NOEL COWARD: THE MAN, THE ICON, THE CIGARETTE (JPW)

Noel Coward always maintained his image of a dandy. Smoking a cigarette while in a dress gown.

Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives is a delightfully witty show about divorce, androgeny, and the appropriateness of age in marriage. The play follows Amanda and Elyot, a divorced couple who finds out whilst on honeymoon with their new spouses, that they are staying in adjacent hotel rooms. Through rocky interactions, the couple realizes that they still have feelings for each other, although they are doomed to fail in the long run. At the end of the play, the audience sees the two lovers sneaking off together, but we are never sure what will become of them. A common motif in the play, which also appears in many of Coward’s plays, is the cigarette. Coward usually had his characters smoking cigarettes, which was a big symbol in his own life. The cigarette was a part of Coward’s image, and he worked very hard his entire life to maintain it.

Coward was brought up as a young boy by the upper class, and so he grew to have a fascination with the high life of the time. As such, he decided to carefully craft his image to always be wearing a dress gown, smoking a cigarette, and speaking with the utmost of manners and etiquette. Coward originally sported the dress gown in his play The Vortex and continued to feature his signature style in future characters. Many considered Coward to be a modern dandy of his time, and they widely recognized him as not a great actor, director, or writer, but rather as a person known most for his style.

As soon as Coward achieved success he began perfecting his image. His earliest press photos are of him in his gowns, smoking his cigarettes. Eventually, Coward started wearing turtleneck jerseys, and started a fashion trend out of it. He claimed that he wore them more for comfort than for effect, but the people of London quickly followed Coward’s fashion sense. It was his popularity that would eventually encourage Coward to start toning down the flamboyance of his outfits. Although he was a homosexual, Coward never wanted to look outright flamboyant. He never wanted the public and the press to have a reason to flog him.

Coward was an icon of his time. He brought a certain notion of fame to practitioners of the theatre in a time when films were becoming the most fame-bringing part of the entertainment industry. His image, his attitudes, and his work continue to inspire people. Coward stuck to his image until his death in 1973, and still continues to be revered for it.

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