Tag Archives: style

Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970′s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930′s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.

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Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)

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Hair’s the Thing

We need a little levity this week, gentle reader, as we are no doubt all so exhausted by the election and its armchair quarterback aftermath. It would be good to talk about something comparatively unimportant for a change.  We can think about, and leave comments about, something that really has nothing to do with who did what to whom and whose fault it is.

And so, I’d like to talk to you today about hair.

I’m now at the age where many of my male contemporaries are losing their hair.  Some of my friends started losing theirs awhile ago, at the end of college or graduate school.  They simply shaved their heads entirely, or just cropped everything very close so that the hair or lack of it was no longer a distraction.  This is the right thing to do, of course, rather than attempt the dreaded comb-over plastering job.

However in my case, at least for the moment I am still the owner of a rather fast-growing, extremely wavy mane of hair, which needs to be mowed every 3-4 weeks.  It is so impenetrable without product in it that I cannot comb it when dry, and even when wet the comb tends to gets snarled if I let it grow too long. Such is the case at present, since I grew my hair out for Halloween over the past eight weeks, and I am having to hook the longer parts behind my ears to keep them from falling into my face or curling up into a sheepskin: there are unruly, long waves and curls popping out all over the place.

I have been told countless times by barbers over the years, struggling to cut through the entangled brush that forms the top of my head if I let it grow too long, that there’s little or no possibility of my ever going bald.  If when I was younger, I desperately wished to have straight hair that was easy to manage, now I am glad that nature instead decided to make me something of a ram.  In the summertime having this kind of hair is torture; I have to try to keep it as short as I can, because it is so uncomfortably hot if I let it get too long.

Yet having such a mop in wintertime is not so bad, because then you have this natural pelt sprouting out of the top of your head, which helps to keep the heat in.  I have several friends who must wear hats in winter, because they have no other option to stay warm, whereas I generally have to opt for earmuffs in all but the most brutal weather.  If I do not, then when the hat is removed there is a static, “Eraserhead” sort of effect.

I have gone through many hairstyles thus far in my life, ever since my parents allowed me to start making choices for myself in this area, probably around 7th grade.  I’ve had the tall quiff-pompadour, with the short back and sides and longer waves piled on top.  I’ve had the very closely-cropped military officer style, so short you could barely comb it.  I’ve even had chin-length poet hair, all one length, looking like I should be drinking absinthe and reading Shelley in some bar on the Left Bank.

I’ve had the floppy English-preppy style, like something out of an episode of “Poirot” or “Brideshead”, short all around but so long on top so that the strands tend to fall into your eyes.  I’ve done the choppy, messy “bedhead”; the Clark Kent side-part; the Gordon Gecko slick-back.  At one point, I even had waves on top and shaved the back and sides completely bald, trying to emulate Bernard Sumner of the English alternative-new wave 80′s band, “New Order”.

Generally speaking, your average man does not have many options for variety in his appearance. Men are, for very good reason, a bit more limited in our style vocabulary than are the ladies.  Apart from our hair, generally the only place where one might in theory express a bit of personality or difference from “samey-ness” is in one’s choice of necktie or socks.  And even that is considered too risky in some quarters.

I am not sure what my regular barber will say tomorrow, when I turn up for my appointment and he is confronted with two months’ worth of growth.  Back when I was a college student, his father cut my hair, and their shop will be celebrating its first century this year, so I suspect he won’t turn a hair – so to speak. Fortunately, at least for now, I am still in a position to take my barber’s suggestion with what to do with this tangled shrubbery atop my head, and I will enjoy having that option for as long as genetics and nature allow.

Getting a haircut, 1950′s

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The Cost of Going Casual

When I was in court earlier this week, I was chatting with two older people (i.e. baby boomers) who made the observation that I was dressed more stylishly than the average attorney. I appreciated their words at the time, though upon reflection I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m not wearing anything unusual or inappropriate – wasn’t that a bit of a back-handed compliment?”  While I do not have to wear a suit and tie to work every day, I certainly must do so when I go to court. And since going to court is not something I take lightly, I dress my best every time I appear there.

