As Awards Season hots up and the competition for Best Actor unfolds, the latest step on Andrew Garfield’s Oscar campaign has found the Tick, Tick… Boom! actor submitting to the time-honoured tradition of… donning a suit to get his picture taken in a swimming pool.
For those unaware of this milestone in every sexy young actor’s career, a quick primer: the actor in question, for the purposes of a photoshoot, puts on an expensive designer suit loaned to a magazine, then lowers himself (or possibly jumps in if he is going for the full wet look) into a swimming pool. The photographer then snaps the actor, looking attractive and glamorous, but also (and this is key) wet.
You may have seen this type of photo more often than you realise: veterans of the form range from Vince Vaughn to Joaquin Phoenix, while more recent stars to get dank for the camera include Tom Holland and Alex Wolff. The “hot man in a suit in a pool” shoot is a photographic cliché, certainly, but perhaps not as ubiquitous as, say, “glamorous woman in a gown has fun” – which has enabled photographers to get away with it, stealthily, for years. What are the reasons for the astonishing endurance of this trope?
First off, the element of wetness is key. In Jean Dujardin’s wet suit shoot, for instance, you perceive a laudable amount of drenching, which allows the material to cling to his body. The wetness means that we perceive the subject’s body more easily through fabric, and it surely also signifies to us the sweat and other bodily effluvia from sexual striving. Wet T‑shirt competitions have long been the meat and drink of low-rent pornography and magazine shoots that tend to objectify women: the wet suit format plays on that but (and this is where the suit comes in handy) distances itself from the vulgarity and crudeness of that exercise by projecting a general air of suavity.
There is probably also something in the suit being defiled that appeals to our baser sexual instincts. In his essay Sex and Hotels, Geoff Dyer posits that hotel rooms turn us on because “Cleanliness might not be next to godliness but it is certainly adjacent to horniness.” He carries on: “A hotel room is horny because it is clean. The sheets are clean, the toilets are clean, everything is clean, and this cleanliness is a flagrant inducement to – what else? – filthiness.” A crisp, clean, expensive suit unleashes in us, perhaps, the same instinct to spoil the clean object: the wet suit photo shoot, in this respect, may enact our own desire to, erm, dampen the wearer of the suit.
Of course, the suit itself stands for a certain idea of money and privilege, as does the idea of a swimming pool. Indeed, the swimming pool is almost always privately owned – except in the case of Ryan Gosling, whose rather coy and ironic wet suit shoot commandeered no less than the bijou Gellert Baths in Budapest, a marvel of Art Deco design whose use in the shoot casually vehicles the actor’s pulling power.
Owning a pool bespeaks a certain degree of wealth, and the suit and tie connote a lavish lifestyle of awards, dinners and premieres that the rest of us can only gawp at. The history of the suit and tie – the way it has been engineered over the years into an accepted symbol of male sophistication – is of course closely connected to money, race and class: at least until the introduction of ready-to-wear, owning a good suit always used to suggest the ability to have a tailor of one’s own.
Notoriously, the Bullingdon Club – a group of which Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members at Oxford University – ensured that only super-rich students could join by making it obligatory to wear a suit that (at latest estimates, in 2007) retailed at £3,500. The suit, then, still has an enormous signifying power, which surely conjures up imagery of immense glamour and wealth. The act of not just wearing a suit once for a photoshoot, but in so doing, completely ruining it forever with water and chlorine, draws on our general lust for wealth, making drooling beggars of all who hanker for the men in their wet apparel.
Finally, one reason for the format’s persistence must be its sheer practicality. If all else fails, the wet suit shoot is eminently reliable – since what could be easier than capturing a hot man looking wet, in the magic hour? No props needed, no particular concept: the imagery and looks speak for themselves, and a photographer can always just give it a go at the end of a long day’s slog photographing a weary celeb. Most photographic locations in the Hollywood area must have a pool at their disposal: chuck your star in, if he’s willing, and see if anything lands. Surely a great deal of these pictures arises from that kind of last-minute will-this-do desperation.
In the meantime, although the format has been around the block, it doesn’t appear to be on the way out. Alex Wolff’s wet suit shoot offers a casual, friendly twist on the dour black-tie tradition; Pedro Pascal’s take on the form offers a surprisingly inviting, dignified stance. With more Oscar seasons to come and countless magazine pages to fill, the wet suit shoot hasn’t yet seen its final splash.