Thursday, June 25, 2015

A story, translated (and slightly condensed) from the website of the tailor who made the suit we most recently dissected.

If i recall correctly, about ten or fifteen years ago I was visited by a client who was not particularly elegant but who was wearing a suit from a very famous and expensive brand. Despite the expensive suit, he seemed to me to be a mannequin in grey chalk stripes. The client, who was given my name by one of my Roman clients, looked at me, perplexed, and asked me to make him a suit like the one he had on. "A manager's suit", he whispered to me. I had him remove his jacket, and started taking measurements.

Two or three fittings later we had a nearly completed suit. I could tell that he was not satisfied because he asked me to make modifications which, to me, made no sense. I proceeded to mark the suit up with chalk but made no actual changes. In a month I finished his blue cotton suit, three buttons rolled to two in the traditional Neapolitan fashion, manica a camicia [shirt sleeves] and patch pockets.

He tried the suit on for a moment, and not feeling satisfied with what I had done, told me it felt wrong, then that it was too tight, that the shoulders were too wide.

A disaster!

I saw him again three weeks later. He had one his blue suit, telling me that he had been wearing it for a week because, for the first time, he felt a complete liberty of movement and that, as a result, he could no longer wear his older suits. He ordered three more suits.

A Neapolitan suit is like a drug that causes dependency at without which, once hooked, one can no longer do without

There may be a great deal of truth to this story.

It is important to remember that most tailors learned and perfected their craft long before the advent of the internet. A tailor working in a shop in southern Italy would not often have the chance to see the work of other tailors, particularly those from other parts of the world. Regional characteristics were fairly common because most tailors operated in a sort of stylistic bubble; remember how Domenico Caraceni, often called the father of Italian tailoring, studied the King of England's castoffs, not to copy exactly but to learn from them and to adapt whatever techniques he found useful. The Asola Lucida, or Milanaise buttonhole are obvious examples of a regional detail. There are very strong resemblances in the interiors (and lapels) of the best Parisian tailors. The curved barchetta breast pocket is another. Jet planes made travel easier, though tailors weren't necessarily the first to be flying around the globe for inspiration or education. The internet changed all that.

Customers are now comparing notes on internet fora, tailors are posting images of their work, and more and more are getting technical. We are sharing and learning from each other. It may well have been that the tailor in question was never very well trained in pocket making or finishing, but had discovered a secret sauce, the perfect combination of cloth, canvas, cutting and other components which made for a fluid, supremely comfortable suit. Maybe this tailor's popularity began to grow, aided in part by the internet, and he gradually began to up his game. I can think of at least one other notable cutter whose work has improved immensely over the last years of his career, no doubt in part due to his exposure to other people's work. The thing is, though, one either needs a more experienced person to point out your failings, and with some luck add a bit of advice on how to correct them, or a great deal of self-awareness and curiosity is required, the kind that causes one to explore the work of others, things that inspire, which perhaps serve to illustrate what one can do a little better... The hard part of the latter option is figuring out exactly how to do it better. It is comparatively easy to spot something wrong, but often very difficult to figure out how to do it right, if you don't have someone to show you, especially in the tailoring world which tends to be a bit dogmatic about the "correct" way of doing things. It's hard to challenge your own notions of the "right" way of doing things, especially when those techniques are working for you, but the only way to grow in a craft is to constantly be asking yourself "what if I am wrong about this?". "What if I did the complete opposite of what I think I know to be right- what would happen then?"

And then have the nerve and the patience to try it out.

It would be futile to try to figure out the exact circumstances surrounding this disaster of a suit, but it makes one think about the sort of detail one begins to overlook when other, more important ones have been perfected. I am also encouraged to know that the tailor in question is no longer churning out such rubbish so somewhere along the line, something good happened.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sprezzatura- the Great Philological Debate

I received an email from a reader and I thought it sufficiently interesting to pass on in its full, unadulterated format, while I collect my thoughts for the conclusion to the series of posts on that coat. Thanks go out to Seth for sending this!

