March 22, 2009

PEELING OFF THE TRENCH COATS

The crime and espionage adventurers of the post-war era were often found in cramped little, private offices. Tucked way in the back, up flights of stairs, they sat at desks in dark rooms and watched the ice melt under bourbon for clues like one might study tea leaves. These were noirish, manly men with trench coats, 45s or snub-nosed 38s, who seemed determined to charge ahead in thankless jobs, behind in their rent, never to rise above the seedy streets to join the world of their wealthy clients. This was the adventurer of the 40s-50s, reflecting, I believe, the underlying suburban gloom that was dying for the freedom represented by Hugh Hefner, the pill, and the coming youth movement of the 1960s. The youth of the late 50s and early 60s ushered in new attitudes about lifestyle. They rejected the drudgery of the grey flannel suit world and embraced a sense of playfulness and joy that manifested throughout the Arts. Off came the trench coats. International, larger-than-life spies replaced the private eyes, and drew on the traditions of men's adventure, cliffhanger serials, wealthy detective/playboys, and science fiction. Adventurers looked for new apartments with high ceilings and rotating beds, and found something new in their fight against crime- Style!

THE AVENGERS
The Avengers began as a program, as Patrick Macnee has been quoted to describe, about "cigarettes and dirty macs." The scripts had the characters
lurking about in alleys dressed in trench coats and fighting criminals and spies. But the cast and crew knew they could push things a bit further. Macnee was asked to develop his screen persona to be more interesting and way out. Macnee describes in his book, The Avengers and Me, that he began to create a suave man of leisure- a quality of dandyism and Eduardian perfection- a well-dressed fop of an image to veil the shrewd spy of a man within. Drawing on memories of his father, his Navy CO, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Macnee created his timeless alter-ego, John Steed. With clothes designed by Pierre Cardin, Steed's double-breasted suits, bowler hat, and gadget-umbrellas became one of the most iconic outfits in spy fiction. Pierre Cardin received prominent screen credit, as James Chapman points out in Saints and Avengers, establishing the show as a launchpad for direct product placement and consumer culture. In 1963, Macnee was voted one of the Ten Best-Dressed Men in the World, and was part of a Pierre Cardin collection based on his character.


Macnee contributed even more to The Avengers' style when he suggested leather for his female partner, played by Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore/Goldfinger). Setting the tone that would be repeated with his future partners, Blackman's Cathy Gale was a powerful, liberated woman of her times. An accomplished academic, author, and martial arts expert, her leather jumpsuits and boots added a fetishist quality to the show and caused quite a stir in the culture. Macnee writes about her catsuit, "Lit and oiled, it can be a second skin, and hugely erotic. At the time it was seen as something frightfully naughty. We knew that, of course. I like to think that we went for it because it was a fetish." And addressing the many moments that Steed came to rescue of his tied-up partners, "We used bondage... we suggested bondage. We implied everything on that show, but mainly we used humour. Without humour none of it would have worked." The stylish combination of Steed's traditional bowler and umbrella with the sensual and modern power of Cathy Gale was a pop sensation. And like many pop sensations of the times, the actors were invited to record a number of records- resulting in one memorable cult classic, Kinky Boots. It's interesting to see how the lyrics poked fun at consumerism while celebrating the fashion at the same time.


KINKY BOOTS LYRICS
Her: Everybody's going for those kinky boots, kinky boots,
(Boop boop)
Him: Kinky boots,
Him: It's a manly kind of fashion that you borrowed from the brutes,
Her: Borrowed from the brutes,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots.
Her: Fashion magazines say wear 'em,
Him: And you rush to obey like the women in a harem.

Her: Full length, half length,
Him: Fully fashion calf length,
Her: Brown boots, black boots,
Him: Patent leather jackboots,
Her: Low boots, high boots,
Him: Lovely lanky thigh boot,
Her: We all dig those boots.

Her: Everybody's crazy for those kinky boots, kinky boots,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots,
Him: And whether you're in evening dress or bathing suits,
Her: You wear boots, boots, kinky boots.

(Boop boop, boop boop)

Her: There are twenty million women wearing kinky boots, kinky boots,
Him: Puss in boots,
Him: Footwear manufacturers are gathering the fruits,
Her: Gathering the fruits,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots.

Her: Advertising men say try 'em,
Him: And you all run amok like a flock of sheep to buy 'em.

Her: Sweet girls, street girls,
Him: Frumpy little beach girls,
Her: Square girls, cool girls,
Him: Sexy little schoolgirls,
Her: Maiden aunties,
Him: Major debutantes,
Her: They all dig those boots.

Her: Everybody's rushin' for those Russian boots,
Him: Prussian boots,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots,
Both: Cover up those slender little tender foots with kinky slinky,
Him: Leather is so kinky,
Her: Come and get those kinky boots, boots, kinky boots. Her: Everybody's going for those kinky boots, kinky boots,
(Boop boop)
Him: Kinky boots,
Him: It's a manly kind of fashion that you borrowed from the brutes,
Her: Borrowed from the brutes,
Her: Kinky boots.
Her: Fashion magazines say wear 'em,
Him: And you rush to obey like the women in a harem.

