LEISURE LETTER 29: STYLE ON THE HIGH SEAS WITH COUSTEAU
Jacques Cousteau was many things. An explorer, inventor, documentarian, father and husband. He lived a life so grand and ambitious that, at times, it gives the impression you're watching a maritime Indiana Jones spin off. But this isn't a Spielberg saga. This man really was out there, year after year, forging his own path in the name of Science and doing it all in his own sensible style.
Cousteau’s style comes across in his clothing, the design of his ship Calypso, his films, his invention of the Aqua Lung — damn near everything. Whatever he designed or used had a purpose but didn’t go without panache.
Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic paid tribute within Steve Zissou to Cousteau’s sense of style, especially the uniformed red wooly cap. This cap has a background.
Scuba divers have worn red-knitted hats since the late 1800s, starting with William Walker. His famous rescue of the Winchester Cathedral in 1906 in London put Walker in the history books. By placing thousands of pounds of concrete and blocks, he saved the sinking cathedral. He did this donning the red hat.
However, the history gets a bit muddy and close to lore when trying to figure out why it was red.
French builders known to work in caissons — watertight retaining structures — would have compressed air pumped in to allow them to breathe. When above ground, they would wear red caps, so they could be easily identifiable if they looked disoriented. Other reasons state scuba divers wore them to make sure all onboard would know to watch out for the diver, to be easily identified.
Identification is what it comes down to, but Cousteau made it fashion.
Cousteau pushed the diving industry and exploration to new levels with his inventions. A man that in the field tends to be the best expert. He created the Aqua Lung, which is common in scuba diving, but started with his problems with existing rebreathers. The innovation of the first open-circuit, self-contained underwater breathing apparatus was born. We now just call it the diving regulator.
The list goes on, from his mini-submarine the Diving Saucer to the first amphibious 35mm camera that could be used underwater (later bought by Nikon) to the first shark cage. A pioneer and designer that started a revolution in underwater exploration.
While continuously pushing the boundaries of oceanography, Cousteau and his team always did it in a style, which has heavily inspired the collection of Dandy Del Mar. Whether wearing earthy-toned swim briefs, linen shirts or corduroy shorts, the crew aboard Calypso looked as good as the science they were conducting.
A character in his own rite, Cousteau was able to find everyday characters in his films and docuseries. One that sticks out to us that has a surefire Dandy character can be found in his series Jacques Cousteau Odyssey episode The Coral Divers of Corsica.
A rough-and-tumble diver named Recco harvests coral with his model-like assistant, Nadine. The relationship between them edges on ridiculous, especially underwater (seen at 11:50). Yet, he is a true and respected daredevil. Equipment and tactics that would make modern divers facepalm their foreheads. The early decompression practices are downright wild. At the time, oxygen toxicity wasn’t even on the radar. Recco is constantly in swim briefs even when he walks around his family home’s kitchen.
Recco was the last of his kind and to watch this episode puts characters like him in a perspective that isn’t seen today. Wild and passionate, just like Cousteau.