They are the classic action heroes: James Bond, international man of mystery; Simon Templar, the enigmatic Saint; Napoleon Solo, the man from UNCLE. Individually, they go about their business: saving the world, foiling the baddies and charming the ladies. Together, they do one thing. Wear a damn fine suit.
What is it with the besuited action hero? Few have been able to rival Mr Bond in the style stakes. Not bare-chested Rambo, with his bandana and grimy cargo pants. Not Bruce Willis as Die Hard officer John McClane, all unflattering white vests and nine-to-five chinos. Nor the Terminator, in his futuristic leather-and-sunglasses combo. Not Ethan Hunt in his Mission Impossible all-in-one, or the leather-clad motley crew in The Matrix, or even the yellow biker gear in Kill Bill. And certainly not Jason Bourne, all cable-knit sweaters and well-brought-up anoraks.
No wonder the suit is back – and there’s little doubt that it is. Scan a cinema listing near you and you’re all but guaranteed to spot one: a modern action hero, clad in classic garb. Matt Damon dons a dapper navy offering – white shirt, open collar, no tie – in The Adjustment Bureau. Jake Gyllenhaal introduces a welcome bit of tweed into Source Code. Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, revived the classic monochrome look in Inception, Christopher Nolan’s award-winning adventure. Even Johnny Depp did his best, racing through the streets of Venice in a tux for The Tourist. Combat gear? Leather? String vest? Forget about it.
“A bespoke suits leaves a man feeling confident and reassured,” explains Simon Cundey of Savile Row tailors Henry Poole. “It’s a timeless aesthetic. James Bond, for instance – he is the ultimate good and bad guy. People come in and want to look like him.”
There’s little doubt about the suit’s durability – in the style stakes at least. It is, after all, the one bit of formal attire that has never gone out of fashion. But why the sudden return to the big screen? And why its adoption by – of all people – action heroes, characters tasked with all that fighting, running, jumping and diving?
Cundey thinks it has more than a little to do with a broader cultural shift towards quality men’s tailoring. “A few years ago it was all about fast fashion. Buying things without any consideration of where they came from. But recently people have got more interested in how a suit is made, and how well it is made. While we’re all tightening our belts, it becomes important to hunt for quality over quantity.” At the same time, the ongoing trend for retro influences in men’s fashion has only strengthened the popularity of the suit. Cundey says: “Programmes like Mad Men have had a big part to play. Period costume in general is very big. There’s this idea of the sharp-dressed man as powerful and that appeals.”
Of course, the suit has its limitations. Unlike Bourne’s nerdy jackets, it won’t keep you particularly dry (though, of course, if you’re Bond the odds are you’ll be carrying a bayonet-cum-umbrella anyway). And it isn’t, as Gillian Reeves, Virgin Active’s national group exercise manager, points out, the most practical of attire for a hero on the run. “If you look at characters like Rambo and John McClane, they are wearing what is, essentially, sports gear. In terms of what is best for action, a suit can’t really compare with that: it restricts your movement, your range is limited. If you were to try any martial arts – high kicks and so on – you would have to be prepared to rip it.”
It’s not just the suit that’s problematic. Unless you’re planning to team trainers with your outfit, you’ll struggle to outrun your opponents.
“Wearing dress shoes won’t help anyone,” says Reeves. They won’t support the ankle properly or grip correctly. You would be better off going barefoot.”
But perhaps we’re being a little too literal. The great suited heroes, after all, have rarely had to make do with your bog-standard dinner jacket. Whether it’s a matter of hidden pockets or futuristic textiles, a good tailor, insists Cundey, should be able to make a suit ready for most occasions.
“If you are going for a good-quality bespoke suit rather that your average ready-to-wear item, there are all sorts of things you can do. The depth of the armhole is very important. The higher it is, the more flexibility you will have. Think of Fred Astaire. He had to do all that dancing in a tailcoat. And hunting pleats will give you more freedom to move.”
Indeed, on Savile Row at least, it seems the action hero will be forever well-attired. Cundey says: “We have been here for seven generations and we’ve done all sorts of things for people: zips around the waistband so they can store money. Hidden panels and pockets for firearms. Real 007 stuff!”