Sartorialists usually think rules ought to be either followed or broken, depending on one’s rebellious inclinations. The in-betweens are sometimes referred to as ‘a twist’, which still implies the bending of a fundamental rule.
However, we should only call those instructions that we are compelled to follow for social reasons by the term ‘rules’; these might apply to uniforms, black tie, and other functional outfits that are collectively mandatory–you wouldn’t think of setting foot on a judo mat with a silk paisley belt, would you?
Sartorial tips fall under the umbrella of recommendations rather than rules: they’re mere guidelines to make your life easier. For instance, the Italian background, is arguably the most useful sartorial tip ever, especially if you have a taste for bold-coloured or patterned jackets.
The ingredients are very simple: light blue shirt and navy tie.
Simon Crompton came up with the phrase after noticing the different approach Italians and British men take on the shirt/tie combination:
« The Italian Background: an awkward but persistently useful phrase I coined back in 2008 to describe the tendency of Italians to wear blue shirts and navy ties under strongly coloured suits.Rather than the English alternative – bright shirts and ties under sober suits. » (which he calls ‘the lawyer background’).
If we were to pursue the cultural allusion, it could be likened to another Italian specialty: like pasta, which is made of flour, water and eggs—the quintessential simplicity— the light-blue-shirt-and-navy-tie is the foundation of almost infinite combinations.
This simple bedrock is the rewarding source of falsely conservative and subtly casual outfits, imaginative patterns and colours. It’s simple but it lends itself to many variations: the blue shirt can be textured (dobby, oxford, etc.) or patterned (small checks, narrow white and blue stripes) and the tie can also be subtly textured (grenadine, knitted, shantung) or patterned (as long as it fades into the main colour and the pattern is small). And, of course, the jacket can be any colour or pattern you fancy: it’s guaranteed to work.
The blue shirt/blue tie combo is the go-to foundation of an outfit–in other words, the no-brainer. But it’s far from the dull safety of a dark suit worn with a white shirt: you could even say it’s the exact opposite.
While the grey-suit-white-shirt-coloured-tie outfit seems business-like to the point of conservative invisibility, the Italian background is sophisticated, enabling daring combinations for those fabrics you don’t really know how to handle, like solaro, prince-of-wales, cottons… Even orange velvet is easily tamed by such a neutral background. Rather than restraint or lack of imagination, it shows sartorial flair, the elegant solution to a colour and pattern conundrum.
The Italian background is often mentioned in reference to the tie-shirt-jacket nexus, but it actually goes beyond that. The idea behind the Italian background is that you can pair it with anything, making another item more visible, namely the jacket. But the natural extension of this strategy is to select trousers that can be paired with it with the same ease and refined style. Medium grey is the obvious answer. A variation can be dark blue, matching the tie for even more contrast with the jacket.
Also, since this strategy is essentially about the colour and pattern potential clash, it can be adapted to the season: in summer with linen or cotton, in winter with flannels and tweeds, twills and corduroys. The cloth variations will bring even more zest to the neutral background principle.
Of course, once you’ve reached a different plane of experience and sartorial wisdom, you’ll be able to take this principle up a notch by choosing other shades, like dark brown or dark green, and carefully selected striped shirts, moving on to the risky shores of the all-patterned outfit. At this game, Dirnelli is the man:
So is it the most useful tip ever? You bet it is. The blue shirt/blue tie is so versatile, you’ll wonder if you’re ever going to need anything else.
You may even flirt with the idea of becoming one of those legendary eccentric men who own nothing but a handful of light blue shirts and navy ties, supposedly clearing your mind from frivolous temptations to focus on greater things. If only such freedom didn’t imply such restriction—but there are too many other ties and shirts begging to be tried, too many combinations waiting for you to pull them off with aplomb.
So eventually you adapt to your own expectations and tastes. But the Italian background lurks in the recesses of your mind. It’s your joker card, the cherished trick you keep up your sleeve the whole time, only to reveal it when you know it is worth it. Just like your special pasta recipe.