In a country where police uniforms are designed by Armani, it isn't surprising that the women take dressing very seriously. When I moved to Italy, I desperately wanted to look like I fit in. If you're planning a trip to Italy soon, and don't want to be pegged as a tourist, there is one important thing to remember. The objective of Italian dressing is not to blend in.
Italian women take great pride in putting themselves together - "la bella figura". To show off your best features is the idea, so to blend in you must strive to stand out, which might sound like an oxymoron. Once you get your mind around this however, you already know the secret. But where do you begin to acquire that special Italian flavor? In a nutshell, here are a few key ingredients:
1. Shoes- Nothing makes or breaks a look like footwear. Leave the tennis shoes for tennis and the walking shoes for the park. Spice comes from style not comfort. The hottest designs could conveniently incorporate pointed toes and high heels in the same shoe for maximum discomfort.
When shoe designers create such shoes it is doubtful they concern themselves with practicality. If they had, they would not have manufactured four-inch heels for streets paved with cobbles. Credit goes to the women promenading in these shoes: not wincing, not complaining and not watching where they step. It is a wonder that they never seem to look down and never get their heels caught between the stones.
When I asked Simona, who runs a pensione with her family, about shoes, a huge smile crossed her face. She proudly showed me one of her favorite pairs, which just happened to have pointed toes and high heels. I asked if they were comfortable and she immediately shook her head and the smile disappeared. When asked how she walks in them, she replied, "S-l-o-w-l-y."
2. Denim- Jeans have been a wardrobe staple for years, but do you have the "new-aged" ones? "New" meaning trendy and "aged" meaning they have gone through some kind of ageing process - perhaps being chaffed with a cheese grater or sandblasted. They might also have been seasoned with a dash of bleach or a teaspoon of glitter.
To modify your old jeans, go to your nearest piazza and scoot around on the steps for a related effect. Wait! When it comes to jeans, you can't forget the fit. The leg should start out a bit wide and taper near the calf. The jeans must actually become part of the body from there on up.
Denim jackets and skirts are important too. The key is for the fabric to appear as if it has more years on it than you do.
3. Crystal nose stud- What once was bizarre is now considered mainstream. This garnish is not what you would see in small-town America maybe; but, this is Rome, not Little Rock. Hip mommies have them. Simona has one and remarked that having it done did not hurt at all.
4. Avoid routines from abroad- Despite having these three basics, you still risk being taken as a tourist if you cling to certain routines from home. Painted fingernails mark you as a foreigner given that nail polish is only applied for very special occasions. Sun hats or baseball caps are dead give-aways, as is showing too much skin.
5. Subtlety-"Italian women love to look sexy and it is very important for men to notice them on the street," says Simona. But this doesn't mean overt nakedness. Italian women suggest a subtler brand of sexiness by keeping their bodies fit and wearing slim-cut clothing. For example, visible brassiere straps create a look that tries not to be one. The idea is to let your bra strap show but not look like you're trying. It can't be a dingy, elasticated, old-fashioned bra strap either. Care must be taken to purchase a new bra with transparent plastic straps. Yes, transparent, because you don't want what is supposed to show to show too much.
6. Adaptation- Each fashion season comes with its set of theme-based looks. Italians have an uncanny ability to choose styles that flatter their figure. Strive to cover your flaws and flaunt your assets, and you will be dressing like an Italian in no time.
Trends are fleeting and new ones will be sprouting up by the time you read this. So how, you may be wondering, can Italian women afford new wardrobes each season? Cristina, an Italian friend, explained that "it isn't necessary anymore to buy the expensive, designer brands." In fact, she said it is considered hip to wear "knock offs." She even heard a celebrity claiming on television that she had purchased counterfeit designs. Sporting fakes may not be such a great idea, though, considering that an overwhelming majority of Italians believe in superb quality and original products.
Regarding the issue of the money required to stay with the trends, Cristina added, "A lot of women work but still live at home with their parents, allowing them extra discretionary income." Some women go for shops that sell last year’s fashions at a discount, pick up well-fitting designer clothes in classic shapes and then update the look according to current trends through suitable accessories. Italian style also has a lot to do with ingenuity.
Rome has scores of inexpensive shops carrying today's fashionable styles. With the proper ingredients, you can be confident (even if not terribly comfortable) that you too can master the secrets of Italian dressing and cut a bella figura. In bocca al lupo, donne!