How did Noah fasten his clothing? At my local upscale cineplex a display case always houses a few costumes featured in some major new release. Recently I studied the drab, rough-hewn tunic worn by Russell Crowe for at least forty days and forty nights in Darren Aronofsky’s controversial blockbuster. I leave it to others to ponder Aronofsky’s vision, and whether it’s compatible with the Biblical account of Noah and the flood. Me—I wanted to check out Noah’s buttons, or the lack thereof.
My fascination with buttons comes from having read a remarkable new book called The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat. Travel writer Meg Lukens Noonan (like me a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors) discovered that a fourth-generation tailor in Sydney, Australia had just made, for a customer with deep pockets, the world’s most sumptuous overcoat. Nothing gaudy, you understand. Tailor John H. Cutler just started with a rare and costly fabric (the fleece of a small, shy Peruvian critter called a vicuña), added a stunningly patterned silk lining (from top Italian designer Stefano Ricci), then finished off his creation with buttons molded from the horns of an Indian water buffalo by an English firm that has been doing this for 150 years. While chasing down every aspect of the fabulous coat, Noonan mulls over the fine art of bespoke tailoring. It’s in some ways the opposite of high fashion: those who’ve embraced bespoke don’t go in for flashy trends and the constant need to update one’s wardrobe. Bespoke garments, though exquisitely crafted, are subdued. And they’re intended to last for decades.
I learned from Noonan’s book about the grand tradition of Savile Row. Since the early nineteenth century, English gentlemen have come to this London street to be fitted for suits designed especially for them. Noonan vividly describes one establishment, Anderson & Sheppard, where “a hushed front room glows with an amber light, as if viewed through a glass of sherry.” Among its elite clientele have been some of the entertainment world’s most glamorous folk: Rudolph Valentino, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, even Marlene Dietrich, who famously favored man-tailored ensembles.
During the golden age of moviemaking, studios with well-appointed costume shops had their own version of bespoke tailoring. The stars were outfitted head to toe in garments specially made to suit their bodies as well as their roles. Such famous studio designers as Edith Head made a career out of fitting and flattering. Deborah Nadoolman (Raiders of the Lost Ark) has griped to me that, because of today’s lower budgets, a costume designer is now often treated as a “costumer,” whose job is to go out shopping for appropriate items.
In today’s world, where disposable fashion rules, few customers have the money and the patience to have their wardrobes made to order. That’s why the craftsmen to whom Noonan spoke (like those English button experts) are a dying breed. Still, there’s hope: the popularity of Downton Abbey has encouraged enthusiasts to seek out bespoke tailors and cobblers who can help transform them into English country gentlemen.
And what of Noah? In place of buttons, his tunic is closed with crude loops and tabs, quite appropriate since the first button-holes didn’t appear until the thirteenth century. I can’t imagine this highly individual garment on the rack at H&M. And it was surely hand-loomed and fitted to Crowe’s frame. So, although the look is hardly that of an English gentleman, it may be fair to call Crowe’s costume “bespoke.” Thanks to Noonan, I now get to ponder questions like these.
Meg Lukens Noonan will appear on my panel, ASJA Award-Winners: Making it from Pitch to Publish, at this year’s ASJA conference, coming up on April 24-26 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The public is cordially welcome.