Here is a question for you: when was the last time you thought about magic and who did you think of? Harry Houdini locking himself in a milk can full of water? Gentle Doug Henning’s colourful clothing and wild Styx hair? Perhaps the handsome David Copperfield making large objects disappear?
I happen to have met a couple of real life magicians recently and found myself fascinated by their craft and curious that I could apply image principles to what they do and what they wear for their jobs. For the next two weeks, I will be discussing modern magic in ways that you didn’t expect, in ways to delight and amaze you, and before your very eyes, dear reader, I will draw parallels between what a magician does and what I do as an image consultant, for we both work magic!
James Alan, Magician
Magic and the performance of magic is older than we commonly think it is. Although its roots go back thousands of years to shamanistic practices, what we currently think of as a “magic show” dates back at least to the 1800s, and has gone through many incarnations. Today, there are illusionists, mentalists, sleight-of-hand entertainers, and impossibilists, but a few are true to the original tradition and uphold the practice of old-fashioned magic. Toronto-based James Alan is one of these magicians. He practices old school magic, modernizing timeless classic tricks for current audiences, and pays homage to the respectful dress of the magician and the magician’s tools.
I met James at a Pride party last month and he wowed all of us with card and coin tricks. I don’t like to be fooled but there was something so astounding about what he was doing that I was floored – i.e. I was told to pick a card from the deck, shuffle it back in, and then found the same card tucked into a book of matches James had given me several minutes before I had chosen the card. Other party-goers were also in awe except for Jonathan who needed further proof.
“You want to impress me?” he leaned in to ask, “Pull the 10 of hearts out of my underwear.”
“Stand up,” James responded confidently (much to Jonathan’s delight).
Laughing, Jonathan obeyed.
“Unzip your fly,” James commanded (much to Jonathan’s delight).
“He showed me both hands which were empty, and then he “went to work” on my fly. Out came his hand, and folded up in his hand was the 10 of Hearts!” Jonathan explained, “Hilarious!”
When wardrobe is part of the show
A magic show is very theatrical and requires special garments and props to do it properly. To illustrate the importance of functionality in a magician’s wardrobe, James told me about being a guest performer at a Victorian séance in St. Cameron, Ontario at the end of this month, where he will carry 4 lemons and a bottle of champagne on his person without looking stuffed or fat and make it look natural. The magician is much like an actor this way, integrating his wardrobe/costume (with all of the props stuffed in) into his stage act and make like nothing about him is different. Imagine how much you would have to be aware of to pull that off.
James believes in the self-fulfilling prophecy in his dress and chooses to dress like a gentleman in fine Hugo Boss suits and quality Allen Edmonds shoes, dressing at a level just above what his audience is wearing in an effort to show respect to his audience, his craft, and also to draw respect from the crowd.
His wardrobe must be about fashion and function, and the more pieces he’s got on, the more magic he can perform. Adding a third piece to a suit raises not only James’ confidence but the magic bar: with more places to stash props, James can perform longer with more tricks. Also, he has some pocket modifications done on his new suits and has a secret extra pocket sewn in somewhere to contain extra magic wonders.
“Part of being a magician means having what you need at your fingertips,” James explains, “so I try not to work with bags or cases when I perform – everything I work with is on me, waiting to be used in my show. That’s where the functional advantage of wearing a suit really comes in.”
James also believes that wearing a proper suit gives a better show. I agree with this because I know what wearing a suit can do to boost a guy’s confidence. Also, The Temptations and all of your favourite Motown acts agree that “you play better in your suit – neat, dignified.” (Shout out to Roddy Doyle for this Joey “The Lips” Fagan line in The Commitments.)
James sees dressing at a level just above his audience as advantageous, making him stand apart and look more professional. I know that in the business world, we’re quickly moving from formal wardrobes to business casual dressing which has its good and bad points, but there is no doubt that spiffing up draws good attention and makes an excellent impression on people. (I always feel nice around well dressed people, don’t you?)
Even though we’ve been moving into the casual-for-business realm for going on 20 years, I think that many men are still confused by the “business casual” concept and some tell me that they long for the ease of a stylish suit. A casual wardrobe also impacts James, making his magic shows shorter because when he loses pieces, he loses pockets, and the fewer pockets, the fewer magical hiding places, dig?
James is not only dressing well for what he’s doing, but uses unusual and substantial props in his act (what I think of as wardrobe accessories). He showed me the coins he uses in his act – real silver dollars from the 1870s, silk hankies, lengths of soft Italian rope, and decorative silver cups. James pulled a heavy and elegant platinum and resin pen from his inside pocket, explaining that accessories were just as important as the clothing they’re worn with.
And with that, I have a confession. James whipped out his gorgeous writing instrument while I sat sweating in the heavy heat of July, scribbling notes with a plastic mechanical pencil that I’ve had since university. The contrast shouted at me and I knew that my cheap pencil could be considered an “image breaker”, but I knew it and owned it. I like writing with a pencil and I like writing with that pencil, so I write with it, speaking of self-fulfilling prophecy.
“What is simple to an audience is complex to me,” James says.
When we talked about his suits, I delighted to know that he works this idea into his wardrobe by wearing tone-on-tone striped suits “for the sake of irony,” he calls it, “what appears simple is actually complicated.”
In my business, what might seem like an easy change on the outside has a lot of very complex preparation behind it. I take time to learn about my client and put into practice the principles of dressing, balance, proportion, and colour, influenced by the client’s lifestyle and personality (the research) before we shop and tailor (the transformation). (The research paper comes a little later in the form of personalized image/dressing notes.)
James and I know about the power of clothing and work suitable and workable wardrobes that reflect the occasion or the task at hand into our acts, so we’re both practical this way. We work behind the scenes and we’re technical, we understand that the parts of the performance and the parts of the image are equally important and all work together to dazzle and amaze!
So what I want you to understand is that behind all magic is a whole lot of work. The trick is making it look effortless.