I recently finished teaching an Italian summer course at McGill for undergraduate students. One of the units we covered together dealt with fashion — indirectly, at least. We amped up our clothing vocabulary and learned how to request items politely in a shop. But my students were left with lingering and insistent questions. What does Italian fashion truly look like? How does Italian sizing work? (It’s no surprise that sizing charts change according to the demographic they serve, their genetic predispositions, dietary habits, and lifestyles.) What should one wear to ‘fit in’ in Italy?
Accepting the premise that fitting in is far from a moral imperative or even necessarily a sign of respect for one’s host country, I’ve decided to put together a list of five essential, if unofficial fashion rules for anyone looking to travel to Italy in the near future. Do you feel up to the challenge? Listen along below to hear these rules reiterated in Italian, with a few fun extras.
Siamo pronti? Facciamo la valigia!
- Dress for the season, not (always) the weather
I remember landing in Italy late in April one spring, just in time for La festa della resistenza. It was close to 30 degrees in Florence, but all around me, men and women were still in their jeans and ankle-boots, jackets and foulards, full suits and ties (or pocket squares at the very least). They stayed that way throughout the next month, despite the increasing heat. But as June 21st approached nearer, skirts and linen pants abounded and dark, woollen looks gave way to bear arms and colourfully painted toes poking out of sandals. It has always been customary to me to wake up in the morning and check the weather forecast before deciding how to dress for the day. But in Italy, wardrobe decisions are often dictated by the calendar. Every season is accompanied by the almost obligatory “cambio di stagione” — wherein last season’s wardrobe is swapped out for this season’s, and items by then irrelevant are put away until next year. How can Italians afford to do this? Well, for starters, their weather patterns are much more reliable than ours. It is unlikely, for example, that they will need their down-feather coats past early March or their rain trenches past the end of May. Plus, many urban-minded Italians live in smaller dwellings (compared to our North American standards) that come with less storage space. So the items in your closet at any given part of the year are those you wear daily. There is no space for any others, which are safely vacuum-sealed and tucked away in a “ripostiglio” until once again necessary.
2. Man, I feel like a Woman
Let’s talk about shorts. In Italy, historically, shorts (or short pants — pantaloncini) have been associated with a specific moment in one’s life: childhood. Boys (especially) wore shorts until old enough to wear long pants (usually around 14 years old). The switch was considered a rite of passage. Though an unofficial rule, that custom has largely stuck throughout Italy today. It is uncustomary to see men or (especially) women wearing shorts because it sends the wrong message. Shorts = innocent, inexperienced, unaware of social norms, attention-seeking in the way a young child might be. They are still worn in certain contexts: at home, at music festivals, during athletic training, or in other instances where little attention is paid to clothing worn because it is expected to get dirty almost immediately (Italians are very careful not to sully, wrinkle, or “sciupare” their clothes!). But showing up at an aperitivo among friends wearing a pair of shorts is almost always accompanied by someone exclaiming, “come sei sportivo, oggi!” or “come siamo giovanili stasera!” So what do people do in the hot summer months? They wear full-length pants, usually in lighter fabrics (cotton, linen) and colours — men, especially, are not afraid to wear bold-coloured suits –, often roomy and flowy to allow for the circulation of air inside the garment, but also always crisp and tailored. Open-toed shoes or, for men, moccasins, are a near-must. More importantly, people move very, very slowly. Women are also often seen wearing long skirts or dresses, but are not expected to. In fact, today more than ever, wearing a one-piece pant-suit (tuta) is the go-to trend, as perceptions of “femininity” are in constant evolution.
3. Che ore sono?
Not so different from beauty standards promoted in North America, Italian fashion differentiates day-wear from evening-wear. It isn’t so much in the individual items, but in their styling. A pair of hot pink pants, for example, might be fine to wear to work during the day with a simple t-shirt or blouse and sandals or low-heeled sling-backs. But wearing them for an evening engagement requires a different “look”: a simple tee is swapped for a cool graphic tee or a print-top and paired with a fitted blazer and pair of pumps. Dark colours are preferred to lighter colours, and make-up and jewelry (for women) changes, too. Pearls are for daytime. What you want at night is a “punto luce” around your neck in the form of a diamond pendant, or bright sparkling studs discreetly adorning your ears. Proportion is important, too: if you choose to wear big, flashy earrings (as many 20-somethings do for evening appointments), skip the necklace. If your top is a little revealing, you should cover up the bottom half or vice-versa. In short: choosing to highlight only your best asset will be interpreted as tasteful and classy across the country. And go for make-up that is more pronounced in the evening, more risky: a big smoky eye and neutral lip or a bright lip with a subdued natural-looking eye and highlighted cheekbones.
