Sprezzatura, Duende and Brick Bats.
Three of the most influential writers about how men should wear their clothes are George Frazier (the journalist, not the athlete), who is now all but forgotten; Richard Merkin, the artist, who is now something of a cult figure; and G. Bruce Boyer, who is probably the best known and the most prolific, with some six books on the subject to his credit.
Bruce Boyer - Ivy-Style
There are certainly other influential people in the field – Alan Flusser, who is also a member of the cult of Merkin, for example, as well as the contributors to Ivy-Style and Ivy-Live – but with Frazier, Merkin, and Boyer there is a clear lineage of thought and approach to the question of sprezzatura, that effort taken to make something look effortless.
But for all three, there is something beyond mere sprezzatura that gives someone a real, personal, identifiable style; that is, the manner in which sprezzatura is executed by an individual. Frazier, bizarrely, called this supercharged sprezzatura duende. Merkin referred to it as a brick bat. Boyer, probably the most intellectual of the three, resisted naming this quality. Instead he determined what elements comprise supercharged sprezzatura, not as much as a checklist of things to do as a checklist to see if it had been done. It might have amused Frazier and Merkin (and perhaps even Boyer) to think of it as a sartorial triple play.
Arnold Gingrich, founder, editor, and publisher of Esquire, called Frazier an “arbiter of elegance”, perhaps in playful reference to Petronius who held that title (arbiter elegantiae) in the court of the Emperor Nero; or perhaps to Frazier’s habit of covering the opening games of the Red Sox in Latin for The Boston Globe.
As befits a graduate of Boston (Boys’) Latin School and Harvard, Frazier was what was once called a “man of letters”. In addition to Esquire and The Globe, he wrote for numerous jazz publications in France and the United States, and even contributed to The Rolling Stone. His most visible position was as media critic for “The CBS Morning News”. If Frazier is known today, it may be as one of the journalists on Nixon’s Enemies List.
George Frazier - New England Public Radio
Frazier’s column in Esquire, A Sense of Style, covered style, but not just in clothes. Yes, there were articles on the fine points of men’s dress. One, about seersucker suits, is typical. Frazier holds forth on the history and benefits of a lightweight fabric in hot summer months, with additional comments about Damon Runyon’s experiences with seersucker suits as well as where in New York one would wear such suits: the Upper East Side is fine; the Theatre District is not.
Style also meant the manner in which anything and everything was done. Style is the result of moral or ethical choices. Not that those other, larger issues stopped Frazier from commenting about clothes as well. It was not enough for Frazier to point out that Andy Williams was a bland and mediocre singer; Frazier had to add how badly Williams dressed (or was dressed by one commercial sponsor or another).
NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley are also accused of being bland and for not being one of “[Edward R.] Murrow’s Boys”, that is television journalists who worked with or under Murrow. Murrow and his disciples remain the high bar to this day, but Murrow, like Frazier, worked for CBS.
Regardless, Frazier’s old Esquire columns are well worth reading and it would be nice if someone would publish them. In terms of how men should wear their clothes, Esquire also published his major contribution to the topic, The Art of Wearing Clothes, in the September 1960 issue. The 10,000 word essay has been frequently reprinted, not only online, but also in Esquire Fashions for Men (1966).
Frazier begins with Beau Brummell, of course, describing Brummell’s approach to dress as “irreproachable tasteful simplicity”, adding that “because of [Brummell] alone simplicity became the hallmark of the well-dressed man”.
Although Frazier never uses the word sprezzatura in the essay, his description of the attitude behind the art leaves little doubt what he means: “This was what has since come to be known as ‘studied carelessness’ – ‘the perfect art,’ as Kathleen Campbell said, ‘which conceals art, that satisfying spontaneity which can be achieved only be taking intense thought’.”
While all the clothes a gentleman wore had to be clean and well-maintained, nothing had to be new. Commenting about a fastidious soldier in the first World War, Frazier said, “Actually, the gloves need not have been new – merely spotlessly clean – for in men’s clothes … age lends a certain reassuring patina.”
Gingrich’s introduction to the issue is not as well known or as widely reprinted at The Art of Wearing Clothes, but it bears reading. In addition to informing readers that the article took Frazier two years to write, Gingrich provided the first attempts to explain and expand upon what Frazier had in mind. “Apparently, in Frazier’s book, no well-dressed man’s clothes should look either old or new, just as no well-groomed man should like either as if he needed, or as if he just had, a haircut”.
