Some years ago The Rake asked me to meditate on the concept of poolside elegance. My starting point was the work of Slim Aarons, while my ending note was James Bond. In between are stops in Palm Beach with a few notes on WASPdom. If anything, this piece should get you thinking about a summer getaway. — CC
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The Life Aquatic
By Christian Chensvold
The Rake, issue 34
Women’s apparel is widely considered more artistic and varied than men’s, and that’s before you consider the nearly endless coiffure and cosmetic possibilities at their disposal. But dressing in masculine garb offers its own singular rewards, namely the special clothes gentlemen have worn in enclaves from which women have been historically excluded. There’s the splendor of maharajahs, caliphs and sultans, the papal pomp of the church, centuries of military splendor, and even the motley rag-tag garb of pirates, bedecked in the jewels and colorful fabrics that were the spoils of their plunder. Men have also devised special clothing for endeavors such as hunting, sailing and flying (does anything signify panache more than a white scarf flapping in an open cockpit?). There are even velvet jackets and fez-like caps specifically for the gentle act of smoking.
For another gentle act, that of lounging poolside with cocktail in hand, women clearly have the fashion edge. Their swimwear can be as modest or as risqué as they like, they can accessorize with sexy heels or laid-back sandals, silk wraps and broad-rimmed hats, oversized sunglasses and sparkling jewelry. Despite being 75 percent nude (or perhaps even because of it), women dressed for sun and water can look just as chic as for any other occasion.
But stripped of his full regalia, his authority-oozing bespoke garb with boulevardier touches like boutonnieres and spectator shoes, how’s the peacock of the species to compete when nearly everything is taken away? “Clothes make the man,” as Mark Twain said. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
Keys to half-dressed masculine elegance lie in the pages of three special tomes by the photographer Slim Aarons. From the 1950s through ’80s, collected in the books “A Wonderful Time,” “A Place In The Sun,” and “Poolside With Slim Aarons,” the photographer enjoyed exclusive access to the private lives of the jet set and chronicled their leisure time in sun-soaked locales such as Monte Carlo, Capri, Ibiza and Palm Beach. Here that international secret society blending aristocracy with the talent class is seen beside public and private swimming pools donning a surprising variety of men’s clothing: blazers with ascots, sweaters draped over shoulders, short-sleeved shirts with hip pockets, nautical French shirts in navy and white, pastel tops and bottoms, and floppy straw hats that signify repose. The most daring of gents, particularly in the 1970s, might even don a sarong, and those who, for whatever reason, are wearing a necktie with their cocktail in hand, are usually wearing white linen, that easily soiled fabric that always suggests money and leisure.
It’s a fun thing to ruminate on, says New York-based custom clothier and menswear historian Alan Flusser: What to wear for a Slim Aarons photograph. “There are actually a lot of very chic things to wear,” he says. “But I’d start by warning against anything that if you fell in the swimming pool you’d be unhappy about.”
In the US, Flusser says, the default outfit for a poolside party would draw from the well of prepdom and include a colorful belt, bright polo shirt, and Sperry Top-Sider shoes. From there, the palette gets more severe and simple as you climb the sophistication ladder. “If you want to go more chic, then an outfit in black and white, or even go all-white with espadrilles — it’s pretty hard not to look stylish in something like that.”
Flusser has a pool at his Hamptons home and travels frequently to beach locales. When lounging waterside he likes to wear long-sleeved shirts (better bug protection), worn outside blousey bermuda-cut shorts, espadrilles, and perhaps a baseball cap from Club 55 in St. Tropez. Colors are typically white, blue and pink. “The look is very ’30s and casual because it’s not tight. In the ’30s nobody wore tight clothes; that’s the difference between Old World and modern, where the clothes fit within an inch of your life. But swim and pool clothes should be comfortable.”
For more dressed-up occasions, Flusser might wear velvet monogrammed slippers with shorts and an unconstructed blazer. “A lot of people wouldn’t think of wearing shorts with a blazer, but it’s very country club and was certainly common in the ’50s. In the ’30s, on the other hand, they might have worn a navy blazer in terrycloth, white pants, knit shirt and a pocket square — very soigné, degagé, soft and draped.”
Other Flusser favorites include long-sleeved, square-bottom cardigan-front knit shirts, which he says are very hard to come by, and canvas drawstring pants from J. McLaughlin, whose prints suggest Pucci or Lilly Pulitzer, fashion queen of Palm Beach. “If you had to point to any one place, Palm Beach probably has more legacy in terms of creating sports clothes than any other place. It’s not a part of European culture to wear wild colors and prints on your pants — that’s clearly American.”
