Alright, it still might be a bit too early in the game to be getting excited about summer, but believe it or not, it is on the, albeit grey, wet and miserable, horizon.
That’s right daddio – if my calendar is to be believed, it’ll only be a mere couple of months before down jackets across the land will retire to the furthest corners of the wardrobe in favour of a dazzling array of summer shirtage (if your shirt collection can’t be described as ‘dazzling’, you’ve done something wrong).
With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at some of the finest sunshine-friendly shirting cinema has to offer. Solero’s at the ready gentlemen…
THE COEN BROTHERS, A SERIOUS MAN – 2009
First off, here’s a mezze of madras-scented wonderment courtesy of the Coen Brothers’ top-shelf black comedy A Serious Man.
I’ve written about this before, so I’ll keep the plot synopsis short and sweet – set in tail end of the 60s, A Serious Man chronicles the professional and personal descent of Larry Gopnik, and the ensuing spiritual crisis he finds himself in.
The madras shirt ruled the clobber-sphere with a breezy, cottony fist back in the 50s and 60s, and was the quintessential sartorial choice for the suburban American man who had it all. In fact, it’s probably just as much of a symbol of the American dream as the white picket fence or the rose garden. No doubt you’ll have seen countless grainy black-and-white photos of chipper Yanks stood outside their suburban homes wearing the humble madras shirt.
You also might know that the American dream is a bit-of a swizz, as evidenced by our mate Larry in A Serious Man. He has the nice house, he has the wife, the kids, he has the high-paying, fulfilling job, and yet, there’s something missing. Something he can’t put his finger on, no matter where he turns to (including and especially religion). He slowly realises that this ‘happy’, frictionless life has been entirely manufactured, its foundations shaky and indeterminable at best.
But at least he has nice shirts, which would be enough to stop most people’s existential moaning… right?
If your palate is craving more exotic madras flavour, head on over to this informative article written by esteemed scribe Sam Waller.
TSAI MING–LIANG, REBELS OF THE NEON GOD – 1992
If suburban alienation à la A Serious Man whets your proverbial whistle, may I suggest a healthy dollop of urban atomisation? No? Okay… errr… well, it’s a good job that Rebels of the Neon God, the debut feature of Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-Liang, has a real striking set of short sleeve denim shirts in it too.
A plot summary for any of Tsai’s films, which have been simultaneously been lauded and decried for their lack of narrative (his masterpiece 2003, Goodbye Dragon Inn, is literally a film about people watching a film) in equal measure, is pretty pointless, but here’s one anyway – Rebels follows an surly college-dropout who mopes about Taipei under the cloud of globalised urban gloom. Meanwhile, two young criminals cut about the city, going on all sorts of hijinks and lusting after girls.
The appearance of the denim shirt in Rebels of the Neon God, another Americana favourite, plays to the themes of the film too. See, up until the 80s, Taiwan was a strict authoritarian one-party state that didn’t take too kindly to outsiders. But after the suits in charge of things calmed down in the early 80s, they opened up the country to foreign markets. Needless to say, American businesses swooped in, created loads of jobs and pumped the country full of all manner of desirable goodies (American clobber being one). With hordes of Taiwanese folk heading to the big city, working ridiculous hours and living in tiny, cramped flats, people naturally began feeling more alone and alienated, directionless in a brave new world that had yet to be explained to them.
While all that makes it sound like a bad-vibes-snooze-a-thon, Rebels is anything but – it’s charming, funny and profound, and is definitely worth seeking out if you’re craving cinema a little different from what you’re used to.
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, THE MASTER – 2012
Next up, we’ve got a firm film school favourite – Paul Thomas Anderson’s dreamy and intoxicating The Master.
Another film that’s light on plot but heavy on atmosphere, The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell, a World War 2 veteran and crippling alcoholic who finds himself adrift in post-war America. After drunkenly stowing away on a boat, Freddie comes into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd, a supremely charismatic geezer and the figurehead of a mysterious new religion known only as The Cause (a thinly-veiled stand-in for Scientology).
There’s a myriad of different summer shirtage on display in The Master, but by for the most prominent is the Cuban shirt. Also known as spread collar or camp shirts, the Cuban shirt might be, for my money at least, the most summer-friendly shirt on the list.
Before they rocked up on the shores of the States, the Cuban shirt was a firm favourite among Cuban farmers. Thanks to the lightweight fabrics they were typically made out of, the boxy fits and the breezy, neck-cooling qualities of the open collars, farmers could endure long hours working in the blistering sun without fear of sweat-related injury.
Eagle-eyed and style-conscious Americans saw the laid-back quality of the Cuban shirt as emblematic of the new social and economic ‘freedoms’ of post-war USA.
