Style Icon: Illya Kuryakin

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I wouldn’t call Illya Kuryakin a “conventionally attractive” guy. I’m mean sure, he’s got nice eyes and very pretty hair, but he’s also got kind of a weird face. Not weird as in “bad,” but still—weird. When you compare David McCallum (aka the guy who played Illya in the original Man from U.N.C.L.E.) to Armie Hammer (aka the guy who’s playing Illya in Guy Richie’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake), the difference is obvious: Hammer is one of those Hollywood hunks who looks symmetrical and sparkly from absolutely every angle; McCallum, not so much.

Which doesn’t really matter. For male icons, being “conventionally attractive” isn’t always the point. That’s the totally unfair discrepancy between male icons and female icons: women can be revered for their personality only if they’re also drop-dead gorgeous, whereas men can use their personality to shore up, even celebrate, their lack of drop-dead gorgeousness. The hard-lined objectification of men has been ramping up of late, but historically and in general, male icons have a much wider range of options than female icons because their attractiveness isn’t just a function of how they look; it’s also rooted in who they are, and what they do. Women have it tougher; if we’re not babes with perfect skin, tits, abs, legs, and all the rest, having a personality can be a serious liability.

That’s part of the reason why so many of my style icons tend to be men, rather than women. It’s not some kind of “reverse sexism.” In real life, I’m a woman-identified-woman. But the realm of icons is different. I love male icons because I want their freedom, their privilege to exercise agency in making and representing themselves. I don’t want to be a man, but I do want the masculine privilege of being considered beautiful and inspirational not just for what I wear, but for how I wear it.

Illya’s style is a case in point of the triumph of how over what. First, though, the what. When he’s not wearing a form-fitting black wool turtleneck or a dark trench coat or a weather-beaten leather bomber jacket, Illya almost always wears a suit, sometimes grey, but more often black. The cut is narrow, with those slim 60s pants that hit kind of short, right at the ankle bone above slightly pointed shoes. He always wears his suits with a very white shirt and a very skinny black tie, held in place with a gold tie pin that’s always worn low and slightly askew. What’s great about Illya’s usual ensemble is its chic nondescript-ness; the cut of his suit and his skinny tie put him on-trend, but in the most bare bones, nonchalant way possible. That’s also the way he wears it, his clothes hanging from his body like an unconscious presence; his jacket is always undone, and kind of rumpled or dusty or grimy, depending where he’s been that day, and what he’s been up to. That’s the very best thing about Illya’s suits: they do everything, go everywhere. Illya wears a suit to hurl himself across tables and down elevator shafts, to throw wild punches and flying kicks, to climb drainpipes and castle walls, to ride motorcycles and fly helicopters, and, of course, to be tied up and tortured and interrogated before he’s finally and inevitably rescued by his very best accessory, Napoleon Solo.

Women’s fashion is typically flamboyant in a non-functional way. Even now, more than a decade into the “post-feminist” twenty-first century, women’s fashion gravitates toward the theatrical, enshrining our role as objects of display. Suits, the stalwart pillar of men’s fashion, have always been a bit different. Suits are the quintessential masculine accoutrement, reshaping the body to be both self-contained and heroically mobile. For me, the way Illya wears a suit is like the perfect dream of what a suit can be: a transparent veneer that somehow enhances personal essence, a tool of anonymity that nonetheless succumbs to the whim of its owner. As a spy, Illya dresses to be be discreet and invisible, yet everything he does, everywhere he goes, is inscribed in every wrinkle, crease, and stain.

Contradictions are a central aspect of Illya’s style, as they’re a central aspect of suits in general. The purity and innocence conjured up by Illya’s blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes is offset by his world weary expressions and the downtrodden slouch of his shoulders, just as his smallish stature is offset by his reckless physicality (including, of course, his love of bombs and enormous guns). Yet these contradictions don’t disrupt the perfect clarity of Illya’s style. In fact, they enhance it, blending the complexity of his personality into the complexity of his body. This is Illya’s grandest, most appealing contradiction: in a world of espionage and deceit, he is clearly, inescapably himself.

Ultimately, Illya’s style nurtures my dream that fashion can be about something more than the pursuit of pure-and-simple gorgeousness. Maybe fashion can also be a statement of self-possession, as layered and complicated and active as we are. It’s not a dream for a perfect world—just a sexier one.

—Annadiceratops_side black_left_reduced

12 Responses to “Style Icon: Illya Kuryakin”

  1. Marianne

    Great post, Anna! You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this and I enjoyed reading your perspective on it. I’ve given Illya’s wardrobe and mid to late 1960s clothes a lot of thought too doing my Man from U.N.C.L.E. doll photo stories on my blog (http://mariannemusing.blogspot.com/).

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always suspected that David took time to make friends with the crew more than Robert did which may have led to more attractive clothing for David on the show. Remember when Illya wore a blue parka with a fur trimmed hood that framed his face angelically and brought out the blue in his eyes while Napoleon was wearing a human version of Elmer Fudd’s hunting outfit? From what I’ve read about David, I think he prefers a working wardrobe the simpler and more comfortable, the better and I bet his friends in the MfU wardrobe dept. took that into account.

