Call for Comments: Tinker TAILOR Soldier SPIES

From Monica: While everyone else attends cinemas this holiday season for Live Action Spideyverse or The Matrix: Again, I decided to rope my fellow co-hosts into watching a slightly less anticipated franchise new release, The King’s Man. If this is the first you’re hearing of this movie at all, it’s probably because you’re getting it confused with the first film of the franchise, titled Kingsman (2014). Which is to say this is a third installment no one but me asked for. Probably the best development of The King’s Man is that low budget Stanley Tucci look-alike Mark Strong from the first two movies will be replaced by actual Stanley Tucci. As a prequel film without any of the original cast, The King’s Man is banking hard that you either care a lot about a franchise that hangs its comedy laurels on anal sex jokes, or that you really really like spy things.

I happen to really really like spy things. Hell, my first film industry job was working two seasons on TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017). James Bond, Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, Get Smart, spy cars, spy gadgets, spy fashion, spy jokes, spy sex….you get it. This is primarily motivated because we didn’t have the time talk about No Time to Die at the time of its release, but this week we’re going to use The King’s Man as the catalyst for a discussion about the classic spy genre, or more specifically its future in 2022. According to Everything or Nothing (2012), the James Bond documentary on the history of EON Productions, Casino Royale (2006) was conceived in a post 9/11 world, interested in treating villains closer to real world threats. But after watching No Time to Die, I began to wonder how much it’s possible to really change a franchise? We’ve replaced Madonna with Rami Malek, but we’re still running around on the ice. We’re out here stealing “secret baby” and “giant magnets” plots from Fast and Furious 9 (2021). So, I’m not here to convince you that Kingsman/The King’s Man [Kingsmen?] are good movies. But I am here to ask you to consider the ways postmodern pastiche creates both homages and critiques to the pieces that came before. In what ways can postmodernism allow genres to evolve, and in what ways are they stuck in a loop? 

Kingsman very successfully interacts with its source materials through lots of little “Easter eggs.” For example, Colin Firth makes reference to the original Kingsman shoes being equipped with phones, a trademark gadget of the Mel Brooks TV Series Get Smart (1965-1970). Or in the second film, The Statesman’s tech support is Ginger Ale, played by Halle Berry, also known as Jinx Johnson in the James Bond film Die Another Day (2002). It’s also engaging with a long history off-screen. For the first two films, directer Matthew Vaughn and costume designer Arienne Philipps partnered with the historic London Savile Row Huntsman & Sons tailor shop (the filming location and original inspiration for the Kingsman headquarters) and the Mr. Porter brand (part of global e-commerce Yoox Net-A-Porter Group) to create a clothing collection that allowed consumers to shop the film. While most retail-tie-ins are produced after the fact and made of garments “inspired by” the costumes, when Philips was designing Colin Firth’s suits, she made sure that the high-end fabrics would also be available to re-create the exact look for the Kingsman collection. In her own words “So that the person that buys this suit — it’s not inspired by [Hart’s suit], it actually is the suit.” Just so we’re clear about price points, Eggsy’s orange velvet dinner jacket is $2000. According to the saleswoman I spoke to during my visit to Huntsman & Sons, the clientele is largely South Korean, which makes sense considering the film holds the country’s record for highest non-Korean R-rated sales ever. It doesn’t fully answer why we want to be spies, or at least dressed like them? Like, it’s a lot of almost dying in exchange for an Aston Martin.

The concept of a spy-related retail collection ending up both on-camera and in-stores, made of the same materials, isn’t even a revolutionary concept, recalling the fashion fervor surrounding Diana Riggs as Emma Peel in The Avengers (1961-1969) series and the 1965 “Jean Varon Avengers Collection” produced by show’s costume designer John Bates, or the “Emmapeeler” created by his replacement Alun Hughes. By 1965 over 6,000 shops in France stocked James Bond licensed products. Boussac, the largest textile group in France, launched ranges of raincoats, suits, shirts, and toweling.

Where Kingsman’s tailor shop headquarters overtly places fashion at the forefront of the spy identity, it’s always been a defining characteristic. In the fourteen James Bond novels written by Ian Fleming, he takes time to carefully describe the wardrobe of his titular character. Despite constant descriptions of fabrics, colors, and articles, Fleming is careful never to name an actual brand worn by Bond. (In contrast, Fleming describes the wardrobe of Bond’s enemies and contemporaries in luxuriating detail, name dropping brands, in attempts to illustrate their moral corruption.) According to Nick Sullivan in Dressed to Kill: James Bond, The Suited Hero. “The key to Bond style will always elude his enemies … because the mystique of Bond must remain in tact and impenetrable for him to remain a hero … His body may be mutilated in terrible ways but style, the essence of the man, cannot be harmed.” The Kingsman are not even the first tailor spies either. Hercules Mulligan was an Irish-American who opened a New York tailor shop in 1774. He catered to society men, including high-ranking military officers. He convinced Alexander Hamilton to join the patriot political group the Sons of Liberty, and upon Hamilton’s recommendation joined George Washington’s spy ring. He provided services to British officers and was able to surmise the movements of their units based on the dates his clients needed their suits returned.  

The point that I’m trying to make is that while spies have existed forever, most of our contemporary pop culture references to spies stem from the Post War or Cold War. Fleming’s series is distinctly modeled after his experiences in WWII. Even the first Kingsman film acknowledged this timeline by choosing to dress its trainees in Churchill’s trademark siren suit (also for sale with the Mr. Porter Kingsman Collection). But The King’s Man instead chooses to place the foundation of the spy organization on a timeline more aligned with that of the actual MI6, which originated around WWI. As a costume historian, I’m often trying to differentiate how much of a film’s appearance is a depiction of the time period setting, and how much is a depiction of what an audience conceives as history? Some people are interested in historical accuracy (or the myth of it) but I’ve always been much more interested in the ways our conceptions of what is accurate inform our viewing experience, especially as we collapse linear time in order to buy into period films as an audience. For example, the conception of the 1920s flapper is largely a lie conceived and perpetuated by film characters and dance costumes rather than a widespread fashion movement. Fringe couldn’t have been mass produced in the 20s, yet most 20s flapper costumes today include fringe. Setting a film decades earlier than our traditional conceptions of spies has the ability to re-write a genre, but also has the potential to impose discussions of postwar culture through classic spy tropes into a new fantasy version of history. The film doesn’t come out until December 22nd, so at the time that I’m writing this I can’t answer how The King’s Man will choose to approach this phenomenology—that’s hopefully why we’ll all tune in to the actual podcast. For now, we’d love to know your secret spy thoughts…  

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