Clothes from 1970s,  Guys in Films

Richard Burton is The Dandy Villain


Villains have long been dandies. Dressing loud is an established method of implying wealth and standing, particularly for ‘new money’. In a modern day context, this largely began with real life gangsters echoing the obnoxious outfits of Hollywood gangsters like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931), James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). Conversely the actors’ looks in these movies was also drawn from real life crooks – Al Capone, for example, long known for his love of matching silk pocket squares and neckties. It is a chicken and egg situation as to which came first: the dandy gangster gangster or the dandy movie gangster. However, by and large this idea of demonstrating status via clothing has remained in place since the 1920s, with notable ‘black suit’ exceptions during the 1990s as the criminal fraternity became increasingly white collar and preferred to remain behind the scenes. Still though, during the 1970s, or specifically 1971 when Villain starring Richard Burton as London bad boy Vic Dakin was released, dressing to impress was key. These are gangsters who considered a sense of panache to be part of their defining image. During one scene, Dakin tells his on-off lover and confidant, Wolfe Lissner (Ian McShane), that he will take the sweater and leather jacket wearing hood into town “to buy some good suits”. You want to be in with the in-crowd and strut like a true villain in your manor? Well then you have to dress like one.

Even though it is set during an era of highly experimental and gender-colliding fashion, the gentlemen’s gangster attire in Villain is not especially vivid or OTT. Moreover, styles do not change on the decade so the film has an understandably hungover-from-the-1960s feel. There are pops of paisley print shirts and ties, high-fastening double breasted suits and minimal fared legs, especially on the formal wear. It is somewhat transitional with some fussier details, such as stitched half belts, patch pockets and ever broadening lapels. Vic Dakin is a top level gangster who still lives at home with his mother and drives her to Brighton for a plate of whelks when the weather is nice. He is a deliberate amalgamation of real life East End gangster brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Ronnie was homosexual (though he publicly identified as bi-sexual) in a time when this was seen as a vehement attack on masculinity. Indeed it could be argued that much of Ronnie’s rage as a human being was linked to festering guilt over his sexuality and exaggerated need to not be seen as ‘soft’ in the eyes of his competitors. Dakin is much the same. It is no secret he is homosexual, but this is never alluded to in any of the dialogue. It is rather on the nose in terms of his characterisation (Dakin hates women, except his mum, frequently calling them ‘slags’), which is reflected, if not hammered home, by his wardrobe. This is a good 3 – 4 years before wild prints in men’s suits would really hit. Suits were still the day’s official attire whatever line of work you were in, unlike on the continent which was gradually moving away from such rigidity. In response, the London gangster had to be smart to be respected, but could still play with the overarching aesthetic. After all, that was the look of the day and by wearing the look of the day you are demonstrating to everyone else that you can afford it.

Ian McShane and Richard Burton on the set of Villain. Note Elizabeth Taylor in the background, Burton’s wife at the time who used to frequently visit the set as she was also making a film in London. According to McShane, she used to drop Burton off every morning in a white Rolls Royce.

Dakin generally chooses striped shirts with exactly matching neckties made from the same fabric. Oddly not a look that has ever really taken off with any degree of enthusiasm since. He wears a lot purple and lilac; it’s as if the film’s (uncredited) costume designer wanted to subtly remind us of his homosexuality via would could be deemed ‘effeminate’ colours. In other words, it is clear that Dakin is gay, but whatever you do, don’t bring it up. His most notable suit is 4 on 8, high-fastening double breasted, in grey pinstripe, with double vents and a gently flared leg. His shirts are always livelier than his suits; the shirts are the man concealed within, while the suit is the acceptable face of lethal masculinity. He is contrasted against not only the police inspectors chasing him with sixties slim knot ties and plain shirts but his own gang who wear slightly younger styles, separates and perma-press slacks. Again though, they must be presentable. This perverse idea of manners amongst murderers and thieves is hilariously represented by Joss Ackland’s character Edgar Lowis who suffers with a ulcer and so burps frequently throughout, much to the disgust of Dakin and his crew. They seem genuinely offended in a way that seems almost (sadly) comical now. We may watch Dakin slice up a man’s face with a cutthroat razor within the first ten minutes, but there’s no need to go around burping like a drunken hobo, is there?

For his final outfit, Dakin wears a black single breasted suit with grey turtle (not roll) neck sweater. It’s jarring because it rings more true as a contemporary villains outfit with immediate thoughts drifting to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and beyond. What’s more, it is at this point he meets his end – not sanctioned but arrested and humiliated. Dakin screams angrily at random onlookers assuming they will somehow know who he is. He looks, well, ordinary. Just like any other schmo in the street, and for a man like Vic Dakin, the dandy villain carted around in a Jag, eating in fancy French restaurants and typically dressed in only the finest tailored suits, this is the biggest insult of all.

Villain has just been released on Blu-Ray by StudioCanal.

© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.