Slim Aarons, Chronicler Of Old Money And The Jet Set

Maybe it’s because I’m a photographer myself, maybe it’s because I’m from a town and work at a club which he photographed on multiple occasions, or maybe it’s because I, like anyone else, don’t mind looking at glossy pictures of “attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things” (his words, not mine), but I’ve always been drawn to the photography of Slim Aarons.

For those who don’t know, Slim Aarons was a society photographer for multiple magazines in a prospering postwar society. His photographs chronicled the lives of the jet-set crowd from as early as the 1940s to as late as the ’90s. Many criticize him and his work for being too mixed up with this group, but the truth is Aarons’ work is an impressive and significant look into a bygone era whose residues remain only in small sects of places where it once flourished. The work has gone on to inspire professionals in countless industries, from fashion to landscape architecture, art to real estate.

While Ivy-Style.com narrates the sartorial and lifestyle traditions of the upper echelon of the middle class, Aarons’ work, with a few notable exceptions, typically documented the elites of the upper class. But in those days, the “upper class” was not just classified by those with the most money. It meant, for one, coming from a tradition of money, but also, a tradition of taste and sensibility: a tradition where rules were put in place for a reason. In that line, there are a great deal of connections between the upper and the upper-middle classes. That is why I think it is with justification that we can examine the work and look for connections to the sect of society we take our cues from.

After his career as a war photographer during World War II, Aarons went on to document those who would travel between Palm Beach and Martha’s Vineyard, those who had the title Count or Lady before their names, those who played polo rather than, say, basketball. In documenting this class of people, he documented what they wore. There are, of course the stereotypes of the man in Key West wearing Lilly Pulitzer pants, the woman skiing in Stowe with a turtleneck under a heavy Norwegian sweater, and the New York businessman in a well fitting suit splashed across the pages of Aarons’ many collections. But what his lens really captured was a group of people wearing clothing that not only fit their respective bodies, it fit the lives they lead. It was not only practical, but it was elegant, it remained useful while being striking.

If you’re lucky enough to come across his original publication, A Wonderful Time (1975), the only book he published during his career (a seller with a good condition copy would not be overstepping to ask $1,000), you’ll see a collection of his work pre-1975. The photos are as tantalizing as they are mesmerizing. You could spend upwards of an hour looking at every detail of a single photograph. And while the cars, the estates, the horses, the vintage sporting equipment and so on are just as fun to look at, us vestiary-minded look immediately to the clothes. So what do we see when we look at the clothes? Well, in order to examine the clothing, we have to examine specific looks portrayed in specific photos.

When leafing through the pages of A Wonderful Time, which is broken up first by areas of the United States, then by areas of the world, my gaze fixates upon a man on his Vermont farm (top image) wearing a blue OCBD, straight-fit chinos and a brown leather belt that matches the brown of the boots. Nothing about this outfit jumps at you, it doesn’t scream for your attention, but it does make you stop and realize the care put into it as well as its practicality.

Next up is Newport, where a man and his wife attend a party. The gentleman is wearing a Prince of Wales sport coat paired with a simple black tie and timeless black sunglasses. Again, nothing to scream for our attention. Here the importance is placed more on the “looking good” than it is the practicality, but the outfit is very much fitting for the environment they inhabit. And again, the details are what bring the outfit to life: three chest buttons, two cuff buttons, a natural shoulder, a half-Windsor knot on the tie and, of course, a well cut fit. An outfit that was just as cool then as it is now.

From Newport, the reader boards a virtual plane whose next stop is New Jersey. This is a picture of a man on his estate shortly before skeet shooting. If we take a step back and focus less on the details here and more on the overall outfit, we see a man dressed for what he is doing but not at the expense of his dignity. To me, the look on his face and relaxed pose say it all.

The plane then lands in Palm Beach with a picture of Lilly Pulitzer’s brother, Peter. This picture wreaks of a term I love to use, “casual elegance”. While he is true to his Ivy staples — pink OCBD, understated belt, straight-fit khakis — the details here, unlike the previous two photos, matter less. It’s about the way he carries himself. Although just a photograph, an old one at that, there’s something that gets transmitted when looking at this photo, a sense of both confidence and nonchalance. That sense is the essence of not just the Ivy style but of any style.

Staying in Palm Beach, we next visit a polo match shortly after the conclusion of play and make our way to the car where Laddie Sanford, an experienced champion, takes a load off. This photo is not so much significant for the clothes themselves, but for two other reasons. First, the sporting lifestyle that was such a huge part of both the upper and upper-middle classes. This lifestyle is where many of the clothes came from, and no single better sport embodies that more than polo. Secondly, this individual photo is responsible for launching hugely important marketing campaigns from both Tommy Hilfiger as well as Ralph Lauren. It is also said this photo was an important early influence on Lauren when he was just starting out with Polo.

Moving still south we land on Jamaica. This fellow is dressed in head-to-toe Go To Hell. While this photo represents the less practical side, we can look at the details. Loafers (without socks), check. Cuffs, check. Three buttons (middle done up, top folded), check. Natural shoulders, check. A look saying “I can wear this while still maintaining respect and taste, how about you?” Check.

