How to Dress Like an Italian while visiting Italy

How to Dress Like an Italian

dress like an italian, bella figura

Una bella figura

Upon further reflection, perhaps this post should have been entitled, “how not to dress like an Italian.”  On this specific topic, I am most certainly an expert.

It was 2008, during my fourth trip to Italy, and I was sitting at a pub in Bologna with an Italian friend.  We were ready for some more drinks, so I offered to go get them from the bar.

I popped out of my seat and walked confidently up to the bartender, anxious to try out the three or four phrases of Italian that I had memorized for precisely such occasions.  Just as I was about to open my mouth to speak, he asked me in English, “What can I get for you?”

I was taken aback, my whole script thrown out of sequence in the blink of an eye.  I tried to quickly recover, to mentally fast forward to my next line, but I was too flustered.  Instead I hung my head and uttered meekly, “Two beers, please.”

Damn it! I really wanted to try out my Italian.  I shuffled back towards my friend, dejected, carrying the two sweaty bottles of Peroni.

“That bartender is an asshole,” I proclaimed, dropping the beers on the table with more force than necessary.  “It’s as if he knew I was an American before I even got within 10 feet of him.”

My friend shrugged and replied, “Of course he did.  Anyway, it’s not that he knew you were American, specifically. He only knew that you were definitely not Italian.”

“How so?  I didn’t even get a chance to talk.”

“Well, it’s obvious.  I mean, look how you’re dressed.”

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She puffed out a long sigh, evidently dreading the brutal honesty that was forthcoming.  “OK, listen.  To begin with, your jeans don’t fit you properly.  And you’ve got too many colors in that shirt.  In fact, I can’t even concentrate when I look at it—it makes me dizzy.  Don’t get me started on your shoes.”

Wow, really?  Back in Florida, I’d often poke fun at people with no taste in clothes.  But here in Italy it appeared that I was the fashion victim. Like everything else in Italia, there’s always more than initially meets the eye, and the presence of an underlying rationale seems either absent, or far too cryptic for foreign brains to decipher.

You may chuckle, O’ Gentle Reader, thinking you are more “alla moda” than I.  That might very well be true, but don’t believe for a second that you won’t stand out to the Italians. And it’s not just the massive camera hanging from your neck, or the city map that you are using to make abstract origami in the middle of the piazza; nor is it the tentative tone in which you mispronounce the name of the pasta dish that you’d like to order for lunch.

No. Even if you said nothing and removed all of your tourist-related equipment, the Italians would certainly have you pegged as a straniero simply by the cut of your pants.  How they do this, I don’t know.  It’s a type of clairvoyance that I haven’t fully worked out yet.  But I have definitely learned some of the most common mistakes, which I will now share with you.  This list is by no means exhaustive.

A few DON’Ts:

Don’t wear flip-flops unless you’re at the beach or pool. Lose those white, shapeless, fisherman’s hats.  Yes ladies, I’m taking to you, too.

bad tourist gear

Really? Do they still make these?

No fanny packs.  I shouldn’t have to mention this one, but one glance around Piazza Navona tells me that it’s still necessary.

No short-shorts, micro-mini skirts, or tank tops.  Have a little dignity, for the love.

If you, your spouse, and your children are all wearing matching outfits, then one or more of you looks totally ridiculous.  And it’s probably not your children.

No socks with sandals.  I almost wrote that you shouldn’t wear white socks with sandals, but honestly, once you’ve made the decision to wear the socks, does the color really matter?

No do-rags or skull caps.  Very few people pull off this look—and you’re not one of them.

No American/British flags emblazoned on your clothing.  The locals know where you’re from, believe me.

Furthermore, no Italian flags on your clothes—again, for the same reason as above.

No Bermuda shorts.  Unless you’re from Bermuda.

Nothing made of lycra, spandex, or see-through mesh.  I realize that you want to be comfortable, but nobody really wants to see all that.

No silly t-shirts with clever sayings. (Example: “If you like my meatballs wait til you see my salami!”)

godfather, il pardrino

A t-shirt you can’t refuse

No “Godfather” t-shirts, either.  It’s insulting to everybody.  And why “Scarface?”  Yes, Al Pacino is a great Italian-American actor, but the Scarface character is actually Cuban, people.

Bright-colored shoes, impudent amounts of jewelry, complicated headgear, and other strange accessories should be reserved only for Carnevale.

Dress Like an Italian

This is about all that I’ve got to offer at this time.  My suggestions certainly won’t help you dress like an Italian, but at least you won’t bring too much shame on yourself and your country of origin.  It’s a start…

But now I’m intrigued by this topic and I’m going to do some more research.  I need to update my own wardrobe anyway, so this is a good opportunity to do so.  Who knows, maybe I’ll eventually be able to tap into that supernatural ability that’s programmed into every Italian from birth.  It’s the next logical step in my indoctrination process.  I’ve been adapting nicely to the food philosophy for quite some time.  If I can master the knack for fashion, all that will remain to complete the transformation is to take up smoking and learning how to park on the sidewalk.

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Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

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