(Links inserted were mine)

Since I have profited, as an obsessive hobbyist who attempts significant alterations, from your knowledge and instruction, I thought I would take the opportunity to offer my knowledge on something of interest to you, that is sprezzatura. I don't often have the chance to put a doctorate in Italian studies to practical use, but this seems to be such an occasion. I thought I would offer a bit more of the historical / social / culture perspective that might help us use the term more precisely. I'm sure you've noticed how it gets bandied about in the igent community, in what can only be described as felony linguistic abuse. The term, as coined by Castiglione, has a very specific meaning, and I think it would be beneficial to try to narrow usage of it to clarify artistic judgments, particularly in coming to terms with what exactly is represented by the coat donated by voxsartoria.

When Castiglione coined the term, he was describing above all a social grace that only makes sense in context. His Libro del cortegiano was intended as a 16th-century "how to succeed in business"-type book, written for the courtier. Fortunately I think his context of Renaissance courts bears striking similarity to the modern business world, and so sprezzatura as a behavioral standard is still functional. The similarity between the worlds is this: success is primarily determined by one's relationship with the immediate superior, whether that is a local prince or a department head. The ability to appear important to one's boss often trumps talent or ingenuity, which is why both worlds are plagued by flattery, envy and petty rivalries. Sprezzatura is intended not primarily as an aesthetic principle, but as a social tool for succeeding in this sort of environment. Its purpose is to simultaneously prevent envy and create admiration amongst colleagues and superiors. Castiglione uses the term in a discussion of the acquiring useful skills. After mentioning which skills matter, he focuses on the way that these skills should be presented. The short answer is "gracefully." Sprezzatura is the answer to the question "how do I act gracefully?" It is the polar opposite of affectation. The skilled courtier acts with what might be rendered as "disdainfulness" (sprezzare is ordinarily used at this time to describe aristocratic haughtiness), a way of presenting one's accomplishments as if they were effortless, but the whole point is that the audience is fully aware of the effort required. The original quotation:
Trovo una regula universalissima, la qual mi par valer circa questo [i.e., how social grace is formed] in tutte le cose umane che si facciano o dicano più che alcuna altra, e ciò è fuggir quanto più si po, e come un asperissimo e pericoloso scoglio, la affettazione. E per dir forse una nova parola, usar in ogni cosa una certa sprezzatura, che nasconda l'arte e dimostri ciò che si fa e dice venir fatto senza fatica e quasi senza pensarvi. Da questa credo io che derivi assai la grazia perché delle cose rare e ben fatte ognun sa la difficultà, onde in esse la facilità genera grandissima maraviglia

I think there are two aspects to be considered for sprezzatura. The first is the concept of "hiding the art," to make the contrived appear natural. The key is appearance. Castiglione is not supporting naturalism here -- he doesn't encourage the courtier to "be himself", he's encouraging the courtier to make himself a better courtier through intense training and then to present that person as if it were the natural self. As someone who spent years mastering a craft, you should be pleased to note that quotation above is preceded by an injunction to master a craft first (set forth in terms of masters and disciples), and only after mastering the craft is the courtier instructed to present his finely honed skills as though they were instinctual and natural. This first point is only a means to an end, however. The second aspect of sprezzatura is the more important one, which is that it creates admiration amongst a group of elites. The purpose is not create the impression of ease and simplicity per se, but to create admiration by making the difficult look simple. Colleagues recognize the immense skilled required by your effort, and then take note that you pass off these skills as mere trifles. Therefore it only works as among experts who recognize that the created effect is not simple at all.

From what I've seen, sprezzatura is commonly used to describe attempts at sublimating the ordinary, which does a total disservice to the original intention. Sprezzatura is not about make the haggard appear regal, it's about making regal look natural, but in all cases it maintains its regal appearance. In a sense, menefreghismo stylizes lack of effort, trying to pass off apathy as social critique or aesthetic choice. Sprezzatura comes from the opposite end, downplaying acquired skill as natural ability. Sprezzatura as Castiglione intends it might be best exemplified by the pagoda shoulder -- an intensely complex creation demanding great skill which achieves an effect that mimics nature (or better, our expectation of nature, or even a better version of nature) and is a paragon of simplicity and grace. Or perhaps the satin stripe on formal trousers that hides the seam with a simple elegance. Sprezzatura has a somewhat passive-aggressive nature, since you're trying to impress people by making a show of not trying to impress them, but it is the exact opposite of a clear call for attention, like a contrasting buttonhole or an unbuttoned sleeve.

