A Few Thoughts On Italian Fashion

It’s 85 degrees outside and even hotter inside the train carriage, but a young Italian couple dressed in layers – shirts, sweaters, jackets and scarves – is adamant about keeping their windows sealed tight despite the lack of air conditioning. A poet from New Zealand named Gerry is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, as am I, and we’re roasting. We want the windows open; they want them closed. It’s unclear if they don’t want the wind to ruffle their hair, or if they’re not as hot as we are, but the cultural difference is clear.

Italians dress for the season, not for the weather at hand, so I amused myself last week as the mercury soared near the 90 degree mark watching Italians continue to dress in what could be considered winter or spring attire. Every time I saw someone all bundled up in a down coat and scarf, despite the heat, I’d feel the need to point them out to my wife. “Look at that guy,” I’d say. “It’s in the 80’s and he’s wearing a down coat!”

Even men in uniform get in on the act. I’ve seen both soldiers and train conductors wearing colorful scarves coiled tightly around their necks despite the heat. They look cool but it makes no sense to me. Who would want a scarf tied tightly around their neck like a noose on an 85-degree day? Italian men, that’s who. The scarf-wearing soldier was also brandishing a man purse – try pulling that look off in the United States Marine Corps and you might end up in Guantanamo.Children are bundled even more, especially babies. I saw one baby swaddled in so many blankets that it looked ready to join Roland Amundson’s North Pole Expedition, despite the 80-degree weather. North Americans, particularly cold weather people like me (I’m from Buffalo), have a different sense of warmth but fashion obviously plays a role as well.

Most Italians don’t use dryers, so all you have to do is walk through a neighborhood on a sunny day to see people’s wardrobes hanging on clotheslines for all to see. They like to dress in layers and they usually look good, if uncomfortable. North Americans place more of a premium on comfort. Sure, we might go out in sweat pants, or, God forbid, pajamas, but by God, while we might not look great, we will feel good.

This past weekend in Assisi, it was fascinating to see Italians and foreign tourists mingling together on the same streets. Americans looked ready for the beach; Italians the ski slopes. At one point, we were waiting for a bus in an unforgivingly sunny spot with no shade, and I was standing near a man wearing a button-down shirt, a sweater and a down jacket totally zipped up. He wasn’t a terrorist concealing a bomb; he was just an ordinary Italian bundled up for a sunny, 85-degree day. Dressing for summer in April is like ordering a cappuccino after 10 a.m. or having pizza AND pasta – it simply isn’t done in Italy.

I can understand some Italian but I don’t speak the language. That’s a shame, because I wanted to grab the man by his down coat, shake him, and say, “Good lord, man, what on earth is wrong with you! It feels like July out here, why are you all bundled up?”

Aside from the layered, season-yes, current conditions-no approach, Italian men also wear their clothes at least a size or two smaller than North American men might. I’ve also seen the odd Italian youth sporting the baggy, have a look at my underwear jeans, but for every one of them, there are 100 holdouts that like ’em tight.

Thankfully, younger Italian men seem to be moving away from the skimpy, tight speedo bathing suits at the beach, but older Italian men are still into this look. On the facial hair front, designer beards seem to be in, ditto for prominent, chunky glasses, man purses and brightly colored apparel with brand names.

And despite all the cultural differences, you still see quite a few Italians wearing outfits bearing the Stars and Stripes, and, even more common, the Playboy logo. Here’s hoping that the weather in Italy will become more spring-like, so the poor Italians don’t have to sweat it out in their spring clothing until the calendar tells them it’s time to get comfortable.

[Photos by ЕленАндреа and Elmo H. Love on Flickr]