Her: Full length, half length,
Him: Fully fashion calf length,
Her: Brown boots, black boots,
Him: Patent leather jackboots,
Her: Low boots, high boots,
Him: Lovely lanky thigh boot,
Her: We all dig those boots.

Her: Everybody's crazy for those kinky boots, kinky boots,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots,
Him: And whether you're in evening dress or bathing suits,
Her: You wear boots, boots, kinky boots.

(Boop boop, boop boop)

Her: There are twenty million women wearing kinky boots, kinky boots,
Him: Puss in boots,
Him: Footwear manufacturers are gathering the fruits,
Her: Gathering the fruits,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots.

Her: Advertising men say try 'em,
Him: And you all run amok like a flock of sheep to buy 'em.

Her: Sweet girls, street girls,
Him: Frumpy little beach girls,
Her: Square girls, cool girls,
Him: Sexy little schoolgirls,
Her: Maiden aunties,
Him: Major debutantes,
Her: They all dig those boots.

Her: Everybody's rushin' for those Russian boots,
Him: Prussian boots,
(Boop boop)
Her: Kinky boots,
Both: Cover up those slender little tender foots with kinky slinky,
Him: Leather is so kinky,
Her: Come and get those kinky boots, boots, kinky boots.


EMMA PEEL

American audiences were introduced to The Avengers as Steed took on a new partner, Emma Peel, in 1965. The producers were literally looking for a character with "man appeal," "m-appeal," thus her name was born. Played by RADA actress, Diana Rigg (Tracy/On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Emma Peel quickly became a major fashion maven of the mid-1960s. An early Courreges mini skirt was introduced on the show, followed by leather cat-suits, mod-striped jumpsuits (Emmapeelers) with cut-outs and large ring zippers, striped and suede go-go boots, and all manner of Pop Art-influenced outfits and accessories. Quoted by Toby Miller in his book, The Avengers, Peel's outfits were the first publicly available line of clothing designed for TV in 1965.




Mrs. Peel's most notorious costume was for the episode, A Touch of Brimstone. Banned in the US as too kinky, Emma goes under cover in a modern-day Hellfire Club dressed as the "Queen of Sin." As Macnee remembers, Rigg designed the costume herself, 'dressed in whalebone corset, high, laced boots and a spiked dog collar." In case younger readers are wondering if The Avengers was too adult or inappropriate, rest assured that the kinky elements were done in fun with a great dose of humor and spy adventure.


The style of The Avengers costumes existed both as an essential element to the storytelling and as a cultural, fashion phenomenon. The look, and more importantly, the performances symbolized the playful attitudes of the times and reflected a shared fantasy with the audience about an adventurous life devoted to pleasure, wit, and sensuality. The trench coats were off and there was fun to be had! Indeed, the opening credits of The Avengers featured champagne toasts alongside karate cops and silencers. Like 007, no moment was too dangerous for our spy heroes to take time to stop and smell the carnations and to sip a rare port. The characters crackled with delight, depth, and humor, making The Avengers one of the most enduring shows of the 1960s.



See the Spy Vibe Costume page, Mods To Moongirls, for related articles and video. For more information, please search the Spy Vibe blog for The Avengers, fashion, and check out the excellent Avengers fashion site.

8 comments:

  1. These costumes were what my wife and I tried to approximate at a party last Halloween. I wasn't quite as dashing as steed, but I dare say that my wife was, in my eye, the equal of Emma Peel.

    What's especially interesting about the fashion of Steed is how much he changed from the first season of the Avengers (sadly, of which I think only two or three episodes still exist). He started out in the trenchcoat, and was a much rougher character. I think between the first and second season the character was cleaned up and put into bespoke duds, and one of the great television characters was born.

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  2. Are there any places where I can get my hands and the full collection of these shows. I had been looking and gave up. Couldn't find a complete collection.

    I've only seen maybe two episodes of the original show and that was enough for me to want more. I mean the characters just look so Awesome!

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  3. If you are in the US, A&E released all (or most) of the surviving episodes. You should be able to find various sets on Amazon and eBay. All of the Emma Peel shows are in one Emma Peel Megaset. Then there are many volumes of seasons, from 1962-1968, covering the early Cathy Gale years and later Tara King years. There are also two volumes of New Avengers episodes. And they're ALL worth seeing! If you must start somewhere, though, pick up the Emma Peel set. It also has a cool Avengers documentary with all of the actors as a bonus disc.

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  4. Revised and Videos added to the Website. Enjoy :)

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  5. AWESOME post - as always... I am *loving* that database of Avengers garb! You're in the butter zone of mod couture Mr.W! :)

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  6. I really appreciate the information. I will see what I can get my hands on.

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  7. Let me know if you have trouble tracking down DVDs- I can help look and post links here.

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  8. Amazon currently has the Avengers sets (and other cool shows) in a buy 2 get one free sale:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&plgroup=9&docId=1000356421

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