When I moved to Italy many moons ago (1993), it took me some time to adjust to the different attitudes towards dressing. First and foremost, Italians are extremely fashion conscious. It makes sense given that fashion is a huge industry in Italy. Armani, Gucci, Versace, Fendi, Valentino are all household names. Many Italians also regularly wear designer clothing – an Armani Suit, a Fendi bag, or Ferragamo shoes. I don’t think I ever owned anything designer before moving to Italy. About as far as I went was Banana Republic and maybe some Victoria’s Secret underwear.
But it is not about designer clothing, it is about the “bella figura”, making a good impression, looking chic. In Italy, one dresses properly before going out the door. It doesn’t matter if you are just taking the kids to the school, running out to get some milk at the supermarket, or buying a newspaper at the newstand, people dress nicely.
Here are a few basic rules that I have learned over the years.
Italian Clothing Rules for Mammas
1. Don’t be caught dead wearing sweatpants to the supermarket.
2. Never wear shorts even on the hottest day of summer, but you can wear a skirt so mini it is almost invisible.
3. Never wear sneakers, unless you are running or working out.
4. If you wear sandals, make sure you have perfectly pedicured feet with colored toenails, bordeaux to nearly brown is considered a chic color for toenails.
5.You can wear heels even ten inches high, even if you have to walk on cobblestones and the heels continue to get stuck between the cobblestones and your feet are killing you.
My colleague, APTN Cameraman Paolo Lucariello, still waxes eloquent about “chasing the moon” with “Jennifer”, the only American he has ever fallen for, because she knew how to trip-trap, teeter-totter over Rome’s cobblestones wobbling on perilously high, sky-scraper heels while clinging to his arm to keep from toppling.
6. Feel free to show off your cleavage if you have any, it is always much appreciated by Italian men. (see Boobilicious).
7. If you wear jeans, make sure they are butt-snugly tight, baggy is not Italian-style.
8. Skirts below your knees are considered too long. Feel free to wear one if you are a nun in Rome, otherwise avoid them. Do wear a longer skirt if you are a journalist covering the Vatican (see Watch Your Tongue, Hands and Eyes)
9. Tailleurs, or ladies suits, are considered appropriate on Sundays, especially for going to Mass and lunch with the family afterwards. A tailleur can be a bit of a problem if you want to take your kids for a bike ride at the park after lunch. However, no Italian Mamma would take her children for a bike ride at the park after Sunday lunch because that is the time for the “pisolino” – post-lunch nap. Tailleurs are also considered appropriate for birthday parties with young children. (See Italian Mini Divas)
10. If you own a fur coat, wear it as soon as it is a little bit cold.
11. Sunglasses can be worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even during the winter. For women the bigger, the better – aim for an Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O look.
12. Boots can be worn all year around, even in the summer, but if you are wearing boots with bare legs, make sure your legs are perfectly hairless. (See Luscious Legs)
13. Grey hair is not visible on any Italian female head. But there is plenty of admiration for Christine Lagarde, she’s allowed because she is French.
I was amazed before Christmas when I was doing a story on food distribution for the poor. I visited a food distribution center run by the Catholic charity Sant’Egidio and noticed that all the little old ladies in line waiting for their free food supplies had colored hair — one was bluish, another peroxide blond and another jet black. Clearly they weren’t spending on Rome’s top hairdressers, but they were spending on something to color their hair and then waiting in line for free food.
14. Comfortable is not something to factor in, chic is.
Finally, if you want to make sure people know you are American – Wear shorts and sneakers, cut your spaghetti and order a cappuccino after lunch.