The French Cut

By Alex Roest

At the conclusion of Suedeheads we’ve seen the usual splintering of a youth culture taking place. People going their separate ways because of marriage etcetera, but mostly because of the simple fact they’re growing up and other interests may take over. What I intend to do with this particular piece is to follow the originals path whose interest in clothes and music did not wane ( or not for good at any rate ). In this case we’ll be concentrating on what wasn’t a coherent scene and didn’t have a name as such, so we’ll just call it The French Cut, shall we ? Somewhat unimaginative I agree and yet I find this most interesting seeing as some of the ex-Skins/Suedes/Smooths were joined by some original Mods in choosing this style, or was it the other way around ? Obviously it wasn’t only them wearing this style because it ‘just exploded in the Seventies’ ( quote J.Simons, owner of the Squire shop ) so it was more a case of going mainstream and blending in with the crowd perhaps. Another way of looking at it would lead to the conclusion it was a more mature way of trying to stand out, through sartorial subtleties rather than via a uniform. People had always been aware of the contradiction in terms that came with those subcultural leanings, or so I like to think anyway. Interestingly enough there was no escaping the return to more classic themes as favoured during their younger days, eventually.

It’s a known fact that the early Stylists or Individualists fused Ivy League with continental styles, Italian and French styles to be precise and as the title of this article suggests it’ll be the latter we’ll be discussing here. To give an example : one of the first noticeable French influences on our British phenomenon were the Breton fisherman’s shirts being worn by Modernists in London around 1961, they were usually worn with Levi or Lee jeans, sometimes with a triangular gusset let in to the side seam to give a kick out, and sometimes frayed hems. Often this outfit would be topped off by a button cardigan.
Some would wear a cycling shirt in a plain colour under a V-neck sweater in order to get that polo look you couldn’t get hold of in the UK at the time. A lot of those tops were knitted so the idea worked really well.

I suppose much of the attraction came from the fact that those clothes were foreign, as in hard to come by, just like Paris kids would prefer English brogues, or an Arrow BD shirt over a perfect French one ( like Charvet ). The French equivalent of the Mod appeared circa 1965, dubiously called minets or ‘trendies’. Les Minets were mainly from affluent Parisian families ( as opposed to the Mods who had middle, or working class backgrounds ).The Minets peaked in 1967/68. The music was American Jazz, Blues and Soul and later English bands like The Stones and The Who as well, they liked English clothes and footwear. However, the Minet style was anticipated by the so called ‘Drugstore Crowd’ which apparently surfaced in 1962 – taking their name from the cafe-boutique they frequented on the Champs-Elysees ( although the originators had moved on already by then, in true Stylist fashion ).This small exclusive group favoured slim fitting suits and cashmere sweaters with dog tooth trousers etcetera. Their shoes had to be English or American.They favoured Church’s shoes and some even progressed to John Lobb, would you believe.

Le Style J.F. Kennedy :

“Part of the Champs-Elysees looked like the campus of an American University in ’64. White socks, unlined madras jackets and American-cut slacks” according to Adam ( 1964 ). “… Tassel loafers or over-stitched Penny loafers (with a real US cent slipped in the window), white socks, light coloured cotton or corduroy jeans, Oxford shirts with button-down or snap collars, and lightly lined three-button jackets with small shoulders in seersucker or madras.”
Suits were in “Mohair, Harris Tweed or Herringbone Cheviot (with an adjustment tab on the back of the pants)”. Also popular were “Crested Blazers (here, however, crests were sold separately from a little basket…)”
Shetlands came in “Duck yellow, Candy Pink, Pale Blue, Mauve, and Off-White.”

Minets in casual fashion

The grass is always greener effect, as it were, is apparent in the above. In accordance to this theory the London Modernists were furthermore heavily influenced by the Nouvelle Vague, or at least by an image derived from such films. A good example would be the character played by Jean-Paul belmondo in “A Bout de Souffle” or the one played by Alain Delon in “Plein Soleil”. Or anything else they perceived as being French for that matter. Kids were spotted carrying a loaf of French bread for instance or going through the motions pretending to read a French paper.
A lot of what influenced them was more authentic though. Like the casual clothes worn by French tourists, students or diplomats sons who were living in London and who would subsequently visit clubs like Le Kilt and La Poubelle that catered for them. Their clothes were well cut to begin with, the British kids weren’t used to good casual clothes at the time e.g. hipster trousers. The Frenchmen also wore beautiful round-toed shoes and their suits were made from lightweight fabrics, obviously their British fellow clubbers were well impressed with the way they presented themselves.

