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May 10, 2021

The Most Famous Costume in Movie History Was Probably the “Little Tramp” Outfit Worn by Charlie Chaplin

A derby hat, cane, tight coat, baggy trousers and ill-fitting shoes: the most recognizable silhouette in cinema and in the world. The brilliance of Charlie Chaplin and of his Tramp couldn’t have been better captured than in the words of the film-maker himself:
“My costume helps me to express my conception of the average man, of almost any man, of myself. The derby, too small, is a striving for dignity. The mustache is vanity. The tightly buttoned coat and the stick and his whole manner are a gesture toward gallantry and dash and ‘front’. He is chasing folly, and he knows it. He is trying to meet the world bravely, to put up a bluff, and he knows that, too. He knows it so well that he can laugh at himself and pity himself a little.”
The Tramp costume laid out across a chair, date and photographer unknown. (Credit: BFI National Archive)

This is the original tramp suit that Charlie Chaplin first wore in the part of The Little Tramp. It was lent to him by Billie Ritchie whilst they were performing in The Mumming Birds for the Alfred Karno Company. Chaplin was supposed to be playing the part of the gentleman cad and Ritchie the tramp, but due to this not working for Chaplin, Ritchie offered to exchange roles. The shoes were too large, so Chaplin put them on opposing feet and Charlie Chaplin’s iconic creation was born.

Chaplin returned the suit after the performances, but reprised the character on film in The Kid Auto Races, where his Tramp became famous. Ritchie, who had originated the “drunk” role was galled that the directors asked him to make his characters more Chaplin-esque, and whilst Chaplin was very determined to protect the copyright of his character, he would often get involved in litigation with other film companies, was always benign towards his erstwhile mentor.

Period illustrations show Ritchie wearing the suit or parts of it. Ritchie was to die in a filming accident involving an ostrich in 1921. Chaplin hired his widow, Winifred, to be in charge of and design his costumes (most famously, for the Great Dictator). When Winifred retired, she came back to Britain with the suit that was placed in the museum of Harry Brown, a stage doorman of many London Theaters between 1930-60.

The outfit and cane were believed to have been given to Harry Brown after Billie Ritchie’s family read an article pertaining to the collection of memorabilia owned by Harry Brown in their local paper. When Brown died the suit was exhibited at the Museum of Moving Images, London, Museum of Entertainment, Truro, Cornwall and at Exeter University, Devon.










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