However Gingrich went a step further, did some research and analysis of his own, and came to much the same conclusions. “In the opinion of Dorland Doyle, who sums up pretty well the consensus of those queried who were cited by Mr. Frazier, ‘The conservative man instinctively obeys four simple principles: (1) Never loud colors or extreme cut. (2) Dress for comfort instead of following excessive fads. (3) Fewer, but better built suits and shows made to order with trees fitted to the shoes. (4) Rotate all coats, suits, shoes, etc. to rest them’.”
As Roger Angell noted in The New Yorker, Frazier “found ‘sprezzatura’ somewhere – it meant spirit and nonchalance: cool – and laid it as a laurel on people he particularly admired. Later on, he dropped the word in favor of ‘duende,’ which meant just about the same thing.”
Actually, duende has two meanings, the better known one used in music, literature, and the arts in general and flamenco in particular. Duende, here, refers to the raw passion, intensity, authenticity of the work or performance. Frazier however adapted or appropriated the other definition of duende, which refers to a dark charisma, almost akin to the medieval notion of the glamour.
Charles Fountain, author of Another Man’s Poison: The Life and Writings of George Frazier (2011), suggested that duende means “that special force or characteristic that makes someone or something irresistibly attractive.” Studs Turkel claimed that Frazier used duende to mean “grace, wit and class.” Dan Rodericks, a sports journalist, noted that “duende is considered the difference between genius and mere talent”.
Whether Frazier’s own dress achieved his definition of duende is an interesting question. According to Flusser, Frazier almost always word a navy blue suit and a black knit tie, something of a uniform of upper and upper-middle class men of that generation. To pick a trivial example, Ian Fleming frequently described James Bond as wearing a dark blue suit with a black knit tie in the original novels.
Flusser was part of the same sartorial circle of friends that included Tom Wolfe, Bobby Short, and Merkin. Merkin knew Frazier – they shared an interest in John O’Hara as well as men’s fashion – but didn’t always agree. Frazier favored both a boutonniere and a handkerchief in the breast pocket, while Merkin, who was both a fine and a graphic artist, felt that created a cluttered field.
Merkin was known for his moustache, his bowler hat, his white double-breasted suits, and custom tweeds as well as for running around in a 1946 British Racing Green MG TC. His interests ranged from vintage pornography to the Cuban and Negro Baseball Leagues. His collection of old erotica formed the basis of two books: Velvet Eden (1979) and The Tijuana Bibles (1997). He illustrated Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues (1995). However, for baby boomers of a certain age, Merkin may be best known for appearing on the cover of The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He’s in the back row, right of center, appropriately alongside Fred Astaire and a Vargas girl.
Merkin was the artist as dandy for whom dress was an aggressive social critique. Unlike Frazier, Merkin never left a defining essay of his beliefs, but quotes from articles and interviews in Esquire, The New York Times, and fashion industry publications give an idea what his manifesto might have been.
Richard Merkin - The John O'Hara Society
“Grace,” Merkin said, “is meaningless without eccentricity.” To the Times, he gave that concept a puckish spin: “My sartorial aspirations lie somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington.”
He was more serious in other interviews. “I aspire toward a state of existence where one has a really beautiful sense of harmony and order. People dress in an abrasive way these days, it's a barometer of the sociological chaos we live in. Also I'm an artist who likes to observe and make a statement, so my dress has something to do with journalism, reportage. There is a degree of satire, of the creative violation of propriety. I was not to the manner born; therefore to simply appropriate the manner would not have been satisfactory."
Or, as Merkin told the fashion industry publication, The Daily News Record, “Dressing, like painting, should have a residual stability, plus punctuation and surprise…Somewhere, like in Krazy Kat, you’ve got to throw the brick.” Incidentally, Krazy Kat was stamped on his hand-rolled cigarettes which were kept in a silver case. What duende was to Frazier, Krazy Kat’s brick (or brickbat) was to Merkin: that extra “something” that elevated a style to a statement.
From 1988 to 1991, Merkin wrote a column for GQ, called Merkin on Style, in a nod to Frazier. Merkin’s literary style was also to throw the odd brickbat, sometimes with humor, other times with odd, obscure words. Kevin Haynes in a profile for Syracuse University Magazine (Merkin was Class of 1960) described the columns as a “monthly mix of advice and social swagger, heavily influenced by S.J. Perelman and Roget’s Thesaurus.” Haynes went on to note that “[i]t made Merkin an easy target for Spy magazine. ‘Merkin understands the value of the big word,’ chided Spy.” If memory serves, the big words did not include duende.
