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11. October 2020

Silver Screen Revisited – Brideshead Revisited (1981)

by

Bob The wardrobe builder

Lumping Brideshead Revisited (BR) into our Silver Screen Revisited series makes sense logistically for us here at Mogg Towers, but it is a bit of a misnomer, as it was not a film, but a television serialisation of Evelyn Waugh’s eponymous 1945 novel. And, as I did with The Great Gatsby (TGG), I must admit that Brideshead is one of my favourite books.

Even a very superficial analysis of the novels reveals that both are literary masterpieces and share many common traits. Both are set in the 1920s, Brideshead in England, Gatsby in the U.S., and both capture the zeitgeist of that post-First-World-War period. Each of the oeuvres look at how the wealthy lived between the wars, and alcohol featured centrally in both novels. In BR, the main protagonist fights a constant battle with alcoholism (or dypsomania, as Waugh termed it). In TGG, Gatsby was a suspected bootlegger in prohibition-era America, where the wealthy were constantly flouting the 18th amendment to the US constitution by drinking copiously.

The screen adaptations of the books also share a common trait – both magnificently capture the vivid imagery and captivating prose which defines both of the excellent works of fiction on which they’re based. Each of the moving pictures go into meticulous detail and use the author’s prose liberally in the dialogue. Both works have a narrator who is a friend of the main character (Charles Ryder in BR and Nick Carraway in TGG). Both works also take their time and give the stories room to run and time to breathe – TGG (at 2 hours and 23 minutes) was quite long for a film in 1974, and BR, at eleven episodes totalling around 11 hours, really took it slowly!

From a classic menswear perspective, BR is lush with period wardrobe detailing from the 1920s. Without bombarding you with all the minutiae of “who wore what, when,” I’ll instead try and capture the broad strokes of the stylistic flourishes at play. I’ll also only focus on the first two or three episodes of the mini-series – this is when the friendship between the two main characters blooms, and when the most jolly passages occur. Those readers who know the story will tell you that as the story progresses it becomes increasingly tragic and very sad. A brilliant tale, to be sure, and worth watching from start to finish, but let’s instead just focus on the early, happier bits of the story. 

The main character, Lord Sebatian Flyte, is played by Anthony Andrews. Lord Flyte was described by his best friend (and the story’s narrator Charles Ryder) as “the most conspicuous man of his year [at Oxford] by reason of his beauty, and his eccentricities of behaviour,” which really does capture Sebastian perfectly. He carries a teddy bear, named Aloysius, with him most of the time. Beyond this, Charles, in a very short passage early in the story, sets out his friend’s impeccable dress sense. Charles describes Sebastian entering a room in “dove-grey flannel, white crêpe de Chine, [wearing] a Charvet tie, my tie as it happened, a pattern of postage stamps….” And, it is in this manner, in flannels, tweeds and other gorgeous fabrics (including linens in summer), that Sebastian dresses through those glorious first few episodes of the programme.

Sebastian’s trousers are capaciously cut, deeply-pleated, worn with braces or, when in more casual situations, held up by a tie worn as a belt. Speaking of neckwear, there’s a lot of striped, old-school ties sported throughout by the young undergraduates, Sebastian included. The jackets are mostly single-breasted, with two and three-buttons featuring most commonly, and ticket pockets wearing pride of place with generous flaps. Lapels are broad and generous. And, as was the style at the time, most suits were three-piece. The shirts are double-cuffed, most often with detachable club collars. 

All of this is also true for Charles, played by Jeremy Irons. The first thing that has to be noted is what a great friend Charles is (and what impeccable taste he has) to loan Sebastian a Charvet tie! Charles’s style, as with many of the other young men in the story, is similar to Sebastian’s (although sans teddy bear). When Charles first went up to Oxford, his cousin Jasper, who was in his fourth year at the university, attempted to take Charles under his wing and offer the younger man counsel. Jasper came across as a joyless, pompous snob. Nonetheless, he offered Charles what seems to me as sound, sensible advice regarding the correct sartorial approach to life at Oxford. He advised: “Dress as you do in a country house. Never wear a tweed coat and flannel trousers – always a suit. And go to a London tailor; you get a better cut and longer credit.”

Even with this good advice, Jasper turned out to be a bore, and one of my favourite scenes in the whole of the series proves this irrevocably. About one hour into the first episode (Et In Arcadia Ego), Jasper visits Charles in his rooms at Hertford College in Oxford, to admonish him for many things, including his standard of dress. In this scene, Charles sports a gorgeous light yellow tie with a dark paisley pattern with – wait for it – a banana knot! He looks fantastic, elegant and at ease, much more worldly than his elder cousin, and quite rightly rejects Jasper’s rebukes out of hand. A banana knot – can you believe it?!    

Another striking thing about the style portrayed through the series is that formal dress is featured constantly. Not only back tie, but also white tie, which I suppose was a feature of that era, especially with all those very formal dinners and other gatherings back then.  

As always, here is how we would dress the characters if the House of Mogg were asked to. I’d love to see Sebastian and Charles in the high-buttoning, single-breasted one button suits that we are offering (check our Tobin model). They’d look smashing. But, more importantly, I’d love to see them in more colourful shirts – especially the lovely pastels in pink, lilac, apple green, and yellow that are among my favourites. Not unlike the shirts that Gatsby had made for him in London in that same era!

Still, it would be churlish not to hold up BR as one of the most stylish and elegant screen adaptations of a superb work of literature. If you find yourself with 11 hours to spare (and, who doesn’t in these days?), you will find fewer more pleasurable ways to spend your time. It is very binge-worthy! BTWB/YYS/MM