“I like the guys who make almost a wrong clothing decision but make it in the right spirit. That’s style, to me. Even if it’s a mistake, you walk with your head held high, smile and forget about it.”
Sprezzatura is a word often bandied around within the world of fashion and style with reckless abandon. Much like other trademark words we use such as ‘essential’, ‘classic’ and ‘steez’ (which I hate, by the way), the definition of sprezzatura has come to mean many different and varying things, thanks to the general overuse and the lack of knowledge about the subject in general. Luckily, this is where I come in.
Regardless of whether you’re a beginner to the world of menswear or a seasoned pro, we can all benefit from a quick reminder of what sprezzatura really means and how it can be utilized in your own style. It’s an Italian word that first shows up in The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, where it is defined as: ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or say appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.’ This essentially boils down to making difficult actions look easy while concealing the conscious effort that went into them. Or as Yeezy would say – ‘what? This old thing?’
So it boils down to making it seem like you don’t care then? Well, sort of. The easiest translation of sprezzatura is ‘artful dishevelment’ and there is a fine line between achieving it and simply being sloppy. For example, lots of people like to think good old RPatz has sprezzatura when, in fact, he’s just a big old sloppy mess. There’s a difference between hiding your effort and having none at all. The same applies to the writers and bloggers who claim putting any old combination of loud colors together is ‘sprezzy’ (another one I hate), because there’s a difference between knowing your color wheel and looking like a five year old’s finger painting.
The Art of Sprezzatura: My Way
For great examples of sprezzatura, look to the guy’s who really are the definition of it – Gianni Agnelli, his grandson Lapo Elkann, Michael Bastian, and Nickelson Wooster. These are gentleman who clearly understand how to dress well, and all the rules that come with style. They are also gentleman who know that some rules were made to be broken. Included throughout this article, I have provided my own interpretation of Sprezzatura, to help you visualize what we are trying to achieve, before I break it down for all levels of ability:
Sprezzatura Beginner Tips:
Before jumping in at the deep end, let’s ease ourselves in gently with a few simple twists and changes. I’ve always been an advocate for giving instruction on how details make the gentleman, so let’s start there.
For a dash of sprezzatura, why not start twisting your tie knot? Trade in that perfect dimple for a side one, and start pulling the tail of your tie away to the side of the main body.
The same applies to your pocket square. Forget about that perfectly lined up peep of hanky and go full on messy. Throw that bad boy in and then forget about it for the rest of the day.
Give your iron a bit of a rest too. Nicely pressed shirts are great for job interviews and weddings but for day to day stuff, looking a little bit rumpled and relaxed (especially when it’s an Oxford cloth shirt) can be just what you need. Finally, chill out and go sockless every now and then.
Below you can find my two favorite videos for nailing that sprezzatura tie and pocket square look.
Staying on ties, once you’ve mastered the side dimple, why not start knotting it so the tail end is longer than the main body? It’s a classic used by everyone from Sid Mashburn to Nick Wooster to Tommy Hilfiger. It’ll take a bit of practice but as long as you start with the tail end nearly the same length as the head, things should work out fine.
While you’re loosening up, why not actually loosen up? Undo that top button of your shirt and relax the tie there as well. The same can go for your shirt cuffs when wearing a jumper or a jacket – don’t worry so much about buttoning the cuffs, you want to keep it casual. No one does this better than Michael Bastian. The key to pulling it off is by nailing the other traditional ‘rules’ of style – such as fit, color and texture – then letting one rule slide.
Your footwear can be given the sprezzatura treatment as well. A mini-trend that’s beginning to emerge is the lack of laces on your shoes, regardless of whether it’s your brogues, desert boots or wingtips. It’s a nice little detail that most people won’t notice on a well executed outfit until the second or third time they look. I often leave my double monk straps unbuckled when off out in the city.
Sprezzatura Master Tips:
OK, now it’s time to separate the men from the boys and really bend some rules. This is the kind of stuff that only the brave will want to attempt and for good reason. The key here is subverting expectations and it definitely requires some thought.
Why not try having your belt buckled at the side? Or using one of your socks as a pocket square, because it’s such a great color or pattern?
One of my little tricks is to take one of my Signature lapel flowers, by The Gentleman Bentley Co. and placing them in the lapel button hole of my suits/blazers. The more contrasting the color the better.
Or why not take a leaf straight out of the Agnelli playbook and wear your watch over your shirt sleeve but still under your jacket? Again, the reason he could get away with this was because every other aspect of his look was impeccable – disheveled elegance.
