Last week I finished the book manuscript I’ve spent the last few months writing. To celebrate, I spent a day doing one of my very favorite things: shopping in thrift stores with my husband. (I will never use the word “thrift” as a verb. This is my pledge to you.) For this particular trip, we left our large city with its arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty and drove out to the small towns of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County, where we enjoyed different but equally arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty. We also visited three of our favorite thrift stores out that way, and at one of them—no, I will not tell you what it’s called; it’s mine!—I found a real treasure. For $4 I bought a bright red wool coat with large patch pockets, an extravagant lapel, and a wonderful cocoon shape. I saw it and thought: Bonnie Cashin! The coat is no designer label, of course, but it strongly suggests the colors and shapes Cashin favored, so I bought it to wear to the book’s launch event next week in New York, where clothing and other objects from the designer’s archive will be on display.
My jacket is from the 60s, I think, and in very good shape, but I would like to freshen it up a bit and am unsure how to do this because it’s made of wool. So I consulted my expert on everything, Youtube. I’ve now spent the last hour watching videos of people washing their clothing—it makes for weirdly fascinating viewing—and it was worth it because (a) I now have a good idea how to launder my coat (in a machine, on a delicate cycle, using any old type of laundry soap and cold water) and (b) I have learned a wonderful new word. Some of the videos I watched were made by these two handsome young tailors from London, Morts and More. They have one on brushing wool suits using a special suit brush, which I watched just cuz I felt like it. They also made a video about folding pocket squares. In that one, they give a few tips on how to style the handkerchief, but they say the key is to practice sprezzatura—a “studied carelessness”—when arranging your look.
!!! Sprezzatura! How have I never heard this word before? I took to the rest of the internet and found this wonderful short piece on sprezzatura by Roger Angell, who writes that his friend, the writer John McPhee, was bewildered when a student used the word during his writing class at Princeton. He’d never heard it before, and neither had any of his other students, one of whom was from Italy. Apparently the word originates from Baldassare Castiglione‘s The Book of the Courtier, which was published in 1528. Wikipedia quotes from the text:
I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
Well I’ll be. It is singularly satisfying to find a word for something you already know and care about a great deal, but didn’t exactly know how to talk about. Angell called it—simply—cool, which is what I call it too. And it is an attitude I have been cultivating for years.
The article on Wikipedia explains that hiding one’s ambition was especially useful for courtiers of Renaissance Italy, which of course was a role totally defined by ambition and self-interest. Again, I totally relate to this. I have always, at least in contexts outside of the classroom and in job interviews, found it necessary to pretend to feel less ambitious than I do. Is that a woman thing? Or an anyone-who-isn’t-supposed-to-be-ambitious-but-is-anyway thing? Maybe concealing your desire to get ahead is universally useful in getting ahead, though, I dunno.
At any rate, I’ve always relied upon the ol’ sprezzatura, especially where my appearance is concerned. You have to baffle the eye somehow. Look pretty, for GOD’S SAKE look pretty if you can possibly manage it, but not too pretty. I mean, ew, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS. When I get dressed, I’ll get the whole outfit looking just right, and then I undo one thing. Untuck the blouse, put on sneakers instead of shoes with a heel. Lose the attention-getting jewelry and work on getting my hair perfect instead. I’m not saying my system is flawless—sometimes I look too disheveled, or I make an odd choice—but it works pretty well. I don’t ever want to be the person clomping around in too-tall shoes, however cute the shoes may be.
Tonight I’m going out to hear some live music, denizen of the night that I am. (LOL.) It’s a darkwave show in a little basement club and I have an all-black outfit that’s sort of my go-to for things like this. All-black is always cool, in my opinion: It’s the embodiment of sprezzatura, since it makes you look chic and sleek but allows you to be sort of self-effacing at the same time; you practically disappear.
But next week, when I go to Rizzoli’s to meet Stephanie Lake, the lovely woman who wrote the Bonnie Cashin book, I will violate my usual rules of cool and show her my jacket, and tell her how I bought it with Cashin in mind. Something about the designer, her California-born freshness and the vibrant colors of her designs, makes that sort of posturing seem unnecessary, embarrassing even. In the whole of Lake’s book, there is hardly a single picture of Cashin that doesn’t show her smiling hugely or laughing with friends. Her clothing is impeccable of course, but her sprezzatura comes from the fact that she looks unusual, like no one but herself. Her look isn’t careless—studied or otherwise—but you might call it carefree. Which is a WHOLE NOTHER way of being cool.
In their videos, Mort and More—despite being upscale clothiers in London, and every bit as elegant and refined as that suggests—have bright spirits and a youthful energy, and they often get the giggles. Still, that coolness. It’s there. One of the two men shows the folded and rumpled handkerchief in his suit pocket and says, “All right, now, you’re gonna ask me how did I do it. The answer to that is, I don’t know.”