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Movies: Dapper gents rule in 'J. Edgar,' 'The Artist' and other films

Mustaches, glasses and the cut and weave of a suit reveal character.

By Adam Tschorn

Los Angeles Times

December 18, 2011

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Clothes and carefully cultivated facial hair are helping to make the man — and the movie — in a big way at the multiplex this season.

Consider the tuxedo-wearing, thinly mustachioed men of 1920s' Hollywood in "The Artist"; the dapper denizens of 1931 Paris in "Hugo"; the suit-clad spies of 1974 London in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"; and the wide-ranging wardrobe of "J. Edgar's" G-men, whose shirt collars and facial hair shape-shift across half a century of men's dressing and grooming.

It's a celebration of sartorial subtleties rarely seen outside the pages of men's fashion magazines, making for a rare opportunity to examine some of the anthropological underpinnings of the male wardrobe across a wide swath of the 20th century.

Few characters have made a Hollywood splash with as much panache as "The Artist's" George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin as a rakish Douglas Fairbanks type who glides through 1927 Hollywood in razor-sharp formalwear with the merest slash of a 'stache adorning his upper lip.

As Valentin's career fades, the crisply tailored coat and tails give way to baggier, rumpled clothes, and the high-maintenance mustache morphs into a less tended-to version.

"That's something [director] Michel [Hazanavicius] had always thought of doing, he requested that;" says the film's costume designer, Mark Bridges. "He vaguely said his suits should get bigger, so he looks like a beaten man.... We needed to feel like somehow the tailoring was off, just the slightest bit bigger … to somehow topple him off his pedestal."

Set in 1931 Paris, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" focuses on the fashions — and facial hair — of the same era, inspired by historical photographs. "Facial hair was very popular — and very prominent — at that time," says the movie's makeup designer Morag Ross. The style of mustache was a clear class signifier.

"The blue-collar workers — the porters, the policemen — all had much bigger mustaches, while white-collar workers had very neat, very small mustaches," Ross says. "So we made sure the guys who were the cleaners and the porters at the train station [where the movie is set] had these big walrus mustaches that were quite scraggly and very, very prominent."

The meticulously shaped mustache gracing the upper lip of Sacha Baron Cohen helped shaped the back story of his Station Inspector character, says Ross, who called it "a bit of a throwback. We started with a mustache from the World War I era — his character had been injured in the war — and the mustache was slightly bigger as would have been more popular then. And it reflects the fastidious nature of the station master's character. So we made sure it was very, very manicured and that not a single hair was out of place."

The mustache as a tonsorial telegraph of character gets more face time in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar." In one scene, Leonardo DiCaprio's Hoover upbraids an agent for sporting what would now be the most conservative slice of lip spinach and suggests that the agent might be better suited for the police force than the Bureau of Investigation.

But "J. Edgar's" strong suit, from a menswear perspective, is its keen focus on the wardrobes of two principal characters — Hoover and Clyde Tolson. From the time we first meet Hoover in 1919 until his death in 1972, the film required some 80 costume changes for DiCaprio.

To signify Hoover's climb up the career ladder — and the influence of Tolson (portrayed as a well-accessorized, exceedingly dapper fellow by Armie Hammer) — costume designer Deborah Hopper transitioned DiCaprio from single-breasted suits in brown nubby fabrics to double-breasted three-piece suits in shades of gray and navy blue. Subtle character details included a crisply folded white pocket square and a wristwatch worn with the face on the inside of the wrist.

It's not all an exercise in subtlety, either. In what's essentially a '30s version of the male movie makeover, Tolson takes Hoover to his tailor at Garfinckel's. There, Hoover gets his first taste of a custom-tailored, double-breasted suit and a new persona to go along with it as he decides between different permutations of his name (his full name was John Edgar Hoover) and signs the store's credit application as J. Edgar. At another point the two discuss — with disdain — Desi Arnaz's "tacky alligator shoes."

Hopper distinguished each decade's wardrobe by shifting the color palette, which, in a movie filled with flashbacks, helps locate scenes in time in a movie filled with flashbacks. "Hoover himself was impeccable," Hopper says in the movie's production notes. "He was always professional-looking and meticulous." The result is that though the subtle shades, textures and styles shift over the nearly 60 years covered by the film, the Hoover that audiences see is almost always wearing a suit and tie, paired with a crisp white dress shirt. And, though the basic outfit may stay the same, the shirt cuffs and collars keep pace with the times, making Hoover, Tolson and the cadre of suit-wearing bureau boys who surround them look like characters out a GQ flipbook of 20th century style.

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran took the same approach for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," a big-screen adaptation of John le Carre's novel set in 1974, which mines the minutiae of menswear solely to help underscore the different personalities of British intelligence agents.

For Gary Oldman's George Smiley character, Durran had a former Savile Row tailor create a gray, three-piece suit in the style of the 1950s (reasoning his character would have stuck with this style of suit over the years). Although Smiley was envisioned by director Tomas Alfredson as the kind of guy who would wear the same suit every day, "[We] figured we would probably benefit from the one change. So I found the darkest gray, most plain tweed available, and we made a sports jacket — in exactly the same pattern as the suit. The viewer might not even notice, but we realized we needed to do it for ourselves."

As Durran explains in the production notes, the discussion about Smiley's suit resulted in using visual clues to help differentiate the key players in what she calls the "sea of suits" that appear on-screen. Thus, one man smokes a pipe, another wears a bright pair of socks.

Because Alec Guinness' version of Smiley in a 1979 British TV miniseries wore distinctive eyeglasses, finding the right frames was important to Oldman, who reportedly found just the right vintage spectacles in L.A.

The current spate of movies might make it feel as if there's suddenly a newfound appreciation of the subtleties of menswear on the part of Hollywood costume designers. But Deborah Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, says it's what costume designers have been doing "for perpetuity."

"Go back to 'Ocean's Eleven' — both the new and the old versions — and 'Wall Street' and even back to westerns, which were all male and all in western gear. You'll see the same kind of nuances being used to distinguish one man from another," she says. "They'll wear their bandannas differently or their boots differently."

Trade the boots and bandannas for a business suit in the '20s or '30s, Landis says, "and some men will wear barrel cuffs, some will wear French cuffs, some will be wearing double vents, others single vents, others ventless. Some will have notch collars, some will have peak collars. Some will have two-button jackets, and others will have three-button jackets.

"Sometimes something like a pair of glasses will do it," she says. "Sometimes the way a man folds his handkerchief tells a story, whether he ties his tie in a single Windsor or double Windsor. These subtleties mean a lot to us. Sometimes the audience notices it, and other times they're affected by it even if they don't consciously notice it."

And chances are that this year, thanks to the heavily male-dominated casts of period movies like "The Artist," "J. Edgar," "Hugo" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," audiences aren't just going to notice a lot more of those subtle style cues — they're going to find them hard to miss.

adam.tschorn@latimes.com