Thursday, February 23, 2006

Like grown-ups

Films of Capote and Murrow make us long for the days of the starched white shirt.

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

"GOOD Night, and Good Luck," like all of the films nominated for best picture this year, purposefully raises a lot of issues — about the politics of journalism, the reach of government into personal lives, the role fear plays in public policy. But watching David Strathairn's Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues at CBS struggle with the implications of taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a more immediate, if not more important, question arises:

Why don't men wear white tailored shirts and ties anymore?

When George Clooney's Fred Friendly strips down to his shirt sleeves and hunches beside Murrow in the dim light of the studio, he all but glows. You can practically hear the sizzle of the starch as the iron pressed it into the cotton, smell the clean hot bleachy steam.

Forget Clooney; women were swooning for the shirt.

In "Capote," similar styles conjured nostalgia for the simple dark suits and A-line dresses of the late '50s/early '60s, before denim ruled the world and spandex was but a gleam in DuPont's eye. And the hair, the Cary Grant patent-leather hair. As Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman's hair was as sleek as an altar boy's; you could see the tracks left by the teeth of the comb. In "Good Night, and Good Luck," the Brylcreem was so thick, it practically cast halos.

As the "Capote" detective investigating the Clutter murder, Chris Cooper radiated righteous sexy competence from the crown of his hat down to his unfiltered cigarette. So cigarettes are bad for us, but what about hats? Whatever happened to hats? Or ties? Or shoes that don't go from the office to the tennis court to the rock-climbing wall. Remember when people dressed for work? When men carried white handkerchiefs?

And it isn't just the men. Patricia Clarkson and Catherine Keener fill out the screen and their sweaters so perfectly it is difficult to suppress a sob of longing for those pre-Old Navy days when women wore clothes that actually fit them, clothes that were designed for women, as opposed to 14-year-old girls.

Yes, yes, let us certainly discuss the shifting role of journalism in society, or the line between artistry and deception, but can we also think about dressing like grown-ups again?

This may not be precisely the message either set of filmmakers was trying to send, but perhaps not so far off either. Both "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" deal with responsibility — personal and institutional. Both occur in times when journalism fueled the cultural conversation in a way it rarely does today, when people like Murrow and Capote had a star power now more usually associated with actors or "American Idol" winners. Serious times when, for better or worse, society policed itself more strictly, and that showed in the fashions.

"There was a desire then to be grown-up," said Louise Frogley, who designed the costumes for "Good Night, and Good Luck." "It was considered a good thing. Now everyone wants to be 10. You see guys on skateboards and they're in their late 20s or 30s."

Frogley and her staff worked with extensive archival photographs of Murrow, Friendly and the staff of CBS to re-create the world of the McCarthy era. Many of the suits in the movie were original, but Frogley had to have the shirts made — much of the film is in close-up and a frayed cuff or collar wouldn't do.

Then she had to teach the actors how to wear them.

The cotton shirts were much heavier than the men were used to, and more fitted in the shoulders and neck. The pants were worn high at the waist, which some of the actors, accustomed to low-riders, could not get used to.

"I had to sew suspenders into some so they wouldn't tug their waistlines down," Frogley said.

The hardest thing, she said, was the hats. "The men didn't know how to wear them, didn't know how to put them on or take them off, didn't know what to do with them when they were off. I had to give individual hat classes. They had no idea what to do."

Button-down era
There is no denying that the fashions of the '50s and even the early '60s enforced a social conformity and class system that took the combined efforts of the youth, civil rights and feminist movements to break through. And no one wants to return to a time when women couldn't have their own credit cards and a gay man in Kansas was suspect because he was a gay man in Kansas, but conformity remains, alas, the fashion norm, remade into skateboard wear and hip huggers. So surely it is possible to have lovely button-down shirts without a horrible button-down culture.

"There was a level of formality then," said Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who designed the costumes for "Capote." "It made us more respectful of each other, I think. Now we have this whole level of casualness that shows in how we carry ourselves, how we talk to each other, how we conduct business. We have given up that respect."

Working with director Bennett Miller, she said, it was quickly clear that the palette of "Capote" was to be cold and sparse, "the color of fall turning to winter, of Capote before he became this very flamboyant figure." And despite the silks and feathers he would affect in later years, the writer was, at heart, a Brooks Brothers boy.

"He wore khakis and it was scandalous," she said, "or a turtleneck sweater, but still it was all very classic, very timeless shapes."

After immersing themselves in the styles of more adult-oriented eras, both women watch hopefully for signs of a shift in street fashion.

"I see a resurfacing of formality," said Walicka-Maimone, who lives in Williamsburg, an artists' enclave of Brooklyn. "I went to get coffee the other day and saw a rock 'n' roll type wearing a striped shirt, a dotted tie, dress pants, and he looked fabulous. Maybe there is a response to all this casualness."

"I wouldn't have wanted to be around back then," said Frogley, "particularly in America. But I wouldn't be surprised if we came back to three-quarter skirts. Very few women can wear those low-rider jeans well, so three-quarter skirts would be very nice."

Those, and the bright white it's-all-under-control shirts, please. With a striped silk tie. For a little color.

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