Alexandra Wood’s top 5 British male style icons

7 minutes read

Believe it or not, there are a plethora of well-dressed men in our land, but we wouldn’t call them all British style icons. To be given that coveted title, you need to have a defined sense of style and a generous helping of that most enigmatic of descriptions: cool. But where does that come from? Were they born with it, or did it evolve alongside their careers?

To answer these questions, we’ve picked out our top five British male style icons, broken down their style and examined what it is that gives them their particular brand of cool.

1-David Bowie

Two words. Boldly cool.

We can’t speak about Bowie’s style without talking about his career – the two are inextricably linked. Bowie began his career in the 1960s as a fang-toothed, low-key dresser. His willowy frame ideally suited the mod look of the time and Bowie confidently sported an on-trend haircut, pointed boots, ankle-length trousers and shirts with the top button done up.

The release of Space Odyssey in the late 1960s sparked a revolution in his style and a signal of his confidence to experiment with fashion as far as his whims would take him. In the 1970s, Bowie introduced us to Ziggy Stardust – an alter ego who burst onto the scene in psychedelic, metallic catsuits, bright red hair with ‘that’ quiff, and the iconic zig-zag make-up that transcended clowns and fashion equally. Ziggy influenced his personal style as well, with make-up, skin-tight outfits and feminine cuts making an appearance in his everyday wardrobe.

In the 1980s, Bowie kept the eyeliner but transformed yet again – this time into his vision of a modern-day gentleman with double-breasted power suits, plenty of volume, bright colours and super-wide lapels. The 1990’s brought about a brief resurgence in his eclectic, rock’n’roll style, influenced by collaborations with Mick Jagger and Tin Machine. Think bright colours, skin-tight pants and a long union jack coat.

By the 2000s, his teeth were filed down, along it seems with the more extreme elements of his personal style. Bowie had a brief fling with a paired-back hippy look, before settling into close-fitting denim, rock-n-roll t-shirts, smart suits, and roll necks with a fitted jacket (a classic Bond move). His 2002 GQ Man of the Year awards suit paired glistening material with classic tailoring – a fitting combination of Bowie old and new. What rarely changed was the un-done blonde mop of hair.

Bowie’s fashion journey has been varied and incredibly colourful. What was apparent of Bowie’s style at any age was his lack of fear when it came to expression – wild and confident, but never pretentious. He made sartorial choices for himself and himself alone, and we forever applaud him for that.

2-Sean Connery

If you could look up ‘effortlessly cool’ – Sean Connery’s name would be next to the definition. This man has barely put a sartorial foot wrong in 60 years. But how?

Sir Thomas Sean Connery has been consistent in his dedication to wearing clothes, accessories and even facial hair in a way that best suited him: masculine but never showy.  His wardrobe has undergone subtle transitions over the years to match his age and changes in cuts and colours, rather than wild swings of experimentation. He’s even kept to tried and true classics for his casual wardrobe: soft polo shirts, chinos, linen suits and loafers in summer, dark roll necks and sports jackets in the colder months. PConnery’s tall, athletic frame allows him room for the extra fabric required for three-piece suits or the traditional kilt of his homeland. Our favourite Connery look is a grey double-breasted suit that gently hovers around the body, paired with smart, high waisted trousers.

His career-defining role as super-spy James Bond had ramifications for his style off-screen – whether intentional or not. In 1962’s Dr No, James Bond announced that his suits came from Savile Row. At that moment, an unbreakable bond was established in our psyches between Connery, his on-screen character and the image of a cool, sophisticated gentleman in a dinner suit. Just Google ‘Sean Connery Personal Style’ and most of the articles that come up are all about James Bond.

Since his retirement around 2003, we haven’t seen much of this beloved Scottish actor who turns 90 this year. Still, the images of this most British of stars continues to inspire us. Connery’s clothes have always appeared to be an extension of himself, rather than a statement – the epitome of effortless cool.

3-Idris Elba

This actor has a calm, uncomplicated type of cool that would come across as cold if it wasn’t for his warm smile.

Best known as an actor for his roles in The Wire, and as DCI John Luther in the BBC 1 series Luther, Idris Elba OBE is also a songwriter, singer, rapper and DJ. His time on the music scene in the late 1980s and 90s steered his style dangerously into ‘hip hop gangsta’ territory with white hoodies, puffa jackets, sportswear brands and woolly hats. Music is still a large part of his life, and while he certainly dresses the part for gigs (he’s worn some very tight shirts), it’s in a more toned-down way as he gets older.

Increasing success in television and feature film roles in the early 2000s heralded a new, more sophisticated look for Elba, both on and off the red carpet. Tuxedos, smoking jackets in jewel tones and sleek two-piece suits – in a deep shade of green or grey with black shirts and ties – have been his go-to for formal engagements. Elba loves a pop of colour, and he can certainly carry it off.