So back to the coat, however the tailor described his effort, I think it provides, perhaps unintentionally, a fantastic counter-example to sprezzatura. From what you've described, the coat was made by someone clearly capable of making a better coat whose worst efforts seem to be focused on the most visible details. My non-expert eyes are reminded of the painter/architect Giulio Romano and his Mannerist style intentionally rejecting Raphael's perfectionism and inserting artistic jokes -- subjects contorted into poses that are anatomically impossible, architectural details like fake keystones that don't actually support anything. From what you've described, the coat bears quite a bit of similarity in the way it presents itself to literary or artistic works that engage in this sort of high-brow self-mockery, but it's an insider's joke, 'yes these pockets are terrible by strict standards, but that's the point'. I think your pause to consider responses to modern art movements was spot on.

I hope you find something of use in this overly-long email. Again, thank you for running such a delightful blog.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Menefreghismo, part 2- The Guts

If you missed the previous post about the mystery disaster suit, go back and start there. This week we look a bit at the cut and the inside of the coat.

First impression? This is very reminiscent of old Anderson and Sheppard cutting. Either the original owner had a very tiny waist, or, more likely, this was cut for a normal person but a liberal amount of drape was cut in the chest and blades, the shoulder is extended, and it has wonky sleeves, particularly in the undersleeve. The front dart is extended all the way to the hem in typical Neapolitan fashion. My feeling is that anyone who is or was a fan of the A&S style of cut would like this style of coat.

The extended front dart is something that is typically associated in early cutting with Drape- it was part of a manipulation for adding drape to the chest but keeping a trim waist and hip. This first image is from an English publication explaining the manipulations done to a normal lounge coat pattern to convert it to a drape model and shows the extended dart.

This second draft is an image of a page from a student's workbook from the time when he was studying at the Scuola Artistica di Taglio (Artistic Cutting School) in Naples in the mid 1950's. The front dart is in evidence here. Sandro was a very close friend of mine and a fantastic tailor but passed away a few months ago. He is missed.

Later drafting methods transferred the value of the portion of the dart which falls below the pocket to the underarm seam- you get the same effect but the pattern in the cloth is undisturbed below the pocket so this kind of dart is almost never seen except from Neapolitan tailors who treat it as a sign of distinction. I noticed that Paul Stuart was showing some garments which included this anachronistic mode of cutting recently and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Ralph Lauren doing some of it.

In typical fashion, the seams are all lapped, which is to say that both seam allowances are pressed to one side instead of being pressed open. This gives a bit of a ridge to one side of the seam, and those ridges have been pick stitched flat. Though it is not obvious from the outside, the shoulder seam has been sewn by hand and the sleeves have been set by hand. Both also have lapped seams. Of particular interest is the treatment of the seam allowances at the armhole. Naples is said to have two different shoulder treatments- "con rollino", which is similar in treatment to a rope shoulder, where both seam allowances are pressed toward the sleeve and a fairly liberal amount of wadding is placed in the sleeve head, and "spalla camicia", or shirt shoulder, where the seam allowances are both turned toward the coat; very little or no wadding is put in the sleeve head and this sleeve has a very low, round expression. Often a good deal of fullness is cut into the sleeve so shirring is evident, often called "grinze", or "spalla a mappina". Most commonly the seam allowances are pressed open, and a moderate amount of wadding is inserted to keep the sleeve head area clean. It should be noted that the shirring would be evident on just about any sleeve that had no wadding- in fact, the wadding is placed in order to mitigate the shirring effect. It is entirely a myth that the shirring is some mystical, complicated thing that can only be done by hand- it is merely the result of having a sleeve which is larger than the armhole. All sleeves are larger than the armhole and the degree to which it is larger will determine the amount of shirring present, which is either left as is or cleaned up by the presence of sleeve head wadding.

