Costume design is an important element of characterisation. Invariably, how a person is dressed has an influence on other people’s perceptions of that person, and this fact is just as important in film or on TV. Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are interesting examples of this, as the costume design is very subtle. Indeed, I’ve been re-watching them lately and it is only because I’m a style hack that I noticed the costume design at all. There are three key characters in the series, namely the Minister and later Prime Minister, Jim Hacker MP; the Minister’s Permanent Secretary and later Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby; and the Minister and later Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley. There are key differences between all three upon which shall be elaborated throughout.
Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) was educated at the London School of Economics, which is actually an extremely respectable but practical university founded in the 19th century, and therefore commands disdain from both Appleby and Woolley, graduates of the ancient Oxford. Hacker tends to dress slightly less traditionally, or perhaps ‘more in tune with the times’ is a better way of putting it. He tends to favour double-breasted suits, which lend him a traditional air of statesmanship. Generally, Hacker ties his tie using a four-in-hand, or “schoolboy” knot. This knot lends a more casual air to the formality of a suit and tie, and appears less fastidious than a Windsor knot, which is often associated with the well-to-do.
Since the Global Financial Crisis, the four-in-had has become popular with politicians again today as politicians strive to be more ‘at one’ with the voters. Hacker’s pocket squares tend to be puffed in his pocket and are usually brightly coloured, dating the programme to a time when many people still wore pocket squares on the daily. The influences on Hacker’s choice of clothing are alluded to in the episode, “The Ministerial Broadcast”, where it is suggested that on television he wear a light coloured, ‘business-like’ suit for delivering no new information, or a dark coloured suit for announcing big changes, in order to appear more sincere. In the elements of his outfits, though, Hacker is dressed like a man of the people, in a manner that is authoritative and yet also friendly.
This is in direct contrast to Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). An Oxford man with a privileged upbringing, Sir Humphrey always wears single-breasted, two-button suits, usually with a light coloured shirt and pocket square. His ties vary, but all are tied with a perfect half-Windsor (you can tell by the size of the knot). This knot signifies the difference in monetary value of Humphrey and Hacker. Here is a man who is on at least £30,000 a year, according to Yes Minister – this is more than Hacker earns, and it shows! With the exception of the YPM episode, “The Key”, Humphrey never looks untidy or dishevelled, and all his outfits are perfectly tailored. Refreshingly, Sir Humphrey’s suits do not follow the 1980s fashion for having a particularly low gorge (where the collar meets the lapel), and so have not dated at all, as opposed to Hacker’s double-breasted suits, which are a complete product of their age.
In all his behaviour, Humphrey is a stickler for tradition, and his costume design reflects this. As a sidenote, Ian Fleming had this to say about Windsor knots: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor Knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad.” Perhaps Hacker should have taken heed of this advice.
Bernard (Derek Fowlds), also an Oxford man from the upper classes, tends towards the same standards as Humphrey, most notably the Windsor knot. Interestingly, however, Woolley’s costuming changes the most out of all the leads over time. Throughout Yes Minister, Woolley is learning the ropes of the civil services, still quite young and green compared to the experienced Sir Humphrey. Bernard, in his youthful idealism, is yet to gain the automatic jaded outlook of Sir Humphrey. Perhaps as a reflection of this, Bernard’s dress sense in the earlier series is quite dandyish. A proponent of the navy single-breasted suit – often a three-piece – Bernard frequently pairs it with pink shirts or the occasional merchant banker, often with a collar pin and cufflinks to boot.
Being quite the (dubiously successful) dandy myself, I would certainly mark Bernard as the best dressed of the three in Yes Minister. However, by Yes Prime Minister, Bernard’s style has toned right down, almost to the same level of tradition as Sir Humphrey. Gone are the brighter shirts, to be replaced with whites and blues the same as Sir Humphrey. This shift in style is quite notable, and I interpret it as a sign of Bernard’s advancing up the ranks of the Civil Service and a consequent maturity – though this is not necessarily reflected in his behaviour and puntastic dialogue! He remains the best dressed, however.
The contrasting styles of all three characters give the audience an insight into their personalities right off the bat, and these insights are later backed up by the characters’ roles in the plots. I’ve been unable to find any analysis of the costume design online, or indeed any comments from the programmes’ creators to back up the interpretations I’ve made here. However, in the book adaptations of the series released in the 1980s, numerous references are made to Ministry of Defence officials wearing baggy blue suits as their civilian uniforms. This leads me to believe that there would have to have been some attention paid to the significance of certain sartorial elements in the design of the show. But, maybe I’m just being over-analytical.
UPDATE 27/09/13: According to S Granville of To Bed With A Trollope, Hacker often also wears a London School of Economics tie, reflecting his alma mater. This makes me think there was lots of attention paid to the costuming, and that perhaps I’m not being as over-analytical as I might have thought…