I-gents know what they want. Or they think they do.
At the very least brands provide gentlemen with catalogues telling them what they think they want, and how they can be unique. It’s always the same, with minuscule variations as seasons go.
Except you can only know what you want if you have been through a long journey, surrounded with many pitfalls, temptations, pressures and prescriptions from marketing mavens and influencers.
It can only be a gradual exploration whose first goal is above all, acquiring a taste for dressing and for clothes. The hesitant beginner will fall for the typical traps that await him, and will be briefly enamoured with coloured buttonholes, orange shoelaces and whatnot. And then he will see the light, and understand that even a tiny detail can be loud.
Convinced that classicism is the way, he will tone down his outfits, believing in nothing but navy or grey suits. After a while, bored out of his skull by the banality of such drab choices, he will dare again, hankering for a dash of wildness. Alas, too bold is he. He has barely recovered from beginner’s brashness and from excessive reasonableness—only to indulge in flashy Neapolitan excess, confusing bravery with foolishness, sprezzatura and extravaganza.
Pursuing his initiation, his quest towards sartorial felicity, he may reach a level of wisdom that only comes from experience, at last knowing what tailoring is about. Once he’s become a real connoisseur he will develop a sharp eye for proportions, scanning sleeve buttonholes, fingering padding and canvas. And from now on, the modern gentleman, which is all of us, will never suffer anything less than the best—lapels, buttonholes, welting need to be absolutely perfect.
But suddenly, all those sartorial minutiae become mere arbitrary and irrelevant details. Why use a ‘real’ buttonhole except knowing it is real? Do we really count on Goodyear welting to have a new sole stitched?
And details could overthrow the very notion of holistic view we have of elegance, as my good friend Alex Freeling recently stated, ‘The enemy of balance is detail for its own sake: the wider lapel, the shorter jacket, the softer shoulder, the more elaborate trouser. Every choice is valid in the right context, but too many details, pushed too far, end in self-parody. Balance is the middle-of-the-road choice perfectly executed.’
He was speaking mainly about the details of a garment but that is true as well of a whole outfit. Scanning all the details can become a tediously absurd method, a mechanical way of searching for the exceptional, a soulless approach to good taste.
Music is very much the same. I’ve heard countless great bands playing harmonically challenging things, with impeccable rhythmic precision and flawless technical proficiency, only to realise how void it all sounded. Checking each minute box, crossing all the small Ts is not quite enough. You need the right spirit to inform the music. Without promoting too mystical a taste for the ineffable, one should at least note that not everything boils down to objective details. One does not listen to music to hear perfectly executed fast runs. One does not wear a beautiful garment just to stare at the hand-made stitching.
When appraising a garment there are many other things to take into account apart from the technical details. There’s fit and there’s the overall feel of it. This is about a living body and its connection with the clothes.
Technical mastery is one thing (a necessity in music but hardly an end in itself and sometimes even a flaw…) but elegance is not based on the excellence of the clothes you wear. Even taste in putting together an outfit is not always enough to avoid stuffiness, immoderation and other faults such as sartorial timidity or excessive exuberance.
And just when you think you have managed colours and textures, patterns and shapes, you’re left to wonder if you are really at ease with wearing the resulting outfit—whether less thinking, less distinction would not have been better.
As philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, « Taste or talent is knowing how to cross things out. Piling up good ideas is piling up weaknesses. Better to disappoint because of your laconism than because of your profusion. » (Cahiers 1957-1972, p. 364)
Elegance is not about piling up carefully wrought details but about forgetting them, reaching for what really becomes you. Or, to sum it all up—Gnothi seauton (Know thyself).