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Words by Mr Colin McDowell

The French have always respected intellectuals. Unlike many nations that even today use the word as a term of contempt, in France - and especially Paris - to refer to someone as an intellectual is high praise indeed. He is someone for whom all doors are open and who is honoured at all levels of society.

The fact that Mr Jean Cocteau was one of the great French intellectuals of the 20th century certainly didn't stop him taking an active interest in his appearance (in the many portraits and photographs of him from Mr Amedeo Modigliani to Mr Andy Warhol he is never without a stiff collar and a tie) or in fashion during the mid years of the 20th century when Paris couture was considered a true art form, albeit a minor one. French intellectuals found nothing inconsistent in sitting in the front row of a show, surrounded not by current TV or pop stars but fellow intellectuals, scholars and influential thinkers and commenting with knowledge on what they were looking at with the same sagacity as they would at a private view of an art exhibition.

Mr Cocteau at actress Ms Francine Weisweiller's
Côte d'Azur villa, January 1957

Mr Cocteau, despite his assertion that fashion bored him, was fascinated by the great couturiers of his time, including Ms Coco Chanel, Ms Elsa Schiaparelli and, later, Mr Christian Dior. And he was close to them creatively as well. His thin, aesthetic figure was frequently perched on a small gold chair in the front row of the prestigious social evening shows at which the belle monde of tout Paris - aristocrats, politicians, and the great names of the theatre and literature - appeared in all their glory, finding nothing strange nor demeaning in supporting an art form that at its most creative had belonged to Paris alone since the 18th century.

The fact that Mr Cocteau was one of the great French intellectuals of the 20th century didn't stop him taking an active interest in his appearance, or fashion

It is from this background that we can assess Mr Cocteau as a style figure whose clothes were observed and copied by more ordinary men of fashion. Narrow shouldered, stick thin, with a large head surrounded by a mass of thick wavy hair, he was by no means a conventionally handsome man but, because this was France, his aura was the result of respect for his brain and, above all, his wide-ranging creativity. He drew his inspiration from multiple sources that encompassed novels, films, poetry, painting - and his own boundless sexuality. He loved both beautiful young men and women and had two great homosexual love affairs - firstly with Mr Raymond Radiguet, and then with Mr Jean Marais, an actor considered the most beautiful man in France in the 1940s.

Mr Cocteau also had an affair with Princess Paley who to his eternal sorrow aborted their child. There were rumours he might even have had a brief liaison with Ms Lee Miller, who he met at Le B?uf sur le Toit, the nightclub he made famous as an artistic gathering point in Paris in the 1920s (in the 1950s, French intellectual Mr Jean-Paul Sartre would make a similar hub with Les Deux Magots).

Mr Cocteau on the ocean liner Île de France, March 1936

Messrs Sergei Diaghilev - whose famous command, "Étonne-moi" (astonish me) was actually aimed at the young Mr Cocteau - Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Ms Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and Ms Edith Piaf knew and admired the genius of Mr Cocteau, even when they did not find him particularly appealing as a personality. His novels, such as Les Enfants Terribles, and films such as La Belle et la Bête (starring Mr Marais) spread his fame as one of the true intellectual movers and shakers of the 20th century.

It would therefore be reasonable to expect such an intellectual maverick to be a social and political one, too. But no, Mr Cocteau leaned much more right than left, politically and socially. In the 1930s, he supported Hitler and was much more a reactionary than a revolutionary. And yet, he was in love with the avant-garde wherever he found it and refused to be pigeonholed. He rejected all attempts to claim him as a pillar of the surrealist movement despite his close friendships with many of its leading lights.

Skinny and energetic, Mr Cocteau looked immaculate in English tweeds, French tailored silk ties, pyjamas and dressing gowns by Charvet, and handmade shoes crafted in the backstreets of the Left Bank

So, how would such a man dress? Like the Establishment, but less so the French than the English one, as many other upper class, powerful men in France did before WWII. In fact, Mr Cocteau was an English dandy as much as a creative schoolmaster of French intellectual and cultural life. He wore his clothes with great precision, again as many men of his time and class (who all had valets) did. Skinny and energetic, he always looked immaculate in an array of English tweeds, French tailored silk ties, pyjamas and dressing gowns by Charvet and handmade shoes crafted by his own "little man" somewhere in the backstreets of the Left Bank. Style mattered to him a great deal, no matter how intellectual he might have been in other things.

When it comes to style, Mr Cocteau continues to be a mentor for our times just as he was in France so many decades ago. How? Because the Jean Cocteau look is absolutely right for now. He was all about lean, clean lines, skinny proportions, narrow-cut trousers and a slightly town-meets-country mood of fine tweeds, soft lamb's wool and elegant leather shoes. And so too many young men at the moment, who wish to look city-sure but not city-slave, an attitude that Mr Cocteau would have surely both understood and heartily endorsed.

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