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Morrissey, me and the macintosh that fashion forgot

Richard Burton left diaries running to around 800 pages.

But while there are regular entries on "books and booze and [Elizabeth] Taylor's arse" – as critic Antonia Quirke observed – he mentions only two outfits: a "silly" mink coat and a ruffled black shirt. And this from the man who appeared in Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra wearing a pair of leather wrestling boots and a short maroon tunic belted at the waist with something that looks like it ended up in the Star Trek props box.

But if Burton didn't do clothes, clothes certainly did Burton, as Quirke outlines this week for Radio 3 in a new series of the station's late-night strand, The Essay: Listener, They Wore It.

Over five nights, writers including Julian Barnes, Michael Bracewell and fashion critic Susannah Frankel talk about a particularly inspirational item of clothing they have found in a book, film or painting. Barnes, for instance, tackles Charles Bovary's school cap in Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary. Apparently there are 97 descriptions of hats in the book, though the one detailing Charles's school cap – 'one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile' is the most famous.

Bracewell, meanwhile, uses Jay Gatsby's "gorgeous pink rag of a suit" – the observation is F Scott Fitzgerald's own, not Bracewell's – as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the way David Bowie and Bryan Ferry used personal style to fuse the old and the new in the mid-1970s. Or something like that.

And Quirke? She muses on – or, more accurately, obsesses over – a raincoat, specifically the one worn by Richard Burton in the 1965 film adaptation of John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It isn't pink or gorgeous, though the rag bit might be applicable. "It's a round-shouldered, possibly mid-green (it's hard to say in black and white), tweed-effect, slightly oversized, impossible-to-keep-neat, just-below-the-knees, cheap, generic, Raglan lightweight raincoat, probably bought from Debenhams in 1950," she says, adding: "Maybe you have one. Maybe, like me, you bought one from a charity shop in the 1980s so you could look like Morrissey."

Here's the thing: I did. Never had a pink rag of a suit or a school cap but I did have a mac. Had I thought that the person I resembled was not The Smiths' singer but a 40-year-old Welsh alcoholic got up to look like a downtrodden spy in an old film I would have been gutted. Now, I'm not so sure; looking like Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold seems like a good way to end up in your 40s – and I certainly wouldn't want to look like Morrissey does these days.

The Essay: Listener, They Wore It begins on Radio 3 on Monday.

barry.didcock@heraldandtimes.co.uk

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