Style Icon: Illya Kuryakin
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.
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