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Style Setters
Words by Mr Colin McDowell

Hollywood loved the novels of Mr Somerset Maugham and adapted many - Of Human Bondage, Being Julia, The Constant Wife - into successful movies. Once as well-known as his peer Sir PG Wodehouse, his plays were sellouts in theatres in the West End and on Broadway. By the time he died in 1965, aged 91, he was a very wealthy man. One of the last great Edwardian dandies, Mr Maugham had the novelist's interest in what dress tells us of the wearer, and was wary of anything that might expose his secret homosexuality to the world beyond his personal circle. So there was no Wildean flamboyance, no careless sign of effeminacy in the extravagant knotting of a silk scarf, and certainly no deviation from the rigid rules of the upper class male's dress that lasted for well beyond the first 50 years of the 20th century. During that time, it was paramount to choose the right tailor (almost always your father's) and leave the decisions to him. Within every class, virtually all men dressed exactly the same, changing styles only in response to the demands of town or country living and the effects of the seasons.

Sir Gerald Kelly, The Jester (W. Somerset Maugham), 1911 © Tate, London 2011

But Mr Maugham, who envied the freedom of youth as he aged, moved with the times, especially when he was relaxing and entertaining the statesmen, artists, actors and politicians who visited his Riviera home, The Villa Mauresque. Safe in his own private world, particularly during the 1950s, he would be casual enough to wear white silk shirts and cotton trousers with espadrilles at the poolside, and ornately embroidered silk Chinese gowns and velvet slippers from Peel of London for dinner - which was always a formal affair regardless of the heat. But the style and attitude of Mr Maugham were never casual or careless.

It was almost a moral imperative to be dressed correctly at all times, and slackness was inevitably seen as an early sign of moral degeneracy - or even incipient madness

Even in the tropics, of which Mr Maugham was very fond, it was always a white suit in heavy linen, a shirt and tie, and well-polished formal brown shoes or even boots. Tie and jacket were rarely removed no matter how hot and steamy, and never in front of the ladies. It seems almost unbelievable to put oneself through so much agony merely for good form and propriety, but they were the two things demanded from the public appearance of the Englishman when abroad. It was almost a moral imperative to be dressed correctly at all times, and slackness was inevitably seen as an early sign of moral degeneracy - or even incipient madness.

Graham Sutherland, Somerset Maugham, 1949 © Tate, London 2011

Mr Maugham is perhaps best summed up in a famous painting by Mr Graham Sutherland, for which he chose to wear a richly coloured velvet smoking jacket and Gucci loafers. Sir Gerald Kelly, who had painted portraits of Mr Maugham throughout most of his life, commented that Mr Sutherland had made his old friend look "like an old Chinese madam in a brothel in Shanghai". Certainly, Mr Maugham in extreme old age was a far cry from the debonair, dandified young man in spats and white gloves, moustache carefully trimmed and brushed, who had been portrayed years before, but his style and grandeur were awe-inspiring, even for guests as high calibre as Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Noël Coward, who both knew the importance of appearance in the international world.

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