When Sean Crowley was in middle school in Massachusetts, he got a glimpse into how his life as an adult would look—literally. He sat down with his Anglophile grandfather and the two watched a television show that would change everything. “It was seminal,” he says. “I was like ‘This is cool, this combination of incredibly funny and the style being just perfect.’” This was the mid-1990s, back when the American cultural touch points were Michael Jordan and Tom Hanks. But Crowley wasn’t into those guys. The show he watched with his grandfather was PBS’s Masterpiece Theater take on Jeeves & Wooster, the adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s most famous characters starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. “That launched me on my path towards where I am today,” Crowley says.
Seeing Jeeves & Wooster, Crowley explains, led him to a job designing for Ralph Lauren for over a decade, and today he owns one of my favorite vintage stores in New York, Crowley Vintage. His look, as well as everything he meticulously picks for his store—from what he sells to the design—has an element of the Wodehousian to it. And strange as it may sound, Crowley isn’t the only guy who found a sense of style buried inside a period-piece TV show or movie.
Period dramas have long been considered fodder for the public television set: shows and movies for people who collect old Penguin paperbacks. Sometimes they break through and reshape the culture—see: Don Draper becoming one of the most recognized style icons of the last decade and single-handedly making the Old-Fashioned a cocktail everybody knows how to make—but when it comes to style, their influence is often taken for granted.
If there’s a single designer who has transmuted adaptations of old novels into a season’s worth of clothing, it’s Crowley’s old employer. To this day, Ralph Lauren’s involvement in the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is still talked about maybe more than the film itself. The movie’s leading man, Robert Redford, even graced the cover of GQ decked out in a pink suit, leaning against Gatsby’s yellow Rolls-Royce. Lauren’s whole thing has always felt like he was looking to dress you for the next great period drama, whether in a tweed sportcoat fit for hunting with a British lord or Purple Label stuff that turns you into a sexy bad guy from a movie set in the 1940s. His obsession with the period look was perhaps at its height a decade ago, when he debuted an entire collection inspired by Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, and then showed up in white ties and tails at Highclere Castle, where Downton was filmed.
But Ralph’s obsession with Edwardian England and Jazz Age New York really only scratches the surface. 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde has been a style touchpoint for both men and women for over 50 years. And whenever you see that GIF of Leonardo DiCaprio, as Jay Gatsby, toasting with a glass of Champagne, you’re basically looking at an advertisement for Brooks Brothers, who did all the men’s costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 take on the famous novel. Yet no adaptation may have captured the hearts of stylish viewers quite like the 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews played their “bright young things” in cricket sweaters and rowing blazers. Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear, Aloysius, was an influence all his own, meanwhile, with a legacy spanning from U.K. “sophisti-pop” groups like the Style Council and Prefab Sprout to the “Young Fogey,” a humorous term for younger people who were, according to the jacket copy on the 1985 Young Fogey Handbook, “Stuffy in dress, mischievous in mind … backward-looking radicals.” The Brideshead miniseries was so important to the Fogeys that the series got an entire chapter in the book.