Castiglione on Clothes

Last evening on my way to a Lenten Bible study at my parish, I ran into a very stylish Italian lady who went into rhapsodies both over the jacket I was sporting and the combination of garments I was wearing. “Such good fit this jacket,” she said in her accented English, “it fits both you and personality perfect.” Italians of course, know about such things, so it was a kind compliment to receive at the end of a long day.

Those who have met me can already guess I was wearing black, charcoal, and navy, as admittedly I do wear some combination of those shades rather frequently. Just as I usually have one item – be it a coat, sweater, etc. – that is interesting, I tend to limit bright colors to a single item: perhaps a necktie. I could not pull off a full-on American middle class WASP ensemble, full of candy pinks, lemon yellows and acid greens. It is a bit like sporting the ragtrade equivalent of a Kandinsky: lots of beautiful colors, but for my taste too much at once.

This as one might imagine is in keeping with Count Baldassare Castiglione’s thoughts on clothes, and Castiglione of course is the inspiration for this blog; he reflects fairly well many of my own thoughts about how we ought to view society and our part in it. Those with a sharp eye may recognize that Castiglione’s hands are (at least while I consider a site re-design) the “logo” hereabouts. The hands are taken from the portrait of Castiglione by Raphael now in The Louvre, which is a great example of Castiglione’s own views on clothing. He always picks fabrics you want to touch and examine; an unusual hat for a bit of interest to set him apart from the others in the room; but usually dark shades and nothing glaringly bright-colored.

Castiglione developed a tremendous following in Spain when he arrived as Papal Ambassador to the court of Charles V. He succeeded in the very stiff-necked/nose-up Spanish court in part because he recognized a natural affinity between his own thoughts and those of the Spanish nobility on matters such as behavior, education, and style. Castiglione appreciated and advocated the limited palate that the Spanish have always employed in their clothes. There is a greater love in places like Barcelona and Madrid for tactile materials like intricate lace, polished leather, or quality silks over bright colors and ornamentation. In some respects I suppose it is a bit like a monochromatic version of Scandinavia’s love of pale/pastel minimalism.

In “The Book of the Courtier” – really a collection of short books which deal with an imaginary conversation among some of the leading lights of Italy in Castiglione’s day – the participants address a number of topics. One of these is the question of the personal style that the gentleman ought to adopt, and various disparaging comments are made about the problem of gaudy colors and over-ornamentation in different countries’ or regions’ dress. Castiglione’s solution is to say, a gentleman should feel free to wear whatever he wants, but should make some specific choices to both avoid having too much decoration, but also to avoid being bland, so that he can set himself apart from the rest. This is part of the concept of “sprezzatura”, an effortless style, which is central to Castiglione’s philosophy of government, daily living, etc., and which finds its more modern Italian equivalent in the idea of cutting the “bella figura”.

“I would have our Courtier’s dress display that sobriety which the Spanish nation greatly affects,” writes Castiglione, in the 2nd Book of the Courtier, “for things external often bear witness to the things within.” Castiglione says that the Spanish are a better model for the Italians to try to imitate than the French, since the Spanish tend to dress and behave in a more serious, if less colorful way:

I do not say that very noble and modest cavaliers are not also to be found among the French, and I myself have known many who were truly worthy of every praise. But some are little circumspect, and generally speaking it seems to me that as regards breeding the Spanish have more in common with the Italians than the French have; because that grave reserve particular to the Spaniards befits us far more than the quick vivacity which among the French we see in almost every movement, and which is not unseemly in them, nay, it is charming, for it is so natural and proper to them as not to seem at all affected.

Castiglione is, of course, not insulting the French, whether in manners or in style. He is simply pointing out to his fellow Italians that, as he says later in the book, in his experience the only people who can adopt French style are people actually born in France or who have lived there since childhood. Trying to ape French behavior, style, etc. is always going to seem fake, because it is too difficult to copy successfully. His thoughts on this point remind me of films like those of Indiana Jones and James Bond – admittedly, not the most culturally sensitive of entertainments – where in places far outside of England, English customs are copied, often hilariously unsuccessfully, in a sincere but misguided attempt to be more “proper”.

This does not mean, gentle reader, that I believe that you and everyone else ought to go about dressed solely in black. In point of fact in the bright light of summertime, especially here in Washington, to do so would be hazardous to your health. However, what we can learn from Castiglione is that we should look at our clothes as a projection and extension of ourselves. Holding back a little bit, if we tend to tip toward the strange, or challenging ourselves to open up a little bit, if we tend to the blah and same-as-everyone-else, is what the gentleman or indeed, lady in society ought to work on.

Emperor Charles V, King of Spain
by Peter Paul Rubens (after Titian)
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