Italian Mini Divas

Dresses for little girls in window of clothing store near my home in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Food and fevers are at the top of any good Italian mamma’s to-do list, but clothing is not far behind. Italian mammas are obsessive about how their children dress and Italian children are often perfectly dressed. First, they have to have a canottiera, undershirt. They actually call it the ‘maglia della salute’, the health shirt. It keeps them warm, even on steaming hot Rome summer days, and helps them keep from getting fevers, they believe. If a mamma dares to skip the canottiera she will send shock waves through all friends, aunts and mothers-in-law, not to mention husbands.

On top of the canottiera go all sorts of difficult-to-care-for clothing. My first child was a boy –I was appalled when all our Italian friends started giving me frilly-collared button-down blouses and little wool sweaters as gifts. So much for machine washable. My third child was born in June when Rome is brutally hot. In a few weeks she was covered with an ugly heat rash. Much to the dismay of all, I let her spend her days in her diapers. A month later we left for vacation in the US. I dressed my two daughters in pretty pink Italian hand-wash sweaters for the flight. When we arrived Caterina had tomato sauce all over her sweater, Chiara and managed to spit-up all over hers. “Did you ever think of cotton, machine-washable sweat-shirts?” my father asked.

Just around the corner from our apartment in the Parioli neighborhood of Rome is a tiny clothing store for children called “Mini Divi”. How is that name best translated? ‘Mini Divas’? or ‘Little Stars’? I am not sure, but in Italian it perfectly sums up how Italians view their children. The store is filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful clothing in mini sizes — lovely delicate wool sweaters for newborns, little linen dresses with embroidered tops for toddlers. I realized that I was becoming a real Italian mamma when I caught myself looking through the clothes with a friend and saying in a saccharin voice, “Oh isn’t this one an amore?”, “Oh look how bellino this dress is.” Any normal American mother would walk in that shop, glance around and walk right back out. If she decided to stay she might ask, “Is there anything here that can be put in the washing machine?” And the clerk would answer, “No, Signora, everything must be washed by hand.”

When Nico began school, we were very excited about the first birthday party. Aware that Italians dress children elegantly, I dressed Nico in a nice pair of corduroys, a button-down Oxford shirt, and (God forbid!) sneakers. I went with what I had on — jeans and comfortable shoes. We arrived at the party and almost every little boy was in little gray wool shorts with thin white bobby socks, girlish-looking buckle-up shoes, and a white blouse with a frilly collar, with a little wool sweater on top. Bleck! Nico did not care and neither did I.

I did care about the mothers though. Each one was more elegant than the next. I saw one mamma come in with two children dressed in matching frilly collars and buckle shoes. Their tall, thin elegant mamma had a beautiful, gray cashmere sweater-suit with a long top and short skirt. Her long, thin legs were covered with sheer gray stockings, and she wore perfectly matching gray high-heeled shoes. I stared at her enviously. Ah, to have long thin legs and spend the day in sheer gray stockings and a mini-skirt. I would not even be able to get out of my house with the children without getting a long run in those stockings. Slowly, I worked my way over to the corner where the baby-sitters had gathered and found a chair with them. I sat there contemplating the stunningly dressed Italian Mammas. I found myself hoping that the little boy with the gray-suited mamma would drink a ton of punch, loads of popcorn, and piles of chocolate cake. I was secretly hoping he would upchuck in the car on the ride home all over his little frilly shirt, and wool shorts, but I was especially hoping he would get that cashmere suit and sheer stockings of his Mamma.

In Rome laundry is a nightmare. Italians do not believe in or use dryers. They believe that clothing must dry in the sun and be ironed. They think a dryer would ruin clothing. I have looked into the matter and there are two problems with getting a dryer.

First of all, most of the Roman apartments are not equipped with enough power to handle a dryer. Even now I cannot use my dishwasher and the oven at the same time without blowing out the power in the apartment, and all the kitchen appliances have to be turned off if we want to use the hairdryer. So if I managed to get a decent dryer I would have to turn off all lights, stereos, computers, dishwasher and any other appliances just to run it. Second, they do not sell American-style dryers in Italy. The only kind of dryer I have seen is a German brand that does not blow air into the clothing, it basically cooks the clothes. The machine slowly heats up and gets hotter and hotter while rapidly spinning the clothing. No air goes in or out. When the machine is finished the clothing comes out warm, but damp and wrinkled. So, the dryer is excluded.