And finally we arrive in Acapulco, where a man can be seen sporting a popped collar underneath a cashmere v-neck sweater. While other looks in the book might not be exactly Ivy, this one is textbook. An outfit that posses practicality, timelessness, and the ability to cross classes surely deserves commemorating.

To say the look that these socialites, these counts and countesses, these fifth-generation Bostonians with summer houses in Maine were wearing was the same as the Ivy League look would be a stretch. However, there are many obvious parallels. For example, the practicality of the clothes. While some clothes might, on the surface seem rather garish, for the environment they were in, they made sense. We also see the parallel of casual elegance, of brimming confidence with a slight air of aloofness. Those that wore the Ivy League Look during the heyday, the sons of doctors and bankers on elite college campuses, knew they were doing pretty well and things to come looked pretty promising for them, and along with that notion came an intangible conviction to their walk, even to the way they styled their clothes. And if that crowd had their fair share of confidence, those that Aarons photographed must have been teeming with it: the way they posed for the shots, the way their ascots fell ever-so-effortlessly. And finally, there’s the connection of the details. The cuffs in the pants, the single strand pearl necklaces on the ladies, the madras Bermuda shorts and penny loafers, the natural-shouldered jackets. Just like the practitioners of the Ivy League Look, those in the upper class had a set of rules to follow, and, again similar to those dressing in the Ivy style, sometimes it was more fun to break the rules.

Many argue that this class of people and this way of life have vanished. I would disagree. While is is impossible to deny that things have certainly changed since the jet-set lived their lives of privilege one step removed, perhaps one step above, the rest, I would argue that they, like everybody else, just became victims of changing times and changing ways of life.

I come from a town where equestrianism is the supreme activity, where the wealthiest family in town drives a 10-year-old Volvo station wagon (and so do about 50% of the rest of the residents), and where Aarons once photographed some fifty or sixty years ago. So maybe my vision is distorted or biased, but it seems to me that the class that was once looked at as being so much above the rest that it was impossible to get into their circles has not gone away so much as they have come back down to earth a little bit. Rather than vacationing in Newport and the Connecticut coast, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, they vacation in Siesta Keys or Malibu. Rather than playing tennis in all whites, they don the bright colors that the professionals can be seen sporting. Rather than sending their kids to Groton School or Milton Academy where their fathers went, they might opt for the less expensive, closer to home prep-school, or maybe even a public high school. In other words, the upper class that was once so different from the rest, are becoming (and have become) more and more like the rest of us.

That is not to say that there aren’t any left of those that live their lives in a different reality; I can speak from years of first hand experience that there are. It just seems that what remains of their once-flourishing culture is now experienced by an infinitesimally more small group than fifty some odd years ago.

And so, just like the lifestyles and culture, there are very few that remain stewards of the look of this bygone era. Be it the Ivy League Look and preppy style; whether it’s showing up to a company party wearing a blue blazer and Go-To-Hell pants, or walking your golden retriever wearing a turtleneck under a chamois shirt, the vestiges of the look remain relevant in everyday life. Whether that number is higher than those experiencing the lifestyle once reserved for the top of the top, well let’s just say that the looks of this era have stood the test of time better than taking a flight to Gstaad to have an alfresco picnic on the alps. — TREVOR JONES

Trevor Jones is from Hamilton, MA, and a student at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI. In 2017, he photographed, wrote and designed the coffee table book “The Cape Ann Region.”

27 Comments on "Slim Aarons, Chronicler Of Old Money And The Jet Set"

  1. Jonathan Sanders | January 21, 2018 at 7:00 pm |

    Always great seeing the Slim Aarons photos. On the style side, I think a lot of the sensibility is Ivy +++. shirts from brooks…ok. But I’m betting on suits by Huntsman, and other English suppliers. Probably also some Italian loafers. The look is less provincial Northeast and more international.

  2. Vern Trotter | January 21, 2018 at 11:44 pm |

    I used to run into Slim from time to time at Locke-Ober. Last time he was with General Patton’s son, also General Patton from Hamilton, of course.

    Slim is buried in Mount Auburn cemetery. No matter what I am about, if I run into any pictures by Slim, they always get my full attention.

  3. Franz Faber | January 22, 2018 at 1:58 am |

    Interview with Laura Hawk, Author of Slim Aarons: Women (Abrams, 2016)
    https://www.zabranowicz.com/interview-with-laura-hawk/

    ZA: Though he appeared to be the quintessential WASP, Slim was, in fact, Jewish. Is that correct?

    LH: Yes! And nobody knew. His wife and his daughter didn’t even know. Right after he died it became known. Once a year, a phone-call would come through to their house. The people on the other end of the line would say, “It’s us! It’s us! Your cousins from New Jersey!” Slim’s daughter or wife would say to Slim, “It’s them again!” Slim would get on the phone and say, “Who are you? Stop bothering me! I don’t have any cousins in New Jersey!” When he died, all of these people showed up at his funeral.

