As a society obsessed with novelty and hyperbole, we seem to anoint a new “style icon” on a weekly basis, more often even than we change chancellors of the exchequer. Recently we have bowed down before Harry Styles, who seems to have slept in his grandmother’s laundry basket; Tom Holland, awkward out of his Spider-Man suit; and Timothée Chalamet, a good-looking young man but one who thinks that a luxuriant mane and a flash of nipple discharges his sartorial duties.
It is wearying because British gentlemen’s tailoring is some of the best in the world, and there is no shortage of prominent Britons who wear it not just well but immaculately. Our greatest designers are steeped in the traditions of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, know the value of high-quality cloth, and yet are able to subvert all this with light-hearted touches when they wish. It makes us a country not short of true style icons.
Having examined some tailoring deities already, such as our current sovereign, King Charles III, and our most elegant prime minister, Anthony Eden, I want to take a look at another great Briton of ineffable style: actor, bon viveur and indomitable survivor Peter O’Toole. His career spanned more than half a century and took in unforgettable stage and screen roles, but he was known, too, as a the perfect chat show guest, relaxed, reluctantly indiscreet and always well-dressed.
O’Toole came to the spotlight with certain advantages. Tall (6’2”) and slender by nature, he developed a well-educated drawl with only a trace of the wild Irish roots he so cherished. As a youth he was not only handsome but beautiful, fair-haired and blue-eyed: as Noël Coward remarked after seeing Lawrence of Arabia: “If he had been any prettier it would have been Florence of Arabia.”
O’Toole knew the value of classic tailoring to complete his image as a world-weary but charming raconteur. Until the end of his life he would always be immaculate in black tie for awards ceremonies, the wolfish grin hinting at the best after-party you would ever attend. In the 1960s, as his fame first grew, he wore the uniform of his caste very well: slim-fitting suits, plain shirts and dark ties, seemingly the drab workwear of a salaryman but somehow, on him, elevated to the level of sharp-dressed playboy.
As he became more eminent, with magnificent roles in The Lion in Winter and Goodbye, Mr Chips, he allowed a more foppish side to emerge. He already smoked cigarettes through a holder, using it as a constant prop when interviewed on television (those were freer days), and this flicker of loucheness was burnished with an occasional moustache, a whimsical silk bow tie and a fine head of hair he sometimes allowed to become full and leonine.
O’Toole was a man who knew the value of habitual wear of a suit. It was so common an outfit for him, without becoming anything as vulgar as a trademark, that the viewer took it for granted. There he is, one thought, in a good suit, no surprise, he always looks smart.
All of this added up to an exceptionally stylish appearance, and as he aged he might experiment with a cravat, a jaunty fedora or, particularly, a pale waistcoat under a dark suit. He managed to create the impression of a sophisticated man about town who was dropping in to media appearances before going on to something more chic and exciting afterwards. But one felt honoured to have him make an appearance at all.
That Peter O’Toole lived until 81 was a remarkable feat. Here was a man who had drunk with Burton, Harris and Reed, though he had to cut back severely in the 1970s after having his pancreas and much of his stomach removed. But the pattern of rackety, bohemian but deadly charming elegance was set. Well into his 60s and 70s, you can see him on chat shows with much younger actresses and he manages to take them in his thrall without seediness.
It seems a significant task to draw lessons from Peter O’Toole’s life in tailoring and style. Find suits that fit you, and wear them often; a prop, like O’Toole’s cigarette holder, can give you a distraction as well as a physical catchphrase; and never, ever take anything too seriously. But his gift and his iconic status went so much further than that. He knew who he was, or, rather, who he wanted to be, and his life as Peter O’Toole was possibly his greatest single performance.