Saturday, February 6, 2016

On The Look of Agent Carter (Or, How to Send a Tie Message)

Pals, I'm going to take a moment here to talk about two things I love: Marvel's Agent Carter and menswear.

Be warned: Mild spoilers for the show and a few Marvel Universe movies ahead.

We're four episodes into the sophomore season of the Captain America spinoff featuring the post-WWII adventures of Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, and it remains everything that is good in this world. If you, like me, were deeply disappointed that poor Cap's chilly fate meant that we'd only get one movie's worth of time with the wonderfully strong and charismatic Peggy, then Marvel's original Agent Carter short was a lovely little gift. The vignette - one of a series of expanded universe shorts made before the company began flexing its TV muscles - showed Carter relegated to desk work at the Strategic Scientific Reserve while her male colleagues are sent out into the field. But nobody keeps Peggy in a corner - by the short's end, she has saved the day and is tapped to head the nascent S.H.I.E.L.D.

Little did any of us know that the one-shot would be the gift that kept on giving: not only did it further entrench the character in the on-screen universe's lore - she has since become one of the most consistent through lines in the films, with cameos in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, and, Avengers: Age of Ultron - it gave way to the series that is currently filling in the gaps following the first Cap film.

Agent Carter is an important show for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the very title is the name of a woman, and that woman is shown fighting and losing almost as often as she wins - not for lack of skill or intelligence, but because sometimes we lose and have to keep going anyway.

One of the things I love so much about the structure of the show is that it retains the feel and spirit of an old comic book serial, albeit with a little more gentle self-awareness. At its core, Carter is a period piece with a universal message, and that means it has the aesthetic to match. The look of the show is beautiful, with the costumes speaking just as much about the characters as their actions.

1940's fashion continues to influence modern style, but I think more of that has carried over for women than men, so rather than tread on familiar ground by looking at the ladies, I thought I'd take a moment to celebrate the duds on the dudes of Agent Carter (no more alliteration, I promise - not intentionally, anyway).

During World War II, fabric was strictly rationed on the homefront, and this obviously had an effect on the fashion industry. Flaps disappeared from pockets, pants were straight-hemmed (though some men still preferred cuffs and would simply buy longer pants and have them adjusted to get around this), and vests were nixed entirely as a wasteful luxury - to be seen wearing one, unless you could prove it was made before the war, was unpatriotic.

The conclusion of the war meant relaxing on the restrictions, though some of them stuck - many men  kept the two-piece suits, for example. Pants were typically high-waisted, flat front or single-pleated, and held up with suspenders, though belts were starting to become more popular. They also featured a wider leg and ankle than you see on most suit pants now as modern trends lean toward slimmer fits. The opportunistic Agent-now-Director Thompson, played by Chad Michael Murray, typifies the basic look of the mid-40's, which makes sense, given his character's unwillingness to make waves as he seeks approval.

Agent Thompson. Photo:
Neckties were worn wide and short. It was neckwear that provided men the greatest avenue of individual expression at the time, allowing one of the greatest departures from the drab regulation military uniforms of the preceding years. Patterns were often chosen that highlighted the interests or personalities of the wearer - the louder the tie, the louder the guy. Though it wounds me to say it, bow ties were largely out of fashion and were rare for non-formal occasions.

Wilkes and Stark. Photo:

This season, the story has taken our characters from New York to the SSR's new west coast office in Los Angeles. The location change has not only spurred a great shift in tone that has kept the forward momentum of the show going, but has also been a fantastic opportunity to feature new looks. Different environments and climates mean different fabrics and colors. However, the Hollywood backdrop has also highlighted the emergence of more casual everyday looks.

Howard Stark (above) and Daniel Sousa (below) have been the best models so far, with the latter having undergone the most dramatic transformation, eschewing the traditional suits and ties of last season for Hawaiian shirts and other looser-fitting, often short-sleeved button downs. Not necessarily attire befitting the director of a branch of a major government espionage agency, but that's part of the point - Daniel's loosened up. Not only that, he refuses to play the political game, backing Peggy rather than worrying about his career - a far cry from Thompson. The visual just reinforces that.

Sousa and Peggy. Photo:
The one wild-card is British butler Edwin Jarvis, who is more often than not impeccably put together in a three-piece suit and complementary - if quiet - tie. One gets the impression that Jarvis is not the sort of man who would busy himself with the evolving landscape of American fashion. Proper and presentable - sometimes comically so - his attire also makes him the perfect visual foil to his eccentric employer.
Jarvis. Photo:
Check the wide lapels on that jacket.

You can also see that this was before the popularization of button-down collars, which I use so often that I can't imagine a world without them.

There you have it. Just a little taste, but a fun one. Take note of the ties on all the supporting male characters and extras as you watch - they really are insanely expressive. 

And how much do we love that a lapel pin has been such an integral part of this season's story?

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