Screen costume: Charlie Chaplin and the birth of an icon

The Circus (1928)

In his fascinating book Acting in the Cinema James Naremore analyses the first film in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as the Tramp character that became his trademark, Kid’s Auto Race (1914). Kid’s Auto Race, also known as Kid Auto Races at Venice, is a six-minute Keystone comedy produced by the legendary Mack Sennett, for whom Chaplin went on to perform the Tramp in many more silent films. Naremore focuses on the details of Chaplin’s pantomime, mentioning in passing the contribution of his costume in singling him out from the rest of the crowd at the scene, which stages the filming of an auto race in which the Tramp causes chaos by getting in the way of the camera. For Naremore, this film establishes Chaplin as a celebrity by contrasting his theatricalised acting with the more naturalistic performance and dress of the ‘real’ spectators.

This inspired me to look more closely at the role of costume in building the Tramp’s identity and distinguishing the character as a star. Although this was the Tramp’s first appearance, Chaplin’s distinctive comic performance style was evident in the Keystone comedy Making a Living (1914), in which he played a swindler. The tramp costume was devised for Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), made just before but released after Kid Auto Races

Kid Auto Races (1914)

In silent cinema the actors often wore their own clothing. According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing. This contrasts with the dress of the other participants, which is tidy, appropriate and in tune with the setting, indicating their authenticity. While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.

The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer. He hogs the camera, disrupting the filming of the races by interposing himself in various poses between the film-makers and the event. The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.

Kid Auto Races (1914)

This is troublesome in several ways. In terms of class, the combination of vagrant and dandy in the Tramp’s costume lampoons the respectable appearance of the rest of the crowd. He overturns the logic of time by sporting clothes from different periods. In the story, the disorderly Tramp erupts into an orderly everyday occasion populated by ordinary middle-class folk on a day out; he is a social menace. He breaks the rules of documentary film-making by giving a theatrical comic turn in stylised gear and make-up that reveals the mechanisms of the staged set-up and drives the director to distraction. The anarchic nature of his garments is reflected in the apparent unpredictability of his actions. Genius. No wonder film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein celebrated the Tramp’s revolutionary potential. 

© Pam Cook

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