The washing machines are almost as annoying. Italian washing machines are about the size of a coffee can. One puts three items of clothing, or one bed sheet, inside and it is full. Then you turn it on and it fills up with boiling hot water. Then for three hours the coffee can spins this way and that way until the clothes are boiled clean.

With little children anywhere, one spends a huge amount of time doing laundry. In Italy, laundry is mamma’s worst enemy. Niccolo, for the first five months of his life sucked milk like a starving barracuda and then spent three hours spitting it up all over himself, his parents and the house. Needless to say, pretty quickly I got sick of the wool sweaters. One day in frustration, I put a little yellow wool sweater with a small satin ‘choo choo’ train embroidered on the front into the washing machine after Nico had spit up all over it. It came out about the right size for a GI-Joe. The other wool sweaters ended up with yellow stains all over them because I could never be bothered to clean them properly. Several years later I gave them all away to a cleaning lady from Santo Domingo. Probably all the GI-Joes in Santo Domingo are now wearing Nico’s mini-sweaters.

One day a good Italian friend of mine, whose adorable child is always impeccably dressed, recounted to me with horror how she caught her new live-in babysitter throwing a load of laundry in the wash mixing her sons clothes in with the baby-sitters. “I was so angry I could not see straight,” she said, “Can you believe she did not understand that all his clothes must be washed by hand?”

I tend to dress my children in cotton, durable, machine washable clothing that can be snapped, zipped or otherwise changed in a hurry. For years my friend Jessica was in a constant battle with her husband over the clothing issue. He did not do the laundry, but he wanted the wool sweaters and frilly socks. She wanted the washable sweatshirts. Finally they negotiated a deal. She dressed the kids during the week; then on weekends, for the visits to her in-laws, he would dress them. She told me the children would emerge from the bedroom puffed up like peacocks in fancy frilly shirts and buckle-up shoes, ready for their weekend.

My husband, Gustavo, is more worried about the children keeping warm. I grew up in Boston where the winters are long and cold, so Rome weather seems mild to me and I don’t worry too much about my kids’ clothing. Gustavo wants them wearing cannottiere, hats, scarves, and gloves most of the year – but, most of all, slippers. When Gustavo comes home from work, he opens to the door and yells out one word “PANTOFOLE!!!” (which means bedroom slippers in Italian) and my three children, usually running around barefoot, go scurrying off looking for their bedroom slippers, like cockroaches caught in the kitchen when the light is turned on.

31 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Gwen
    2012/02/02

    What a laugh. I think you gave us one of these frilly frocks for Steph. She wore it for her #3 birthday party and looked adorable for the pre-party photos. The party was a decorate your own cupcake party for about eight 3-4 year olds. You can imagine how it looked by the end – covered with chocolate and sprinkles. Wish I had those before and after photos for you:-)

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/02/02

    Wow. That’s about all I can say. I knew there must be a down side to living in Italy. Kind of like the down side of living in Chicago is our winters (cept not this year) and California is their traffic. I don’t mind laundry. At least American Style….

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/02

      Hi Kathleen — Speaking of snowy winters, can you believe it is supposed to snow tomorrow in Rome, and they have already cancelled all the schools?!! The last time it snowed here was about 5 years ago, and Romans are not used to it. It would make a Chicagoan laugh looking at how everyone panics here. On the laundry front, I don’t mind doing laundry so much in the US with the big, spacious washing machines and dryers that leave clothes warm and fluffy.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    AdriBarr
    2012/02/02

    Hi Trisha,

    I had no idea. That is really interesting, and as always, presented in the most entertaining fashion. My word – are the kids supposed to play in good clothing as well? It certainly seems as if one could be buried in laundry awfully quickly. I don’ t envy you this situation, but I do agree with your husband about the slippers. They are a must!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/02

      Hey Adri — I should do a post one of these days on child play in Italy. Tree-climbinb and puddle-jumping are not allowed so that makes it easier to keep from ripping your frilly clothing or getting mud on things. But before I do that, I need to prepare a post on how women dress in Italy. I will give you a hint: No sweatpants allowed!

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Sue
    2012/02/02

    this was your best, still laughing about the clothing and washing. You are a great Mama and am sure the kids appreciate how you handle their clothing, etc. Good for you, you deserve lots of gold stars.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      Thank you Sue! I definitely not getting any gold stars these days with my teenagers. Everything seems to be my fault no matter what I do. I guess that is just par for the course. As far as I can tell, adolescents don’t have enough sense of humor!

