Lately, the jaded eyes aimed at the red carpet have turned from all-too-familiar Hollywood to … the A list Brits. And we’re talking about the men here, not the women, since all the real clothing changes, action, and money are in menswear these days.
American actors may smolder, strut, even toothily smile (think Tom Cruise) on major red carpets—but British actors tread lightly. And carry a big impact. With incredible posture, they turn their heads only a few degrees, as if donning top hats; hands stiffly at sides, gliding all the while with aristocratic grace (it’s in the blood) and the slight hauteur of having been raised in a monarchy; the opposite of good ole American Huckleberry Finn hang-looseness and aw-shucks-ness.
Perhaps this is why the sight of George Clooney or Matt Damon or Ryan Reynolds or Ben Affleck grinning and waving—looking handsome, strong—and happily famous in their Armani, Prada, Gucci, Brunello, Burberry, or Zegna tuxes or suits makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. But that feeling pales compared to just a glimpse at Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Craig, Kit Harington, Eddie Redmayne, Idris Elba, Colin Firth, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hardy, Jude Law, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christian Bale, or James McAvoy—in the same labels, mind you—sporting a silent sizzle of elegance, a sexy reserve (and reserve is sexy), and the best worldwide tailoring fame can buy. “No matter what you say, “says one international source, “the best tailors are in England. They know how to make it fit.”
And lately, that fit is tight.
Let’s face it: British actors appear better dressed on red carpets than American male stars do. Why? Is it the fact that many of them attended posh private schools like Eton and Oxford? Or does the stiff upper lip thing extend to posture and a straight back? They never smile, but stare down the camera like it’s a fox on a hunt in Downton Abbey. In fact, although they’re mostly wearing very slim cut tailored-to-an-inch-of-their-lives Italian suits and tuxes, there’s something of the actual air of the men of Downton Abbey about them. You even expect British male stars to arrive on the red carpet accompanied by a large hound and a distant horn. The fog, though, will be provided by the lighting man.
Or it could have something to do with British acting training being from the outside in: the physical before emotional (whereas their American counterparts are schooled in Stanislavski’s Method—going deep inside to find the truth of your character). The Brits seem to exercise a lot more control over their gestures and movement on the red carpet: they don’t quite seem as desperate for a close up. They almost look embarrassed to be famous. Next awards show, take a gander at Tom Hardy or Tom Hiddleston with their turned down eyes, almost blushing. It’s very charming. And of course we’re familiar with the history of British charm: it all started with Cary Grant: the man who figured out how to charm Hollywood with his ultra-ultra British-ness.
“I think that Brits in general have formal style ingrained in their culture. It’s something they grow up with,” says celebrity stylist Ilaria Urbinati. She should know: she dresses Tom Hiddleston (as well as all-American boys Bradley Cooper, Chris Evans, Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, Armie Hammer, Casey Affleck, Will Arnett, Will Forte, etc.). “Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne are both Eton boys and both went to Cambridge. They grew up in fancy uniforms. To guys like them, real men dress well.”
“The culture of Savile Row is also at play here,” says fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, who’s resided in both London and New York. A history of Savile Row tailoring could shift the whole image for a guy. Let’s face it, Brits didn’t grow up in jeans and t-shirts. “British men understand the value of wearing a suit that is perfectly fit—it will remarkably improve one’s physique. By contrast, American men perhaps feel it is not so masculine to care about their suit size—and whether a two- or three-button jacket will make them appear fitter and taller in photographs. Because of the culture of dressing in the U.K., these things matter.”
“To American men,” laughs Urbinati, “real men don’t care about clothes. It’s considered less masculine to care or to give up comfort for fine clothes.”
Of course, all of British manly culture is built on the monarchy, history, formality, manners, and education. American masculinity is based on cowboys, strong silent loners, corporate power—and comfort. And the imprint of one’s heroes and personal icons plays a role—a big role—in how one sees one’s self. “Our heroes growing up were the Fonz in a leather jacket and James Dean,” Urbinati points out. “It’s a totally different way to grow up. To the Brits, their hero is James Bond, a guy who gets into a brawl then fixes his shirt cuffs.” Yes, Daniel Craig and his all-Tom Ford sleek wardrobe appears as stiff as a well-trained Remains of the Day butler even while he’s karate-chopping Javier Bardem. “It’s just a difference of viewpoint and of manners,” she reiterates. “American men are more crass and so is their style. Brits are more refined—even the ones without wealth have a Dickensian style by nature.”
“Yes, most every British man grows up idolizing James Bond,” adds Cosgrave. “And this is Sean Connery’s suave James Bond who was initially, in the words of Cubby Broccoli, a rough diamond who was groomed to play the part. He was sent to Ian Fleming’s tailor, Anthony Sinclair, and told to sleep in the suits that were made to measure for him so that they would become his “second skin.” British men of a certain class aspire to own a few things—and one of them is a Savile Row suit.”
American men? Corn fed on Levi’s, Calvin Klein t’s, sneakers or cowboy boots, and leather jackets. Think Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Brando in The Wild One. Are they not the icons of American masculinity? Okay, throw in Steve McQueen in just about anything, for good measure.
Or is it possible the cliché of “the accent” trickles down to affect style perceptions as well? Lord knows Americans have always revered British accents—particularly upper class ones—since we’re not supposed to have a class system here. “When I would call in clothes for American stars,” says one former editor/stylist for a men’s magazine, “I’d get a lot of ‘We don’t have anything now.’ When I would call for the Brits, we’d get every suit we wanted. All the brands are in love with them!”
The year Matthew McConaughey was nominated for an Academy Award for The Dallas Buyer’s Club, he donned a lot of colored dinner jackets and jewel-tone suits. And maybe looked a slight bit foppish. On the other hand, Idris Elba, nominated for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, wore jewel-tone velvet suits and was lauded for his fabulous style.
Or maybe it’s about intensity? Somberness? Whatever it is—a number of things, likely, or all of the above—American male movie stars: move over! Or get a new stylist, tailor, groomer, walking instructor, movement teacher—or accent. Or all of the above.