Swellboy on… beachwear

Our man spurns tight trunks for the genteel dress of a bygone age

Image: Brijesh Patel

Beachwear is not something to which I give a great deal of attention… Let me rephrase that. Beachwear is not something to which I give a great deal of attention compared to the time I invest in musing on the eternal mysteries of dressing for town or country.

I don’t like to sit in the sun for too long. I get restless – it is time I could be spending working or thinking about what clothes to change into that evening. Reclining on a sunlounger sipping a non-alcoholic piña colada (or some other drink of the sort accessorised with a miniature paper parasol) and applying sunblock to myself every 20 minutes like some pasty self-basting oven-ready piece of poultry is not really conducive to the thinking of great thoughts or, for that matter, trivial ones. It is just impossible to get the mind to focus on such important issues as calculating the maximum size of paisley print I can get away with on my shirt if I intend to wear it with a pair of vigorously patterned trousers. I find that my brain (the optimistic description with which I dignify the jumble of nerves inside my skull) simply cannot grapple with the weightier issues pertaining to the human condition when the body is being sundried.

Nevertheless, I sometimes have lunch on the beach (which I tend to take at about the time Georgian Britain used to dine, roughly 5pm), after which I have a small cigar and a long swim, so I need to give the issue of what to wear there some thought.

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My maternal grandfather, who was one of my great sartorial heroes, always seemed to have the right clothes for the right time, both in terms of occasion and historical epoch. He was one of my earlier instructors in matters of male elegance. He was a total expert in cloth and I seem to recall that when we would visit a museum together and come across a wall hanging, almost without thinking he would lean over and take some priceless Gobelins or Beauvais tapestry between thumb and forefinger as if assessing its suitability for a sports jacket.

I remember him telling me, when I was a child going through family albums, that the Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) used to set the fashions across Europe, and accordingly there is a very natty photograph of my grandfather with my grandmother in the country that was taken some time in the 1930s. She was a glamorous-looking woman, but he looks absolutely superb in an Argyle sweater and plus fours.

It is perhaps my favourite photograph of the man, but it is given a run for its money by the series of him taken when he was living in Berlin and spending his summers on the North Sea coast. This is a simply splendid set of photographs of Bright Young Things. They look like they were taken by Mario Testino channelling F Scott Fitzgerald, and my grandfather and his friends are wearing the most wonderful clothes: dressing gowns, wide pyjama-like trousers and so on. Alas, they are old and sepia rather than colour, but given that this was the time of Sonia Delaunay’s excursion into fabrics and clothing design, the range of colours and patterns can be imagined. I took inspiration from this and have a turquoise linen Emma Willis dressing gown, expressly to wear as I exit the waves (imagining that Mrs Swellboy will be standing on the shore holding it open for me to step into). Thus far I have not been brave enough to slip into it, as people just do not dress for the beach like they used to. In fact, they barely dress at all. Tight swimming trunks, disconcertingly popular among corpulent middle-aged men under the illusion that they look like David Gandy, leave depressingly little to the imagination. 

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It is almost enough to have you wishing for winter.

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