The French new wave was a movement, particularly in film, that saw the rise of improvised shots, youthful iconoclasm, and dark, raw movies that chronicled usually morbid or violent tales. They were the classic tales of Hollywood turned upside down, and instead of the gallant, charming hero, such as Gable or Bogart, there were instead seedy, dangerous anti-heroes struggling to endure, or even undermine, the moral fortitude of French society. These men were heroes of the underworld, ungentlemanly, but always enchanting and charismatic. Breathless, by Godard and Le Samourai, by Melville, were two of the boldest, darkest and most significant of the French new wave cinema, and their two charming leading men, Belmondo and Delon helped define new fashion trends in France and conversely, the world.
Alain Delon is perhaps the best segue from the leading men of 1950’s Hollywood to the dark figure of the new wave anti-hero. His characters, always dressed to the nines, command a presence on screen that cannot be ignored. Whether he is stalking the streets of Italy dressed in button down shirts (the first two buttons undone) in his breakout film Plein Soleil, or framed perfectly in his dark suits in Le Samourai, Delon is incapable of looking unfashionable.
His strong, silent characters always have straight posture, and commanding looks in their eyes that seem to dominate every other character, coupled with dark clothes and a trench coat with an upturned collar. It’s hard to tell whether he’ll annihilate his on-screen enemy with the blast of a concealed pistol, or merely give them a “you’re not worthy” smirk and vanish into the back alleys of Paris.
Jean-Paul Belmondo wanted to be a professional boxer just as much as he wanted to be an actor. You can see how his boxer attitude shines through the smoke of his constantly lit cigarette as he bounces around Paris, owning the place as he sizes up every cop and girl with the same cocky, self-assured stare.
In his fantastically executed role as Michel Poiccard in the 1960’s film Breathless, Belmondo began to develop a cult following in France, termed ‘Belmondoism’, which sought to emulate his gangster Bogart. You can see in his choice of fashion the classic impact of “Boggie”. His concealing fedora or driver’s cap, and dark sunglasses either hide him from the world as he surveys it behind his smoldering cigarette, or frames his face as it’s cocked back. His pants are trim and well shaped—cut so you can just see his silk socks as he struts about—and his tweed blazer is tapered at the waist and broad in the shoulders. What is most drawing, however, is how he executes his look. He acts as though it were entirely effortless, as if he merely threw this ensemble on, and he’d be damned if he cared what others thought about it. He is almost the ideal anti-hero, charming and well dressed, but boorish in manners and punk in attitude.
At the same time, Serge Gainsbourg was redefining France’s music. Gainsbourg—half musician, half poet, and all lover—was recording tantalizing, overtly sexual songs that began to gain huge interest amoung the hip in the 1960’s. His duet with sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, and later English actress Jane Birkin, Je t’aime… moi non plus caused quite a stir at the time due to the rumor that the song was recorded during sex. To this accusation he coolly replied, “Thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record”. That was the man all over: a punk, a poet, a rebel, a drunk and a notorious lover.
As a self-expressive poet, Gainsbourg is infamous for his billowing, open shirts, dark clothes, disheveled hair and almost cocky “who gives a f***” attitude. This, coupled with the staple accessory of the French new wave, the endless cigarette dangling from the lip, gave Gainsbourg the look of a morbid, bohemian poet, with the confidence and style of someone who could penetrate (no pun intended) stardom, but remain on its fringe, his character unchanged and no justification needed to suit the listening world of the 1960’s on.
So what can we take away from these men who helped to define cool? First off, confidence is the basic foundation for any wardrobe. Delon could still look suave, Belmondo cocky, and Gainsbourg still sexy, even if they were wearing plastic shopping bags, and this is merely because they seem so unconcerned about their appearance. They never fuss with their clothes, they never second guess their open shirts or straighten their ties. In these movies the clothes certainly do not make the men, the men make the clothes work. That being said, not everyone is able to amass that level of self-assuredness, nor would it always come off as charming and suave. So for all of you who are more modest, here are a few clothing choice tips to make you look and feel like the cocky anti-hero of the new wave.
There is no reason why the t-shirt should have dominated the casual look. The men of the early 1960’s seemed infinitely more imposing reclining in an open button down shirt, a hat placed neatly on the back of their heads. So I say bring it back! A well-fitted form fitting button down shirt is the way to pulling off anti-hero cool. Depending on the temperature, or the professional environment, you can control how open you want your collar, either bracing the world with a little Gainsbourg-esque chest or done up to almost the top button to give you a more work-suitable look. Feel free to roll your cuffs and, depending on the pants, decide whether a tuck works for the occasion or not.
The cut of the trousers is everything! There’s no use trying to look suave in massive, billowing trousers that bunch up around your feet. Hem a pair, so it’s cut to end right at your shoes, so that when you sit, more sock (or leg, in the summer) is revealed. Furthermore, a good fitted straight leg cut really pulls the pants together. You don’t want it wide and short, you want the pants to be form fitting. If they are more casual trousers try rolling the bottoms and ditching the socks, instead pairing them with some solid leather oxfords or even some classic canvas shoes. Try wearing trousers either in dark natural shades or tans to keep the look classic.
Tweed has, for whatever reason, received a bad rap. Not everyone is going to look like a frumpy professor when they wear tweed, unless of course they just buy it straight from the nearest thrift shop, giving no care to size or shape. If you are going to rock a classic tweed jacket like Belmondo in Breathless, size and shape are the most important features you should be concerned about. Make sure it’s tapered in at the waist and the shoulder pads aren’t too overwhelming (even no shoulder pads can look good).