It is increasingly clear to me that many in our parents’ generation, i.e. people now in their 50′s and 60′s, think dressing not only well, but properly, is some sort of faux pas. Regardless of whatever good intentions they may (or may not) have had in adopting this attitude, that generation has a lot to answer for, with respect to the decline of standards of dress, concomitant with a decline in standards of socially acceptable behavior.  It is no wonder that society is such a mess, if the standards by which one is to move in society are now as completely relative as everything else.

For example, take the traditional wedding or party invitation, where we are asked to attend an event via an actual paper card that arrives by post. If we were young adults living in, say, 1941 rather than 2011, we would know exactly what to wear to such an occasion, depending on the nature of the event and at what time of day it would be taking place. If we were at all unsure, we could ask for the guidance of the older generation of parents and other relatives, not only because of their presumed wisdom and experience in such matters, but also because we would think it important to present ourselves in as best a light as we can – not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of our family’s reputation.

By contrast, nowadays we see such things as guests wearing tuxedos and black cocktail dresses to daytime weddings. We see men wearing suits without ties or proper dress shoes to semi-formal receptions. We see ladies showing almost as much bare skin at an event held in a place of business or a house of worship, as they would while lounging poolside.

And unfortunately, these people are our parents.

It is no wonder then, that so many of my contemporaries seem completely lost when it comes to knowing what they are supposed to wear for a particular occasion. They do what younger people have always done, which is to turn to their parents for advice if they are unsure what to do. And the response they receive means that they, too, are going about in society improperly dressed, with improper behavior to match.

Just this past Sunday for example, at the high mass at my parish, a 20-something young woman in short shorts that left little to the imagination simply left the church while the recessional hymn and procession was taking place, crossing directly in front of the celebrant and servers as they were halfway down the aisle. Rather than trying to get away because she had somewhere to be, she was standing outside the church laughing and chatting with friends for quite a long time after mass. And while it is always a bit too easy to jump on the “blame the parents” bandwagon, we do have to ask: where did she learn that this sort of dress, this sort of behavior, was acceptable?

That an attorney should dress well for court should not be considered something unusual. He is paid to represent his client in front of the judicial branch of government, and as a body which ultimately represents and protects the needs of the people, the authority of that body is due respect and deference. Simply putting on a suit and tie and showing up because you have to, with no consideration as to looking your best, is no indication that a practitioner of the law has any great respect for the place where he is appearing. He is going through the motions, but would just as soon appear in scrubs.

Similarly, a guest who is formally invited to a social event ought to take the honor of being asked to attend seriously. It is not just a party he is attending, like a casual backyard barbecue with the neighbors or an impromptu round of birthday drinks. In both his witness and his presence, the guest is helping to firm up and maintain the social bonds which keep our civilization from teetering over the precipice into the oblivion of anarchy.

I am not suggesting that we have to go back to a sort of extreme formality of the time of our great-grandparents, with rigid and ultimately ridiculous codes for dress or socializing. There is a great deal to be said for the level of ease and comfort in which we live today, in many respects, and not just in our clothing. A more relaxed way of life allows people of good will to get to know each other better, and more quickly.

Yet for all of its benefits, this universal relaxing of codes has also lead to a laxity in standards: not only of dress, but also of behavior, and ultimately in attitudes. It is a kind of sartorial relativism, paralleling the moral relativism which the baby boomer generation did such a thorough job in trying to indoctrinate with us, their children. The end result has been to leave their offspring not only completely confused about what they are and are not supposed to wear to work, to church, or a social event, but also opened them up to accepting the idea that everything is relative, from antisocial behavior to personal responsibility, morality, the accumulation of material resources, and so on.

The solution for you, gentle reader, is to take on the task of doing what younger generations have always done: rebel against your parents.  If dad tells you it is fine not to wear a tie to a funeral, or mum tells you to wear something to a party because it looks like something a Kardashian or “Real Housewife” wore, thank them, smile politely while backing away, and go consult someone else, perhaps someone in your circle of friends with a reputation for always being well-behaved and well-dressed.  It may very well be that wisdom, in this and in other instances, will come from your peers, rather than your parents.


