Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Withnail in Venice
In this city without cars, with its narrow calli and old buildings, it's sometimes easy to feel you've left the present day far behind.
But, in truth, I often get the sense here of living in the past--albeit a more recent one than that of the doges--simply by noticing what people are wearing.
For example, I'll see an older man on a vaporetto rocking a look right out of some early '70s episode of Peter Falk's Columbo or the old Mastroianni film La grande bouffe (1973). I don't know a thing about fashion, but the cut of the man's coat, along with the particular colors and texture of his pants and sweater, say, give me the dizzying sense of suddenly finding myself somewhere else, temporally speaking. A time I may recognize only from old films or photos, or recall only vaguely (but viscerally) from the big Italian weddings of my boyhood in the 1970s.
In New York City you might come across similar clothing worn semi-ironically by some 20-something hipster. But to borrow a distinction from Quentin Crisp, such hipsters are examples of mere fashion, while here in Venice the pensioners are all about style.
Fashion changes year by year. Style is a slow process of discovery, in which one's look comes more and more to fit one's sense of self. Clothes may go out of fashion, and according to fashion's commercially-determined dictates deserve to be thrown away. Style dictates that one hold onto whatever works for him or her, for as long as it does--even a lifetime.
I rarely have a chance to take pictures of Venetians who embody this notion of style, but yesterday, as the afternoon darkened to showers, I left the 16th-century splendors of Lorenzo Lotto and Cima da Conegliano in the church of Santa Maria dei Carmini, walked through one end of Campo Santa Margherita, and found myself suddenly in 1969--at least as I know it from the film Withnail and I.
There before me was Withnail himself--or at least the Byronic late 1960s figure Withnail aspired to be--dressed entirely in period clothing: the tight pants, the sweater vest, the prominent crisp white collar and cuffs, the high armholes of the jacket and its early 19th-century silhouette, the hair, the sideburns, even the kerchief around the throat.
This guy was younger than the Venetians I wrote about above--as well as, I like to imagine, English--but he was old enough (late 30s, early 40s) to have had enough time to develop a look and manner in which style and self seemed perfectly and comfortably merged. And this time I had a camera in hand.
The photos I post are, I hope, clear enough to give you a sense of this particular figure in this particular setting, and blurred enough to obscure the identity of whomever this person happens to be. And I post them as a suggestion that perhaps sometimes the best things to pack for a visit to Venice are things that haven't been in fashion in your hometown for years.