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What on earth is that man doing with his tie? Has he dressed in a huge hurry? What’s with the collar sticking out? Hold fire with your assumption that the subject of your disdain just doesn’t know how to dress well. Those points you critique may, in fact, be expressions of ‘sprezzatura’, the art of dressing artlessly. At least seemingly so…

But why would anyone seek to do this? For one, in a world – and in the culture that is clothing – that loves a rule, sprezzatura brings a touch of rebellion, it’s a style hackwithout going full on punkish revolution. It’s also a means to signal your individuality, even though you’re still perhaps wearing conventional clothing. Most of all, those who can carry off sprezzatura – and in attempting so it’s a fine line between style king and style clown – win the prize of being cool.

Like ‘cool’, you know a touch of sprezzatura when you see it. Like ‘cool’ too, it can be overdone, at which point it’s not cool any more. But, and here’s the good news, it can also be attained – acted out until it’s natural. And, as the writer Thom Gunn said in in his poem on the young Elvis Presley, “whether he poses or is real, no cat bothers to say…”

What Is Sprezzatura?

Sprezzatura is a way of getting dressed that undermines the accepted way of dressing, while still adhering to its typical garments.

If a tie is usually worn so the narrow side of the blade is behind the wider part, it’s sprezzatura to wear it the other way round; if the end of a belt is usually tucked into a belt loop, it’s sprezzatura to leave it dangling; if fastening a tailored jacket is what counts for good dress etiquette, it’s sprezzatura to leave it undone. Of course, to now do these things is not sprezzatura – you need to find your own touch of distinction.

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 94

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 94

Yes, it all looks a bit convoluted, especially for a way of style that is meant to convey the complete opposite: a lack of caring. But then sprezzatura, right back to its 16th century beginnings, was always something of a performance: a performance of personal panache.

The History Of Sprezzatura

‘Sprezzatura’ is one of those Italian words which, like ‘focaccia’ or ‘linguini’ seems alien at first, and then just becomes a natural part of your vocabulary. Unlike ‘focaccia’ or ‘linguini’, however, defining the word is akin to the trouble with defining ‘cool’ (in the non-temperature sense). Everyone knows what it is, but that’s not enough to say what it is; and if you think you have it, you haven’t.

The idea of sprezzatura, however, predates the commonplace use of ‘cool’ by about 400 years. It was in 1528 that writer and royal hanger-on Baldassare Castiglione coined the word in his book The Book of the Courtier – effectively a self-help tome for those wanting to climb the greasy pole of life ruled by the whims of aristocracy.

The book was a best-seller, a blockbuster, in its day. It proposed or, more accurately, repurposed ancient ideas of the ideal, Renaissance Man – he would be shaped by the best ideas; he’d be the ‘strong and silent’ but he would also have this thing called ‘sprezzatura’, which also referred to his appearance.

Marcello Mastroianni, 1960

In terms of style, sprezzatura suggested the kind of man who looked effortlessly elegant – though never stuffy or overly formal. The key word was ‘effortless’: it all looked easy and unforced, as though the man in question just happened to look simultaneously together and laid back, as if by accident. Sprezzatura was, if you like, faking it to make it. As Castiglione suggested, the more we work at practicing the principles of urbanity, the more they become part of you.

Whilst the Brits tried it as early as the 19th century, it was the Italians who made the most of it. “Historically it’s central to the idea of style in Italy,” notes Alessandro Sartori, the artistic director for Ermenegildo Zegna. “You see that in, say, the readiness to blend formal dressing with sportswear, in the play with textures – matt next to shiny. There’s always a way of dressing too Italian that slips into stereotype – that very polished look – but sprezzatura is much more organic.”

What Sprezzatura Means Today

Dress codes continue to break down; the lines between formal and casual dress are ever more blurred; we wear sneakers to work and a suit to go out. If ever there was less need for sprezzatura – a means of standing out without, you know, standing out – now might seem to be it. But, in fact, with the tendency to look ever more alike all the time, arguably there’s a greater need for a personal style to shine through in the details. Add with today’s greater accessibility of menswear – in terms of fashions, variety, pricing, ideas – it becomes a matter less of what you’re wearing as the way you wear it.

Marcello Mastrioanni, the actor, claimed, as he once said, “to hate fashion. Fashion and designer labels… It’s all so stupid for people to pay all these high prices just to have the designer’s name in a coat”; and yet he ordered 12 bespoke suits from Vittorio Zenobi, his tailor in Rome, every year. Capturing some essence of sprezzatura of cutting against the grain, he once noted that “the day when everyone is very, very elegant, I will start to go around dressed like a tramp.”

Giovanni Agnelli

Giovanni Agnelli

Fellow Italian Gianni Agnelli, of the family behind the Fiat car-making dynasty, similarly embodied sprezzatura for the 20th century. He would wear his button-down collar unbuttoned; he wore his watch over his shirt cuff; he always wore his tie just a little off-centre and a little undone; he’d wear his double-breasted suits undone (a sartorial faux pas); he’d leave a couple of his suit’s cuff buttons undone; he’d sometimes wear slippers or hiking boots with his tailoring, creased though it was, albeit perfectly creased. He broke the usual sartorial expectations and didn’t worry about it.

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 92

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 92

Certainly, listed like that, the quirks of sprezzatura dressing may seem somewhat contrived, as though the individual in question was trying to be willfully different. And there is an element of truth to that. “But give an Italian man the same clothes to wear as one from Germany or the UK, for example, and he will still find a touch of difference,” reckons Naples shoemaker Paolo Scafora. “It’s why you can go anywhere in the world and spot an Italian man a long way off. He is expressing his self-respect and his respect for others.”

Express Yourself, Sprezzatura-Style


Lapo Elkann in MilanLapo Elkann in Milan

Sprezzatura is a look or an attitude you have to embrace; it can’t be done just a bit, without conviction, because then the effect is to look unfinished, or scruffitura, as the Italians never called it. The overall look is a bit ‘just got out of bed’ – albeit a bed in a five star hotel in the Amalfi Coast with nothing to do but soak up the admiring glances.

Rough And Ready

Street Style, Pitti Uomo

Street Style, Pitti Uomo

Think semi-formal – unstructured jackets, textured fabrics, knitted rather than silk ties – and the almost distressed. Foxing – the wear around a shirt collar – the scuff of a shoe, the patina on a belt, can all add to sprezzatura’s key lack of stiffness.

Let It All Hang Out

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 94

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 94

If it can be undone, consider undoing it – except your shoelaces and trouser fly. But a top shirt button (with tie), and a shirt or suit cuff, are all fair game. Leave tailored jackets open. And avoid ironing – at least nothing more than a light press.

It’s Not Just About Tailoring

James Dean

James Dean, 1955

It’s harder to do because there are fewer elements to play with, but sprezzatura can apply as much to casual dress as more tailored dress. Take James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause for example: he’s in jeans, white T-shirt and a bomber jacket, but the jacket is worn just so, fastened only at the bottom and with collar turned up. Sprezzatura can see the smart and casual happily intermingled.

Discover Your Signature

Street Style, Pitti Uomo 94

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