I recently discovered that Tim Burton and I share a deep and serious bond: a fondness for an obscure Hammer Film Productions horror called Dracula AD 1972. In fact, I don’t think it would be stretching a point to say that its effects on both of us were life-changing.
Tim, as I now feel I can call him, frequently watched the film while growing up in Burbank, California, at a cinema that showed triple features for 50 cents. He once said that the film – which he described as a horror set in Swinging London – was a strong factor in his decision to move to the British capital later in life.
I first watched it in the early 1980s when I was at boarding school in Sussex – the other side of the world from Burbank, but it had an equally profound effect on my teenage self. First, the script was memorable: it featured Satanism and used language that hippies would understand, with one character voicing the deathless (and not to mention sexist) line: “If we do get to summon up the big daddy with the horns and the tail, he gets to bring his own liquor, his own bird and his own pot.” More importantly still, it had style galore: Dracula, who goes by the none-too-subtle sobriquet Johnny Alucard, drives a drophead Triumph Stag and affects smouldering cool (if that is not too much of an oxymoron) in a broad-brimmed hat and the most gorgeous frill-front dress shirt. He teeters on the wrong side of the Peter Wyngarde style camp, dripping decadent menace. Right then and there, I became a champion of ’70s chic: awestruck at the waterfall of ruffled silk that cascaded down his shirtfront.
Nearly four decades on, it would seem that the much-maligned and misunderstood era – which I’ve dedicated my life to rehabilitating – has come back into style favour. Ruffle-front shirts – as well as paisleys, florals and others of the peacock variety – can be found at Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Etro and, of course, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci.
I try not to have favourites, but I tend to regard Turnbull & Asser as the spiritual home of the peacock shirt. During the 1960s, it equipped the dashing Lord Snowdon with silk turtlenecks, and when he and David Frost were refused entry to The Running Footman in New York for wearing them, T&A was deluged with orders: 2,000 in 10 days and 10,000 by the end of the year. If you were a T&A turtleneck man, chances were that, like Warren Beatty, you had an 18th-century-inspired, ruffle-fronted shirt with pie-crust collar and gathered cuffs, while the best-dressed duke of the swinging decade, the 13th Duke of Bedford, wore a ruffle-cuffed shirt with a giant lace bib that was pure King’s Road-meets-King James II.
Mention the Duke of Bedford’s lace jabot to T&A veteran and store manager James Cook today, and he gets slightly misty-eyed. “We have not done that for a long time – unfortunately we get fewer fun requests these days. The early 1970s, that was the heyday,” he says wistfully. His eyes brighten when I tell him I still wear the tangerine-coloured ruffle-front chiffon dress shirt T&A made for me in the mid 1990s, which prompts him to recall some of the more extreme pieces he has had the pleasure of making, such as load-bearing shirt fronts capable of supporting extravagant dress studs. While there may not be much demand for jabots today, the Jermyn Street shirtmaker has released a collection of silk peacock shirts this season, including a rather covetable paisley number, while ruffle-front versions are available through the bespoke service.
Up the road at Budd Shirtmakers, general manager Andrew Rowley, who sold me a Marcella-front dress shirt in 1986, tells me they are actually prototyping a triple ruffle for stock, which might be available as an option to wear with studs. But with the wisdom of a lifetime in the bespoke shirt business, he advises against over-elaborate studs. “After all, you want people to notice the ruffles rather than get distracted by the studs.”
If you find studs too fiddly, Emma Willis – maker of the ivory silk riding-stock front shirt Benedict Cumberbatch wore to this year’s Met Gala – told me that she sourced antique jet buttons set with tiny diamonds for a customer who wanted to jazz up his pleated-front dress shirt. Apparently, they even go through the washing machine.
This immediately brought to mind the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who was known to posterity as the Dancing Marquess. He died at the age of 30 in 1905, but that was easily long enough for him to get through a large fortune – most of it frittered away, but there were occasional sound investments such as his “ping-pong” shirt, which was embroidered with emeralds.
Happily, it seems that, along with printed, silky and ruffled numbers, emerald-set shirt fronts are having a comeback. This summer at the Marbella Club I bumped into an old acquaintance, José María Alzola – the best-dressed man on the Iberian peninsula – who was wearing a shirt with a bib front bedizened with tiny emeralds. I encountered him at the club’s chiringuito restaurant and was delighted to see that the emeralds were all raw and uncut. Quite right! After all, cut and polished stones sewn onto a shirt front would have been far too dressy and de trop for a casual beach lunch of grilled sardines.