After the Cuban Exile of 1959, many of the aforementioned Cuban farmers found themselves in Miami, where eagle-eyed and style-conscious Americans saw (somewhat ironically) the laid-back quality of the Cuban shirt as emblematic of the new social and economic ‘freedoms’ of post-war USA. They cast away the stuffy, uncomfortable, military-scented garb of the preceding decade and embraced comfort like never before.
I’m sure I can make another underdeveloped point about how the aspirational quality of post-war American garments belied the reality, but for your sake, I won’t. Instead I’ll just say if you’re interested in ogling some proper relaxed spread collar shirting while in the midst of an ambient existential breakdown, The Master is for you.
TAKESHI KITANO, HANA-BI (FIREWORKS) – 1997
If you’re into ultra-violent yakuza capers, touching love stories, deadpan comedy and incredibly sharp Japanese shirtage, you’re definitely going to enjoy Hana-Bi.
Written, directed, edited and staring Japan’s foremost polymath Takeshi Kitano, Hana-Bi is the tale of Yoshitaka, a brutal ex-copper, who robs a bank to (in no particular order) pay off his yakuza debts, care for his wife with terminal leukaemia and compensate his paralysed mate who sustained his injuries by Yoshitaka’s side.
Like most hastily-written plot descriptions, this does not do the film justice at all. It’s extremely funny, and possesses a strange, lyrical beauty that most films can’t even come close to. Hana-Bi eschews the traditional and tired cliches of wise-cracking characters, over-the-top, melodramatic storylines and blandly-shot gunplay in favour of static, pensive cinematography, poker-faced performances and explosions of colourful violence.
But what about the clobber? As you can (hopefully) see from the photos, Mr. Kitano is wearing a proper classy long sleeve spread collar shirt. A bit like the smarter cousin of the Cuban shirt, the long sleeve spread collar shirt is the epitome of laid-back luxury. The ones Takeshi wears in Hana-Bi are particularly special – they’re made by avant-garde tailor extraordinaire Yohji Yamamoto, the guy behind that adidas Y-3 stuff.
While these shirts weren’t explicitly designed for Hana-Bi, their appearance wasn’t a happy accident – Kitano had dipped his toes in Japanese menswear before, having modelled for Comme des Garçons in the early 90s, and Yamamoto had long since proven himself as a kino fanatic, appearing in Wim Wenders’ documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) and declaring himself “a Kitano nut” after the international success of Sonatine (1993). The two capitalised on their mutual admiration and went on to collaborate in the future, with Yamamoto designing the costumes for Brother (2000), Kitano’s English language debut, and Dolls (2002).
Anyway, the film is mega. You haven’t lived until you’ve watch a naïve yakuza goon take a chopstick to the eye socket.
DAVID CHASE, THE SOPRANOS – 1999-2007
Alright, I know The Sopranos isn’t a film, but it’s one of my favourite things ever and it’s my list so I’ll do as I please. And technically, in the age of binge-watching, there’s nothing stopping you from consuming all of it in one go like a film… all three days and fourteen hours of it.
For those who have somehow not seen it (what are you doing with your life?), The Sopranos portrays the trials and tribulations of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey-based Italian-American gangster who struggles to balance familial duties with the day-to-day stress of Mafia drudgery.
Throughout the series’ six season run, Tony frequently opts for the carefree stylings of the Hawaiian shirt.
Unsurprisingly, the Hawaiian shirt hails from the volcanic archipelago Hawaii. Legend has it that the folks on the island would fashion themselves lightweight shirts to wear in the scorching summer out of their wives’ patterned kimono fabric.
The Hawaiian shirt became a firm staple of American leisurewear, and has since been spotted on the torsos of freewheeling party monsters, perpetually stoned beach rats and, yep, Mafioso types.
Although they started off being sewn for personal use, by the 1930s these eye-catching shirts quickly enraptured the hearts and minds of the many American tourists visiting the island. It wasn’t long until business-savvy Hawaiians started flogging custom-made shirts to the Yanks, swapping out traditional kimono designs for iconography the Americans were more drawn to – iconography like cartoon surfers and always-hilarious images of lager bottles.
By the 50s, thanks to cheaper air travel, the Hawaiian shirt became a firm staple of American leisurewear, and has since been spotted on the torsos of freewheeling party monsters, perpetually stoned beach rats and, yep, Mafioso types.
It may seem like a strange choice of garment for dudes who’s profession mainly involves extorting schmucks, hijacking trucks and shattering kneecaps, as breezy, easy-going shirts featuring images of hula dancers and tropical locales aren’t known for their ability to strike fear in the hearts of… well… anyone, but, as the old saying goes, “the most dangerous man is always the most relaxed”.
Nobody actually said that. I made it up. You get the idea though.
That just about does it for this shirt-centric edition of Films and Things. Cheers for reading. If looking at all these sharply-dressed fictional characters has set your taste-buds ablaze for the sweet piquancy of a seriously slick summer shirt, that place called Oi Polloi has a fair few choice selections just waiting to be snagged.