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The Late-Night Fashion Wars

By Guy Trebay

Philip Burke

If the suit is dead, as doomsayers never tire of proclaiming, then late-night television must be dressed for its glamorous wake. Few other areas of pop culture, as it turns out, have shown greater loyalty to this standby, a form of dress designers seem determined on casting into oblivion.

While crickets may be the sound heard in the suit sections of many department stores, and a high-end-janitor look continues to reign among European designers, cold opens have stealthily become catwalks of the air.

Hermès, Salvatore Ferragamo, Burberry, Valentino and Louis Vuitton have all but eliminated suits from the runways in recent seasons, purportedly catering to a generation that never learned how to knot a tie. Yet, as late night simultaneously underwent its own demographic shift, a roster of hosts who skewed increasingly younger took to the suit with relish, dressing like fitter, hipper versions of their dads.

Jimmy Fallon, 42, led the pack, sharp as ever in suits from Saint Laurent or Ralph Lauren, the jackets cut slim and with narrow lapels worn over short-collared white shirts and skinny ties. Jimmy Kimmel, slimmed down to runway-model proportions at 49, has hardly been a sartorial slouch. The costume designer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” once characterised the host’s body-hugging two-button suits from Gucci or Tom Ford as the foundation of an Everyman image, although failing to add that it is the rare Everyman who can shell out US$5,000 for Tom Ford threads.

That the 43-year-old host of “Late Night With Seth Meyers” is exceptionally well suited should not be surprising, given his friendship with Anna Wintour, the Condé Nast creative director, and the role he will reprise come June as host of the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America award ceremony. (Whether he will be dressed in a Marc Jacobs frock, as at the 2012 ceremony, remains to be seen.)

On air, Meyers’ sartorial default is a suit of distinctly sober cut, usually in Rotary Club grey or navy, and often custom-fitted for him by Ralph Lauren. With it, he tends to wear white spread-collar shirts and dark ties that distinguish his waspish late-night persona from his jokey former one (red ties and blazers for that) as the Weekend Update co-anchor on “Saturday Night Live.”

At 33, the youngest of the lot, Trevor Noah is seldom seen out of a snug suit whose high armholes emphasise his athletic frame and whose tones of mid-grey or deep blue emphasise his youth and general readiness to box with convention. There is a reason for that. The better dressed the entertainer, the more likely an audience is to embrace him or her. The theory is laid out in Steve Martin’s 2007 memoir, in which he describes an early-career encounter with the always nattily turned-out Fats Johnson. “When I asked him about his philosophy of dressing for the stage,” Martin writes, “he said firmly, ‘Always look better than they do.'”

Fats might have usefully added: Don’t let your clothes upstage your act.

Gag drag in a comedy setting is tough to pull off, unless you are Phyllis Diller. And it is worth remembering about that comedian’s brilliantly demented public persona that no matter how wild her ratted-out hair and spangled minidresses, Diller’s clothes seemed pretty tame in comparison to what came out of her mouth.

That male comics don’t get the wardrobe latitude women do is perhaps the sole downside to enjoying favoured gender status in almost every other regard. Stealth being essential to stand-up, many of the best male comics — Jack Benny, George Gobel, Tommy Smothers — understood how much better laugh lines play when your wardrobe is the sartorial equivalent of deadpan.

And this brings us to Stephen Colbert, at 52 the oldest in a stellar roster of current late-night talents and in certain ways the most inspired. Now in his second year since assuming the mantle of “The Late Show” from David Letterman, Colbert since the election seems to have hit both his ratings and sartorial stride simultaneously.

As he nightly skewers the administration of the 45th president, the comedian is careful to adopt cautious style cues from the 44th, a politician whose image was crafted almost as deliberately as his rhetoric. It is easy enough now to forget that, during Barack Obama’s two terms in office, his monotone suits were never permitted to interfere with his message or distract from his presence. No one ever joked about his ties.

This is a notion Colbert seems to have embraced as he traded the costume of the conservative blowhard he portrayed for years on Comedy Central (“a continual style joke,” he said) for something closer to his authentic self. Gone are the silly forelock and the granny glasses, replaced by a tidier Wall Street coif and sober dark frames. Gone, too, are the bulky chalk-striped salesman suits, and in their place immaculately tailored ensembles so anonymous they never draw attention away from the wearer, a cerebral wiseguy aiming darts at a pegboard studded with ego-bloated celebrity balloons.