The question “what is sprezzatura?” is a deceptively tricky one to answer. When we consult with clients, we inevitably discuss vague concepts like, “What makes someone stylish?” or “How can you tell a good suit from a bad one?”
To facilitate understanding, we bring up the 1964 Supreme Court case Jacobellis vs. Ohio. It discussed whether or not a film with lewd content should be considered “obscene.” Justice Potter Stewart uttered the famous phrase “I know it when I see it” with regard to obscenity. For the sake of closure, he determined that the film was not, in fact, obscene.
Like being able to spot a “nice” suit or whether a guy has style, sprezzatura is another one of those things that you just know when you see.
What is “Sprezzatura?”
Sprezzatura is the art of looking great, but without fussiness. It’s embracing imperfection, and in so doing, pulling it off.
When pulled off expertly, sprezzatura is what you get when you put a lot of thought into your clothing, but it doesn’t appear that you did so. It’s similar to the common French phrase je ne sais quoi.
A 500-year old Italian word, it doesn’t have one simple English translation. Merriam-Webster translates it as “studied nonchalance; graceful conduct or performance without apparent effort.” It’s also common to hear it translated as “elegantly disheveled.” Originally coined in 1528 by Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione, he intended the term to refer to making the many tasks of a courtier at the time look easy.
The idea of making it look easy applies to just about anything. Professional athletes make their sports look easy. Virtuoso pianists make Chopin etudes look (and sound) easy. Similarly, the best-dressed men demonstrate an effortlessness that makes other guys wonder why that guy can pull XYZ thing off, but others can’t.
To be clear: we don’t mean to insinuate that dressing “imperfectly” is the same as sprezzatura. Slobs dress imperfectly, but not with sprezzatura’s thoughtfulness or skill.
What Does It (Not) Look Like?
Sometimes, the best way to explain something is to show its opposite, or something antithetical to it. In that spirit, here are some things that do not invoke sprezzatura:
- Pre-tied bow ties
- Prefolded handkerchiefs
- Matching pocket squares and ties
- Clip-on neckties
What do these things have in common? They are too symmetrical and appear so “perfect” as to have not been tied/fastened by the wearer himself. In this sense, the clothing robs the wearer of an opportunity to show his personality. Yes, it’s easier to wear a pre-folded hankie than to do it your self. Still, it’s too easy, too on the nose. It’s a lack of effort, not effortlessness.
On the other end of the spectrum, putting in too much effort leads to an unstylish result. It typically comes off as a try-hard peacockishness. The cruel irony of sprezzatura is that it requires the very effort it purports to eschew to pull off. When you aim for sprezzaturra, you will always miss because the whole point is that the look is unintentional. When you throw something at a wall to see if it sprezzes, you miss the point.
Effortlessness shows up in the rumpled look of a linen suit and in slightly uneven tie blades. It manifests in naturally askew (self-tie) bow ties and imperfect-yet-somehow-perfectly placed pocket squares. It is not necessarily just the clothes you wear, but how you wear them that lends an outfit its sprezzatura.
It’s unsurprising that we see this Italian concept so much in tailored clothing from Italian designers than we do English ones. This is not to say that the British sartorial tradition is by definition staid or rigid; British clothing has been, is, and will always be some of the most beautiful and functional in the world.
With that said, there’s a certain ease Italian clothes have that British clothes lack. Driven by their respective climates (Mediterranean Italy is much milder than rainy, chilly England), this ease is made apparent in their citizens’ taste in clothing.
Should You Dress With Sprezzatura?
Our answer is the same as it always is: it depends on a number of factors. Before making any decision about what to wear, consider your audience, the event, etiquette, your comfort and taste, and common sense.
Even when worn with suits, sprezzatura has a casual nature. As such, our advice is to go for dressier, subdued looks in conservative situations like job interviews, first-time business meetings, and funerals. Outside of that, experimenting with some common elements of sprezzatura noted above is a great way to push your style boundaries and find ways to add signature flourishes to your look.