Swellboy on… Naples

See Naples – and cry with laughter

Image: Brijesh Patel

It is always the way: you wait ages for a book about tailoring, and then along come two at the same time. Thames & Hudson has recently brought out a book about Savile Row, and this month the world, or at least that part of it that wears Rubinacci and can fit inside the Italian Embassy for the party, will have a book about Neapolitan tailoring.

I must add two things by way of a health warning. I have written a fairly large chunk of the text and spent rather more hours than is perhaps advisable poring over detailed pictures of supremely covetable suits from the 1930s and a selection of tweed sports jackets and overcoats that seemed to have belonged to every count, prince, duke, baron and king that Italy could supply. And as the book is a private publication for Mariano Rubinacci, numbers are strictly limited, so it is likely to become a cult classic; even if a few copies are sold, I will not see a penny so do not think that I am ramping my own product. If however you want to invest a few pounds in a couple of copies of Gentlemen & Blackguards, my book about the illegal gambling craze of the 1840s and the plot to rig the Derby of 1844, then be my guest

I wanted to do this book because Mariano has become a friend and also because I am captivated by the regional specificity of the tailoring techniques; it is rather like those eco-systems sequestered from the rest of the world that give rise to species unknown anywhere else on the planet. And as such the real star of the book is the rubbish-clogged city of Naples.


Researching this book was a riot. For example I became a frequent visitor to the palazzo of the Counts Leonetti and the current chatelaine did not seem to mind one bit as I invaded her room, strewing the bed with dozens of her father’s suits and squealing with delight as yet another gem was hauled from a dusty suit bag and gleefully tried on by me.

Then there was the surreal and somewhat sinister visit to a system of caves that were contiguous to an ancient warren of houses and streets that would have been called a rookery were they to be found in London. For hundreds if not thousands of years the poor of Naples had buried their dead here, interpreting the term “burial” with a commendable liberality. Anyway, some time during the 18th century a flash flood had propelled the contents of this ossuary into the centre of the town and when these bones were collected and repatriated it was a hopeless task trying to match the right femurs to the correct scapulas so instead the remains of numberless dead people were used to construct various decorative schemes, altars, replicas of Calvary and so on.

But most priceless was the time I witnessed a showdown between two men, each clearly more important than the other; they batted insults back and forth with the sort of practised skill that put me in mind of Federer and Nadal. And then, finally, one of them said something that stilled the entire restaurant. Small children began to cry, dogs howled, women fainted and, not understanding a word of Italian, it took me a while to work out that he had given voice to the foulest insult one could heap on the head of a Neapolitan. Nothing to do with questioning the legitimacy of his birth or the virtue of his sister/wife/mother/grandmother, it was instead the dark accusation: “You are well known in the north of Italy.”


On such occasions Mariano keeps understandably quiet about the fact that he also has a tailoring shop in Milan.

See also