Dr. Gale

We’re now well-and-truly on the countdown to publication of the book, which is a little over a week away. You can get a copy here. As a very brief taster, I thought I’d write a quick post on the television series that gives Chapter 4 its title, Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir, better known in the anglophone world as The Avengers. It ran from 1961 to 1969, and I think it’s fair to say that it is now firmly woven into the fabric of how we look back at the nineteen sixties, along with miniskirts, the Beatles, and Vietnam. When I was growing up in the seventies, any mention of the series would always elicit the comment “ah yes, kinky boots!” Today, people would append, “Emma Peel” to this. But although Emma Peel is the best known female sidekick of suave British agent John Steed, she wasn’t the one with the kinky boots. That was Dr. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman.

It’s hard to overemphasize how much of a departure Gale was for television in 1962, when she first appeared in the series. She was in her early thirties, which was older than most female characters in similar detective series, had a PhD in anthropology, and had grown up in Africa. More to the point, she could fight, hand-to-hand, and shoot. She was Steed’s partner, not a decorative appendage. Her leather outfits may have had a fetishistic edge to them, but they were also eminently practical for someone who was using judo moves to throw bad guys around. And yes, she also wore boots, but they were the more masculine styles that were common in the early years of the Sixties, when fashion boots were used to challenge and contrast the hyper feminine fashions of the previous decade.

The book gets into this in a lot more detail, but for now I just wanted to post this picture as a counterpoint to the previous post’s discussion of where movies like X-Men: First Class, get sixties fashions wrong. Yes, later in the decade there were tiny skirts and leg-hugging boots, but back in 1963 the emphasis was upturning convention. Cathy Gale led the way for the Emma Peels of later years.

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Purr: The Avengers – De Wrekers

All in the details

I just returned from a visit to the Motherland, where I discovered, among other things, that someone has made a musical based on ‘The Liver Birds,’ a popular BBC sitcom that ran from 1969 to 1979, although in all honesty its glory days were in the first half of the nineteen seventies. The novel aspect of the Liver Birds was that it took a popular trope of that time – young people leaving home and striking out on their own – and applied it to a pair of single women, Sandra and Beryl, sharing a flat in Liverpool. It also happens to be a goldmine for anyone interested in the fashions of the time, as the two style-conscious leads spend their time in a succession of eye-watering outfits. This is especially true in the early episodes, which feature hot-pants and boots quite heavily.

I had planned to write a whole post on the Liver Birds and what it tells us about early seventies Britain, but then I realized that it would,most likely end up sounding exactly like the post I did a few weeks back on the year 1971. So instead, I was inspired by the sheer period perfection of the above image, taken from the musical, Liver Birds Flying Home, to write an article about how TV shows and movies that are trying to capture the look of the past get the costumes, and in particular the boots, right or wrong. In doing so, I am trying my best to channel my friend Bruce, whose encyclopedic knowledge of such matters would undoubtedly result in a better post. Go take a look at his blog if you want to see what I mean.

Let’s start by going back to the year 1963, as portrayed in X-Men: First Class (2011). This one is definitely a bit of a miss. It may seem a bit picky to take issue with a movie that posits the involvement of mutants in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the costumes – whether the mini-skirt and boots combos of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Moira (Rose Byrne), Angel’s (Zoe Kravitz) go-go dancer outfit, or the stocking boots worn by Emma Frost (January Jones), the fashions are a good 5-8 years off the mark. There were boots and minis around in 1963, but the skirts were longer and the boots nowhere near as tight-fitting as seen here. The early sixties fashion boots were intended to provide a relatively masculine counterpoint to the prevailing fashions of the previous decade, and were more likely to be paired with a rugged tweed suit in what was known as the ‘sportif’ look. X-Men: First Class is showing us a shorthand view of what sixties fashion is perceived to be, rather than what it actually was.