Founded in the Gilded Age, the small coastal Florida island of Palm Beach continues to serve as warm-weather playground for monied Americans during the bitter winters that plague New York, Washington, Boston and Chicago. And despite the eroding of WASP elitism over the past decades, Palm Beach continues to hold up Old Money traditions when it comes to masculine dress. “There’s an absolute uniform as strict and ubiquitous as any I’ve ever seen,” says Steven Stolman, president of New York’s Scalamandre, a leading purveyor of decorative fabrics, and a well known figure in Palm Beach society. “It usually involves a sea of blue blazers, pastel trousers, and a variety of footwear all worn with no socks.”
The footwear, he says, is deeply coded, from old-school Gucci horsebit loafers to whimsical velvet slippers by Stubbs & Wooton (who operate a retail store in Palm Beach) and the most daring of footwear, Belgian Shoes. “Belgian Shoes are some of the silliest, most precious-looking shoes in the world. But in these very encapslized societies they signify status and wealth. The first time I saw them I thought they were ridiculous, and then you drink the Kool-Aid and find yourself owning four pairs.”
The total effect of the uniform would be read as caricature in any context outside of Palm Beach or Southhampton. “This kind of outfit would look absolutely ridiculous anywhere else,” Stolman says. “At its worst it evokes the character Thurston Howell III from the TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ while at its best it’s Peter Lawford.”
The strict dress code also applies to whether it’s day or evening, and whether a dip in the pool may actually take place. “Either you’re dressed for swimming, in which case it’s Villebrequin trunks, or you’re dressed for drinking. People may drink Southsides at the beach club, but that’s a different thing. People in Palm Beach don’t cocktail while swimming in a pool.”
For swimming footwear, Stolman personally prefers flip-flops by Havaianas, which he says “are at least semi-sexy, compared to the overwrought ones by brands such as Vineyard Vines, which end up just looking sophomoric.” As for espadrilles, “that’s a French thing; you’d never see them in Palm Beach.”
The differences in how the French relax in the sun when compared to Americans is certainly apparent to Roland Herlory, president of swimwear brand Vilebrequin, which was founded in St. Tropez in 1971. “The art of living around the pool is the very origin of the brand,” Herlory says. “That art of living was created in the south of France and Italy in the ’70s, employing a look that is still elegant and chic but is super casual.” The Alain Delon film “La Picine,” made in 1970, epitomizes the look.
“In Slim Aarons’ photos you can see the differences between Europeans and Americans,” says Herlory, “even when they’re from the same era. In the Hamptons people are still very dressy, while in the south of France it’s more casual and cool.”
To pull off “the art of living around the pool,” even when you’re not, Herlory offers a few gallantly gallic suggestions. “The chicest thing is your own interpretation, the freedom to mix accessories in any style, and to not wear a uniform that makes you look like a caricature. When I’m impressed with a look on the beach or around the pool, it is this talent for mixing the most simple hat with Vilebrequin swimsuit, plastic flip-flops, and a beautiful linen shirt. Chicness today is cool, and the ability to mix different levels of brands. No blazer, but a beautiful linen pant; supple shoe with no socks, or even barefoot. And then one beautiful accessory, such as a watch. The swimming pool imposes coolness: if you are too dressy around the pool that’s something that doesn’t work.”
There’s one more nationality worth consulting on the matter, the English, as seen through the cinematic prism of the James Bond franchise. Over the course of the 23 films, Bond has been clad in everything from the light-blue terrycloth swimset worn while playing poolside cards with Goldfinger, to Daniel Craig’s strut out of the sea clad in skimpy trunks from La Perla in “Casino Royale.” Whether bathing, dodging bullets on Crab Key, or sipping champagne on a yacht, Bond’s clothes invariably echo the blue of the water.
“Light blue is Bond’s favorite color of swimming trunks,” says Matt Spaiser, founder of the website TheSuitsOfJamesBond.com. “In the ’60s he wore his trunks with either a navy polo shirt or a short-sleeve gingham shirt. When he isn’t in the water but still near it, he’s often dressed in a navy blazer. In mediterranean locations he wears the blazer with white or beige trousers and a sky blue shirt, with or without a tie. The naval origin of the look makes it the perfect outfit for the waterside. In the tropics he dresses down more in chinos and either a stripped short-sleeve shirt or a dark or light blue polo, keeping everything in the same color scheme as the blazer outfit.”
There’s one final tip to take from 007 when it comes to looking chic and elegant beside rippling water. As every actor playing him has shown, and surely as every future actor will continue to do, the best thing you can wear to a poolside cocktail party is a tan.