To learn the secret to easy style, watch Prince. “When he’s on stage, he’s nonchalant, like the stadium is his living room and you’ve been invited in,” says Daniel Torjman, designer of Toronto-based menswear line, 18 Waits. “But that’s come with a lifetime of fine-tuning. If you think he actually doesn’t care, you’re dead wrong.” The secret, of course, has nothing to do with thin moustaches and puffy shirts, and everything to do with the Purple One’s magnetic, studied effortlessness.
The Italians have a word for this particular kind of nonchalance: sprezzatura. The term was coined in 1528 by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, a guide for attendants of the royal court. The perfect courtier, Castiglione argued, must display erudition, athleticism, charm, grace—and nonchalance. “I have found quite a universal rule,” he wrote, “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort.” Trying hard, he surmised, “shows an extreme want of grace.”
This quality is obvious in some contexts: Usain Bolt makes running 100 metres in 9½ seconds seem easy, just as Prince makes being Prince seem effortless. Although sprezzatura is, in a sense, always about style, its application to clothing is harder to identify. More than looking sharp and being comfortable in your clothes, it means imbuing an outfit with a sense of abandon. Match a neatly folded pocket square to your tie and it will look pleasing, but it’s utterly conventional; a colourful, haphazardly stuffed pocket square reflects a kind of charming foible. The Japanese have a term for this, too: wabi sabi, the beauty of imperfection.
The late Italian industrialist and Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli had an unmatched sense of sprezzatura. He wore his tie askew, with the skinny end hanging longer than the wide end. It would seem accidental if he didn’t look so damn cool. He also wore his wristwatch over his shirt cuff—peeling back his cuff to check the watch, he said, was a waste of time.
For most men, wearing a tie in Agnelli’s style would look sloppy or pretentious. Besides, imitation like perfection, is anathema to sprezzatura; it is plainly studied. Studied, of course, is OK; plainly studied is not. “You should scrutinize what you’re wearing. Take all the time you want,” says Torjman, who often wears a rumpled scarf or mismatched necklaces with panache. “But as soon as you leave the house, forget about it.”
Agnelli was a master of forgetting about it. There was always the sense he was returning from some adventure—drag racing along the Amalfi coast or a surreptitious midday tryst. (Both plausible for an auto magnate once called “the playboy of playboys.”) He knew sprezzatura must be credible. Like fiction, it requires a willful suspension of disbelief. If the story is compelling, why ruin the fun?