I consider the 1981 television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited a litmus test in gauging another person’s Anglophilia. Sure, you might be a huge fan of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, have a line on the best fish and chips within a hundred-mile radius, call yourself a fan of a “football club” rather than referring to Chelsea as a “soccer team” — and you might be a really big fan of the book that’s widely considered Waugh’s greatest work. But if you don’t love all 659 minutes of the film adaptation that made a star of Jeremy Irons, then I need you to please take that Union Jack off your bedroom wall.
Today, as we celebrate Waugh’s 110th birthday, it is fitting to take a moment and look back at the adaptation which, while not the only take on the book (although I’d highly suggest skipping the 2008 version at all costs), still remains the best. In fact, it’s one of the greatest adaptations of any classic novel, and one whose influential costumes maintain its cultural relevance to this day.
The above photo from Hackett’s Spring 2013 collection is one of many examples that illustrates the under-celebrated impact the miniseries had on men’s fashion. It’s easy to point to the latest adaptation of The Great Gatsby or Downton Abbey as the inspiration for this latest example of renewed interest in styles that take their cues from England between the wars.
But those pop-culture-turned-fashion crazes didn’t come out of nowhere. Consider that around the same time that Bridesheadmania was sweeping America — to the point where, in 1982, Bloomingdale’s in New York City was decorating its windows to show off styles inspired by the miniseries — the preppy look was creeping up all over the country, and not just at East Coast prep schools and yacht clubs. If you watch the 1986 teen comedy Pretty in Pink and don’t spot the similarities between James Spader’s character and Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead a few years earlier, you aren’t paying close enough attention.
By the middle of the 1980s, the student styles from the British war years mingled with the polo shirts and boat shoes that American guys named Chip had been wearing for years to the point at which you couldn’t tell what came from where. The difference between the way the clothes looked then and how they tend to be designed now is that you can look at that picture of Spader and it’s undeniably of its decade. The newer stuff from companies like GANT is borderline old-school British and American preppy costuming — a style evolution that makes the importance of Brideshead clearer than ever.