Sunday, 14 December 2014

Men's Fashions:
Belt-Back Jackets

1930s belt-back summer jacket.
In the mid-1930s a new fashion appeared in the UK: belt-back suits and sports jackets. Although the style wasn't entirely new, the idea of a casual 'sports' jacket', worn with grey flannels, became the latest look for young men, shown here in the Kays catalogue for 1937:
The style was derived from the belted 'Norfolk' jackets, so popular for those indulging in country pursuits, and had filtered down into tweed golfing jackets often worn with a back belt and sometimes referred to as a 'Half Norfolk'. This golfing jacket from 1930 was offered in both plain and belted back:

Belts had also appeared on young men's suits in the teens and twenties but it was in the 1930s that the look really took off among young men.
Whilst it is certain that the fashion industry certainly pushed the style, it's difficult to judge how popular the fashion became since there are so few surviving examples that British belt-back suits and jackets are something of a 'Holy Grail' for collectors of vintage clothing. Also, it's difficult to identify a belt-back jacket from period photographs since most photographs show men from the front. Details such as pleated, patch pockets can offer a clue but even this isn't conclusive. Plenty of clothing manufacturers offered their jackets with a choice of styles meaning that pleated pockets appear on both 'plain' and 'fancy back' jackets. One company offered six different styles of back on its products, some with scalloped yokes, others with no yoke; some pleated, some unpleated; some with vents, some without. The pleated pockets can be seen in this 1940 advert, offering matching pleated pocket and belted back suits for father and son:

Such is my interest in this style that whenever I watch old British films, I look out for belt-backs and always try to save images of them.

So here's my selection from British films of the period.

The style is often used in films to denote 'wide boys' - those dodgy criminal types so popular with audiences. The most notable examples come from Brighton Rock, as worn by Richard Attenborough and William Hartnell. Attenborough's suit has one of the most extreme examples of pleats seen on a British suit ...

... whilst the pinched waist, broad shoulders and loud cloth make Hartnell's suit one of the ultimate 'wide boy' suits of the era:

Another good example of using a belt back to illustrate how dodgy a character is can be seen in 'Madonna of the Seven Moons'. Here the dangerously criminal Sandro (Peter Glenville) wears a white belt backed jacket ...

 ... which he combines with a dark shirt, loud tie and tie pin to emphasise his criminal credentials:

'Madonna of the Seven Moons' also gives the audience a variation on the shoulder pleats and belt-back look. Stewart Granger's suit lacks a belt but has visible closed pleats at both the shoulder and the waist:

This was a short lived fashion that was particularly favoured by the Los Angeles menswear store Oviatt's:

Another example of the 'wide boy' wearing a belt-back jacket comes from 'The Shop at Sly Corner' in which the blackmailer played by Kenneth Griffith shows off his belt and pleat pockets:

Another on-screen wide boy was Michael Medwin, seen here in Boys in Brown wearing a very nice check three piece suit with a belt-back and double breasted waistcoat:
Michael Medwin (right)

Michael Medwin (left)
Also in 'wide boy' territory is the use of two belt-back jackets in The Ladykillers: The jacket worn by Danny Green is a rather unappealing piece ...

... it appears to be a costume piece made for the film since it is unlike any genuine items I have ever seen. However, the jacket worn by Frankie Howerd is rather nicer:

With its patch pockets, back-belt, action-back rather than pleats, slight peaked lapels and a two button front, the jacket is rather stylish and would, no doubt, be very popular with collectors.

A comical variation on the theme comes from the 1950s Ealing Studios comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt. Stanley Holloway's character is a gambler with rather 'fast' tastes. His jacket - seemingly a costume piece - combines the look of the 1920s 'half Norfolk' with the shoulders of a 1940s jacket:

Of course, it is not just a wide boy/criminal image: Belt-backs are also used to denote forward thinking young men. The following examples both show young engineers (Eric Portman in Millions Like Us & Clifford Evans in The Foreman Went to France) wearing belt-back sports jackets. Both men reflect the mid-20th Century notion of socialism and progress through industry and, in particular, precision engineering. They are anti-Fascist icons of British cinema who believe that society pulling together is the only way to defeat the Nazis and build a better future:
Clifford Evans

