We admire the Italians for many things. For the military might of the Roman Empire, for their cuisine, for their way with coffee. Perhaps above all, though, we admire them for their art and their style. Vittorio De Sica achieved greatness in both. Over 55 years, he directed 35 films and acted in more than 150, won Oscars before foreign-language films even qualified and profoundly influenced the course of cinema as an art form. And he did this while dressed superbly, in a manner that came to epitomise modern Italian style.
De Sica first found fame as a matinee idol in the ’20s. With an elegant Roman profile, he was a romantic lead who combined an air of unruffled authority, poise and composure with wit and charm. He had been born into a poor family at the turn of the 20th century, but reinvented himself on the stage, taking up acting at an early age after his parents moved from Sora, in Lazio, to Naples. By his 20s, he was a leading man in Tatiana Pavlova’s famous theatre company and building a parallel film career that, with the success of 1932 romantic comedy Gli uomini, che mascalzoni! (What Rascals Men Are!), was to make him Italy’s answer to Cary Grant.
Both onscreen and off, he was immaculate. In suit, tie and fedora, he was always formal, but without ever looking stuffy or out of touch. In this, it helped that he lived in Naples, where a style was emerging that fitted him perfectly: a new vogue for unstructured suits, removing the stiffness and padding from English tailoring to create cuts that suited the Italian climate and temperament. (How to gesture in the appropriate Latin manner when confined by Savile Row’s strictures, after all?) With sloped shoulders, a looser fit and wider lapels, it was smart but relaxed, loose but still smooth, and more conducive to individual expression. Like King Victor Emmanuel III and the Duke of Windsor, he patronised Vincenzo Attolini of the London House, owned by Gennaro Rubinacci, Naples’s arbiter of style at the time. Although he also wore suits by Caraceni of Rome, and from all over Florence, he remains an icon of the Neapolitan style, which was soon challenging London’s domination and — taking into account the movement to a slimmer silhouette — is the dominant male fashion today.