Uniforms aren’t usually the type of outfits that stir passion deep down in your loins. Perhaps you’ve got PTSD from having to wear your brother’s hand-me-downs in school, or maybe you’re one of those unfortunate sods that has to schlep to a soulless office in the ol’ suit ‘n’ tie combo day in, day out.
But, if we look at uniforms through the lens of kino (and tweak the meaning just a tad), they can be some of the most flavourful rig-outs going.
Just think of Steve McQueen’s short-sleeved sweatshirt/leather jacket ensemble in The Great Escape, or (I know it’s not a film, but bear with me) Peter Falk’s ever-present beige mac in Columbo – gear made all the more potent by their reoccurrence.
The scope of this Films and Things is a bit broader however – to challenge myself, I’m only picking uniforms that make appearances in multiple different films. And no, superheroes don’t count, you gormless rube.
Anyway, without further ado…
JACQUES TATI, MONSIEUR HULOT’S HOLIDAY, MON UNCLE, PLAYTIME, TRAFIC – 1953-1971
Let’s kick this off with a visually-dazzling, gently-satirical bang, shall we? Here’s Jacques Tati – one of the best to ever do it – and his influential Monsieur Hulot character.
Jacques Tati exploded onto the silver screen scene after a wildly-successful career as a mime in the music halls of 1930s Paris (and a stint fighting in WW2). His first film, a short called The School for Postmen (1947), proved to be a critical darling, and paved the way to his first feature, Jour de fête (1949).
Monsieur Hulot first appeared in 1953’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, which was the film that first saw Tati tinkering with the filmmaking ideas that would become his trademarks, namely, an absence of plot, intricate visual gags and sophisticated use of sound to accent the visual comedy, as well as a summer-friendly iteration of Hulot’s uniform – crisp white tennis pumps… spread collar shirt… breezy chinos… the man was taking no prisoners.
When Mon Uncle landed in 1958, so did Monsieur Hulot’s emblematic ensemble. Consisting of slightly-too-short, loose-fitting trousers, a tweed overcoat and bent fedora, his outfit oozed proto-Beams Plus flavour.
Tati only portrayed Hulot twice more, but luckily for us, one of those performances was in Playtime (1967) – one of the bonafide miracles of film history. It took over nine years to make, and was the most expensive film ever made in France at the time, as Tati insisted on having an entire city block built for the film’s production (that isn’t hyperbole either – the set needed to be powered by a power plant). When the film wrapped, Tati was bankrupt, and like most great films, Playtime failed to recoup its budget. Consequently, Tati was only permitted to play Monsieur Hulot one more time, in Trafic (1971). Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all, right?
Over the course of his career, Jacques Tati justly accrued plenty of accolades, but I’m about to crown his greatest achievement right now: the creator of cinema’s best dressed character.
JEFFREY COMBS, RE-ANIMATOR, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR – 1985-2003
Realised I haven’t much catered to the upstanding members of the ‘gore-hound’ community with these Films and Things lists, and for that, I’m sorry. Here’s the much beloved Re-Animator series to atone for my sins.
Very, very, very loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story ‘Herbert West-Reanimator’, the Re-Animator films follow the exploits of Herbert West, a proper lunatic dedicated to mastering the art of reanimation – bringing cadavers back from the grave.
While not the most stylish of regalia, Mr. West’s outfit does serve an extremely important thematic purpose – to get absolutely caked in gore. With his baby-blue button down and pristine white lab coat, which is normally sullied with viscera, cranial matter and a paddling pool’s worth of blood before the one hour mark, West’s rig-out is stone-cold proof that it’s often the most uninspired cinematic uniform choices that’re the most effective.
Besides, when you’ve got decapitated English character actors, neon goo, metres of entrails and Jeffrey Combs absolutely chomping the scenery every chance he gets, do you really need a thought-provoking outfit choice?
Didn’t think so.
JEFF BRIDGES, COLD FEET, THE FISHER KING, THE BIG LEBOWSKI – 1989, 1991, 1998
Not sure if this one can be technically categorised as a ‘uniform’ per se, but whatever, I’m sticking it in anyway. Here’s everyone’s favourite long-locked lad Jeff Bridges in Cold Feet (1989), The Fisher King (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998).
Cold Feet is a schlocky-looking crime caper that I haven’t seen. Co-starring Robin Williams, The Fisher King is a film I haven’t seen since I was 13. Shouldn’t need to give you a plot description of The Big Lebowski because everyone’s seen it.
This particular entry is the only example that isn’t set dressing – Jeff Bridges actually owns this t-shirt, and presumably buzzes off it enough to have snuck it into three of his films. Not sure where or when he picked it up, what the writing translates to or who the little bat-wielding fella on the front (going to go out on a limb and say it’s one of Nippon’s many famous baseball players), but one thing is for certain – it’s a very good t-shirt.
So good in fact, you purchase a snide one from many a cunning entrepreneur on most naff internet market places. The grind never stops as they say…
CHARLES CHAPLIN, THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES, COUNTLESS SHORT FILMS – 1914-1936
Penultimately, we’ve got possibly the most famous example of a cinematic uniform, with Charles Chaplin’s enduring Tramp character and his dishevelled, ne’er-do-well get-up.
Considering the man himself was born into abject poverty in Victorian London, it’s no wonder why Charlie felt such kinship with tramps and vagrants, and why he modelled his Tinseltown persona (perhaps even the quintessential Tinseltown persona?) on these unfortunate souls.
Chaplin debuted The Tramp in the Keystone Studios short Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). A bit bewildering how a scruffy symbol of destitution became a hit with the go-getting American public, but it did, and soon enough, Chaplin was calling the shots on his own films, financed by his own studio (United Artists), and with complete creative control, resulting in some of the best films not only of the silent era, but of all time – my personal favourites being The Gold Rush (1925) and Modern Times (1936).
However, Chaplin abandoned The Tramp when his popularity declined in the 40s, thanks in part to professional hardships and personal scandals. Seems like the Yanks who embraced Charlie’s plucky Little Tramp didn’t like the fact the man harboured political beliefs sympathetic to those he’d amassed a fortune portraying (and also maybe the fact that he had eyes for women on the – ahem – younger end of the spectrum).
Chaplin’s legacy may have been irreversibly tainted by his ideological adversaries and extracurricular activities, but the power of his work shines far brighter than that – as does his iconic uniform.
CHANG CHEN, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, THREE TIMES – 1991, 2005
And to close out this instalment of Films and Things, we’ve got Chang Chen rocking a typical Taiwanese, military-inflected uniform in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times (2005), two absolute cinematic belters.
One of this writer’s favourite films of all time, A Brighter Summer Day charts the unprecedented changes that Taiwan faced in the 60s, seen through the eyes of a teenage boy, and Three Times follows exactly tres love stories, all set in different time periods, but utilising the same actors. Chen’s militaristic costume rears its beigey head in the first story, also set in the 60s.
Seemingly-interchangable as a school uniform and army regalia, the khaki pants/khaki pants combo was a mainstay on Taiwanese teens in the 60s. According to a hasty Wikipedia scour, this get-up was implemented by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 until the end of World War 2. The Japanese influence (specifically, how the Japanese [and American and Mainland Chinese] influence effected the already-nebulous Taiwanese identity) – not only encompassing clobber, but architecture, culture and social mores – continued long after the Japanese slung their hooks, and is a theme both films attempt to grapple with.
Anyway, couldn’t find a decent enough snap of Chang Chen wearing the rig-out in Three Times, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Sorry.
That just about wraps up this action-packed edition of Films and Things. Did you really like it? Is it, is it wicked? Sound off below.