How to Not Dress Like an Asshole
There are certain flourishes of dress that cannot shake off an association with assholes.
Obviously, when they were freshly thought up by some daring dandy that association had yet to form. But perhaps the favor of a particular type of character, or the costuming of a TV or movie villain with a flourish of the sort has led to its being linked to personalities undesirable.
One such piece of dashing is the Ascot tie, the tie worn within rather than around the shirt collar. This piece of apparel takes its name from the famous horse racecourse in England patronized by the British monarchy and at which an annual set of races, attended by the reigning sovereign, is a pinnacle of glamour, Royal Ascot, memorably depicted as the place where the heroine of My Fair Lady makes a debut attempt at trying, as they say today, “to pass.”
I was at a Makati restaurant not too long ago with a bona fide Ivy League alumna of the 1980s when a guy walked in with a popped collar. Visibly irked, hissed she: “Pull down your collar, A-hole.”
For some reason, I cannot extricate the Ascot tie from the figure of one S. Melvin Farthinghill, the jerk par excellence in a TV cartoon show I used to watch as a child in the 1970s, Jeannie, loosely based on the iconic 1960s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. I don’t remember if he actually wore an Ascot, but he is perfectly the kind of person who would. And this is the particularity of such an article of clothing, it becomes associated with a social type and character: Born rich, spoiled, turned condescending, and a fool.
In its incarnation today the Ascot is strictly leisurewear. You couldn’t wear it in a business setting, much less a formal one. You couldn’t even wear it to Royal Ascot, where it’s known as a cravat and is expressly forbidden (you have to wear a tie).
Because it’s so anachronistic, it takes a whole lot of chutzpah to don an Ascot. And for that reason it seems a particularly belabored assertion of class. It became part of the signature look of the actor Peter O’Toole in later life, a badge of aristocratic Englishness—despite the humility of his Irish beginnings.
Another flourish associated with A-holes is the popped collar, or the upturned collar on a polo shirt, necessarily a branded one, like by Lacoste or Polo by Ralph Lauren. The look is a signature of the preppie, the student preparing to go to an Ivy League school, currently studying at such an institution, an alumnus thereof, or one who wishes he were. Because it expressly signals membership in this exclusive class—or pretension thereto—the popped collar reeks of A-hole-ness.
An archetype of such a character was played by Hart Bochner in the movie Breaking Away. He was a rich-kid university jock who had nothing but contempt for the underclass locals and took every opportunity to rub in his superiority. And he wasn’t even in an Ivy League school. In other words, he was a class-A dick.
His wardrobe included an unforgettable pink Lacoste polo. This item of clothing was like a memorable quip in the script. The year was 1979. The Official Preppy Handbook would be published the year following. He did not pop the collar of the Lacoste. But, again, he was the type who would.
With the return of preppie fashion today comes the popped collar again, still able to rub the wrong way. I was at a Makati restaurant not too long ago with a bona fide Ivy League alumna of the 1980s when a guy walked in with a popped collar. Visibly irked, hissed she: “Pull down your collar, A-hole.”
And yet, of course, one Ivy Leaguers’ A-hole might be a fashionista’s hero. My friend, the late J. Lee Cu-Unjieng, without question one of the best dressed men ever to have strode through this city, always popped his polo collars, and he was nothing if not the kindest, most solicitous person.
This is something I have learned only lately. Sometimes fashion betrays opposite truths. I have found, for instance, that some people who invest the greatest artistry in dress can be the least artificial and most genuine of people. Similarly, people who purport to put no thought into their appearance can be the most stilted and phony of characters.
But truths or particularities of character have little to do with villainy or heroism. Those positions are determined by who’s telling the story. And one storyteller’s bad guy might just be another one’s badass.
This was the logic deployed by some Asians in their recovery of racist depictions by Hollywood. Rather than rejecting the archetypal Oriental villain (or buffoon) that was—and long continued to be—a staple of American movies, they embraced the vilification as a charge of empowerment.
