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Live and Let Die: Yaphet Kotto’s Brown Suede Trench Coat

James Bond is unlikely to ever again face a group of antagonists so interested in what they are wearing as those in Live and Let and Die (1973).

Here freshman 007 Roger Moore faced off against a hotchpotch of hip, and some might say stereotypically racist, New York and Caribbean hoodlums. Yaphet Kotto as Mr. Big lead the fight with his anti-establishment, anti-fashion suits, while his gang reinvigorated the excesses of 1930s street style for a sartorially chaotic decade where elegance would take second billing to experimentation.

Experimentation, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. The flared trousers, brightly coloured trilby hats, ginormous shirt collars, heavily lapelled leather coats and animal print vests sported by Mr. Big’s mob (and, it would appear, virtually all of Harlem’s black inhabitants) are an important symbol of youth and minority rebellion. They may look riotous, even silly by today’s standards, but at the time they were radical and emblematic of a repressed culture desperate for self expression.

The first time we meet Kotto as Mr. Big he is laying out his most iconic line (“Names is for tombstones, baby!”) while wearing what was one of the seventies’ more successful attempts to modernise fashions of the past: a long suede trench coat. The film’s veteran costume designer Julie Harris once commented, “I liked Live and Let Die, where money was no object”. With the means to procure a coat as plush and extravagant as this, it is easy to understand why:

Full length 6 on 2 double breasted trench coat in tan suede, belted with spymaster collar, wrist straps and rear vent. Brown silk ‘Nehru’ collar shirt. Chain necklace with bar pendant. Dark brown leather gloves.

The wet weather trench coat was first produced on a mass scale by Thomas Burberry for officers during the First World War. Back then it would have been finished in Burberry’s patented Gabardine fabric, but as can be seen here the coat looks just as good, if not as functional, in suede or leather. That the trench coat was also trendy in the 1930s points to yet another influence borrowed from this era.

Socio-economic conditions of the 1970s meant that this so-called ‘pimp look’ was primarily sported by the lower classes, which was exactly the same situation during the 1930s. During this era of criminal and financial turmoil, street gangs would appropriate then amplify popular fashions and Hollywood gangster style (such as those sported by Edward G. Robinson and George Raft). This lead to ever-broadening pinstripes, lengthier lapels, higher trousers and wider shoulders with tighter jackets and louder checks. 1970s Street style was merely a continuation of this trend.

As Dr. Kananga, Yaphet Kotto’s style is dialed down to reflect a contemporary rather than fancy taste: lots of brown double breasted jackets and polyester suits with tonal brown ties, and nearly always a splash of red for the ‘voodoo’ subtext Live and Let Die pushes so vehemently throughout.

Then again this film was never intended as subtle Bond. Controversial on its release for those aforementioned racial overtones, but now more of a time capsule for fashionable experiments than anything else, Live and Let Die may not feature the most memorable villain for raspy nastiness, but – along with perhaps Emilio Largo in Thunderball (1965) – he is one of the most memorably dressed.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.