Tesla, Man of Style


November 20, 2009

To this day, Nikola Tesla remains a man of mystery. His inventions and scientific achievements are being rediscovered, and he has become an inspiration for artists all over the world: from filmmakers to writers, journalists and painters. However, little is known about his fashion sense and therefore, describing his style is extremely difficult. In an attempt to discover the “Tesla style,” we sought help from Milica Kesler, an archivist at the Museum of Nikola Tesla in Belgrade. This is what she said for Ona magazine:

“From looking at the photos, it is obvious that Tesla paid much attention to his appearance, yet at the same time one cannot help but have the impression that he had his own style and cared little for contemporary fashion trends. Scrutinizing what was saved from the contents of his wardrobe, he was obviously very fond of headwear. Here in the Museum we have a large collection of his hats: top hats, bowlers, and straw hats – he wore them on different occasions. He also liked to wear suits, silk and cotton shirts, and ties of all colors. He wore bow ties on more formal occasions. His style was typical of the late 19th century Europe. What’s more, Tesla tended to be a minimalist. He disliked ornamentation and he never wore jewelry, so the impression is that he had little aspiration of presenting himself as glamorous. His cufflinks and collar buttons were very discreet. Importance was given to the fine fabrics from which his garments were made.”

Personal Tailor

Tesla had his own personal tailor. Most of his suits were made by James W. Bell, Son & Co. Some of his suit labels still bear the date of make and his name: Tesla.

Tesla’s suits were made of woolen fabrics, with a silk or cotton lining. The suits consisted of three parts: a notched lapel jacket with three buttons, a waistcoat and trousers. He was most imaginative when it came to waistcoats. The Museum collection contains a variety of his waistcoats, some with pointy finishing lines, or a circular finish. His shirts, which were mostly silk and cotton, were made at Macy and Co. His shirtfronts were usually pleated. Along with white and beige shirts, Tesla wore checkered shirts and striped shirts; the stripes were usually green, purple, yellow or pink and blue.

Tesla’s shoes were made at James Moore. Their design consisted of a slightly pointed low heel in leather, mostly in black or brown, but occasionally green. Sometimes he wore suede shoes though all of his shoes had laces. Each pair of shoes was provided with a set of shoe-trees for their proper care.

The Museum contains 439 textile or leather personal garments belonging to Nikola Tesla. Most of this collection is made up of ties – 75 of them – mainly silk, with incredible colors and designs: from dark ones with stripes, to purple or green ties with beige flowers or polka dots. The collection also contains 72 pairs of socks: summer socks, winter socks, woolen, silk, brown, black, purple; as well as many shirts and night-shirts, with soft and hard wire-collars that were placed under the shirt collar.

Embroidered Initials

Interestingly, every single one of Tesla’s garments bore his initials. He lived in hotels, and the hotel bills that are kept in the Museum indicate that his clothes were washed by the hotel laundry services. This was why he even his socks bore his initials. The Museum in Belgrade is trying to preserve Tesla’s garments in special conditions. Every year a few of the garments are attended to by conservation experts. Furthermore, due to huge public interest, there is a plan to exhibit some of them.

Tesla was very intriguing and interesting for journalists and many magazines portrayed Tesla’s likeness. It is worthwhile mentioning his only visit to Belgrade on June 2, 1892, and the impact he made. Branik magazine (June 9, 1892) wrote: “Tesla is a handsome gentleman, dark-haired, with a small, thin mustache, a high forehead, bright, young-looking, very pleasant and likeable, his mild grin is quite attractive, and he is immediately liked.” Sava Kosanović, Tesla’s nephew, met him on one occasion in 1926 at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York. Tesla was 70, and Sava wrote in his memoirs: “…Tesla is punctual. He appeared at 7 sharp, perhaps a mere minute later. One could see him from a distance as he was taller than the other people around him. An incredibly elegant, noble gentleman in a jacket and bowler hat, gloves and a thin walking stick: gallant, smart, but not rigid. Standing straight, slender, without a trace of his real age. His head is bony and resembles a marble statue. His nose is long, straight, refined. His lips are thin, tightened; his forehead is high, enhancing his eyes. Oh, the eyes! Once you see them, you can never forget them. A very, very calm look, but simultaneously so deep and penetrating; it is as if he is looking into your soul. A look of mercy and gloom.“

An Interview with Milica Kesler, archivist in the Nikola Tesla Museum

Tesla and Fashion

Q: Tesla was a man of style. His looks resembled those of an aristocrat, not just because of his clothes, but also due to his behaviour. What can you tell us about that?

MK: Tesla’s father was an Orthodox priest, which means he obtained a formal education. Tesla was not from an aristocratic family but he came from an educated one, from the young new European middle class. He was educated in European intellectual hubs such as Prague and Vienna, and he worked in Budapest, Paris and Strasbourg. Naturally, he was influenced by the fashion of these cities, which left a mark on his own future style.

Q: What did he mostly like to wear? Was it white gloves and top hats? They say he wore a fresh pair of white gloves every day.

MK: That’s a favorite urban legend propagated by many of Tesla’s so-called biographers. There is no evidence to support it, no bills, no order receipts, no documents or anecdotes. We cannot confirm such hearsay. Our Museum keeps many of his gloves. Some are white, but some are brown, olive-green, purple, grey, beige, as well as coming in petroleum colors. They are made of cotton, silk or leather.

Q: Who took care of Tesla’s wardrobe?

MK: He had an account at J. Denihan, Ladies and Gents Tailor, and they ironed his clothes. The hotel’s laundry services washed his clothes, unless he sought the service of the Long Island Hand Laundry; we have kept their bills.

Q: Can you tell us any particular details about his fashion style?

MK: If we’re going to talk about Tesla’s fashion style, it has to be said that he was a minimalist. There were hardly any special details apart from his fondness for discreet cufflinks. We have no jewelry belonging to him, or anything like tie studs and watches. Nonetheless, it might be of interest to note that in addition to his hats, although he had never posed for a photo in a hat, he also owned very interesting models of glasses and sunglasses. Moreover, the Museum holds several of his elegant walking sticks that he used at a late age; one of them even has a silver-plated handle.

Q: Business Magazine recently published an interview with Joe Kinney from the New Yorker Hotel who said that they are planning to contact you and attempt to establish collaboration between the museum they are setting up in the New Yorker Hotel and yours. Do you think this development could help with the process of popularizing Nikola Tesla?

MK: Our museum has already exhibited abroad (Perth, Strasbourg, Vienna, Vancouver, Paris, Thessaloniki, Hanover), but liaising with the New Yorker Hotel would be extremely interesting for us, as Tesla lived there for a number of years. We have many of his notes that were written on the hotel letterhead. We already liaise, so that project could be very interesting. We are very open to such an initiative for cooperation and we could even produce replicas of some objects exhibited and give them to the New Yorker.

Author: Marina Bulatović and Ljuba Djordjević
Photo by Nikola Tesla Museum, Belgrade
Published in Serbia, Montenegro and Canada: Daily Blic, Magazine Ona (She), Chernogoria Magazine, Culture Bridge Magazine

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