A couple taking a stylish stroll in the 1930′s

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Sprezzatura Tuesday: The Courtly Music of Fournier and Curzon

As the deadline for my readers to enter the Blog of the Courtier birthday contest approaches, we continue with this week’s theme of looking at people who embody some element of “sprezzatura”: that kind of effortless, self-effacing grace which Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog, thought that courtiers should aspire to achieve in their work and lifestyle.  Today we look at two musicians whose recordings I have always enjoyed, cellist Pierre Fournier and pianist Sir Clifford Curzon.  One of the reasons I appreciate their respective efforts is that both men clearly love what they are doing, and want to perform each piece as perfectly as possible.  Moreover they each have a certain indescribable something – a kind of innate good taste one senses in their playing, that sets them apart and which embodies, I believe, Castiglione’s ideal of sprezzatura.

Before we take a look at these two musicians whom you should get to know, let me offer an important caveat.  I love classical music, as indeed I do many diverse genres of music, from Gospel to Hardcore; the first album I ever owned was a recording of Haydn’s “Surprise” and “Toy” symphonies, which I received at about the age of 3.  I grew up in a musical household where everyone sang or played an instrument, I took piano lessons for many years, as well as pipe organ lessons, and I sang in both church and school choirs.

That being said, I am no musicologist. I know what I like, but I do not hold myself out to be an expert on music, any more than I am on wine, coffee, etc.  Therefore, if you are seeking something more than the opinion of an armchair aficionado, I suggest that you look elsewhere to those more educated than I. My hope is simply to introduce some of you, who may not be aware of them, to the work of these two great musicians, and for those of you already familiar with their work, to have you reflect on whether they do, in fact, embody the ideal of sprezzatura in their recordings.

French cellist Pierre Fournier (1906-1986) is often called the “aristocrat of cellists”, and it is not hard to understand why. There is a confident, upright style to the way he plays a piece of music, eschewing any kind of exaggeration which, appropriately for our discussion, always strikes me as very courtly. As an example of his brilliance, I would point to Fournier’s 1961 album of Bach’s 6 Suites for Solo ‘Cello.   I particularly like his interpretation of these compositions, because there is a definite sprezzatura in these recordings, beginning with the familiar first movement of the first concerto, and continuing all the way through, though especially notable in the 5th suite.

I always feel as though Fournier approaches the music as something that is to be played bearing in mind what the composer intended, rather than as a set of parameters to be ignored as one wishes.  He keeps the pace of the music going steadily, as to my mind I would expect a musician of the early 18th century performing for members of an aristocratic court to have done.  Much as I may appreciate the work of the arguably-more-famous Miroslav Rastropovich on recordings of Romantic period composers such as Dvořák, I always think that fooling around with Baroque music and trying to romanticize it leads to a loss of focus. Trying to turn Bach into Grieg just does not work, and Fournier always understands this.

And speaking of Grieg, let us turn to the work of British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon (1907-1982), a contemporary of Fournier. I have never been able to determine whether the two of them ever recorded together, but I suspect if they did that it was either a great joy in the meeting of two kindred spirits, or it was a complete shambles. For Curzon, like Fournier, was a perfectionist when it came to his recordings, but unlike Fournier, Curzon was possessed of what became a legendary level of stage fight, to the point that he could completely botch a performance because of nerves. In the last few years of his life Curzon was hardly able to perform at all, whereas Fournier was giving concerts and recitals almost until he was 80.

Curzon’s 1959 recording of the Grieg A Minor Piano Concerto, with Oivin Fjeldstad conducting the London Symphony Orchestra has become, for me anyway, THE recording of this piece. When I am out and about somewhere, perhaps driving or in a shop, and the Grieg A Minor comes on the radio, somehow I can always tell whether or not it is this Curzon recording. I say this not because there is anything noticeably strange about it, but because there is, like with Fournier’s recordings, a kind of intangible, gracious quality.  In this case, after the thunder of the 1st movement, the 2nd movement makes you want to take a small boat and glide off into a fjord, with some Nordic maiden sitting astern, languidly trailing her hand through the water. I have heard many other recordings of the Grieg, but the combination of passion and perfection which Curzon set out to achieve in his work makes this particular example my favorite.

Count Castiglione writes a great deal about the power of music in his “Book of the Courtier”, explaining that music itself, as well as the ability to perform it well, are gifts from God. “We find it used in holy temples to render praise and thanks to God,” Castiglione writes in Part I. “And we must believe that it is pleasing to Him, and that He has given it to us as most sweet alleviation for our fatigues and troubles.”