Sprezzatura: Details Lookbook
It is has always been about the small details and effortless touches you can give your outfit:
The goal is to give the people one meets the feeling that, no matter how much money and time they spend on their appearance, your natural taste and style will triumph, and that the superiority of your dress is all the harder to emulate because its effortless.
The Tactics: A Checklist
How far you push this depends on your self-confidence, but Mr. Cole Lesley gives a prime example in his illuminating biography of Sir Noel Coward. After his first flush of success as a young writer, Sir Noel was invited to a meeting of the Tomorrow Club, which counted among its members leading literary figures including Messrs William Somerset Maugham, H G Wells and Arnold Bennett. Not knowing the dress code, Sir Noel wore a dinner jacket, only to find everybody else in daytime attire. As he strode confidently into the room, he paused and said, “Now, I don’t want any of you to feel embarrassed.”
Ms Nancy Mitford, author and arbiter of aristocratic British taste, used to say, ” All nice rooms are a bit shabby”. The better firms of Savile Row, and the grander Neapolitan ones, feel that if a customer is complimented for wearing a new suit then his tailors have somehow failed him. The logic extends to the provenance of one’s clothes, as I discovered when I interviewed the senior member of one of the families of Philadelphia for an article on gentlemen’s evening dress. I was foolish enough to ask him where he bought his dinner jackets. “I don’t buy evening clothes” he said. “I have evening clothes.” This gave the impression that he had inherited his tuxedos from his father, a fact that made two winning points: firstly, that his good taste has a genetic dimension, and secondly that anyone lacking a time machine will be unable to ape his style. For men unable to say that they have inherited their wardrobe then a reasonable ploy is to claim, “I haven’t bought clothes in years”, since any reply tends to sound both arriviste and petty.
Its vulgar to appear to be trying too hard - a man who’s got his pocket square, tie, shirt and jacket arranged so crisply that he looks like a butterfly stuck on a pin cannot be chic. The nadir of trying to hard is the sartorial horror that is matching your pocket square to your necktie (think holiday shirt and tie sets), but tucking the rear blade of your tie through the keeper is nearly as bad. By contrast, drop into the conversation phrases such as, “I grabbed the first shirt in the drawer”, and enjoy maddening other men by being well dressed, without ever seeming to think about it.
Be rather forgetful about where purchases were made and the names of craftsmen, and appear ignorant of sartorial terminology. Cite only the most obscure sources for your clothes, ” Fellow had a room on the third floor of one of those prewar buildings off Piccadilly, absolutely reeked of leather. Made the whole shoe right there by himself in two days.” Or even, “Some little shop in one of those Neapolitan backstreets, I think,” never forgetting to add, “but it was ages ago, fellow must e long retired now.” (Relying entirely on bespoke tailors, shoemakers and shirt makers allows a man the winning line, “My size? Absolutely no idea I’m afraid”)
Once you’ve got a handle on how to dress impeccably try some small devices to engender a sense of carelessness. Unpredictable combinations, such as wearing a pair of grass-green socks with sombre grey pinstripes, or an old fishing hat with black tie, can be nicely confusing, and at their beast, leave others wondering if you made an inspired mistake. Forgetting to button a shirt cuff, tying your tie so the back is longer than the front, or leaving a monk strap unbuckled, all fall within this category, the highest expression of which came in the form of Mr. Gianni Agnelli’s habit of wearing his tie outside his sweater.
Mix shabbiness with carelessness by adding a few vintage accessories to your wardrobe - if not from your grandfather’s dressing room, then from a flea market - examples might include a pair of Edwardian braces, a French Army officer’s be.t, or your uncle’s old fishing bag. A twist is using something old in a new way - for example an old spectacles case for cigars.
Combine formal attire with casual elements to create “sportif” ensembles. At its grandest this might involve wearing a camelhair polo coat over a dinner jacket, or a tuxedo jacket with a pair of tailored denim and velvet slippers, but more accessible examples could include wearing a brightly colored Swatch with a tweed jacket, a field vest/jacket over/under a suit, or slim cargo trousers with a shirt an a blazer. The fashion for gap-years bracelets taps into this tactic. And credit where credit’s due, the Italians invented this approach, and are the grand masters.
It’s easy for those of us who are involved with men’s fashion to get carried away. Ideals can be taken to the extreme and concepts diluted so far that they have no real meaning any more. Sprezzatura is no different. True sprezzatura is about knowing classic style rules and then breaking a few cleverly selected ones – not throwing the whole rule book out of the window. As I said, there’s a difference between looking artful disheveled and looking stupid and/or sloppy.
But as always guys, it is not just about what I think. Do you already do any of these things in your looks? Or do you know of other techniques that I’ve not included? Or do you just think sprezzatura is simply ridiculous/pretentious?