For the French kids in their turn there was the added value of being away from home which led to the usual sexual escapades and drug intake. Another important factor was that the music played at London clubs was better than what they were used to at home. Another one of those cross fertilization matters taking place like that.

Last but not least one of the haircuts favoured by the British Mods was The French Crop which was basically a grown out College Boy with a high parting. Backcombing the hair would give it that special effect as can be seen in pictures of “Rod The Mod” Stewart circa ’64.

It’s interesting to see how all those influences were going back and forth. As for our core topic there’s a little anecdote where some visiting Frenchwomen approached an ex-Mod in a London street, speaking in French, assuming he was a countryman of theirs, judging by his clothes.

Chris Hardy :

The incident occurred on an evening out to Southend around springtime 1970, I was outside a club with a couple of friends when some French girls (probably au pairs or exchange students) came up and started talking to us in French. They were surprised to find that we were English, and said they thought we were French because of the way we were dressed. If I remember correctly I was probably wearing a slim-fit silk shirt, a Shetland crewneck jumper a size too small, parallel French-cut trousers and round-toe loafers. This was pretty much our regular wear around this time.

Jacques Dutronc, the epitome of French style

Most of the customers followed what J. Simons ( and others at e.g. Village Gate, Quincy/Jones or Woodhouse, but also Stanley Adams and Take 6 who were a bit cheaper and more accessible ) had on offer at the Squire shop without giving it too much thought really, seeing as they could trust the man when it came to tracing down stylish clothes that weren’t too outlandish. The prevalent thought behind what the London Stylists ( from Mods to Smooths ) had always done was that you had to be relatively understated, so they would have an excellent eye for that sort of thing for starters. Moving with the times, but thoughtfully so I’d call that….

This was the period where things did become a little experimental again in that there was a rising demand for more contemporary, continental clothes so the suits with the concave shoulders and the pinched waist started to appear. Tight waistcoats as well as tighter seats were part of this look. Also the shirt collars and jacket vents became deeper, the trouser widths and the lapels got wider and the ties fatter ( still available in muted,classic designs if you looked hard though ). Also velvet trousers, e.g. to be worn with two button jackets were popular for a more casual option.

A lot of this stuff came from Maya in Paris. Another item that sold really well was the short, belted, Shetland wool cardigan that would be worn with brushed or sometimes quilted denim for instance. Shoes were still loafers or Toppers with a very rounded toe. All in all, with the longish, slightly backcombed hair it looked very French to the British eye.Yet in some way the basic approach was still very British though, probably as in being reluctant to dress down in earnest. Those were different times indeed although eventually standards would drop anyway. For the time being, during the early ‘70s, at many a night spot one still couldn’t get access when not wearing a jacket, which makes sense although I’d say wearing a tie is perhaps a little too much to ask.

Chelsea Drugstore, Kings Road, London during the early ‘70s

So, we’re talking approximately late ’71 by now. People with a subcultural background ( and there were many of that kind around ) had already gotten used to a much softer look via the Skinhead to Smooth route in the case of those that were now hitting their twenties.

In The Way We Wore (by Robert Elms) Steve Harley mentions a movement that he claimed began in the pubs down London’s Old Kent Road in 1970-71. He says that there were scores of former Skins in tight-fitting shirts with long hair and ‘loon pants’ and nodding their heads to the prog-rock bands. These were the young dudes that inspired Mott the Hoople. Rod Steward and T-Rex they’d obviously listen to as well.
It is suggested that ‘as soon as the Northern lads adopted crops, you could hear the hair growing in Bethnal Green’.

Some youths were more inclined to go for very long hair and a rather feminine look embracing fur coats, lacy shirts, high-ish heels in a kind of Marc Bolan look. Others were more restrained, favouring an updated Squire Shop/Village Gate style with slightly flared trousers, Stephen Topper shoes and a trench style coat worn quite fitted and long. It is important to note that those former Skinheads sporting this look did it with a recognizable style. The quality and subtlety of the clothes would distinguish them. It wasn’t a coherent ‘scene’ as such, as mentioned earlier, but there was definitely a pattern. Some opted for a more formal interpretation i.e. the three piece suit, others chose a more relaxed outfit like the tightfitting tanktop, brushed denim jeans and slim shirt with cuffs just turned back once, in a so-called ‘hairdressers style’.

John King in a fairly slim jersey shirt from a shop in Romford (probably the forerunner of Take6), bespoke very slightly flared trousers from his local tailor and shoes from Stephen Topper in Carnaby Street

The basic French Cut silhouette ruled through most of the Seventies on a much wider scale and in a watered down ( thus much more common ) form, via the High Streets. Just look at some of the movies and all those TV cop programs from back in the day, like Kojak, to get the picture.