Jumping forward a few years brings us to Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Gus Van Sant’s tale of a crew of drug addicts robbing pharmacies and hospitals in the Pacific Northwest in 1971. This is a serious piece of movie making, starring Matt Dillon and featuring a cameo by William Burroughs. The two main female characters, played by Kelly Lynch and a very young Heather Graham wear pitch-perfect outfits of miniskirts and knee-length boots that are very similar to those in X-Men First Class, but are actually correct for that time. What’s particularly striking is that those fashions were not at all popular in 1989, but would become so over the next 5 years, initially in the dance clubs of the early nineties before becoming absorbed into mainstream fashion around the middle of the decade. So the costume designer for the movie, Beatrix Aruna Pastor, deserves double kudos. Plus any movie that features Desmond Dekker’s Israelites is alright by me.

Onwards to another account of the seedy underbelly of the early seventies, in this case the early history of the porn industry in New York, as shown in HBO’s drama series, The Deuce. As I mentioned a few posts back, the hot pants and boots combo quickly went from the height of fashion at the end of the sixties to an almost irreversible association with sex workers by the seventies, and this is certainly evident from The Deuce‘s depiction of Times Square, circa 1973. If you were a drug-addled hooker of this era, then cheap vinyl boots and lacing, which would be dead as a fashion doornail within a year, were  likely to be your footwear of choice. A prime example are the white lace-up boots worn by fresh-faced Lori (Emily Meade), new in town from the Midwest and looking to upgrade from streetwalker to pornstar. But the series also gets the non sex-worker fashions right, such as the boots worn by Andrea (Zoe Kazan) the estranged wife of Vincent Martino (James Franco). A beaten-up pair like this (see image on left), probably the height of fashion a few years earlier, but now too expensive for a working-class Brooklyn girl to replace, is again a spot-on costume choice.

Staying in New York, and in 1973, we have another HBO series, Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated Vinyl, which lasted only one season before cancellation. To be honest, there’s always a risk in trying to mix fictional characters with depictions of real bands (American Dreams anyone?), especially if the bands in question are so iconic that their fictional depictions can’t help but fall short. To add to the problems, the fictional acts included the world’s least convincing punk band, the Nasty Bits, who were not only awful, but also about 3 years before their time. But it was still sad that Vinyl got cancelled, because some of the performances, notably those of Ray Romano and Bobby Canavalle, were brilliant. And on the costume front there was Juno Temple, as A&R assistant Jamie Vine, in period-appropriate platform boots. These were probably a year or two early, and also a rarity in the USA, but perhaps you’d expect that sort of cutting edge fashion from someone working in a record company in NYC. Anyway, Vinyl gets the thumbs-up for this.

Not so Rush (2013), Ron Howard’s account of the epic rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1970s. On a previous iteration of this blog, I went off on the scene, set in 1974, where Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) meets his future wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) for the first time. It’s 1974 and they have her in a stunning period outfit of a floppy hat and suede coat with a fur trim, befitting the fact that Miller was a bona fide seventies supermodel. The costumes were designed by Frida Giannini, who is the creative director at Gucci, and they’re based on period designs from Gucci’s archives, which is all well and good. And when Wilde’s booted legs appear over Hemsworth’s shoulders the first time they meet, all seems good. They’re kinda baggy in the leg, and ’74 is the year when these looser-fitting boots came into fashion for the first time. They’re also platforms, which is still OK – platforms were at the peak of their popularity then, and there were a few that had this looser leg. But stiletto heels? With platform soles in the first half of the 1970s? They should be stack heels. You could make a case for stilettos if this was 1978, but the boots that Wilde is wearing are pure post-millennial.

Which brings us to The Americans, the FX network’s drama about KGB deep-cover agents in America during the early 1980s. Keri Russell, who plays one of the Russian agents, gets to wear a wide variety of period outfits. The one pictured on the right is a good example. The overall silhouette, with a wide-shouldered blouse and tapered skirt, is classically eighties. Strictly speaking, it ought to be paired with pumps or ankle boots, but contemporary images and mail order catalogs clearly show that the knee-length boots that are more typically associated with the late seventies remained popular through to at least 1983/84. So it would not be surprising for a woman in her early forties (the age of Russell’s character) to own at least one pair. This outfit was worn in Season 1 of the Americans, which is set in 1981, so I think we can say that the costume designer, Jenny Gering, got things absolutely right here. Also, for those of a nerdy disposition, this is a behind-the-scenes shot; the smartphone Russell is carrying is not part of the outfit.

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