4. Dove andiamo?
Along the same lines, what you wear in Italy will change depending on where, specifically, you are going. Dressing for the doctor’s office is not the same as dressing for a day at the beach (which has its own set of rules!). Let’s take Florence, for example. There are many places throughout the city where one can enjoy a drink outdoors with friends. But what one wears will depend largely on the chosen venue. Dressing for an aperitivo at Colle Bereto, a posh locale in the high-end area of the city, is not at all the same as dressing for the same aperitivo at Kitsch, a trendy, if quirky lounge with a laid-back atmosphere. Even more important to dressing in Italy than the time of day or the season is exactly where you are going. Few establishments have pronounced dress codes (“jacket and tie” restaurants in Italy are very hard to find) because their reputation precedes them. There are unspoken fashion rules that everyone is aware of and does their best to follow. It is not uncommon for Italians to purchase specific outfits for specific short-lived events: a Gucci purse for a wedding or Louboutin shoes for a job interview. The place being visited and the people who customarily frequent it dictate the fashion usanze that even occasional visitors will respect. So before making that dinner reservation and heading out for your meal, do some research on the restaurant’s surrounding neighbourhood and typical clientele. Every Italian city has a “High Street” (in Florence, it’s Via de’ Tornabuoni). Be aware of the fashion standards specific to it when you book a meeting there. Style sites like bantoa.com can help you choose the look that best fits the occasion, place, and your own personal aesthetic and are cropping up more and more every day.
5. Regionalism is Real
You’ve probably heard that no two Italian regions are exactly alike in anything. That’s extremely true, even for fashion. In other words, what is stylish in Tuscany might not be in Lazio, and fashion tendencies in Sicily or Campania are probably very different from those in Veneto or Lombardia. Even Italians famously acknowledge styles that are particular to specific regions. The donna milanese has been described as timeless and elegant, dressed in soft neutral tones (beige or grey for the most part), monochromatic, no-frills outfits, and comfortable ballet flats (for all the walking they do) with perfectly matching, always understated, accessories. But travel to Rome and you’ll see that the moda generale is much more relaxed and sporty: sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. Keep going south, and by the time you hit Naples, those t-shirts will cost 400 euro and have bright, flashy prints or wordy slogans all over them, and those jeans, stain-washed or ripped at the knee, will be just as expensive. These will be the markers of status that in other regions would be considered displays of poor taste. Here, the donna milanese’s style would be considered both boring and snotty. Different strokes for different folks. As a general rule of thumb, northern regions tend to appreciate subtler looks, whereas southern regions celebrate loud, ostentatious outfits. Central regions are, you guessed it, somewhere in the middle.
Bonus: E tu, chi sei?
Finally, just as much as the chosen venue, time of day, and season of the year, the role you are to play at any given event or meeting will also influence your fashion choices. That is to say that if you are attending a conference as a speaker, chances are, you will don a more formal outfit (full suit and tie for men; tailleur (pant-suit) or dress and chunky jewelry for women). But if you are attending that same conference as a member of the public, what you wear will be largely inconsequential, as no one will be looking at you. Unless you are aiming to make an impression on someone present, the expectation is that your dress code be more relaxed, while still respectful of the chosen venue, so as to not detract attention from the main players at the table. Of course, we all know that Italians are always well-dressed. Toeing the line between trendy and showy is an art they have mastered over centuries of “sprezzatura” (read more about that word here!). Italians value not sticking out — non occorre dare nell’occhio. So their wardrobe choices are always very carefully balanced: elegant enough for the occasion without stealing the show unintentionally.
Italia a portata di mano, Ep. 7: La moda, le basi
What does the future of Italian fashion hold? We asked McGill Italian major, Megan Peck (Level A2), what she thought. Click below to find out.