In the wake of Fashion Week, these past few days have been marked by a significant amount of chatter across the internet on the state of the feeding frenzy that is street style, including two somewhat opposing yet equally as convincing pieces from Suzy Menkes and Leandra Medine. While the debate rages on as to whether or not we’re heading towards a full blown, three ring circus of bloggers perpetually out doing each other in gratis garb for the sake of a supposedly organic image, I thought it necessary to shed some light on a man who embraced the absurdism of literal style on the streets over a century ago – Leslie Ward, better known as “Spy.”
Born to a pair of historical painters in London in 1851, Ward came from a long line of artists and engravers, and it wasn’t long before he picked up the family craft himself. As a teenager, while in school at Eton College (which interestingly enough is the birthplace of the Eton collar, which Ward would recreate countless times over the next few decades) Ward began drawing caricatures of his friends and teachers. After stumbling through school, Ward suffered his way through a year long architecture apprenticeship before finally bucking up and telling his father that he wanted to become an artist. While his father didn’t want Ward to follow in his family’s footsteps, he eventually caved, and Ward entered the Royal Academy of Arts in 1871. Two years later, and four years after the magazine’s launch, Ward sent a few of his pieces to Thomas Gibson Bowles, the editor of Vanity Fair, in hopes of filling a vacancy as a caricaturist. Ward found a fast fan in Bowles, and he was immediately hired under the “nom de crayon” of Spy.
During his subsequent thirty-eight year tenure, Spy produced 1,325 caricatures for Vanity Fair, which astonishingly was over half of all pieces produced in Vanity Fair at that time. Spy’s drawings of London high society were hyperbolized, but complimentary, always portraying his subject in the best light possible, even if it was the farthest thing from the truth. Spy might not have been an honest observer, but that doesn’t detract from the great work he produced as the watchful eye of upperclass Londoners and the styles they dragged along in toe.
While Spy was capturing the over-flattering features of actors, lawyers, and even royalty, he was also encapsulating the changing styles across the throughout turn of the century England. Early on he captured Earls and Dukes in their tail and morning coats, with matching high, detachable collars, knickers, and top hats. And then as the years wore on and styles changed, Spy began sketching blazers, three piece suits as we know them today, knotted neckties, and cuffed trousers. Spy drew his editors in double-breasted overcoats, rowers in captoes, cricket players in cricket sweaters, lords in spats, and lawyers in these high button stance coats that seem to have been lost to history. Spy didn’t just turn everyday London into a cartoon, he created an exaggerated encyclopedia of the city fit all it’s inflated personalities and along the way gave us one of the first visual records of style on the street.