Most travelers choose to visit Italy in the warmer months, which is certainly understandable. But there’s much to enjoy in the off-seasons, not the least of which is the diminished crowds and scarcity of fellow sightseers. During the late autumn in Rome, the street vendors sell their warm chestnuts to locals and tourists alike as they stroll down Via del Corso during the evening passeggiata. Visiting Venice in the winter, you can watch the fog creep across the lagoon and settle upon the city like a gray ghost. In the Alps, people make Vin Brulè to keep warm by the fire, while a quilt of white snow unfolds down the mountain to cover the trees and buildings of the little villages. It can be lovely, really.
But this Floridian still prefers more balmy weather…and my wardrobe reflects this preference, even if my choice of apparel is often met with disdain by my Italian friends.
Simply put, my dress habits are aligned with my comfort. On a rare warm day in March, I’m not afraid to wear short sleeves and sandals. The looks I receive from passers-by betray their mortification; an expression which is a mix of bewilderment and disgust. I don’t care; I’m American and no slave to fashion or seasonal trends.
The Change of Seasons in Italy
Last week, the “official” calendar declared that spring has arrived, but we shouldn’t let that small detail fool us. You see, it’s not yet time for the change of seasons—at least not in Italy. There are other indicators of springtime that supersede the vernal equinox.
What am I on about? Well, the change of seasons in Italy has more to do with wardrobe choices than meteorological conditions. Generations of collective wisdom have bestowed an innate sense of practical fashion among our Italian friends. But it’s not just about style, of course. Keeping your body at the proper temperature is essential for optimal health. To do otherwise puts you at mortal risk from such menacing conditions as la cervicale, il colpo d’aria, il colpo della strega and other dangerous afflictions endemic to the Italian population.
According to some scientists (presumably Italian scientists), climatic variations in temperature, humidity, and pressure disrupt certain chemical pathways, such as neurotransmitters, involved in mood regulation. When approaching the two extreme seasons (summer and winter), our body prepares for the environmental change with endocrine adjustments. For example, greater exposure to light causes variations in the level of melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep regulation, while lower temperature raises thyroid function. (It is unclear, however, whether these changes can induce the severe medical conditions alleged by some of my Italian amici.)
All of this scientific nonsense to tell us what nonne have been saying for generations: put on your scarf before you leave the house!!!
Beyond the health risks associated with selecting an outfit are the logistical realities. For one thing, storage spaces in Italy are significantly smaller than in the US, where a walk-in closet is the size of most living rooms in Italy. More common in Italy are the floor-to-ceiling wall units which have been retro-fitted into the old palazzi. The original inhabitants of these smallish apartments didn’t require the amount of space needed to accommodate our modern consumer appetites. These towering cabinets are split into two vertical sections, and the upper section can only be reached if you’re standing on a ladder. (Unless you’re a lanky American like me, in which case you just need to stretch your reach a bit.)
So twice a year the ritual is performed. The entire winter wardrobe is stowed away and summer-weight apparel awakens from its dormant state. In the fall, the whole procedure is reversed. (A fun tip for the spring: now is the time to take your bulky winter jacket to the dry cleaners for a good washing. You can pick in up in late September, thus freeing up precious closet space.)
This also a good time to doing some serious introspection regarding your couture. By making the “cambio di stagione,” you will have an opportunity to evaluate the clothes that are no longer in style or (let’s be honest) don’t fit anymore due to a bit of weight gain during the winter months. You can donate the unwanted items to charity or pass them off to your younger siblings, who probably won’t want them either.
By adhering to this semi-annual tradition, Italians only have half of their wardrobe available at any given time. There can be some advantages to this. For one thing, you won’t fall into the temptation of mixing unmatchable clothes from different seasons. Also, the limited choices will save you time when picking the proper outfit according to the occasion at hand.
However, the careful reader might have also noticed a potential problem here. What if, after one glorious weekend preview of spring, the excitement gets the better of you and you have locked away all your winter garments—only to have the weather turn cold again for several more weeks? Once you’ve changed your wardrobe for the year, there’s no going back. Now what?
Well, this becomes a sort of game where you try to out-guess the weatherman…and your friends. Never miss a chance to tease someone who has imprudently stowed his or her winter clothes away a couple of weeks too early. The practical Italian anticipates this possibility and is not fooled by a few spring days in early March. That’s why you’ll often see Italians still wearing winter clothes (including very heavy jackets) well into May.
There is one little trick, however, to help you hedge your bets against unseasonal temperature swings this time of year…
This post would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that handy little accessory, so indispensable to Italian fashion. La sciarpa. Scarves are essential accoutrements for both men and women, and can be a real “wardrobe expander” for travelers. They can spice up an outfit that you’ve already worn three days in a row and can be thrown into a messenger bag or purse to pull out when the sun sets and the weather gets chilly. Nothing says European-chic like a light weight scarf worn with jeans and a casual jacket. These little swaths of cloth are perfect for expressing personality through color and fabric choices while the rest of the outfit remains the mere backdrop to showcase this versatile accessory.
Not only can it dress up even the most drab couture, but as it turns out, it an effective personal thermostat, as well. Are you sitting near a cold draft? Cinch it up tight and the colpo d’aria can’t touch you. Getting a little warm? Loosen it up a bit and let your skin breathe. But don’t ever remove completely, at least not until July, or you will put yourself in mortal danger. If you happen to be Italian, that is.