Clifford Evans

Eric Portman
Portman's character even wears a belt-back work coat on the factory floor:
Eric Portman
A belt-backed character with similar anti-Nazi credentials was played by John Longden in The Silver Fleet. Also an engineer, he plays his part in the war effort by stealing a German submarine.  Rather than a sports jacket he wears an impressive pleated and belted leisure jacket:

Another progressive character who wears a belt-back is played by Jimmy Hanley in The Way Ahead. He isn't politically progressive but rather socially progressive, hanging out in Soho jazz clubs, turning his hand to 'hot jazz' drumming and selling second hand cars. Whichever way you look at it, he's on the cusp of social change:

Not all examples fit into these easy themes. There are others that just appear in the course of films:

Peter Haddon in House of the Spaniard:

A corduroy belt-back, also from House of the Spaniard:


Laurence Olivier in 21 Days:

Here's Geoffrey Hibbert as 'Harry Hardcastle' in the 1940 film Love on the Dole:

Anthony Bushell in The Red Wagon wears a belt-back complete with buttoning patch pockets, with breast pockets on both sides:

The film shows a rather rare example of two belt-back jackets worn in one scene and visible on screen at the same time:
Extras also get in on the action, such as here in The Silver Fleet ...

... and in Murder in Soho:

It's also worth looking out for belt-back overcoats whenever they make an onscreen appearance:

Secrets of the Loch:

The Four Just Men:

It Always Rains on Sunday:

I will be updating this page as and when 'new' examples appear.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Operation Amsterdam (1959)
Eva Bartok

Peter Finch, Tony Britton and Alexander Knox
This is one of those rather simple British war films that were so prevalent throughout the 1950s. It makes no pretence to be high art, or even high drama, but just tells its tale without unnecessary embellishment. The film has a lengthy voice over and opening explanation which gives a documentary feel, as does the downplayed action. As a result, it's surprisingly effective.
'Operation Amsterdam' is the code name for a British attempt to prevent the stock of industrial diamonds, held by Dutch diamond dealers, from falling into the hands of the Nazis when the Netherlands was occupied in 1940. The diamonds, which had a high value for use in precision engineering, would have been vital to the war effort of both sides. So, with the consent of the Netherlands authorities, a team is sent into Amsterdam to secure the diamonds. Under the command of a British intelligence operative Major Dillon (Tony Britton), two Dutch nationals Walter Keyser (Alexander Knox) and Jan Smit (Peter Finch) are sent to convince the diamond merchants to hand over their stocks for safe keeping.

The film is based on the 1956 book Adventure in Diamonds by David Walker. If you are interested, the full text can be read online courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Where the film is particularly effective is in presenting the chaos of the situation in the Netherlands as its armies are routed, the Germans continue to advance and civilians attempt to flee. The sense of chaos in the docks as civilians attempt to find safe passage overseas in contrasted by the eerie feeling of the deserted city streets as people hide away as they await the arrival of the victorious enemy.
This is heightened by the central theme of the film: Who can the three agents trust?
They are helped by a local woman Anna (Eva Bartok), but is she a patriot or a German agent? Then there's Colonel Janssen (John Le Mesurier ...
John Le Mesurier
... a loyal soldier or working for the enemy?
Even the soldiers on the streets aren't certain to be loyal. Are they defending their city or 'Fifth Columnists' sent to cause chaos and confusion?

The film reaches its climax as the three agents, assisted by a mysterious group led by Alex (Christopher Rhodes) ...
Christopher Rhodes
... rob the bank vaults to ensure the success of the operation which has, by this time, become a diamond heist:
The identity of the gang is never established. They are obviously sympathetic to the British, but their skills at safe breaking suggest they are criminals rather than undercover agents.
One thing to look out for: It's a lesser-spotted example of someone taking up a gun and actually picking up some spare ammunition. This sort of thing doesn't happen very often in war films of the 1950s. Usually people blaze away as if guns are refilled by magic!
Eva Bartok
Well done, Anna!!!
Also look out for:
Melvyn Hayes
Not the best war film of the 1950s, but certainly not the worst.
Currently available on DVD.