7 Style Lessons We Can Learn From Serge Gainsbourg

All hail the master of French menswear

April 6, 2021 10:22 am
Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg

Many people think of Paris as the center of style. As the birthplace of pretty much every pioneering fashion house, it’s understandable that this would be the case. But when you think about the history of menswear (specifically, from a tailoring point of view), the city of light isn’t necessarily the first place to spring to mind. England caters to the colder seasons through bespoke Savile Row suits, Italy the warmer weather through lighter, regionally sourced ensembles. So where does Paris sit? Somewhere smack dab in the middle of both, pulling textural ingredients from its neighboring countries and wearing them in a manner that’s filled with elegance, sophistication and an insouciant sense of charm. The Frenchman who most displayed this in action? Serge Gainsbourg.

Rising to prominence in the 1960s, Gainsbourg’s musical success lay in the fact that he was he progressive thinker. With an extensive career that gave birth to more than 500 songs, he pulled inspiration from all kinds of genres — pop, jazz, chanson, rock, reggae, yé-yé — layering his subversive approach to sound under subversive lyrics on life. Given that he mastered a multifaceted understanding of music, it’s hardly surprising that Serge Gainsbourg also mastered a multifaceted understanding of menswear. He favored British tailoring and American workwear, but Gainsbourg’s unconventional way of mixing dress codes together felt undeniably French because it was refreshing and worn with serious nonchalance. With that in mind, he’s a top source if you’re looking to bring a bit of that je ne sais quoi to your own wardrobe.

Here’s seven of his greatest style hacks to instantly upgrade your wardrobe. Trois, deux, un, alle…

Edward Sexton/Getty

Flamboyant tailoring takes center stage 

First things first: tailoring. Forming the basis of his wardrobe, Gainsbourg’s selection of suits was consistently supreme, mostly because he stuck to well-crafted garments that were simple in silhouette and flamboyant in detail. Case in point is this performance in 1971, for which he matched a sharp three-piece ensemble with an unbuttoned oxford shirt, skinny printed tie and battered leather boots. The key to communicating a touch of verve lies in those curvaceous, peak lapels — and there’s no better place to source them than Edward Sexton (AKA: the tailor who invented this kind of sartorial sex appeal).


Mix up your dress codes

Classic though his tailoring often was, the important thing to know about Serge Gainsbourg’s style is that it often broke the rules. This wasn’t done in an overly extravagant way, but the singer liked to play around with different dress codes, and his smartest move by far was the combination of a smart, single breasted suit over a casually unbuttoned denim shirt. Confident, relaxed and undeniably cool, he often replayed this style move over the years, and we understand why: because it’s killer. For a tasteful touch of Western inspired French attire, head to Husbands.

Saint James/Getty

A sailor sweater signifies French elegance

Ok, so you can already see that Gainsbourg borrowed elements of British menswear (tailoring) and American menswear (denim) in his style, but of course, he did incorporate some heritage staples from his home country too. The best one worth noting? A sailor sweater, which he wore for this 1968 television performance over some twill tailored trousers – very simple, very sophisticated. Just one quick styling note: if your shirt has four buttons like this Saint James one, the French rule is to leave two of them unbuttoned for a little bit of nonchalance. 

Mr Porter/Getty

Stripes are key in all departments

Prints were pretty absent in Gainsbourg’s wardrobe, but there was one which he frequently wore with full fashion force: the stripe. Given that you could probably call it the most classic pattern of all time, it’s hardly surprising that the French man was a fan – and during summer in particular, he embraced it from head to toe. How so? Through a white Oxford shirt (which, today, we suggest sourcing from Turnbull & Asser) and high waisted trousers (Celine is a good point of call for these). Divided by a skinny leather belt, his streamlined look is an easy win for the current season. 

Dolce and Gabbana/Getty

Top off your tailoring with a corduroy coat

For serious menswear aficionados, the favoured overcoat to complete a tailored ensemble is a beige trench. Serge was no stranger to this design, but it was (and still is) immensely popular, so to spice things up a bit, he traded the cotton texture for corduroy, and we must say, it looked spectacular. Buttoning up its double-breasted structure and lifting its extraordinary collar, the tufted material was Gainsbourg’s super smart way of showing that he understood style, so if your mind follows a similar train of thought, invest in a similar design stat.  

Broadway & Sons/Getty

Make sure your military shirt is well worn

Gainsbourg referenced the States from the get go of his career (listen to “New York USA” on Gainsbourg Percussions if you don’t believe us) – and by the time the eighties came around, Americana sat at the centre of his wardrobe, by way of military shirts. Serge paired this with every style of clothing – whether it was under a pinstripe blazer (a winning combination, FYI) or over a relaxed pair of white workwear trousers, as pictured above in 1983. The key to mastering military wear lies in, well, signs of wear: so we suggest sourcing one secondhand for maximum effect.

Saint Laurent/Getty

Seal the deal with stark black shades

One final note: accessories. Evidently, Gainsbourg brought a refreshing take on menswear to France, but there’s a chance he borrowed the odd style cue from other musicians – specifically, Lou Reed. Pictured above at a Parisian party circa 1990, Gainsbourg’s jet black, cataract sunglasses bore a striking resemblance to The Velvet Underground frontman’s signature accessory: concealing and undeniably cool. As we’re approaching the sunnier half of the year, now is the time to seal your outfit with a similar level of starkness. The only tip for pulling it off: just make sure you’ve got the rest of the Gainsbourg verve to go with it. 

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