“Chaplin’s Sartorial Art”

We all know the story of how Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume came to be. But what about the costume of one of his most famous co-stars? Jackie Coogan’s tattered wardrobe in The Kid has a story all its own.

Excerpt from the Washington Post, December 25th, 1921:

There is an old saw which still retains most of its teeth to the effect that “Clothes Don’t Make the Man.” It would probably be equally the part of sagacity to remark that in a vast majority of instances “man don’t make the clothes.” There are, however, conspicuous exceptions to both of these bromidic rules: In fact, Charlie Chaplin may be looked upon as a living embodiment of an exception to each. To find proof of this odd circumstance it is only necessary to reflect that under the spell of a weird inspiration, Mr. Chaplin watched a battered old derby hat, a wilted collar that once was white, an indescribable morning coat, a pair of unmentionable trousers and shoes no shoemaker ever could peg, become the greatest comedy costume the world has known. 

That sounds like a feat that would defy repetition. But it was done. again, and it was Mr. Chaplin who did it the second time. For the clothes which Jackie Coogan wears, and which are wrapped around his fame dip as a little screen wonder were selected for him by the great Charles.

Jackie Coogan as The Kid. Photo by James Abbe

A disreputable sweater which had been worn by Charlie in the dim past hung forgotten in a closet of the Chaplin studios. It was mildewed with age; it bore the stains of custard—honorable battle-scars sustained in the strenuous old pie-slinging days. But its glories were gone; there wasn’t a laugh left in it. Then Charlie led it gently into the sunshine; fumigators fell upon it; and it returned shriven of soul. When part of the sleeves were cut off and the waist shortened, it fitted Jackie Coogan–here and there. 

It was obvious that little Jackie could not go pantless through six reels of motion pictures; but the task of getting trousers which would keep disreputable company with the cap and sweater was a big one. At first Chaplin thought of overalls; but they never could appear shabby enough to meet his ideas. While he was pondering the subject Benny Zeidman, the diminutive producer, appeared at
the studio. Inspired, the comedian suddenly inquired:

 “Got any old pants, Benny?” 

“These old enough?” Denny demanded. He had just come off the lot and was not looking his usual immaculate self. “When do you want them?”

 “Now!” said Chaplin. 

Jackie himself contributed the shoes, but Chaplin put the finishing touches to them by cutting them open at the tips to allow the kid’s toes to show through. And that is the origin of the wardrobe which will go down through screen history. (“Chaplin’s Sartorial Art,” Washington Post, December 25, 1921. Author unknown.)

The Kid premiered in New York City on this day in 1921.

1 Comment

  1. What a fabulous article! I really enjoyed reading this. I'd seen a few other versions of this story, but this is the most vividly told and the most detailed!

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