Let us all take a quick lesson from the late Duke of Edinburgh in how to wear a suit. Consider this image of him from 2011, in a handsome blue-grey number. HRH was 90 at the time, an age when most of us would be happy to be upright. The Duke is not only vertical but crisp as an ironed handkerchief.
Unlike some men half his age, he has a discernible waist — a credit to good genetics, an active life, and his tailor, John Kent of Kent & Haste. The shoulders of the suit, which have a bit of structure but are softly downward-sloping rather than boxy, help there too.
Next details: a full break in the trousers, and two-inch cuffs. The latter are in style now, the former not. Too bad. A little extra fabric above the shoes conveys ease and conceals the ankle, not always our best feature as we mature.
There’s two buttons on the jacket with a high roll on the lapel (that is, the lapels come together a few inches above the top button). This makes the jacket look longer and, again, more relaxed. Overall the suit, particularly in the trousers, is looser than most men prefer now. HRH liked a high waist and lots of drape. The overall impression is that the man is absolutely comfortable. Which is what we all say we want.
The Duke dressed very well. I do not say this as a royal fanboy. As an American, I can take or leave the Windsors. I have no opinion on the meaning of Prince Philip, am bored by The Crown, and think Hilary Mantel got it about right, in her brilliant and scandalous essay “Royal Bodies”, when she wrote that asking whether the monarchy should be dispensed with is akin to asking whether or not we should dispense with pandas. “Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everyone stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.”
Prince Philip, of his own free will, chose a life of being stared at. At times it chafed him, but he looked good doing it, which should count for something.
When it comes to looking good in clothes, the Duke started the game with three of the most important boxes ticked, through no effort of his own. He was good looking, he was tall, and he was very rich. Looking at a lifetime of snapshots, though, you see he had a real talent for conveying the sense that he was exactly where he belonged, even when he was just standing around doing not very much, something his job required him to do an immense amount of. Think this is easy? Call to mind some of the other men in the Duke’s family.
Here is a shot, from the 1950s I assume, of HRH kitted out for a visit to a coal mine in Scotland. A perfect opportunity for awkwardness. Recall all of the photos you have seen of politicians in hi vis clothing, helmets and protective goggles, gawking like lost souls at some industrial process. Now look at the Duke, looking like he was born in a helmet with a lamp on it. The whole scene could have been a grotesque parody of feudalism and noblesse oblige, a public relations disaster. For all I know it was. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the man.
The real art of being the Duke, though, was to make formal clothes look informal. This explains why, since his death, the most reproduced single photo of Prince Philip is of him standing on the bumper of a Range Rover, in tweed jacket and tan trousers. He is at the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Pocket hankie, white, a neat square. Shoes black not brown. A club tie in a tight knot. A proper outfit, for certain, but standing there, hand on hip, he could be John Wayne leaning against a fence post. Easy as can be.
Here he is again, in a dark double-breasted suit and black oxfords, for some reason throwing a javelin as school children look on. Give me that, young man, let me show you how it’s done. And there goes the idea that a suit is constricting, uncomfortable, impractical. In a good suit you are ready for anything. Similarly, we are told, a tie superfluous, hierarchical and suffocating. Around the Duke’s neck, they were nothing more or less than decorative, which after all was the whole idea, once.
He had his own style, and stuck with it. There is a charming black and white photo of him in his twenties, standing seriously in front of a propeller plane. If I could buy the whole outfit, I would. The jacket looks like a very thick Donegal tweed, with lots of texture; there is that high roll again. The trousers are flat-front flannel and the tie has bold stripes, against a plain white shirt. All of it looks completely contemporary.
And here he is, 70 years later, next to his wife, in another heavy, textured jacket of similar cut (though, in a concession to history, with a single button this time). Plain shirt, bold tie. The Duke knew what he liked, which must have helped, given that he and his family had to serve, absurdly, as a national Rorschach blot, bearing the projected needs and anxieties of an increasingly neurotic nation. We all have our work to do. Best to dress for it.
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