Celluloid Style: Dirk Bogarde

Dirk Bogarde wearing white pants and a polo shirt
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

One of my very first trips to the cinema after months of housebound isolation during the pandemic was to see a repertory screening of The Servant (1963). If you know the film, you might recognise a degree of irony in this, given that — SPOILER ALERT — by the film’s end, its principal characters are living a life of self-imposed domestic exile, having retreated from the outside world into the miserable confines of a rank domiciliary nightmare. 

Having never seen the film before, all of that was lost on me at the time. Nor would it have put me off, honestly. Partly, I was thrilled to get out of the house for any conceivable reason, but all the more so to see a classic of British cinema, penned by none other than Harold Pinter, and starring Dirk Bogarde, a man who I’ve been enthralled by for most of my film-going life. In any case, I had seen enough Bogarde movies to know that I was probably letting myself in for a less than pleasant but ultimately captivating ride. 

Case in point: my first encounter with Bogarde was in The Night Porter (1974), in which — SPOILER ALERT, again, but also: prepare yourself — he plays a former SS officer engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship with a concentration camp survivor. The film is definitely not for the faint of heart and it took me a while before I watched another Bogarde feature. When I eventually did, however, I quickly came to appreciate his work as one of the most complex and compelling performers of his generation (He would end his career having earned a knighthood and five BAFTA nominations for best actor, two of which he won).

It wasn’t just Bogarde’s unique acting ability that drew me in, though. Throughout his career, from his short-lived tenure as a heartthrob in the 1950s through to the more challenging arthouse roles that would cement his reputation in the ’60s and ’70s, Bogarde’s costuming proved nearly as compelling as the power of his acting. His sense of style off-screen proved similarly long-lived. And while some dapper stars seem to eventually age out of an interest in clothing, I would venture that Bogarde ranks among the consistently best-dressed actors of the twentieth century.

Dirk Bogarde wearing a three piece suit
Image credit: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0

In fact, many commentators have pointed to the connection between Bogarde’s interest in clothing and his acting roles. Christopher Breward, for instance, has argued that throughout his career ‘a continuing interest in the dandy-like subtleties of costume and characterisation continued to underline the […] nature of Bogarde’s screen and private personas’. Ditto, Nick James writing for Sight and Sound observes that ‘Bogarde’s characters usually grow from his own soigné persona’.

In fact, Bogarde himself acknowledged as much. In the second of his seven best-selling memoirs, Snakes & Ladders (1978), he wrote: ‘I am an actor who works from the outside in, rather than the reverse. Once I can wear the clothes which my alter-ego has chosen to wear, I then begin the process of his development from inside the layers.’ 

As it happens, he’s talking here specifically about the process of making The Servant. In the film, Bogarde plays the titular role of a corrupt and menacing manservant who insidiously gains mastery over his dissolute, upper-class employer. Bogarde goes on to say the following about his character’s wardrobe: 

‘Each item selected by [costume designer Beatrice Dawson] was carefully chosen by [director Joseph] Losey, down to the tiepin: a tight, shiny, blue serge suit, black shoes which squeaked a little, lending a disturbing sense of secret arrival, pork-pie hat with a jay’s feather, a fair-isle sweater, shrunken, darned at the elbows, a nylon scarf with horses heads and stirrups. A mean, shabby outfit for a mean shabby man… Next the detail: Brylcreemed hair, flat to the head, a little scurfy round the back and in the parting, white puddingy face, damp hands… Glazed, aggrieved eyes, and then the walk to blend the assembly together… His walk I took from an ingratiating Welsh waiter who attended me in an hotel in Liverpool. The glazed and pouched eyes were those of a car salesman lounging against a Buick in the Euston Road, aggrieved, antagonistic, resentful, sharp; filing his nails. No make-up ever.’

As a viewer watching this or any other Bogarde performance, these individual components may not all register as such, but instead have a gestalt quality. In this sense, the individual touches of his clothing choices have much the same impact as the micro-expressions that play across Bogarde’s sometimes world-weary-, sometimes sinister-looking face in establishing the tone of a given performance.

I’ve always assumed that the many tragedies of Bogarde’s real life informed his ability to carry off the range of haunted figures he played on screen. There were the horrors he witnessed as one of the first Allied soldiers to reach the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, an experience he struggled to articulate even many years after the fact. Then there was the matter of his four-decade relationship with Anthony Forwood who died in 1988 — more than a decade before Bogarde’s own passing — after a protracted period of illness. It’s now widely thought that Bogarde was gay and romantically involved with Forwood, but never spoke publically about it, in part because homosexuality was deemed criminal for most of his career (As it happens, the defining role of Bogarde’s early career was as a barrister who is blackmailed for being gay in 1962’s Victim, a film which itself has been hailed as helping partially decriminalise homosexuality in Britain a few years later). 

I sometimes wonder whether this same ever-present sense of misfortune and calamity that seemed to underpin Bogarde’s abilities as a performer also informed the way he carried himself in his clothing. There’s no denying that Bogarde looked fantastic in just about everything he wore, whether it be one of the many clean-cut military uniforms he donned throughout his career, a more outre choice like the leather trousers and cowboy hat he wore in The Singer Not the Song (1961), or the louche tailoring and silken accessories he seemed to prefer above all. Looking at old photographs of Bogarde — typically dressed to the nines and inevitably framed by a puff of cigarette smoke — it can be difficult to parse the nature of his facial expressions. The same is true of his performances on screen. With an uncertain smile or melancholy stare, he had a habit of seeming miles away, preoccupied with some deeper, more significant concern. It’s a quality that made him a great actor and, I would argue, a similarly compelling dresser. His clothes always looked great, but they were never really the point.

It’s mysterious to me, both a fan of movies and menswear, why Bogarde isn’t more widely celebrated today. He was well-known in his own time and heralded as a style icon, including within the New Romantics scene during his twilight years where he boasted such eminent acolytes as Adam Ant and Morrissey. But Bogarde‘s name seems to have become less and less familiar in recent decades. Perhaps since he deliberately shied away from his early success as a matinee idol in favour of more challenging roles, he hasn’t enjoyed the same enduring fame as some of his similarly suave but more bankable contemporaries. It’s a pity, really, since we would do well to remember Bogarde and his thoughtful and attentive approach to clothing.

To that end, just north of a century after his birth, let’s once again celebrate Dirk Bogarde, a man who was always aware of the power and allure of clothing, all while keeping in mind the more important things in life. 

Dirk Bogarde wearing a sweater and mariner's cap
Image credits: kate gabrielle / CC BY 2.0