Actor and filmmaker Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin is considered one of the most prominent figures of the film industry of the 20th century, and one of the most renowned artists in the realm of silent film specifically. His most famous artistic persona was The Tramp, a bona fide derelict and one of the first portrayals of paupers to be seen in silent films, thus shifting the way impoverished people were perceived at the time.
The idea for this character came to him randomly one day, after only a moment’s thought. In his words: “On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large…. The clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born.”
The Tramp was a global success due to its innovativeness as a silent film and having one of the first destitute protagonists. This film’s hero, the tramp, is a kind-hearted drifter down on his luck who finds work at a farm. The genius of Chaplin’s creation of this character was that the tramp was an everyman before he was an outsider, a person that the average viewer could relate to at a time when the media was oversaturated with portrayals of wealthy individuals being portrayed in the media at the time. For the first time ever, people wanted to be like Charlie Chaplin, people wanted to be close to him, even though he was poor.
Chaplin’s whimsical, zany, yet poor character, donning the iconic black suit, hat, and mustache, became a classic image, and remains an important cultural symbol for filmmakers and designers to this day. After his global success, the world of media and design started welcoming characters that were unpolished, impoverished, and rambunctious, as opposed to the clean, wealthy, and modest public figures that dominated at the time.