So as summer weather begins to creep into our lives, the fresh, light colors of spring get a bit more intense and any outfit lacking in a dash of color seems out of place. But, that dash can be anything from a pink sportcoat and some go-to-hell trousers (quite a large dash), to something as small and simple as shoelaces.
While I have not had the opportunity to visit the new Ralph Lauren store in Paris, the internet has been flooded with pictures, opinions, and general buzz about Mr. Lauren’s new real estate on the Boulevard Saint Germain. So far, everything I have read has been positive, and I must say I am not at all surprised.
Recently, one of my academic advisers recommended I read Nancy Mitford’s collection of essays and letters entitled Noblesse Oblige, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. The collection focuses on Ms. Mitford’s original article “The English-Aristocracy” published in Encounter in 1954, and the various responses and criticisms that resulted.
There is always much talk of sprezzatura and affected nonchalance in men’s dressing and style, and has been for at least some 500 odd years or so. Too often though, all that is said is “looking nonchalant is important,” “try hard, but don’t look like you are,” or “here are ways a few distinguished gentlemen did things differently,” and when more is added, it is often secondary to these common assertions. That said, I am certainly not suggesting that these are bad bits of advice (or more personally, that I do not read them, absorb them, write them, and employ them on a daily basis), but I do think they require some reflection.
First off, yes, looking like you spent an hour adjusting your necktie is no way to go about, and if you are spending an hour adjusting your necktie, I have some lovely hobby and book recommendations you should take a look at. On the other hand, I think it is even worse to look like you spent that hour trying to look like you spent 5 minutes. Affected nonchalance is the goal, not falsely-nonchalant affectation.
And, while I know the temptation is great, just because Agnelli or the Duke of Windsor did it doesn’t mean you should too. We have many things to learn from these ever-elegant men, but neither of them became as elegant as they did by mimicking others exactly. Now I hate to sound like I am telling anyone what they can and cannot wear, and believe me I wouldn’t dare do so, but I will say that one should proceed with caution when looking to copy “nonchalant” quirks. While unbuttoned shirt cuffs look a bit jaunty and unfussy, putting your watch on over your cuff can quickly make you seem like you think you’re The Rake himself; developing your own peccadilloes is far more enjoyable anyway.
All of this though is futile if the most important factor is missing: you must actually look comfortable and nonchalant. Whether your tie is straight or swaying doesn’t matter if it looks like you would rather not be wearing one, and no matter how precisely your coat is cut, if you wear it like a straight-jacket, forget looking elegant.
To risk shameless public admiration, Lino of Al Bazar is a perfect example of looking at home in one’s clothes. I am convinced that he was born in double breasted suits and half-undone monkstraps…and this is exactly what I think is meant by sprezzatura. Even though I hesitate to say whether he does or does not have to think very much when he gets dressed in the morning, as soon as he leaves the house, no single quirk or item stands out, but rather, I get an overall impression of ease, comfort, and confidence that I think we can all aspire to (whether you like his particular taste or not).
Lastly, I just want to say that I make no claims at being the authority on this matter – far from it. Each day is a new adventure, and style takes a lifetime to cultivate; if it didn’t, things would get quite boring. Inspiration should come from all around us, and our clothes should reflect who we are, what we want to say to the world, and what we aspire to. The question isn’t “How do I look effortless and comfortable like the greats?” but rather “How do I look comfortable and elegant as myself?”
This past November, I was lucky enough to be invited to No. 1 Savile Row by Mr. James Sherwood (who’s book, The London Cut, I posted on just two weeks ago), for a look around the Gieves & Hawkes archive room. In late 2008, Mr. Sherwood was asked by Mr. Gieve to help consolidate his life’s work, gathering as much as he could about the history of his family’s great house.