Swellboy on… the manly side of René Gruau

The famous fashion illustrator inspires our man to try new ways of dressing dashingly

I have long been a fan of the work of fashion illustrator René Gruau. I was introduced to his work by the Sylvie Nissen gallery in the Carlton Cannes hotel. His drawings of elegant women have a slightly Boldini-like quality to them – I am sure that art historians are up in arms at such a description – but he could draw a couture-clad woman (he was a great friend of Christian Dior) like no one else, capturing the cool elegance of a time when women still wore gloves and hats.

However, I was unaware of the extent of his work depicting men. I used to think that his men were either dinner-jacketed ciphers conceived purely as a backdrop to a glamorous woman, or the tousle-haired, chiselled, naked (except for a modesty-preserving towel or bottle of Eau Sauvage) character who promoted Christian Dior aftershave. This figure was as much of an archetype as the black-tie man, in that he projected an image of perfection by having the body of a Greek god. I too have the body of a Greek god – it’s just that it tends a bit towards what Dionysus might look like after a good meal.

Now thanks to Assouline (for whom I also write books from time to time), the manly side of Gruau is collected between hard covers and it has taught me that he was much more than a mere recorder of fashion – he was actually an innovator. Apparently, he was about to launch a line of menswear with Dior before the couturier’s sudden death, and as the illustrations in Gruau: Portraits of Men show, he was more than up to the task. It is the sort of imagery in which I can lose myself quite happily for hours, narcissistically imagining myself in some of the fanciful outfits depicted.

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At the back of the book there is a section of sketches. I always find this sort of interrupted work in progress the most revealing, as it gives an insight into the way the creator’s mind worked. It was on one of these pages that I saw something rather interesting: a 1965 sketch of man in a white suit and a black silk tie, worn with a red and white paisley shirt, matching pochette (I prefer that my pochette match my socks rather than my shirt, but I will let that pass) and, most insane of all, a matching hatband.

I dug out a nice white Rubinacci shirt with small blue and fawn paisley motifs, found some linen trousers in the latter shade and a jacket in the former, added a pale cream knitted silk tie and was off to the races (or, in this case, the polo).

It was the first time that I can recall wearing a tie with a shirt that was not plain or linear (striped or checked) and I am still not sure if the look worked. I think I know what it needed: the colour of my hatband was a dark brown rather than the paisley I should have been sporting. I am now taking the opportunity of the summer break to commission a series of bespoke hatbands in shades and patterns to be found in my shirt drawers, and I am considering extending this programme to embrace tweeds and ties as well. Let it not be said that I do not occupy my mind with lofty thoughts and noble endeavours.

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