It is no surprise, then, that Castiglione goes on to write that the ideal amateur musician is one who embodies the same spirit of sprezzatura in his musical performance, as he does in all other aspects of his life:

As to music I hold the same opinion: hence I would not have our Courtier behave like many, who are no sooner come anywhere (even into the presence of gentlemen with whom they have no acquaintance), than without waiting to be urged they set about doing what they know and often what they do not know; so that it seems as if they had come only for the purpose of showing themselves, and had that for their chief profession. Therefore let the Courtier resort to music as a pastime and almost unwillingly, and not before vulgar people nor very many. And although he may know and understand that which he is doing, in this too I would have him hide the study and pains that are necessary in everything one would do well, and seem to value this accomplishment lightly in himself, but by practicing it admirably make others value it highly.

No doubt both Fournier and Curzon had to perform before some rather vulgar people in their day, and both were professional musicians rather than professional courtiers. Yet each embodies this ideal of Castiglione in their playing, a kind of perfectionism that is kept hidden, making the sound of their recordings seem effortless, and without exaggeration. Both of them are well-worth getting to know, as musicians whose sound comes about as close to sprezzatura in classical music as one can get.

Pierre Fournier (L) and Sir Clifford Curzon (R)

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Announcing: The Courtier’s 3rd Birthday Contest

It is that time of year again, gentle reader, when you have the chance to win a prize in the form of a bit of intellectual swag from yours truly, to thank you for reading this blog – but you only have until July 31st to enter!

You can submit your entries by going to the “Birthday Contest” tab at the top of this page, or on the home page for the site.  You can also enter by following the jump to the contest entry form. Winners of The Courtier’s 3rd Birthday Contest will receive a copy of Count Baldassare Castiglione’s classic “Book of the Courtier”, which served as the inspiration for this blog.  Entries must be received no later than midnight EST on Sunday, July 31, 2011.

This year I am inviting my readers to nominate a person or persons whom they regard to be a contemporary, living example of the ideal of “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione describes in the “Book of the Courtier” as a key characteristic of the ideal lady and gentleman.  Castiglione coined the term, which he has one of his characters in the book, Count Ludovico da Canossa, define as follows:

I have found quite a universal rule which seems to me valid above all other, 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 coin a new term, perhaps – to practice in all thing a certain “sprezzatura”,  so as to conceal all artfulness, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without any effort and almost without any thought about it.

As we learn through the course of the book, Castiglione believes that the ideal gentleman or lady should try to be elegant, intelligent, and accomplished, a good citizen and upholder of traditional values, someone who is sophisticated and yet believes in the importance of  piety, duty to country, and aiding the poor, and who achieves whatever level of success they have in life through a kind of cosmopolitan graciousness which they continually make an effort to improve upon – and does all of this without seeming to break a sweat, or without seeming desperate for fame and fortune.

So the question is: Whom do you feel, in our present day, has this quality of “sprezzatura” about them? How do they demonstrate Castiglione’s ideal?  Perhaps there is a famous person in politics, the arts, sports, the sciences, etc., that springs to mind when you read Castiglione’s words about this ideal lady or gentleman.  Or perhaps you have a relative or friend you admire, whom Castiglione might have been describing in his writing.

Castiglione would no doubt agree with me that it is important that we point out the example of such people.  It is so very easy to trash the present-day, for there is so much trash in it.  What we do not do often enough is to note our appreciation of those who have stayed out of the muck and mire of our contemporary ignorant, ill-mannered, poorly-dressed, moral relativist society, and managed to show us that civilization is not entirely dead – not yet, anyway.

The entry I like best will be selected for publication in the August 16, 2011 post on the Blog of the Courtier; it can be as short or lengthy an entry as you wish, but no less than 20 words and no more than 500 words maximum.  Multiple entries are certainly permitted, but please nominate only one person per entry.  Incomplete entries, or entries which do not have valid contact information, will not considered – since I will have to get in touch with you somehow about how to get you your prize if you win.  Your contact details will be kept private, however, and your full name will not appear on the blog unless you give me express permission.

Again, all entries to the contest must be submitted before midnight EST on July 31, 2011, in order to be considered for the prize; I will announce the winner on Monday, August 1st, in order to have their prize arrive prior to the publication of the winning entry.

Good luck, and thank you for your continued readership!

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