Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Miles Davis, James Dean, Cary Grant, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Barack Obama, Robert Redford, Charlie Watts and Pharrell Williams.
We instinctively know the coolest, most stylish people are those who make it look easy. We also know some effort is required to do this. Success comes from not letting that effort show.
Sprezzatura is a wonderful Italian word defined in the sixteenth century by Baldassare Castiglione in his ‘Book of the Courtier’. The successful courtier was expected to be proficient in singing, dancing, sport and diplomacy. Sprezzatura referred to the ability to perform all these difficult actions without showing the effort involved, as though no thought had gone into it.
The courtiers Castiglione described do not exist now, so twenty-first century sprezzatura tends to refer to the studied nonchalance seen in style, fashion or culture. It is putting effort in to look effortless.
A sixteen year old boy goes to the prom. He’s got a dinner suit and looks good in it, but then adds accessories. There’s a bright waistcoat, patterned bow-tie and matching handkerchief, novelty cufflinks, cartoon socks, Yeezys on his feet, a white silk scarf, corsage pinned to his lapel, sunglasses, a top hat and a cane. He arrives in a fluorescent stretched Hummer. It’s a bold look.
If his plan was to stand out and enjoy himself, the mission has been accomplished. I’m not knocking it, as a prom is supposed to be a memorable occasion and going overboard is all part of the fun, but it doesn’t exude effortless cool.
Why? Because each of the added elements is an affectation, an unnecessary add-on. All the effort, every choice, is visible and prominently displayed. It’s too much.
Some years later, he is now the stylish guest at a Tuscan summer wedding. He is wearing a light-weight, perfectly fitting suit in a pale wool or linen; a crisp, white shirt; long silk socks; good shoes; sunglasses; and a single flower, plucked from the cracks of a stone wall outside the villa and pinned to his lapel, giving the effect of carefree whimsy. He looks cool because he’s taken some time to put this outfit together and is wearing just enough to look good, nothing more.
Sprezzatura need not just refer to how you dress.
Pablo Picasso became famous for paintings that look simple, but he had the technical ability of an old master. His skill at figurative representation, developed over years of diligent study, can be seen in his early works. Later, his art became less obviously technical, but more evocative of the subject he sought to portray.
As Picasso himself said, it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child. His peace doves are a perfect example of this, composed of a few simple lines. They look effortless and the brush strokes themselves probably required very little effort, but could only be achieved thanks to decades of bold artistic development and hard work.
Likewise, Ernest Hemingway spent his career perfecting the sparse, taut writing style he is known for. Devoid of the usual metaphors, excessive nouns, and extraneous frills many writers lean on, his words do not get in the way of the story. The resulting simplicity is deceptive, belying the effort Hemingway put in to refining his writing to reach that point.
‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, won four of the nine Oscars it was nominated for in 2015. The finished film has the appearance of being a single shot gliding seamlessly from scene to scene, accompanied by a free-form jazz drumming soundtrack. It looks smooth because of the extensive preparation behind every scene. The level of care and attention to detail ensures that you, the viewer, do not notice the seams between each shot. Instead, you get absorbed by the film and taken along for the ride.
Prince, the musician, played with sprezzatura. His flamboyant clothing style did not represent ‘studied nonchalance’, but his playing did. Watch the video on Youtube of his guitar solo at a tribute gig in honour of George Harrison. He joins a stage full of guitar legends and performs a ‘face-melting’ solo, stealing the show. At the climax he throws his guitar up in the air and walks straight off stage.
He appears not to care where the guitar lands (it is caught by his security guard) and barely acknowledges the audience he has sent wild. His apparent indifference after an incredible virtuoso performance seemingly saying “Oh that? It was nothing.”
Like Prince, the best sportspeople possess sprezzatura borne from a lifetime of dedication to their craft.
The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’, shows just how little work Zinedine Zidane, the great French footballer, did on the pitch. The camera focuses on him for a whole match, ignoring the other players. He trudges around, barely runs and hardly touches the ball, but when he does act, goals are scored and the game is won. His critics said he drifted in and out of games as though he didn’t care. It did not matter as his efficient brilliance made him indispensable to Real Madrid’s team of galácticos.
Zidane could behave like this, making it look easy while everyone else ran around, because he had already done the hard work. He could do so much less, because he was so much better. Years of experience meant he knew how to be in the right place at the right time and visualise passes other players could not see. The work did not have to be done in the match, as it had been done in the hundreds of matches and thousands of training sessions beforehand.
Finally, a well-rehearsed, well-prepared Formula One team can carry out a perfect pit stop in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
Sprezzatura can apply to your face, too. After all, what looks more effortlessly stylish than a clean-shaven visage?
Spend a few moments in the morning taking care when shaving and looking after your skin. Wash, shave and moisturise. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. The result will be smooth, healthy skin and a style that always looks effortlessly cool.
If you want proof, just look for pictures of the men mentioned in the first paragraph of this article.