In the stereotypes of the cosmopolitan jungle, the African male, with a fame for physical prowess and awesome penis size, is at the top of the heap, while the Asian male, with his reputation for submissiveness and diminutive genitalia, is the least manly of the world’s men, the one from whom there is nothing to fear. And yet Hollywood’s “yellow” villains often had a ruthlessness that was the obverse side of the image of the bowing Oriental. From the very beginning, in the primordial Fu Manchu (invariably played in yellow-face by white actors), was the characterization of heartless evil.
A modern day incarnation of that ruthlessness is the bleached-blonde henchman played by the actor Ken Leung in the Jackie Chan-starrer Rush Hour. Described as a “sociopathic maniac” while lauded as a “legend” of Oriental villainy on awesomeasianbadguys.com, his happiness to kill poses a gleaming foil for the star’s sweet heroism, and one might say, more characteristic Asian-ness; and a foil as well for the comic stupidity of the supporting protagonist, the clueless black cop played by Chris Tucker. These three characters formed a triangulation of coloreds: the buffoonish black, the evil yellow, and the obedient one.
More than the wantonly cruel, the figure of Asian-ness most celebrated by Hollywood is the emasculated clown. The paragon is Mr. Yunioshi, played in yellow-face by Mickey Rooney, the bucktoothed, protesting-but-obliging Japanese neighbor of lead character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Today, it’s regarded as one of the most offensive characters in the history of American film. In a documentary revisiting the movie 45 years after it was released, Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Making of a Classic, director Blake Edwards says of the character: “Looking back, I wish I had never done it. I would give anything to recast it. But it’s there, and onward and upward.”
And yet, caricatures of the sort continued to be replayed well up to the 1980s. An almost exact reprisal of Yunioshi is to be found in that landmark of American pop culture, Sixteen Candles (1984), in Long Duk Dong, now no longer a Japanese buffoon played by an American, but an idiotic and hysterical Chinese exchange student played by a Japanese American. Tragic. Every time the character is mentioned in the script a gong sounds in the background. His sexuality is a perversity as a matter of the mere fact of his being Oriental.
But for me, the most excruciating movie Oriental to watch was Mr. Aung, played by Chinese Brit Burt Kwouk, in Plenty (1985), which starred Meryl Streep as an Englishwoman whose involvement in the resistance during World War II forms the peak of life against which everything that follows brings nothing but disappointment and an inconsolable sense of emptiness. Not a cheerful picture. Mr. Aung is a diplomat like her husband and makes a tiny appearance as a dinner party guest. How eager he is to impress his hosts, at the time still colonial masters over much of Asia, with his sophistication and his command of Western culture. He waxes ecstatic over Ingmar Bergman. In the scene is that paragon of Englishness John Gielgud, who watches this Oriental in a tuxedo with seething contempt.
Amazingly, Hollywood sent up this Orientalism itself in what has become a cult classic, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell as a well meaning wouldbe hero, brimming with self-confidence but falling short in skill as he is quickly sucked into the netherworld of Chinatown. In this movie, it is Kurt Russell’s character that is the buffoon (though full of sex appeal and charm), while the Oriental villains (in particular the mysterious Three Storms) are avatars of cool. Recalling the movie in an interview in 2011, Carpenter says of Russell’s character: “I came upon the idea of making this white guy, who’s a complete idiot, and all the Asians around him are completely competent. He thinks he’s doing well—he’s a blowhard—but he doesn’t get it at all.” Even the baddest of the villains, the bearded, silk-robed 2,000-year-old taipan David Lo Pan (played by James Hong) is cool. His is a badness that is badass. He is old, to be sure, and has to resort to kidnapping to get the green-eyed babes for which he has such a penchant, but his wit is far sharper than the would-be hero’s and he can emit lethal rays from his eyes. Now who wouldn’t want that?
This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.