    Reply
    • Anna Peppard Anna Peppard

      Oh my goodness, I’ve only just glanced at your photo stories, but I’m already in love; rest-assured I will read through completely and comment asap! While I also adore Vaughn/Napoleon’s style on the show (I particularly love his steadfast commitment to keeping his suit jacket fastened at all times), I do ultimately prefer Illya’s particular idiosyncrasies. I definitely remember the parka you’re referring to; “The Yukon Affair” was the only time Napoleon and Illya visited my home country of Canada, so of course it’s one of my absolute favs 🙂

      Reply
  2. Gayland Williams

    Illya was appealing because he was described as an “anti-hero” or underdog. The bad guys were always much bigger but Illya was more clever. He was all about brains rather than brawn. He made being smart cool rather than being nerdy. He was responsible for thousands of turtle necks being sold and I still refer to mine as an “Illya Shirt”. McCallum has said many times he chose to keep the simple black and white suit combo because they often filmed scenes from different episodes while they had certain sets available on the MGM back lot. Keeping the same outfit allowed him to escape continuity issues. Still love this man after nearly 50 years. He will always be cool to me!

    Reply
    • Anna Peppard Anna Peppard

      That’s interesting about the black and white suits being the result of continuity concerns; I’d never heard that before, but of course it makes perfect sense! However, I do still like to imagine that Illya’s suits have something to do with his character: perhaps as a reflection of his somewhat utilitarian, anti-capitalist sensibility? Or perhaps they could also be a function of the “underdog” nature you mentioned: perhaps Illya’s look is nondescript because he wants people to underestimate him (so that he can gain the upper hand, which of course he always does ;)).

      Reply
  3. Kym

    I don’t really agree with your initial assessment of David McCallum. (And no I’m not a 60 something Babyboomer… I’m a 35 yr. old Gen. Xer.) McCallum’s 60s-era looks are extraordinary while Armie Hammer’s are typical of the type Hollywood shoves in our faces today… Rather dull, manufactured, & predictable if you ask me. McCallum’s appeal is representative of a time when Hollywood was chock full of young actors who had that indescribable, It factor. They had the whole package. A freshness in looks and the ability to act in ways that we hadn’t previously seen before put these guys in a whole other league. Steve McQueen and Peter O’Toole come to mind. There was something quite romantic or imaginative about them all. When you throw TV & Beatlemania into this potent mix, you’ve got David McCallum. Just look at the mania he caused during the Man From Uncle days! Fifty years later I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into ladies at work who proclaim, “McCallum was my first crush!” I don’t see this kind of enthusiasm for Armie Hammer. Hollywood hunk or not… Hammer is bland. He may be a good actor but he represents an entertainment industry bogged down by mediocrity and its’ golden days a thing of the past. My apologies if my argument is a little off topic! Your piece is very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it! I just don’t think that black turtleneck sweaters make the man when the man already has what it takes! 🙂

    Reply
    • Anna Peppard Anna Peppard

      Oh dear, I just knew that “not traditionally attractive” comment would get me into trouble! But I really didn’t mean it as a slight, I assure you. I actually very much agree with you about the difference between McCallum (and many of the other 60s icons you mentioned) and a contemporary star like Hammer; McCallum has a far more “interesting” face (which is, for me, far more appealing), though I’d still argue that Hammer is more “perfect” (just in terms of square-jawed, model-eque face symmetry). While I do find McCallum as Illya to be *intensely* beautiful, the point I was really trying to get across is that beauty doesn’t have to be the same thing as “perfection”; for me, McCallum’s Illya embodies the possibility of beauty and style as a function of individuality, a statement of personal identity rather than bland conformity to a certain, stereotypical (re: bland) “look.” Agreed, too, that the turtleneck doesn’t make the man; as I said in the post, Illya is a great example of the fact that it’s all about how you wear it 🙂

      Reply
      • Kym

        Point well taken! I think I can go overboard sometimes with my pro-Illya /60s rants! 🙂 I hope I didn’t offend you in any way. Your piece is really one of the best I’ve read on the subject! The angle you take is really quite interesting!

        Reply
        • Anna Peppard Anna Peppard

          No offense taken, of course! I’m quite pro-Illya/60s myself 😉

          Reply
  4. Anna Spinelli

    Hallo, I just happened to come across this page by chance, but I’d like to add one thing, to the adoration that most of us had/have for Illya/DMC. I was a teenager when I first saw a movie of that fantastic couple, Napoleon and Illya, and loved the second inconditionally at first glance. Why? I adored his beeing at ease everywhere, knowing what was needed to be known in every circumstance and so on. I wanted to be like him, with the wondrous dream I could one day pair with a man like him. It was probably a common dream in the 60s, when we, youngs, for the first time thought that everything could be possible with honest, good will. Well, of course, it didn’t all happen, but at least I studied a lot since then, and sometimes, when in some little tricky troubles I happen to be the one who gets the easy and simple solution that nobody had thought about before, I remember him. I developed a real love for THE KARATE KILLERS, for I was the kind of Kim Darby, and would have given away my life and soul to live such an adventure with such company! Now, the only thing left is to watch again, with an infinite pleasure I must say, “my” man from U.N.C.L.E. and think, secretly, that I could be the perfect secret partnert to him. He played the real man that we could possibly meet, those days. Although those days, are of course gone. thanks anyway for the beautiful and true essay that started this charming page.

    Reply
    • Anna Peppard Anna Peppard

      Thanks so much for reading, and for sharing your touching story! I always love hearing about the deep and complex ways that pop culture has inspired and affected different people. I think a lot of people wanted to partner with Napoleon and/or Illya and share in their adventures, at least judging by the stories of hundreds (or thousands?) of fans writing the studio, trying to join UNCLE 🙂

      Reply

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