Wets suits

It took a long time, but the White Suit has finally lost the stigma of Saturday Night Fever. And you don't have to be Martin Bell to wear one. By Nick Foulkes. Photographs by David Woolley

It all went wrong for the white suit in the mid- 1970s when John Travolta became an international star in the Bee Gee-fuelled epic that was Saturday Night Fever.

Before then, the white suit was seen as the de facto badge of office of the British colonial official. Armed with a white suit, a pith helmet, a fly whisk, the complete works of Kipling, a faithful manservant and little else, District Officers had enforced the rule of British law from Malaya to Madras and beyond.

The white suit survived the moral ambiguity of Graham Greene novels and the ousting of Batista from Havana (once, one of the great white suit capitals of the world).

Even during the Sixties, a white suit could still be used without a hint of irony as cinematic shorthand for a whole raft of colonial values. When, for the last time, Strangways leaves the bridge four at the Queen's Club in Kingston, Jamaica, at the beginning of Dr No, he wears the obligatory pale suit, pressed to perfection. His outfit positively reeks of ceiling fans, rum swizzles and rattan chairs. Even his last act, before the bullets from the silenced pistols rip into his body, is typical of a white suit wearer: with patrician condescension, he flips a coin to the assassins disguised as beggars who kill him.

Quite how we got from Strangways to Saturday Night Fever is still unsure. Perhaps it was the innate hubris of wearing a white suit that finished it off; perhaps it was its impracticality; or maybe it was simply the diminishing number of colonies where one could actually swagger about in a white suit without getting laughed at, or worse, ending up like poor old Strangways. As with the demise of the dinosaur, the changing status of the white suit remains something of mystery.

But its reputation collapsed when more "wrong" than "right" people started wearing it. A working-class Italian Stallion discovering his epiphanies in the suburban discotheques of Seventies' New York would have been unlikely to have founded his personal style on the look of British colonial officialdom.

No, the white suit of the Seventies owed more to gangster styling. And, these days, if we see a man on film in a white suit, the chances are that he is portraying the ruthless leader of a cocaine cartel. It is significant that John Travolta redeemed his career, and won his second Oscar, as a man in a black suit in Pulp Fiction.

The most famous recent appearance in real life of the white suit has been in politics. If Martin Bell - a lone, middle-aged, slightly corpulent, white-suited paladin, all at sea in an ocean of sleaze - is the best friend that the white suit has, then white suit wearers this summer will require one accessory above all others: a good sense of humour White single-breasted, crease- resistant suit, pounds 728 , by John Richmond, available from Selfridges, Oxford Street, London WI, and Flannels, 3 Brazil Street, Manchester; white rib, V-neck T-shirt, pounds 26, by 2(x)ist, available from Liberty, Regent Street, London W1, Carl Twigg, 61 Bridge Streeet, Manchester, and Fenwicks, Northumberland Street, Newcastle-Upon- Tyne.

Stylist Christopher Sanderson Model Freek Ruigrok, photographed in the Banyuwangi Selatan jungle in East Java during the Quiksilver Pro Surfing Championship Grooming products from the Pure Brilliance range by Aveda

White resin-coated jeans, pounds 54, and double breasted jacket, pounds 135, both by Jigsaw Menswear, available from 9-10 Floral Street, London WC2, 51-52 East Street, Brighton and Unit 32 Queen Victoria 0171 240 5651; watch and `Rash Vest', pounds 135, by Quiksilver, as before.

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