Alternative Style Icon: Bruce Campbell

That’s right, Bruce Goddamn Campbell. Not, admittedly, for his Hawaiian shirt and beer gut ensemble in Burn Notice, nor for his leather jerkin (shut up, Isle) as Autolycus, the King of Thieves, on Hercules and Xena. Nor even for rocking the most badass (or dare I say, “Groovy”) accessory of all time, his chainsaw hand in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness. No, not for any of Bruce Campbell’s movie roles, most of which don’t reflect his personal wardrobe choices.  Rather, it’s those choices that make him an alternative style icon in two different perspectives, for two different highlights in his sartorial evolution: his embrace of vintage as a young man, and his evolution in late middle age from fanny-pack casualwear to over-the-top, dressy flamboyance that puts the other proponents of today’s bastardized sprezzatura (otherwise known as #sprezz) to shame.

Campbell describes his vintage exploits in rather premature memoirs that came out about 15 years ago.  If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, turned this cinema dilettante into a hardcore Bruce Campbell junkie.  Because of it I even consumed his supposed magnum opus, the hard-to-digest The Man with the Screaming Brain, when it finally premiered on SyFy (if that venue’s any indication…).  More to the #steez point, Campbell described the lengths that he and his buddy Sam Raimi went to to get financing for the post-production of his first major film, Raimi’s Evil Dead.  Returning to their native Detroit, they realized that the best way for a bunch of twentysomething kids to gain sufficient gravitas and credibility to open the wallets and purses of local businesspeople was to dress the part, in the cast-off clothes of the very wealthy.  They profited from the church rummage sales in Grosse Pointe, where for a song they picked up custom suits donated by the Fords and other area dignitaries.  As he put it looking back more recently:

We were style masters way back in the day, then we lost it and now we're getting it back. Raising money for the first Evil Dead, we realized Detroit businessmen needed to see you in a suit. We went to Montgomery Wards, bought briefcases and [would] buy these old suits. There was a church in a very rich suburb that had a rummage sale once a year[….] we'd buy great suits –- silk-lined, wool suits -– for like 20 bucks, and get it tailored for another 20. For $40, you were styling.

Campbell came out with his memoirs in 2002, several lifetimes in Hollywood years, before he moved from a sort of niche to a fairly mainstream cult icon, as witnessed by his commercials for Old Spice a few years ago, among other things.  (That may also say something about the mainstreaming of everything cult, in part thanks to teh Internets.)  As part of that rebirth or rediscovery, he’s taken on a new persona, one that is suave and swaggering enough to teach us how to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, the title of his second book.  

Campbell blamed the duties of parenthood for the temporary loss of his personal style between his debut and his recent renaissance.  As a fellow parent, I can attest to the seductive pull of #dadcore.  That aside, Campbell’s reincarnation as style icon comes at a remove from the relatively classic clothes he must have rocked in his vintage days.  Instead, as his recent appearances show, he’s become perhaps the patron saint of what the inimitable Bruce Boyer called “the violently trendy and flamboyant uptick of the moment” in Boyer’s latest book: ruffled shirts, velvet jackets in deep colors, and other items that take to its logical conclusion the variegated, fiendishly ornate plumage that passes for sprezzatura today, a far cry from the studied nonchalance of 18th-century painters’ subjects.  Unlike many of the disingenuous posers of today’s #menswear movement, Campbell admits his peacockery is in part due to a desire to stand out now in his public appearances, in Campbell’s case at conventions.  He also admits that it’s that type of dressing, not what soothsayers and salesmen attempt to call timeless elegance, that gets him treated differently:

I wear these outfits because you get so many crappy pictures taken of you, you might as well be wearing a tux[…] If you show up [at the airport] in a suit and tie, they'll look at you weird because only tired businessmen will have a suit and tie on the plane. I am not a big fan of smoke and mirrors; I like being who I am. But there is something about perception being nine-tenths of the law. How are you perceived? This way I can be a jerk, but I'm wearing a suit, so it works great.

I can confirm Campbell’s refutation of the old cliché that wearing a (normal) suit and tie will get you treated better, or upgraded, on a plane.  Those days are long over.  In their way, he’s found a latter-day delight in clothes, so perhaps it’s fitting (no pun intended) that he’s now been playing the best dressed U.S. president in recent memory, Ronald Reagan, on the series Fargo.  Campbell’s swaggering persona aside, Campbell is an icon for finding joy in the way he dresses, in dressing to express himself, in taking pleasure in the journey, the prospecting for clothes whether vintage or violently flashy and new, for recognizing that it’s not enough for chins to kill, or to have a chainsaw hand or a boomstick.  You have to dress to kill too. Or as his most famous character, Ashley J. Williams, might say, Dress smart. S-Mart.

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