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Sally
    2012/02/02

    Thanks for my morning giggle! Once again, this 1/2 Italian-American Mamma would never make it in Italy. Tutto per la bella figura, no?? Beautiful clothing, but not very practical. And the dryer scene…are your towels nice and crunchy? Loved the ending of your story. I can perfectly envision this drama playing out in my mind. Yes, please do write a future story on the “maxi” divas (fashionistas) too!
    Ciao, Ciao for now…

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      You got it! Totally crunchy towels! No warm, soft, fluffy towels for Romans. What a laugh.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Alan
    2012/02/02

    must admit to being one who would have machine-washable or drip-dry kids and dress them in shell-suits.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Millie
    2012/02/02

    Enjoy your writing as I feel I am there with you.
    I was in Italy in May and was quite taken with the way the women dress. I must admit I never felt so frumpy and touristy in my life…lol. I am from Boston also so I indeed dress stylishly, but, not European stylishly. What I did get out of it was I do not think I will ever wear sneakers again.
    Looking forward to your next post.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      Thanks for your comment Millie, I am happy to hear you like my blog. Yes, sneakers are definitely out here. I am trying to prepare a post on unwritten clothing rules for women in Italy — no sneakers, no shorts, but mini-skirts can be very, very mini and no one blinks an eye.

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/02/03

    p.s. do they have dry cleaners??? I am still in a stupor thinking about that Italian laundry! When my kids bring me hand washed items I send them out! Jeez. My ritual of praying over the laundry would go out the window in a flash!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      They have lots of dry cleaners and lots of hair-dressers. On a block near my house I think there are 4 hair-dressers and 2 dry-cleaners. Gives you a good idea what people are doing. Making sure there hair looks good and their clothes are clean! Last night I was at a dinner for an American journalist friend who is moving back to California. When we asked her what she is going to miss about Italy, she surprised us all by saying she is really going to miss her “frutti-vendolo”–local fruit and vegetable stand, and her “estetista” — her beautician. As she put it, both selling good fruits and vegetables and hair removal are arts in Italy. What a laugh!

      Reply
  9. Avatar
    Susan
    2012/02/03

    This was really great!I was laughing at how crazy it all is, but then I felt bad, too! Italian kids really do look cute (no cartoon t-shirts), but I never thought about what it takes for bella figura!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      Susan, I am so glad you are reading by blog!! Yes, the bella figura takes up a lot of time and energy here. I really need to write a post explaining what exactly the Bella Figura is, but it is hard to explain, you almost have to live it to understand it.

      Reply
  10. Avatar
    Barbara Landi
    2012/02/03

    OMG this is like going back in time 2 generations! First of all, Italians , like probably all Europeans, are so much more energy conservative than Americans. So no American style washer & dryers. But you’d think they would’ve got past the wash-by-hand delicate woolens for kids by now!

    My Italian grandparents were tailors & dressmakers, and no commercially purchased clothing was ever good enough for me. I had to wear tailored coats, dresses, jackets, skirts, etc. made by them, after painstaking hours of pinning muslim pieces to my body for a perfect fit. I can’t tell you how much I loathed this process at the time. But now that my nonni are long gone, I weep that I did not keep the custom designs they made for me!!!! At least I have a few photos from the 50s & 60s.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/03

      Barbara, that is so fascinating. I think you have a book to write about your childhood experiences. In a similar vein, my mother-in-law saves every item of clothing she has ever owned (never gains a pound either) and still wears the same elegant French Tailleur that she wore in her 40s, and she is now in her 70s. She also saved all my husband’s and his sister’s childhood clothing and presented these fancy items to me for my children. I think she was unhappy with by indifferent and sometimes cavalier attitude towards these carefully preserved items. I also think that you are correct in suggesting that it is a European attitude. I believe the French have a similar attitude towards clothing. And I must say sometimes it seems in the US that clothing has become so disposable, cheap things that people use a few times and then get rid of.

      Reply
  11. Avatar
    lisa|renovating italy
    2012/02/05

    I still remember the outraged uproar at a playground when our two very Aussie children then five and three took off their shoes and went barefoot. Sam and I were trying to chat with some of the other parents when some of them started screaming …their children had followed suit and taken off the shoes. It was hysterically funny to see such horrified reactions.

