Dive in: how Slim Aarons art directed the poolside summer

Lauren Cochrane

In lockdown, holidays seem like some kind of fantasy - so looking at a Slim Aarons photograph is sort of appropriate. Aarons has, after all, always been about armchair travelling. It never rains in his pictures. They are not of people grinning through the downpour staycations, or of hard-fought sweaty adventures. Instead, Aarons concentrated on the holiday where the weather is perfect, cocktails at 11am are the norm, and sunglasses are always massive. The kind of holiday we’re all dreaming of right now, really.

Villa Nirvana, Acapulco, 1971 Photograph: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Glamour hotspots like Capri, Palm Springs and Acapulco were on the Aarons’ itinerary while working from the fifties onwards. And while he did photograph celebrities like Gary Cooper, Babe Paley and Ursula Andress, the fame of his subjects are a moot point. Its his images of the jetset on holiday that endure. Think young, glamorous women with midriffs on display, accompanied by older men in sports jackets, and possibly a labrador, almost always next to - but rarely in - a pool.

Swimmer And Sunbather, Lake Tahoe, 1959 Photograph: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Aarons’ influence on the Instagram holiday aesthetic is huge. So much so that there was an argument to be made if you didn’t post a sub-Aarons sun-filled poolside shot during your fortnight off, you weren’t ever there. Much like the modern influencers who emulate him, Manhattan-born Aarons had little interest in reportage, or capturing reality. He turned down an assignment to cover the Korean War, saying “I’ll only do a beach if it has a blonde on it.” His picture are not inclusive, but that is sort of the point. He described his practice as “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”

This policy, of course, attracts fashion like the proverbial moth. Study Aarons’ photography for long enough and you’ll realise the people are just extras - the real scene-stealer is the pool itself, a symbol of pure escapism. It’s this that has inspired a capsule collection from Maje, the French brand designed by Judith Milgrom. Across eight designs - a shirt, T-shirt, sweatshirt, shorts etc - Aarons’ attractive aesthetic is printed, postcard-style, along with the slogan ‘poolside stories’. A dress and a swimsuit forget the people completely: they’re covered with a print of Aaronsian turquoise pool water.

Milgrom takes her place in a lineage of fashionable types finding inspiration in Aarons. The photographer sold his catalogue to Getty in 1997 making it more well-known, and designers like Michael Kors and Anna Sui began to reference Aarons 1974 book A Wonderful Time, with vintage copies of the book going for around $2000. Sui called it “the quintessential guide for good taste”. Aarons, however, was somewhat sniffy about fashion’s interest in him. “I don’t do fashion,” he said. “I take photos of people in their own clothes and that becomes fashion.”

Aarons died in 2006, four years before the invention of Instagram but his ideal vacation has become a reference point for the selfie era. There are nearly 50k posts tagged #slimaarons on Instagram, and sites like The Man Repeller and The Gentleman’s Journal have ran features on how to get the look. Going by Aarons’ rules would involve what not to wear first. The photographer was brilliantly obnoxious about the parameters of his good taste. He supposedly refused to photograph anyone in jeans, T-shirts or sneakers. Instead, think bold print bikinis for women, short shorts for men, anything wafty and bright, crochet, eyeliner. With the focus on the sixties and seventies, vintage is your best bet to find it. Channel Betty Draper on her trip to Rome, or Dickie Greenleaf on a yacht, even if you’re only social distancing sitting in your local park. Yes these characters are fictional but this is Aarons. Think about dressing the holiday you want, not the one you’ll have - certainly not this year - and you’re halfway there.