His casual look (away from his DJ desk) consists of simple t-shirts, button-down shirts, relaxed knitted polo shirts paired with straight-cut jeans and leather sneakers, boots or slip-ons in the warmer months. He also carries off a tailored overcoat with grace, whether in a solid colour or grey on grey houndstooth.

What makes his look so effortless? Proportion and quality.

Elba is 6’3” with a very athletic frame which he showcases it beautifully with waisted suits and streamlined cuts. His broad shoulders need little help from padding, but a precise cut is necessary so as not to throw out the proportion of the rest of the suit off. He also favours a skinny tie and narrow lapels, mainly if they are in a contrasting colour, and a crisp white shirt. Elba even does layering well, avoiding looking bulky with smart fabric choices and tonal colours in blues, greys and blacks with little pops here and there. Finally, his deceptively simple wardrobe oozes cool because everything he wears is of the highest quality.

This style evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2015 was named one of GQs best-dressed British Men. As with other icons on this list, Elba gets better with age. With a solid wardrobe foundation already established, we expect he’ll keep his style icon title well into the future.

4-Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman – a national acting treasure of sorts – is just that sort of dry, witty cool you want to hang out with until the early hours of the morning. Carefully dressed, but not too serious.

Oldman has publicly admitted his love of fashion on many occasions. You just have to read his excellent summary of his style in the Telegraph to see that he views clothes like fond friends. Fashion is as much a part of his life as acting. He even modelled for Prada at Milan Men’s Fashion Week and again for their 2012 Autumn/Winter collection shoot.

In terms of style, he’s certainly been a trend follower when it comes to British fashion. From an early ‘soul boy’ look in the 1960s, he took inspiration from skinheads in the 1970s with Crombie coats and pocket-handkerchiefs. Soon he embraced bomber jackets and Doc Martins, before refining his style in second-hand 1930s and 40s suits with shiny brogues or Oxfords as an acting student.

The varied roles being given to Oldman at this point in his career did mean that his off-screen and on-screen looks often clashed on a practical level. Imagine wearing a Sid Vicious hairstyle with a draping 1940s suit – just, no. That’s when he discovered Paul Smith. Oldman openly professes his love the designer’s eccentric British style.

As a young actor in London, he could only afford one small piece at a time – a tie, a shirt, one pair of shoes. In later life, he has sported head-to-toe outfits from the designer and wears Paul Smith exclusively on the red carpet. The Paul Smith suit style – sophisticated with a touch of whimsy; unmistakably British, but never stuffy; classic yet retro; has become synonymous with Oldman.

Gary Oldman could be 100 (he’s not, he’s 62) and still wear a hot pink blazer and get away with it. So, what exactly is it that gives him that essence of coordinated cool? He takes fashion with a healthy dose of humour and personality. Beautifully tailored jackets and suits are paired with patterned bow ties, surprising trims and those 60s inspired thick-rimmed glasses. Perfect.

5-Bill Nighy

When we think of Bill Nighy, an unflappable, I-don’t-give-a-monkeys-what-anyone-else-is-wearing, old-school cool comes to mind.

Bill Nighy’s particular brand of cool comes from an unwavering commitment to sleek suits that have seen the actor transcend trends over 40 plus years without skipping a style beat. In an interview with The Independent, he remarked: “I always want to wear a suit, and I nearly always do.”

He first fell in love with suits when his friend, a mod, worked for a tailor. While his budget never extended to one as a young man, a three-piece suit and a coxcomb hairdo were his perfect idea of cool. Suits have been the mainstay of his wardrobe ever since. Clearly, he’s not a fan of casual clothes (even linen suits are a no-no) and is rarely seen out without a jacket.

Today, Nighy is a man with a uniform – a single-vented, barely waisted dark blue lounge suit, made bespoke to meet his specifications. He occasionally branches out in dark greys or charcoals and loves a well-made overcoat (in a dark colour, of course!).

There’s no doubt that his public style is impeccable, but what gives Nighy that edge so many strive for is the fact that you notice Nighy first, not his clothes. He is the master of his wardrobe, as minimal as it is, and ensures that each suit he wears is as beautifully tailored as the next.

When we describe our favourite male British fashion icons, the words ‘stylish’ and ‘cool’ are always the first to be used. But these terms are unique as they can have a spectrum of meanings: Sean Connery’s classic cool is vastly different from Bowie’s audacious, experimental cool. And Idris Elba’s undeniably stylish choices probably wouldn’t sit well on Bill Nighy. That’s what we love about these British style icons – they know themselves well and dress their own way, and that’s what makes them all the epitome of effortlessly cool.

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