What is particularly interesting in the case of this coat is that the shoulder treatment is something of a hybrid between a "con rollino" treatment and the more conventional one in that the portion of the armhole behind the shoulder seam has been pressed toward the sleeve in the "con rollino" fashion, and the front has been pressed open. I expected the "spalla camicia" treatment since this tailor claims on his website to do it, but perhaps the original owner requested this. It doesn't really matter- it's just interesting from a technical perspective. There is a double-folded, bias-cut piece of domette, the woven flannel sometimes used in the chest area to cover the hair cloth, as a rather bulky sleeve head wadding. Definitely "con rollino". There are two pieces of domette pad stitched together to form a type of shoulder pad- this would give a very soft, supple support to the shoulder area.

Sleeve and shoulder seam allowances-

Sleeve head wadding-

"shoulder pad"-

The wool canvas used in the front of the coat is a much more robust canvas than I would have expected. It is not stiff or firm, but a bit on the heavy side and very densely woven so the front has a lot of support and a decent roll to the lapel. Conversely, instead of haircloth, which is fairly firm, a medium-density hymo has been used in the upper part of the chest and a second layer of wool canvas in the lower part. They are covered in the same domette as was used in the sleeve and shoulder. There is a fairly large chest cut which I feel is necessary to support the drape and give shape to the chest. It is obvious that the cut and construction of the coat were done with softness in mind, but there are indications that the tailor was also concerned with giving some support to the coat so it wouldn't be completely lumpy and messy, as some draped coats are prone to being.

It is not uncommon to add a piece of silesia to the ends of the collar and sometimes the lapel, sandwiched between the cloth and the canvas. I was intrigued instead to find wiggan on top of the canvas (the sort typically used in hems of sleeves), and they weren't pad stitched as one unit, which would be the typical method- removing the wiggan I found that the collar and lapel had been pad stitched first, then the wiggan applied and pad stitched a second time. The facing has been drawn on by hand, something we don't see very often any more, as many feel that the machine gives a stronger, sharper line to the edge. Doing the facing edge by machine, though, requires a good amount of experience to judge the placement of the fullness, since we are working right sides together, sewing from the wrong side. Fullness is a bit like salt in cooking- just the right amount is required; too little and the lapel won't roll, and too much makes for a puckered front. When drawing the facing on by hand we are working from the outside so it is practically impossible to misjudge the placement or fullness, and the shape of the corner at the notch. Peaks especially benefit by this kind of treatment. It is much more time-consuming but much more foolproof than doing it by machine.

The back of the neck is supported by a piece of canvas- this is more typically done with wiggan or silesia. Sandro, my Neapolitan friend, would call this piece a "soffietto", but I never asked him why.

This was clearly made with a lot of consideration given to the internal construction, which makes the visible portions of it all the more puzzling. Pockets, lining, collar matching are easy compared to getting a clean front, lapel and collar, yet those are well done. The back of the sleeve is ugly to my eye but in this it is more of a personal preference. I would much prefer a sleeve which looked like this one done by Steed

to this one

BUT the way these sleeves have been cut will give some additional mobility. The drape in the blades, the soft chest and shoulder, and this wonky, overly long undersleeve all combine to create a garment which I imagine would be VERY comfortable, if a little bit sloppy looking.

Let's sit and think about that one for a while.

Friday, June 5, 2015


I struggle to understand this garment. I truly do.

Voxsartoria sent me a suit that he had acquired from the original owner. The coat was made in Naples by a fairly well-known and sought-after tailor, and the trousers were made by an even more well-known trouser maker, also in Naples. It is fairly common practice to farm out work like this.

First, a look at some of the external, cosmetic things. There is so much to the craft of tailoring that is hidden, that it is often said that the few details that are visible must be very carefully executed in order to convey the care (or lack thereof) given to the construction of the rest of the garment. Certain things like pattern matching were once a sign of quality but are now simply expected of even the cheapest ready-to-wear maker. The best tailors will often obsess over the cutting, balancing, matching and boxing of plaids and stripes. Chris Despos occasionally goes to very great lengths to get things to line up and balance, not because he thinks his client will ever notice, but because he is an artist who is concerned about meticulous execution. It is often one of those challenges we give ourselves just to push ourselves and expand our horizons a bit. My patchwork coat was one of those challenges.