    I kept looking for the “real” kids clothes shops, we ended up buying the entire stock of a woman at a market in France who was selling off her kids handme downs. How can children be children with so many frills, tiny buttons, and lace. My friends in Australia still don’t believe me when I tell them of the fashion for children in Italy.

    thanks for the laugh, and no we don’t own any singlets…
    ciao lisa

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/05

      Outraged uproar is the right. I got the same thing when I let my son go puddle-jumping barefoot after a late spring rainstorm. The other parents were really irritated with me. They told me that Nico would catch cold, get a fever, and that is was dangerous. They were especially frustrated because their children were begging to take off their shoes.

      Reply
  12. Avatar
    Donna
    2012/02/05

    Loved your story. I had a great laugh, specially about the boys wearing frilly shirts and shorts. I have a photo of my husband when he was four and that is what he is wearing. The funny thing is, the photo was taken 61 years ago. The more things change, they stay the same. Keep the stories coming.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/05

      That’s so funny about your husband. Is he Italian?

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Marni
      2012/05/13

      It’s posts like this that make surfing so much pluaesre

      Reply
  13. Avatar
    Elspeth Slayter
    2012/02/08

    I am finding myself reflecting on my pre-Thomas family girlhood and the fact that I was ALWAYS dressed in dresses made by my seamstress extraordinaire Granny – who made me lots of frilly and smocked and patchworked dresses and coats. She was of a different age – schooled only in charm/etiquette school and never did formal work a day in her life – raised in a semi-colonialist upbringing in rural Spain and expected me to be what you might term a little Diva. My mom – all 5 feet 11 inches of her rebelled against this – as did I. Thanks for another interesting post.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/08

      I have seen some of those photos and you were awfully cute in those little frilly, girly dresses!

      Reply
  14. Avatar
    Gabriella
    2012/02/08

    This is hysterical! Just yesterday my Italian mother was yelling at my six year old to put on her slippers. Both of my parents are convinced that walking around in bare feet causes all sorts of ailments…I won’t even get into their utter outrage when the kids don’t wear hats or go to bed with wet hair!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/08

      Don’t get me started on wet hair or I’ll never stop! Actually it is worth a post on its own. I grew up in New England and we were always going out with wet hair. I remember once on vacation in Vermont in the winter going out with long wet hair and my hair froze and I had these little tinkling icicles on my head, I got such a kick out of the noise they made, and I didn’t even get sick. In Italy I am always rushing somewhere late with wet hair (to the office in the morning, to a dinner party) and it drives Italians insane! I get scolded by complete strangers like taxi drivers and people I don’t know offer me hair dryers.

      Reply
  15. Avatar
    Katie
    2012/08/05

    Hi trisha,
    I loved your storie and your kids names are so cute x
    I was just wondering if the shop you mentioned “mini divi” has a website as I am expecting my 1st baby soon and the clothes there sounded to die for!
    Many thanks
    Katie x

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/05

      Katie, thank you for your comment and congratulations on your pregnancy. I just loved being pregnant…it felt like I was carrying around a big Christmas present inside of me for 9 months that I had to wait until the due date to see. Being pregnant also made me feel amazingly energized. Yesterday I was waiting at a traffic light in Rome and a woman passed in front of me on a bike — she had a little child on the back and a huge, pregnant belly. My initial reaction was “is she nuts?” and then I realized I used to feel that strong too when I was pregnant. Of course, I always had easy pregnancies. I hope yours is easy too. Unfortunately, Mini Divi has gone out of business, replaced with a hairdresser. I guess given the demographics in Italy there are less babies being born and more women getting older and needing their hair colored. It seems to me that Mammas in Italy who want to spend a lot on kids’ clothing are now going to some of the French shops in Rome: BonPoint, Petit Bateau and Age D’Or. Those of us trying to save money go to Oviesse or Zara. I don’t think there are any that you can easily order clothes on line. Italians are a little bit behind on the whole on-line shopping business. Congratulations!

      Reply
  16. Avatar
    Claire
    2013/05/06

    Ciao Trisha,
    I’ve just recently discovered your blog; what a treat! I spent my senior year of college in Bologna at the Universita’ and remember not quite getting the pantofole memo until my coinquiline bought me a pair for my birthday!

    Looking forward to reading more…

    Grazie,
    Claire

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2013/05/06

      Thank you Claire! That is so funny about you and the pantofole. What is it about Italians and pantofole?? What is wrong with bare feet? My youngest daughter was sick last week and spent a few days at home and the whole time she was in bare feet. It drove my husband nuts– he kept on yelling at her to go get her pantofole, and she would scurry off to get them, only to leave them under some table and go around in bare feet again.

      Reply

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