with thick crepe soles, which I speculate are a kind of hybrid of a white buckskin upper with a Playboy style crepe sole. If the stories tell us nothing else, Babar proves that a big man, well in this case a charismatic French elephant, can carry off an outfit with authoritative aplomb.
Continental Europe has a track record of producing cartoon clothes horses, the finest example perhaps being Tintin, the fearless young Belgian journalist, whose hairstyle, white raincoat and fine knitwear must surely have influenced the sartorial direction of the early Style Council. My daughter’s Tintin craze has abated somewhat recently, much to my chagrin, but I still find myself flicking through The Calculus Affair, delighting again in the precision of Herge’s artwork and storytelling.
As well as a gloriously ridiculous plot line, in which a young boy is rendered wafer thin by a heavy bulletin board crushing him, facilitating adventures such as him being posted to California and turned into a giant kite, the 1964 offering from the USA, Flat Stanley, features some great illustrated threads. Dr Dan, the medic called in to check on the damage done to Stanley by being flattened, sports a button-down shirt in the perfect shade of blue with a great soft collar roll. But from my first reading of this classic, it is Mr O.J.Dart, director of The Famous Museum of Art, who has caught my eye. His shaven head, radical bold black horn-rim specs, charcoal grey sack suit (hey he’s a museum director and it’s 1964, it’s gotta be a Brooks no 1…), red bow tie and black oxford toe-caps makes for a faultless ensemble.
The great books feature well-dressed men, a lesson learnt by a more recent generation of author-illustrators who are all clearly inspired by the classics. The most overtly clothes focused of this new batch is Graham Marsh’s Max and The Lost Note, an instant cult title when published in 2009, which features a blue cat, a mod who wears Ivy League clothes, has a nice Eames lounge chair, and plays jazz piano. As well as entertaining kids with the story of the chase for the missing note, and great characters like The Funky Felines and Long Tall Dexter, this book has undoubtedly offered a series of achievable fashion plates for a number of desperate men, like myself, who are clearly in need of medical assistance. “Mmm, the page 7 look today I think, blue and white polka dot scarf, with tan Ivy sports jacket, and red hanky in breast pocket. Now where did I leave my clip-on blue tail?”
Another title to dabble with the world of modernism, and to purposely offer as much in-the-know pleasure to adults as well as kids is The Three Little Pigs by Steven Guarnaccia. The traditional tale here is retold as an architectural parable featuring the house built of scraps by Frank Gehry, the house of glass by Philip Johnson and the house of stone by Frank Lloyd Wright. The architects’ clothes are drawn in loving detail, Gehry in particular looking great in V-neck sweater, baggy khakis, white sneakers and horn-rim specs. Johnson of course is in his trademark Le Corb-style round black glasses and we see, yet again, the red bow tie, that constant feature in historical and contemporary illustration of the male wardrobe in children’s literature, to coin an ugly-sounding sub-genre.
Iggy Peck Architect is a great modern kids’ picture book with particularly fine illustration by David Roberts, rooted in a mid-century aesthetic. Iggy himself, the aspirant architect, is nicely drawn with a flat-top haircut, chunky sweaters, and Converse All-Star high-tops. But it is his Dad who I most admire, a tall, bald, rake-thin creation, in skinny black tie, impossibly narrow black trousers, red stripy socks and black and white spats. It’s a bold combo, but boy does he pull it off. With illustration, so unlike real life, anything is possible…