Hers is the glamour of an adventurer who stirs your imagination with her game-changing style, while learning to love Africa. In Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), Kristin Scott Thomas plays Katharine Clifton, a British who goes to Northern Africa with her husband (Colin Firth) on a desert expedition. I will not say much about the film, just that it is overly sentimental, too long and with an unfulfilling ending for my own taste, and that I totally understood Elaine’s ordeal in Seinfeld when she had to watch it again unwillingly. However, I did watch it again a little while ago, at my own free will, but I did it just for Kristin Scott Thomas’ flyer’s jacket look (hazards of the job I guess).
In her suede aviator jacket, pleat-fronted trousers, white shirt and earth-toned scarves, Katharine may be channeling aviator Amelia Earhart. It is one of the film looks that will endure over time and there is a lot we can take from it any given day. The colour scheme – beautiful browns, raging from chocolate and caramel, to camel, tan and milky beige (in the image above, Katharine and Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), dressed in sand-hued clothes, seem to blend with the desert). The fabrics – natural fibres, very practical and necessary in the African heat (it’s in utilitarianism that resides the endurance of any clothing item), like linen, cotton and wool. But, most of all, it’s that timeless, androgynous, modern silhouette: the aviator jacket over white shirt, and oversized trousers. Masculine-inspired and bold and supremely self-confident, very Katharine Hepburn. It looks casual and simple and easy and natural. But it’s enigmatic and seductive, too. “A woman wearing a man’s overcoat as she walks along the street is much more sensual than one wearing an evening dress,” said Giorgio Armani. I second that.
I often write about men’s style in film. Because an innate sense of style seems to run amok among our male counterparts, because men’s style stands the test of time much better than women’s and because I myself have a fondness for menswear basics. Whether it’s Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, James Dean in Rebel without a Cause or Steve McQueen in Bullitt, men’s style simply ages better. But I have to admit that whenever a woman is channeling a men’s style well, hardly anything beats that. It happened with Kelly McGillis in Top Gun (can you seriously think of a better look than a bomber jacket with a pencil skirt?) and Lauren Hutton in American Gigolo, and, in this case, Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient. She is not merely channeling masculine style, her flyer’s jacket is worn like a public declaration of her femininity, one that it is well aware of her innate power.
There is a red patterned shawl that Katharine wraps herself in now and then. I like that splash of colour, maybe hinting at the fact that, underneath those neutral colours that can hide her emotions, she is in fact in search of a certain kind of freedom and of romance, and she came to Africa to find it. “Up in this air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.” (Karen Blixen, Out of Africa)
photos: film stills from The English Patient | Miramar, Tiger Moth Productions