Pictured are Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Adolphe Menjou. Both movie stars, both sophisticated, both with extensive wardrobes, both well dressed, both mustachioed, both dandies.
Yet when we look at them today, Fairbanks remains vibrant and stylish, while Menjou looks fussy and fastidious. Fairbanks could walk into a cocktail party today and charm the ladies and make the men envious. Menjou would come across as a relic.
Why? In a word, sprezzatura.
As Count Ludovico says in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier,” sprezzatura “is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.”
Dandies by definition take great care choosing their attire, and as a result are prone to looking too perfect. The Beau’s injunction against looking too tight and too stiff is even truer today than it was two centuries ago. The goal, as we see it, is to emulate Dougie Fairbanks and avoid being mistaken for Adolph Menjou.
We asked the D.net Junta how they employ the maxim ars est celare artem in their everyday attire. Peruse their responses below, then use the leave-comment feature to share your own secrets for making a carefully arranged outfit look effortless.
Chenners: My moon is in Virgo, which makes me cosmically destined to be fastidious. So while sartorial nonchalance is not in my stars, here are a few things I do to keep from looking too studied.
• I drive a roadster, and I’m hardcore. I don’t have a wind blocker or roll up the windows, like the kind of guy who leases a Boxster, and the top goes up only when it’s raining. So my hair is always a little windblown.
• For years I’d prided myself on perfectly symmetrical Windsor knots and dimples that belong in the Louvre. Then I saw Pat Buchanan on television with a bulbous, too-perfect Windsor and titanium collar stays. I switched to a lopsided four-in-hand and am a sprezzier man for it.
• If I’m going to a formal affair, I’ll have my shirt starched. With a straight-collar shirt, I’ll iron it carefully. But with an oxford-cloth button down worn with a tweed jacket, I’ll do a slapdash ironing job, keeping the collar and placket rumpled.
• The few times a year I don an ascot, I always wear it with a crewneck sweater, never something as stuffy as a waistcoat with watch fob.
• Colors should complement, but not match. Red socks and red pocket square scream “I story-boarded this outfit before putting it on.”
• I don’t currently own a suit, blazers and jackets only.
M2: For the past few years my inspiration has been the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. A social butterfly as well as a deep thinker, Lévy is at home anywhere. His trademark is his snowy white, crisply pressed custom shirts. Unafraid to show a little skin, Lévy is almost never seen in a tie and wears his high-collared, placket-free shirts open to the second button, giving his handsomely lined face and leonine shock of hair a smartly casual frame.
I’ve tried to give the basics of this look my own twist with high-collared, button down shirts under a blue blazer — Lévy goes for gray. And like him, I rarely wear a tie, preferring in cold months a silk scarf tucked between shirt and blazer.
In addition, my scarf, pocket square and socks never match, and sometimes even clash subtly but intentionally.
Bob: Castiglione may have first defined it, but for a near-perfect catalog of pure sprezzatura, you can’t beat Lorenz Hart’s lyrics to “The Lady Is a Tramp.” He reminds us that real style is intensely personal and honest, and firmly rooted in self-confidence. Those gifts allow anyone to approach life with a robust and enviable what-the-hell air, regardless of the state of their pocketbook, or what others think.
So here are a few unrhymed thoughts on sprezzatura from the vantage point of my own hobohemia.
• Like Michael, I’m a fan of scarves loosely tucked into sportcoats, folded into zip-necked sweaters, or spilling from the collars of my overcoats. I have several long, paisley numbers from a great shop in Paris that make me feel like I’m striding down the Boulevard St. Germain. Knotting a patterned cotton neckerchief into the collar of a well-worn denim shirt is another touch I like. And a plush corduroy shirt or trousers instantly adds a relaxed note to the most traditional of tweed jackets.
• On the other hand, nothing broadcasts that a man’s trying too hard like oversized wrist hardware. I’ve never understood the appeal — or the price — of those hulking, hurricane-resistant chronographs. My daily life rarely finds me fully submerged in water and if it did, I’d most likely have other things to worry about than what time it is in Dubai. I’m content with my everyday collection of inexpensive but well designed wristwatches, as well as my pocket watch and 1950s rose-gold Bulova (a flea market find) for formal occasions. A Timex Expedition with a worn braided leather band ups the sprezz quotient of any outfit.
• More importantly, I’ve realized that simply notching down my own attitude towards the world does wonders for giving off that ideal, relaxed vibe. Not everything in life requires a full-out assault. Softening my outlook as well as my outfits goes a long way to cultivating the kind of gentlemanly sprezzatura that even the most perfectly imperfect bow tie can’t impart.
Willard: Sprezzatura comes naturally at my age. I’m always forgetting things, especially when I’m getting dressed, and this forgetfulness provides my sprezzatura, and allows me to forget all about having to have sprezzatura. Often when I’m out I find I’ve left a shirt button undone, that my cuff link missed the last fold of the shirt cuff, leaving it flapping in the air, or that I left my fly open.
Over the decades my body has gone from taut to slack. To compensate, I prefer clothes that are structured, tailored and precisely cut to give some shape to an amorphous form. It’s the geometrical angularity of the half-Windsor knot for me. And if the other members of the Junta chide me for being too studied, too precise, or too meticulous, I tell them, “Va a Napoli.” They have many fine tailors there.
I do admire, though, the curve of the barchetta breast pocket — it contrasts nicely with a pointed pocket square — and the ease of flapless besom pockets, which gently loosen and bellow over time.