Sprezzatura

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.[1]

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—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."

"She abandoned anything that she found to be a compromise or 'a bore.'"

I'm sitting here drinking in these Bonnie Cashin colors. Do you know her name? I didn't, but as I browsed the spring 2016 publishing catalogs for something to review, I found myself drawn to a new Rizzoli book about her, Bonnie Cashin: Chic is Where You Find It. It's making for such rousing reading; her life as an artist and a clothing designer was uniquely self-directed and totally fabulous. And just look at these clothes (from the Met's Online Collection):

 

Tangerines and limes, orange and raspberry sorbet. The colors are all so delicious. I'm dying to show you the photos of her apartment at the United Nations Plaza—Cashin made her living spaces look as lively as the clothes she designed—but I'd better not, since the book isn't out until April. Here, why don't I do what the kids do nowadays and make one of those palettes you see on Pinterest. The colors she keeps coming back to are these:

cashin_colors

Couldn't you just eat them? It's all lumps of snow and winter gray skies where I live, and I feel greedy for this kind of visual vitality.

Cashin died in 2000, at the age of 93 (or thereabouts; she was a bit vague on the subject of her true age), and this book is the result of a collaboration between the designer and author Stephanie Lake that took place over the last three years of Cashin's life. Rizzoli's books are always sensitively made, but this one is unique because it appears to have grown naturally out of a real closeness between the two. Lake, a jewelry designer, writes that she discovered Cashin while doing research for Sotheby's, and she was simultaneously impressed by the degree of the older designer's influence and puzzled to see how little has been written about her. She set out to make a proper record of Cashin's legacy, and her initial attempts at conducting formal interviews quickly became informal conversations and then a sincere friendship. Lake is now the caretaker of Cashin's enormous archive; the book contains dozens of photos, sketches, and other ephemera from the designer's long life.

On top of being sassy and funny, Cashin was a serious artist and a big reader. Lake quotes her making reference to all kinds of influences, and I'm drinking these in too. Like the paintings of Sonia Delaunay—

sonia

and the Vogue covers Cashin painted for her own amusement when she was first becoming interested in fashion design, after the style of Eduardo Garcia Benito—

(I love reading about artists from back in the day, incidentally. They all got started so young. Cashin oversaw a team of dressmakers while she was still in high school, and she didn't bother with college but went right to work. The illustrator Eduardo Garcia Benito, I just read on Wikipedia, began working as an artist at the age of 12. Who knows if that's even true, and who cares? According to Lake's book Cashin started lying about her age when she was only 25, possibly to make her precocious talent seem even more impressive. It's a reminder to me to continually create and recreate myself—and to people younger than myself, it should be a reminder that you don't need school or any other authority to bestow fabulosity on you. Jobs, maybe, yeah, but not fabulosity. That's all you.)

Cashin may have been an unusual woman, but she had a typical woman-artist's story in one way, at least: Her tremendous influence has been largely overlooked and not properly documented. Though she was a hugely successful, both commercially and critically, on her own steam and worked with dozens of prominent houses as well—she was Coach's founding handbag designer!—Bonnie Cashin is not exactly a household name. According to Lake, Cashin virtually invented layering, both as a dressing concept and a fashion term. Same with the word hardware, as it refers to closures on garments and bags. If you're interested in clothing in the slightest, you can't tell me you haven't used those words recently and often. Oh, and lest you think people aren't still wearing her designs, here's a colorful screenshot of a "Bonnie Cashin" term search I did on etsy just now:

cashin_etsy

So snazzy! I'm off to the library for a reading tonight, and I was planning to wear my trusty black jeans and a new dipped-hem camel colored sweater that I've been favoring lately, but I think I've got to take a cue from Bonnie and add a magenta scarf at least.

xx Katie