“I loved the column,” Arthur Cooper, Merkin’s editor at GQ, said to Haynes. “It was a curmudgeon’s take on style, very informed, very witty. I thought it was one of the best and most original things in the magazine. The problem is, like most columns, you sort of run out of things to say.”
Merkin went on to say things at Esquire, among other publications. The change of platform did not exactly change his approach. In 1993, he not only contributed to a section called “Building Your Wardrobe” (as did Boyer), but also claimed that a proper gentleman basics included two tweed jackets: “One … to wear to cocktails and another to sleep with the dogs”. Cats in general and Krazy Kat in particular may not be as easily impressed as dogs.
Boyer has been the fashion editor at GQ, Esquire, and Town and Country at various times over almost half a century of writing about men’s fashion. However, Boyer maintains he is “not really … a fashion writer in the traditional sense, but rather a clothing writer.”
John Taylor (Tailor and Cutter) as well as Frazier influenced him. “My early writing was modeled on the styles of Frazier and Taylor”, he said in My Life as a Style Writer. “[B]oth of whom had that High Mandarin voice, and wrote with taste, flair, and knowledge of their subjects.”
Decades later, he still admired those characteristics in others. In a Foreward to The Parisian Gentleman (2018), Boyer noted: “First as a fan and then as a friend, I have found that Hugo [Jacomet] brings together several talents I admire in a writer. He is at the same time erudite; eminently intelligible, insightful and witty; balanced in his perspective; and thorough in his research.”
Boyer’s interest in clothes themselves goes beyond questions of taste and quality. His interest is in “how they could provide a ‘role’ or an ‘image’, how they could give and convey confidence, how they could provide entry into a group, how they could be distinguishing, and in my case how they could appeal to women - and the rewards that might convey. How, in short, clothing can be understood as a social tool.”
“Fashion writing,” by extension, “should try to understand what clothing is about within a context, something in the tone of the age, the zeitgeist, something in the culture, something in both our emotional and intellectual life.” In other words, clothing as a communications system, as the semioticist Roland Barthes might have noted.
Among the things Boyer thinks clothes should communicate is sprezzatura. He defines and refines his thought about sprezzatura across three volumes of essays: Elegance (1985); Eminently Suitable (1990); and True Style (2015).
He starts off in praise of elegance in his first book: “Those whose appearances we admire wear their clothes with a certain sense of comfort and propriety of style we often call elegance, a word variously defined but also including, even centering upon, the idea of gracefulness, the skilled ease with which something is done. And that ease, I think, is generally a quality one develops from an intelligent familiarity with the endeavor.”
By the third book, he winds up in praise of what he calls the English Country House Look (ECHL), that is, to look as if one were to that country manor born. For Boyer, ECHL has two components: “First, it’s critical to remember that shabbiness is preferred to newness”; and “Second, prepare by cultivating the impression of never having prepared.” That not only circles back past Merkin – who mixed custom with vintage – to Doyle and Frazier, but also reflects his definition of sprezzatura.
Boyer isolates four elements for his sprezzatura: “: 1. There is no such thing as being “accidentally” well-dressed. … 2. Nonchalance most often depends upon the smaller touches to achieve the greatest effects. … 3. Nonchalance is often seen when some aspect of the outfit plays against the grain of the basic pattern or genre – so long as the difference is minor. … 4. The nonchalant man knows the form, which means that his little eccentricities must seem as intentional.”
In his next, and so far last, book, the four elements have been refined and expanded. “(1) A preference for the mildly rumpled over the new and shiny. The oft-attributed Nancy Mitford comment on interior design bears mentioning in this connection: ‘All nice rooms are a bit shabby.’ (2) A touch of sentimental, personal eccentricity. (3) A marked tendency toward clothes that at least appear comfy. And (4) the idea of counterpoint, based on a total sense of confidence.”
“Sprezzatura encompasses that purposefully disordered style, that cultivated recklessness, that seeming unconcern of the man who turns up his jacket collar, the collar of that English custom-made hacking jacket he wears with his ten-year-old faded khakis and an old school tie for a belt,” he notes, adding elsewhere such other examples as “the purposefully incongruent finesse of mixed genres. … old Barbour jacket over a town suit .. polo coat over turtle and jeans … vintage items used new way – fishing creel as briefcase … cigar case for glasses …”
With three different approaches to supercharging sprezzatura, perhaps the question should be: How do you like your sprezzatura? Straight up or with a twist?
Jonathan Boorstein is a gentleman, an author, and a good friend of the Facebook groups for Ivy Style and Ivy-Live.