I am occasionally asked who I regard as my greatest influences in dressing. In early days as a young teenager it was Cary Grant, Basil Rathbone, Terry-Thomas and George Sanders.
I am pleased to see that my younger son has also found the example of these screen greats inspiring: just recently he and I spent a long time discussing the insanely checked and pleated overcoat sported by Sanders at the end of Rebecca. Sanders evokes the meretricious flashiness of the prototypical motor dealer in a manner that I do not think has ever been eclipsed in all the cinematic and televisual depictions of car dealers.
However, even Sanders cannot hold the most sputtering and feeblest of candles to the best-dressed man of the last or indeed any other century: the Duke of Windsor. It may be that as time passes and customs and habits of dress move further away from the norms of the Duke’s day, his star will dim, but even now the Duke and the story of his love for Wallis still have the power to move bidders to part with ludicrous sums of money for trinkets the couple once owned. The sale of jewels at Sotheby’s in December demonstrated that the provenance of the couple is still very much what I believe is called a strong sales argument.
I do not know when I first became aware of the Duke of Windsor, but it was probably my maternal grandfather who put me on to him. My grandfather was a young man in Berlin during the Christopher Isherwood years and I used to sit enthralled as he told me of the city in those days.
There was, for instance, a friend of his who lived in a large apartment and whose parents gave him a motorcycle for Christmas: the winter proved too cold to venture out, so my grandfather and his friend careered around this flat on the young man’s Christmas present.
My grandfather knew how to dress. There are pictures of him and his friends larking about on the coast in the sort of beachwear you only find today in television adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. However, my favourite photograph shows him sitting with grandmother in some bucolic setting wearing a fabulous Fair Isle sweater and a pair of plus-fours. It was a great look inspired by the Duke when he was still heir to the throne: as my grandfather often put it, ‘The Prince of Wales made fashion.’
By the middle of the 1990s I was mainlining the Windsor look. My Damascene moment had come when I went to Paris with my Spear’s co-columnist Clive Aslet to spend a day at the Duke and Duchess’s house in the Bois de Boulogne. Even though it was twenty years ago I can remember with almost high-def clarity the feel of the fabrics, and the way the shoes glinted in the Paris sunlight.
I was intoxicated by the sight of rails crowded with fabulous checks and seemingly limitless variations of colour. It is one of the great pities of the development of photography that so many of the photographs of the Duke were taken in black and white, because he lived in a blaze of bright colours, vigorous patterns and textured fabrics.
He had a natural flair for putting clothes together that married the apparent opposites of easy informality with a profound understanding of correct form. I suppose this is more or less what Picasso was driving at when he said that he could draw like Raphael when he was a child and that he spent the rest of life learning how to draw like a child; or what the advertising for Audemars Piguet aims for when it announces that in order to be able to break the rules one must at first master them.
The Duke was a true dandy in that his taste depended upon knowing how things should be done and then purposefully doing something slightly different that at once demonstrated thorough knowledge of said rules and the independent sense of creativity required to break them in a way that enriched the sartorial canon. Once no longer encumbered by the burden of the throne of England, he was able to spend the remaining 35 years of his life perfecting his wardrobe.
I was in Lock recently being bought a tweed cap by my wife, and the young man who served us had pierced ears and a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the tweed cap. Seldom have I been so well advised when buying headgear. On the wall I spied a reproduction of John St Helier Lander’s portrait of the Prince of Wales as a young man in the sort of cap and Fair Isle sweater that would have appealed to my grandfather.
It pleased me inordinately that in our age of piercings and low-riding trousers the influence of the Duke of Windsor and his inimitable, ineffable gift for putting clothes together continues to be felt.