Celluloid Style: Orson Welles

Orson Welles portrait 1938
Image credit: The Evening Journal / Public domain

Eighty years after its initial release in 1941, Citizen Kane has returned to the spotlight recently thanks to the release of David Fincher’s Mank, which leads this year’s Oscar race with 10 nominees, including Best Picture. Not that Citizen Kane was ever really out of the headlines. A film that’s always a bride and rarely a bridesmaid in best-movie-of-all-time conversations, Orson Welles’ opus is never very far from any film lover’s mind.

Welles has long been lauded as an auteur who brought about paradigmatic changes in cinema; the boy genius who could do it all and then some. But Mank, the film that’s brought a surge of new interest to Welles’ opus, posits that a substantial part of the credit for Citizen Kane’s brilliance belongs to its lesser-known screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz. Add to such revisionism the cultural conversation surrounding this year’s Oscars — i.e. that this year marks a historically diverse selection of nominees — and Orson Welles begins to seem like an odd subject to celebrate right now. He’s hardly the picture of an underrepresented or underappreciated artist.

Orson Welles signing autograph
Image credit: IISG / CC BY-SA 2.0

Welles was an underdog in some respects — his lifelong struggle to regain the creative control he lost in the wake of Kane, for example, is well-known — but it’s certainly true that his talents have been thoroughly celebrated over the years. Yet there is one descriptor that continues to be absent from Welle’s multi-hyphenate status: that of style icon.

Orson Welles walking off an aeroplane
Image credit: Snikkers / Anefo / CC0 1.0

Old Hollywood’s clotheshorses are roundly and rightfully celebrated: your Fred Astaires and Cary Grants, or, from a slightly later generation, guys like James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman. Occasionally someone will throw in a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. or Sr., but in general it’s a fairly well-defined set of characters. 

Orson Welles is almost never invited to the party. One could argue that this is fair enough. You’re certainly spoiled for choice when looking for matinee idol looks and dapper outfits among the movie stars of any age. But turn to Welles clothing and you’ll find the same unruly good taste that animates his work on film. Indeed, he himself said that ‘style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn’. It’s a sentiment that proves equally true for matters cinematic and sartorial.

Unlike his perfectly turned out peers cited above, Welles’ style was characterised by rebellious tumult. His collars were often recklessly unbuttoned and his neckties loosened as though in a fit of passion. Nearly everything he wore seemed thrown on and lived in. While always looking well-appointed, his clothes nevertheless appeared to have seen a day’s work at any given time. In this sense, his aesthetic recalls the more ragged rakishness of someone like Bogart or Brando. These are men who look great, but clothing seems to be the last thing on their minds. After all, there are more important things to consider.  

Nevertheless, Welles wrestled with his appearance for much of his life. His weight fluctuated throughout his career and he famously disliked his own nose so much that he often wore prosthetics on screen to change its shape. But, as Calum Marsh wrote for Esquire:

‘He didn’t care about having the perfect figure because he had something better: he had confidence. Just look at how Welles marches through the set of one of his best films, Othello […] clothes perfectly imperfect, cigar and coffee in hand, topped off with the ideal pair of sunglasses. The guy couldn’t look cooler if he tried. How much he cared is hard to say. But the results speak for themselves: as in all aspects of life, nobody dressed quite like Orson Welles.’

Indeed, Welles often dressed with little regard for fashion or convention. He was one of the first to pair T-shirts with blazers and was a fan of wearing bold and even clashing nautical stripes, all of which is illustrated in this photo of him alongside his second wife, Rita Hayworth. He was an iconoclast in his appearance as he was in his work.

Towards the end of Citizen Kane, someone says of Welles’ titular character: ‘I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life’. Clothes could scarcely do a better job of the same. There is no vestiary rosebud. Yet, like the words and images he committed to celluloid, Welles’ wardrobe offers us a glimpse, however fleeting, of his singular personality and vision.

Orson Welles smoking a cigar
Image credit: Recuerdos de Pandora / CC BY-SA 2.0