  4. Franz Faber | January 22, 2018 at 2:01 am |

    Note: Mount Auburn Cemetery is non-denominational:

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/the-mysterious-jews-of-mount-auburn-cemetery/

  5. You can, from time to time, like all things on eBay, find a copy of “A Wonderful Time.” And from time to time, as attentions ebb and flow, so does the price. I managed to pick up a nice enough copy a couple years ago for an amazing $50. You’re looking at at least $200+ today.

    Worth every penny, and no, you can’t have mine.

  6. @BRB I invite you to upload the photos from the book.

  7. “Rather than vacationing in Newport and the Connecticut coast, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, they vacation in Siesta Keys or Malibu. Rather than playing tennis in all whites, they don the bright colors that the professionals can be seen sporting. Rather than sending their kids to Groton School or Milton Academy where their fathers went, they might opt for the less expensive, closer to home prep-school, or maybe even a public high school. In other words, the upper class that was once so different from the rest, are becoming (and have become) more and more like the rest of us”

    Beautiful photos, of course, and interesting thoughts but much of the above is demonstrably false, and Bar Harbor hasn’t been a destination to summer since 1947. Now as to other towns on MDI, well, one has to look a bit deeper. A cursory review of my alma mater’s enrollment reveals many of the same surnames as were present when I was there as well. Once again look a bit deeper.

  8. I was told recently that Ralph Lauren is trimming down the scope of the company to restore its exclusivity. i.e. reducing distribution which means it is reducing the number of mfg plants. And taking measures to reduce discounting. Has anyone seen this in the news? Did I just miss that?

  9. R. Paternost | January 22, 2018 at 12:53 pm |

    @Ron,

    Ralph Lauren Lenox Square Mall (Atlanta) To Shutter Jan. 27 | What Now Atlanta:

    https://whatnowatlanta.com/ralph-lauren-closing-lenox-square-mall-january-27/

  10. Charlottesville | January 22, 2018 at 1:10 pm |

    I ran across some Slim Aarons photographs of Round Hill in Jamaica in an old magazine this past weekend. Always a treat to see his work. I have a couple of coffee-table books of his photographs and they are a delight to look through.

  11. Great Article! Notice the unusual belt-loops and “frogmouth” pockets on Lilly Pulitzer’s brother’s trousers. Great Look!

  12. Slim Aaron’s “Poolside Gossip”, with some suitably dressed ladies enjoying the good life at Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, guaranteed to delight any devotee of MCM architecture.

  13. Peter was Lilly’s first husband. And my, he was a looker as a young man.

  14. Marc Chevalier | January 22, 2018 at 9:09 pm |

    Incisively written, Trevor Jones…and with a fair which suits its subject. (Pun intended.) Well done!

  15. Marc Chevalier | January 22, 2018 at 9:11 pm |

    *flair, not “fair”*

  16. Peter seems to share his taste in trousers with LBJ. 😉

  17. Mac, are you saying that those are Haggar slacks?

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nR_myjOr0OU

  18. Vern Trotter | January 23, 2018 at 6:05 pm |

    GS,

    LBJ pants–hilarious!

  19. Glad you enjoyed that little bit of history, Mr. Trotter, made me laugh out loud.

  20. This was a wonderful essay that has me contemplating a splurge on a first edition I dug up on eBay. I hope we see more work from Mr. Jones.

  21. Trevor Jones | January 23, 2018 at 8:23 pm |

    @IT, @Marc Chevalier, @Eric Twardzik
    Thank you gentlemen! I’m just happy to see people responding to something that I’m passionate about (Slim and menswear). I have one more reactionary essay in the works, hopefully it will make an appearance on here soon.

  22. A superb observation on the role that Aarons embraced as the preeminent chronicler of post-WWII UC style as well as his – perhaps – less-intentional role as its primary sartorial evangelist to the common folk of the day.

    I too call Hamilton home and enjoyed seeing it portrayed with genuine affection and spot-on accuracy as regards its vehicular predilection.

    Here’s hoping you’ve a follow-up piece in the works!

  23. Gs
    While I’ve heard the LBJ’s trouser recording before, it never get’s old’ Hagger makes sense, their headquarters were in Dallas Texas.
    I met LBJ twice as VP. My best friend’s father was the piloted the VP’s Marine helo stationed in Texas, the helo took LBJ to Johnson City and back. Both time LBJ was wearing western pants, deer suede jacket and Stetson.

  24. Why is it that you people find it necessary to expose us to LBJ discussing nuts and bungholes. You are turning this site into a shit hole.

    Just kidding, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and nearly hit a guardrail. By the way, I find that the older RL Preston pant allows ample room.

    Cheers,

    Will

  25. Mac, that’s very interesting, what was LBJ like in person?

    Will, are you Joel? 😉

  26. The top photo of the gentleman on his farm in Shelburne, VT is Dunbar Bostwick. I live on a road that is an extension of Bostwick Road in Charlotte, VT. Mr. Bostwick was the grandson of a founder of Standard Oil and one of Lilly Pulitzer’s uncles. He was an incredibly gracious benefactor to this area of Vermont.

  27. GS
    LBJ was funny and nice, but that is from my 5th grade perspective.

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