I mention all this only to attempt to make the reader understand my intense shock when I am confronted with a garment like this. Whose many outward details were sewn as though by a beginner, or a blind person, or someone attempting to sew with their non-dominant hand. A garment which is easy to dismiss as the work of a charlatan were it not for the fact that some of the less-obvious elements, things which would never be done correctly by a novice, are actually fairly well done. Most of the techniques are very old-school and extremely time-consuming so the outward slap-dash mess is not the result of an attempt to save time. Only effort.

Without effort.

This expression was given as the translation of the Italian word, sprezzatura. It is meant to mean nonchalance, or an unstudied, easy approach to dressing. Carelessness, but in the sense of not having put a whole lot of effort in to one's appearance, but one who just happens to roll out of bed looking well put-together. In this instance, the more literal reading of the world careless would apply. Or menefreghismo, meaning, "I just don't give a shit".

We will come back to this in a subsequent post, having examined the technical aspects of the garment without having given much thought to the somewhat more intangible aspect of how the garment might affect the wearer's state of mind.

So. My first impressions?

A disaster.

This is important and will come back to us later.

Readers will have noticed that though my normal practice is to identify the maker, in this case they will remain nameless so as to avoid the appearance of my having a particular bone to pick with either of them and I certainly don't want to negatively affect their iReputations. This is merely an examination of the work of two of the more notable tailors in a city which many hold to be the best city in the world in which to find a tailor.

The collar. Pattern matching is generally expected here. #FAIL

I have never been a fan of Neapolitan buttonholes. I think they look sloppy and flat and uneven. I can spot a Kiton from ten feet just by the squashed beetles on the front of their coats. These are classic examples. That being said, this is a matter of pure personal preference; they might think that my buttonholes are rigid and lifeless. Or something. So there is nothing necessarily incorrect about these, I just don't like them.

The flap pockets, however, are a disaster. Period. Never mind the need to match the stripes, which any novice knows to do, the pockets are not even cut on grain. The corners are dog-eared, the pocket lips are uneven and messy, there is a gap between the end of the flap and the pocket, and the half-moon tacks at their ends are ridiculous. The technique that was attempted is generally regarded as the correct one, but they failed miserably in the attempt.

Even more lamentable is the interior. The finishing of the lining, though done by hand, and the interior pockets, equally done by hand, are atrocious. I have never seen something so bad, ever.


Click on the images for a closer look at the carnage.

Instead of conveying care and attention to detail, the visible details of the coats are unequivocal. Non me ne frega un cazzo, they say.

I think this is a good point at which to pause in the dissection. Critics were just as harsh in their initial appraisals of impressionism and cubism and dadaism: there is perhaps more going on here than just mismatched stripes and ugly pockets. Maybe. We will look next at the guts of the garment, most of which will be lost on anyone who is not an experienced tailor, but which might provide some insight anyway. Then we will hear from the tailor himself, a story translated from his own website which gives even more to think about. And a reminder I often repeat to myself and some of my colleagues.

We're not curing cancer, here. They're just clothes.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Sprezzatura 2.0

Wikipedia defines Sprezzatura as follows:

an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

I find it somewhat amusing that the writer should use a foreign (French) word, nonchalance, to help define another foreign word, but there it is. Without effort.
The next three or four posts will be an exploration of this concept of sprezzatura, or without effort, and its Italian cousin, menefreghismo, which is a somewhat coarse way of saying "I don't give a ...damn". The French and Italians not only have a word to describe it, but a gesture to punctuate it as well. The famous Gallic shrug. In Italy the gesture is similar but perhaps more emphatic. The closest we get to it in America is probably "whatever, dude."

Voxsartoria long ago promised me a suit of his for dissection. I won't mention who made it but if you have followed his numerous internet incarnations, you could probably figure it out. The coat was made by a fairly well-known tailor, and the trouser was sub-contracted to an even more famous trouser maker but sold under the label of the first. Both are located in Naples, one of the few stylistic regions that I have not discussed much in this blog, so this promises to be interesting on many levels. Partly because it prompts one to think a lot about sprezzatura, both in how one approaches style, but also how one approaches ones work or craft. It also becomes a reflection on luxury, exclusivity, and the talismanic power certain items can have over our behavior and mindset.