All of that started to change when the most dedicated disciples of The Look started to become aware that they’d lost direction and purity in style somewhat. It has to be stated that the participants don’t look back on this period with great fondness. Taking a bit of distance usually helps clearing a matter and to be honest people had to distance themselves from the younger crowd. Still they’d be contemplating how much happier and more comfortable they were with their style when dressing in a more classic sense.

John King :

“I was sitting on a tram ( in Ostende in ’75- AR ) and this guy got on and sat opposite us. At first I thought he was a girl. He had blond hair in a kind of bob style. He was wearing a lovely creamy colour cardigan over a silk shirt in a pale pinky cream that had tiny ‘Michel Axel’ logos all over it. He was wearing some lovely deep tan Chelsea boots and carried a small Givenchy bag (later available in Stanley Adams in London). He also carried a copy of Vogue. He looked so different. He was the prototype for the next Decade.

Next year ( a ) friend( of mine ) opened a small and very exclusive shop in my hometown selling very early Armani pieces, Ciao, Falke and established here in Essex that look I had first witnessed the summer before in Belgium.’’

What happened at such shops was that the owner/staff would educate, if need be, their customers to spend a little more money, think £20 on a shirt and £30 on trousers when high street shops would sell a suit for £25, perhaps paving the way for the designer age like that.

Sartorial inspiration comes from within to an certain extent only and influences may come from anywhere when it comes to the true Stylist. Then there’s the element of wanting to test the boundaries that is part of a strong personality. Sartorial eclecticism can be translated into shopping at very different places that may even stock seemingly clashing styles, at least tot the untrained eye. Thus building a unique wardrobe that has everything to do with who those people are : characters.

Obviously, as I’ve mentioned in the intro, some people would stick with it while others would drop out, at least temporarily, due to family obligations etc.

Through the decade there was, however, a gradual move taking place towards a more classic casual style among the ranks of the former Mods, Suedes et al, which culminated in Ralph Lauren and similar preppy looks. Also the influence of the Gant stores within certain circles was not to be underestimated. Prior to that, during the early ‘80s, Gant was sold at various places such as Austin Reed and John Lewis. People would remember the shirts from the early ‘60s and the revived shirts seemed quite faithful to the original item. There were plain and university striped ocbd’s, as well as nicely cut trousers, good quality cardigans, a great heavy wool bomber type zip-up jacket called the Melton Flyer and a ¾ length field type jacket named the Slugger. This all fitted with a relaxed but smart low-key way of dressing. Similar to Ralph Lauren, but without the label and the hype.

To summarize matters I’d say experimentation may temporarily lead people ( sartorially ) astray, but there’s always the safe knowledge of being able to return to a basic level. Usually there may be a little something that’s still incorporated into one’s personal style, as a leftover, so to speak. It’s all part of the attitude for the devotees of The Look.

So we’ve reached the end of this study, but our journey continues so rest assured, dear readers. We’ll retrace in our footsteps to find out about London’s take on the Ivy League style. I hope you’ll be looking forward to it as much as I do as it should be a classic story !

Alex Roest

Thanks to Chris and John, also thanks to Daniele.

Recommended reading:

Mods! by Richard Barnes
The Look (again) by Paul Gorman
A History of Men’s Fashion by Farid Chenoune (Flammarion 1993) ISBN: 2-08013-536-8

  1. — Jean-Marc    Oct 8, 10:05    #

    Good article again, Alex,

    May I recommend – if you haven’t seen it – The May 13 – 1966 issue of LIFE magazine. Face It ! Revolution in male clothes with nice pictures of US – Brit and French youths.

  2. — Alex Roest    Oct 22, 16:29    #

    Thanks JM, only just noticed your comment but I would be interested in having a look into that issue of LIFE. Will mail you about it.

  3. — Alex Roest    Oct 26, 06:28    #

    Thanks JM. Hopefully you’ve received my email seeing as I am quite interested in your recommendation. All the best.

  4. — Ben    Mar 3, 13:27    #

    Sort of surprised to not see a mention of Renoma or Newman Jeans in this article. But great read and very informative!

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  9. — Lloyd Johnson    Jun 18, 06:14    #

    Didn’t Quintner & Simons have Thackery’s as well as Village Gate..I seem to remember they had loads of shops on the Kings Road in the late 60s early 70s everyone at The Markham Arms ,which was THE HANGOUT at the time,wore their clothes….

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