Looking Like a Prince, With Machiavellian Style
By BRIAN M. CARNEY
July 8, 2006; Page P9
By Nicholas Antongiavanni
Collins, 230 pages, $18.95
The list of books that attempt to apply Niccolo Machiavelli's teachings to everyday subjects is notable more for its length than its virtue. Too often Machiavelli's adapters lack the boldness of the original. Whereas Machiavelli did not hesitate to inform his reader of the necessity of killing off not only a deposed leader but his entire bloodline, rare indeed is the management guru who will advocate murder in the boardroom.
Fortunately, Nicholas Antongiavanni, whose "The Suit" bears the subtitle "A Machiavellian Approach to Men's Style," is bold enough to prescribe a certain amount of violence. "Fashion," Mr. Antongiavanni writes, "is a harlot; and it is necessary, if one wants to protect oneself, to beat her back and spurn her enticements."
If such prose sounds more like the 16th century than the 21st, it is supposed to. What Mr. Antongiavanni has undertaken is a pastiche of the style and structure of Machiavelli's "The Prince," applied to men's clothing. Like the original, "The Suit" has 26 chapters and a dedicatory letter. Proposing himself as a corporate "sartorial consultant," Mr. Antongiavanni addresses his letter to John Elkann, the American-born heir apparent to the empire of Fiat, the Italian conglomerate. Mr. Elkann is the grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli, whom Mr. Antongiavanni considers "a great dandy" -- and there is no higher praise to be had in "The Suit" than to be considered a great dandy.
In the abstract, it all sounds vaguely absurd -- and it is. But luckily it is meant to be. As Harvey C. Mansfield wrote in "Machiavelli's Virtue": "If you are not in more or less constant amusement when reading Machiavelli's books, you should consider yourself bewildered." Mr. Antongiavanni seems to have embraced this motto as his own, and he exercises such charm, self-awareness and wit along the way that his improbable project succeeds delightfully.
Early in "The Prince," Machiavelli takes up the woeful fate of Louis XII's invasion of Italy, summarizing the French king's mistakes thus: "So then Louis had made these five errors: he had eliminated the lesser powers; increased the power of a power in Italy; brought in a very powerful foreigner; did not come to live there; did not put colonies there. Yet ... these errors could not have hurt him if he had not made a sixth ..." (depriving Venetians of their dominions).
In "The Suit," Conan O'Brien stands in for poor Louis: "In all, Conan makes these five errors: he does not wear patterns; always wears dark worsteds; never wears a handkerchief nor any other detail or accessory; rarely wears striped ties; does not wear double-breasted jackets. Yet these errors would not hurt him if he did not make a sixth: wearing true three-button single-breasted jackets." (Mr. O'Brien is too tall for them, you see.)
Which is not to say that "The Suit" is a joke. Just as Machiavelli wanted to rid Italy of foreign invaders, Mr. Antongiavanni wants to slay the menace of "business casual" (this "contemptible" fashion, he maintains, tells the world "that making money is so easy, any slob can do it" -- and "caused the first recession of the 21st century"). To support his case, Mr. Antongiavanni provides a great deal of useful, or at least interesting, information about how clothes are made.
What, for example, makes a better-made suit better-made, and why should we care? All jackets "are strengthened and given shape by pieces of canvas in the lapels and chest. In the best jackets these are sewn by hand with hundreds of minute stitches, in good ones by machine, and in all others they are not sewn but glued or 'fused.'" As for why we should care, Mr. Antongiavanni explains that "fused jackets are always stiffer and less breathable and become more so with wear. At worst, the glue can dry out, causing the canvas to peel away and the cloth to bubble." To understand that an unfused suit jacket is a mark of quality is also to grasp how easy it is to overpay for a designer name on a $1,000 suit that may be no better made than its $200 counterpart.
Given that Machiavelli intended "The Prince" as a rulebook for princes and would-be princes, Mr. Antongiavanni aspires not just to inform but to instruct. His paragon is the dandy. "Dandyism is the mean," Mr. Antongiavanni explains in his dedicatory letter, "between foppishness and slovenliness" -- but, lest there be any doubt about the matter, a dandy is "always manly."
In Chapter XVII -- titled "Of Footwear, and Whether It Is Better to Buy Italian Than English, or the Contrary" -- Mr. Antongiavanni addresses the subject of slovenliness by starting out with a characteristic jab at a couple of public personalities. "Whoever looks down at the feet of David Letterman or Donald Rumsfeld will see sneakers, even when they are wearing suits. This cannot be called an error, since it is so uncouth that even they must know the violence they are doing to their own appearance and to good taste." (The Letterman reference sounds dated, and the Rumsfeld resonates not at all, but complaining would miss the point.)
With that opening salvo the author goes on to explain what any aspiring dandy needs to know regarding footwear, beginning with the "last" ("the word literally means the wooden model of a foot around which a shoe is built" but also refers generally to the shape of a shoe). Mr. Antongiavanni notes that because bespoke shoes are "made on lasts carved to the exact requirements of actual feet," the shoes "will always look smaller than ready-made shoes on the same feet." This is important, of course, because "the foot being an ungainly thing, wise men seek out shoes that minimize its appearance."
Clothing may not be a subject of grave importance, but Mr. Antongiavanni has succeeded in making it an enlightening one for the inquisitive non-dandy, and an entertaining one for most readers -- particularly when "The Suit" embarks on a hilarious six-page tailor's-eye view of modern presidential history. "Dandification that is condemned as insolence in a Republican is praised as elegance in a Democrat, provided he is well-born," Mr. Antongiavanni writes. Hence Dwight Eisenhower was rewarded with two terms, "for he always dressed formally, but never with panache," while Franklin Roosevelt was elected over and over again despite dressing "like a Hudson River Valley grandee," even showing up at Yalta wearing "a black velvet cape lined in scarlet satin."
Nearer to our own day: "The first George Bush dressed formally, and -- he thought -- not at all dandified. Yet the people recognized in all those repp ties, Sack suits, and linen hankies the quality known as preppyness. Because this reminded them of his patrician heritage, it fixed in their mind the impression that he did not understand or care about them, and so he was ruined. His son, learning from this error, dresses with the crisp formality of a CEO, but without any hint of preppyness, so that if he is ruined, it will not be because of his clothes." One is almost tempted to believe him.
Mr. Carney is a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board.