Change of Seasons in Italy

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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.

change of seasons in italy

This Year’s Trend: Tourist Chic

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!!!

american_closet

Typical American Closet

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.)

fashion in italy

Typical Italian Closet

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…

The Scarf

dress like an italian, colpo d'aria

How NOT to wear a scarf.

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.

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Comments

  1. Rick – I totally loved this post! And you killed it with the scarf! I like your tourist chic fashion trend too! Great writing!

  2. Ahh now I know where my mother got these seasonal afflictions from…from being Italian, of course…each fall, wool clothing came out, summer clothing went away… as you describe. My mother used to let down hems on coats and skirts assuming we would grow. In the fall she sewed them all again…year after year until the clothing was worn out. We passed clothing down to my poor little sister…being older had its advantages.

    • Great stuff, Jane! And being American has its advantages, too…if you don’t about all of these seasonal ailments, then you can’t catch them!

  3. Thanks for this great post. I have a number of Italian friends and I know how serious they are about clothing and the seasons!! Wearing the right thing at the right time regardless of the temperature outside. The first time I was in Rome (for 5 weeks March-April in 2001) the days were gloriously warm and sunny. We had a mini summer here in London last week – summer clothes and suncream! – and now it’s cold again – jeans and woollen jumper! How do the Italians manage :)

  4. Bonnie Melielo says:

    Have lived this way for years, even though now that I am in Alaska (instead of NJ) there are basically only two season. :-) Getting a “cold in your back” colpa d’aria was a huge concern when I was growing up!! You won’t catch me without a scarf Oct-April at least!! Also going out with wet hair or going to sleep with wet hair!! (Apparently swimming in the summer wasn’t a problem, although, now come to think of it, we always had to wear bathing caps!!

    • It’s funny how these habits grow on us the longer that we’re exposed to them. But Alaska?!? Yes, I’m quite sure that I’d be wearing the scarf year-round!

  5. Bellavia says:

    So funny and spot on! They even make women’s boots in “spring/summer” colors….seeing women wearing cream or beige (perforated, as well!) boots in late May has always made me chuckle. I have a friend who said she wouldn’t go without socks until “mid June”. Although I anticipate a change in tradition prima o poi….I have noticed a lot of teens and early 20-somethings/Univ students going jacketless (gasp!) and in short sleeves even in early-mid March (when the temps hit 70). *I* was the freak at the bus stop with my jacket and boots. lol. Looking out the window lately to gauge the temp gives me a headache anymore. The nonni and middle aged in their puffy winter coats with a smattering risking it by wearing only a short leather jacket….to others in tees or, at most, a sweater without a scarf(!!!!!!!)

    • It’s true about the 20-somethings…they seem to be conspicuously ignoring nonna’s advice. I haven’t noticed the boots, though…but now I’ll be on the lookout!

      • Bellavia says:

        Yes, if you’re in FI in May….cream boots should still be in effect! And I agree with one of the posts below….I am always envious at how these Italians don’t break a sweat! I especially realized this as I was dying (and red faced, I’m sure) in my jacket when temps were warm, but refused to unleash the “obviously American” in me!

  6. Joan Schmelzle says:

    I hate to quibble with what you point out, but—”Typical American Closet”? Good grief! I hope this was one of your sly jokes. For as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never seen one coming close to this! It’s bigger than the four closets in my house put together, and I’m pretty sure I could throw in the pantry.
    Anyway when I head to Italy in late fall, I am very happy in my flat black walking shoes (very unstylish) and my black coat with or without lining. I do admit to buying a scarf last time because I was freezing in Florence, but guess what color–black and white! Ah well!

    • Hey Joan, yes, the closest was a humorous exaggeration. But it does make the point that “change of seasons” isn’t really necessary in the US because 1) we have more storage space, and 2) we’re less style conscious. But I’m totally on board with the scarves these days!

  7. Rick – Vero! Here in the north, coats stay on well into May, when in Virginia we would have been in shorts and perhaps a hoodie. I do love my scarf though…likely a necessity I will continue for a lifetime. The limited space for clothes has forced me to do what I could never bring myself to do in America where having choices is more important than being stylish. A dopo!

    • Thanks Mike! Yes, as I mentioned in another comment, I like the scarf, too. Not sure if I’m convinced of its merits vs. colpo d’aria, but it does make a nice wardrobe accessory, even for a clueless American like me. Ciao!

  8. I admire how Italian dress so suitably for each season (or at least from memory living there many years ago). Trans-seasonal dressing I call it. They do it so well … a light jacket over a summer dress when the temperature drops a few degrees, a light wool sweater instead of a coat when it’s a slightly warmer winter’s day. Here in Australia however they have NO idea mostly. When the slightest autumn chill is in the air, young things take a heavy woollen scarf (the equivalent weight of half a blanket) and wrap it around their necks over a strapless flimsy summer dress. Dio mio! (shakes head).

    • Ciao! Thanks for the perspective from Down Under. Sounds about like the US habits…I guess we all have a bit to learn from our Italian friends!

  9. I loved this Rick! I was just talking with a friend here in Milan yesterday about the twice a year closet switching ritual. I threw caution to the wind last week on a 70 degree day and wore sandals to the grocery store! Pretty much took my life in my own hands. =) Hee hee. Thanks for the fun article!

  10. Bonnie Melielo says:

    What really boggles my mind is when the weather is really warm, but the month is not July or August, how Italians can walk around in suits, jackets with scarfs, etc. and not sweat!! The force of “bella figura” is so strong in them!!

  11. Haha, indeed love your sporting of the scarf Rick! Nice Florida touch ;)

    We’re super excited that for the first time in 12 years we’ll be going to Italy the first week of May!! We thought about going to Rome again, which is where Bell and I enjoyed some wonderful days together shortly after we met on our solo travels 12 years ago, but wanted to see a new region. So we’re going to Lombardy as the Ryanair tickets were super cheap from Dublin to Milan Bergamo at that time. So the plan is Bergamo, Milan and Lake Como. Know any lesser known recommendations for the province?

    I’ll have to pick up a new scarf too! :)

  12. This California gal who lives near the coast where the weather can change dramatically moment to moment LOVES scarves – Great on airplanes & for that ‘extra layer’ and even fashion accent. Won’t leave home (for Italy in 3 weeks) without mine – in a “spring” fabric, of course! Grazie!

    • I’m sure you’re always “di moda,” Victoria! In Florida, I don’t think you can even buy a scarf, so it’s something that I had to learn when I moved to Italy. Ciao, e spero che ci vediamo presto!

  13. Haha love the scarf idea. I’ve taken it on board and will credit you next time I get an admirer! Great post!

    • Thanks Phoebe! I’m sure you’ll get plenty of admirers…AND you’ll be protected against deadly drafts at the same time! Ciao!

  14. Hi Rick. Great post. I prefer to visit Italy in spring  and autumn so thanks for the tips. I will be arriving in may with La Sciarpa

  15. Love this, and it is sooooooooooooooooooooo true!! Great blog, well done! will check you out regularly now!!

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