*Working definition: anyone else on the Internet whose dress sense you disagree with. Try it out and see!
Sprezzatura, as described by Castiglione, and as used in art history, the only discipline where I’d encountered it prior to the Sprezzatourette’s outbreak, was an art of studied nonchalance. What this connoted was a delicate balance between giving the impression of both effortlessness and control in both dress and, particularly in painting, pose. This required art in the sense not only of taste and skill but of artifice, projecting this image of unself-conscious control despite the effort needed to achieve it and the actual mental, social and political health of the subject. Subjects could achieve nonchalance in question through a sort of artful disarray in details of their dressing. And, of course, in an ease in their pose, indicating their control of their surroundings. After all, someone who got every piece of his façade too perfect was clearly trying too hard and betraying his insecurity.
It appears that Sprezzatourette’s sufferers pathologically dwell on the idea of artful disarray, symptomized by mannered, slightly too-trim outfits (the so-called tailored look) featuring multitudes of different patterns, accented by billowing pocket squares, ideally in yet another pattern. And yet I write this as someone who loves pattern and color, lovely checks and tweeds in all of their sonorous variety, the entire arcana of classic cloth types, cheviots and saxonies, woolen and worsted flannels, the silly imagery and esotericism of pattern names like houndstooth, puppytooth, tick weave (not as a result of forgetting to put Frontline on the previous two), Glen Urquhart… and glorious color. I’ve attempted to write this for a while but realized I was coming across as some sort of prescriptive curmudgeon, the sort of literalist who actually believes the untruism that being well-dressed is to be unremarkable in dress. Rather, anyone who knows me knows that I don’t shy away from the eccentric or flamboyant, and it is with regret that I will see the pendulum of fashion swing away from the renaissance of color and pattern as inevitably it becomes a cliché and cliché leads to satire. Already, Aziz Ansari’s character on Parks and Recreation has a moving box full of pocket squares and calls them that.
Of course, reports of this epidemic’s penetration are as overblown as those of bird flu several years ago. The internet and other media have aggregated the images of and raised the profiles of the Sprezzatourists. However, for better or for worse, our age has been defined, as always, by its most visible outliers. What defines a period is what stands out: not necessarily what was actually worn by most, but the most extreme exaggerations of a time. Even in their 1930s golden age, those totems Apparel Arts and Esquire were not mirrors of their time. Even apart from the obvious obstacles to leading the vividly attired, globetrotting gentleman of leisure existence those magazines depicted (worldwide economic depression and the rise of fascism), readers should bear in mind the 1935 New Yorker cartoon posted on one clothing forum showing a swanky party with, in foreground, a fellow in a garish windowpane jacket, what appear to be the peaks of a no doubt splashy pocket square spilling out, large spot neckerchief, and checked trousers, as behind him one guest whispers to another, “They say he reads Esquire. So no doubt one day the Sartorialist’s repertoire of shop assistants, skinny girls and creepy old Italian men will be looked to as the reference for the mid- to late-Noughties, and future dandies will consult his archives for inspiration the same way Will and I flip through our Italian-issued monographs and reprints of the series.
Instead, where today’s claimants to sprezzatura miss the mark, in my own opinion, is the self-consciousness of their cacophony. While it’s obvious that taking pictures of oneself and posting them to the internet defeats claims to nonchalance, those Sprezzatourists solicited by the Sartorialist (leaving aside the unnaturalness of his selection pool) too often appear to ignore Castiglione’s dictum that “obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.” The pursuit of intentional loudness undermines pretentions to nonchalance or control, and despite their flamboyance, victims of Sprezzatourette’s syndrome seem to fall into a mannered sameness that is less Hyacinthe Rigaud than Sledge Hammer.
Yes, Sledge Hammer (released in France under the name Mr Gun, which I find hilarious), the rogue cop deftly played by David Rasche with equal parts clipped Clint-Eastwood-as-Dirty-Harry simmer and Mel Gibson’s mad-eyed Murtaugh-baiting mugging. It’s no accident the television show Sledge Hammer! debuted at about the same time as the movie Die Hard, which took the shirt and the jacket off of the hero and put them on the villain. Like that loose cannon Dirty Harry, Sledge was in control, but just barely, with completely misplaced trigger-happy nonchalance as he entreated us, an entreaty no less clear and no less dramatically ironic than those of today’s Sprezzatourists asking us to subscribe to their illusion of nonchalance, to “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” right before shooting out our TVs.
In order to create the outfits for this legendarily badly dressed detective, the wardrobe lady got a bunch of the most loudly patterned vintage sportcoats and ties, and clashing shirts, threw them all up in the air and matched them up where they landed. The creator of Sledge Hammer!, Alan Spencer, said recently that he never imagined that there would come a time when his caricatural creation could be a viable candidate for political office. I am sure he never imagined he would feature in a style blog either.
-Words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans