August 14


How to Dress Like an Italian

By Rick

August 14, 2013

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.”

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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About the author

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

  • Very, very nice post. Only a little boost: “No short-shorts, micro-mini skirts, or tank tops, unless you’re a teenage italian girl” ^_^#

  • My stylish Italian cousin and niece take me clothes-shopping when I’m visiting and have given me some lessons in blending in, including some of your points. A few others:

    Avoid short-sleeved dress or dress-casual shirts. Polo shirts are fine but otherwise stick to light shirts with long sleeves and roll them up jauntily to the elbow if it’s hot.

    Sneakers/running shoes are OK but brand-name and like new, not scuffed or worn. They should look like they were bought for fashion, not athletics.

    Know what colors go together. I’m color-blind so this is a constant challenge!

    • Great points, especially about the sneakers. When first moving to Italy, I was always a little surprised to see men wear running shoes with a coat and tie. But as you say, if they are stylish and clean, then it seems to be quite fashionable.

  • I just love this article Rick!! No wonder the Italians were staring at me when I went in my shorts and skirts with sports shoes (for easy walk) coz that’s how we wear in India too!! 😉

  • I faced the same dilemma, wanting to “fit” in, so I went the all black route, with pashmina. Stopped confidently and ordered an expresso and a pastry and promptly got white icing sugar down the front of my uber chic outfit. Then tried to wash it off with water and turned it to a white paste. So NOT cool.

  • Hi! Excellent article. I laughed so much! I think that fashion starts and ends in Italy. All clothes’ manufacturers, even the unknown ones, make clothes with a such a modern and fresh cut, that cannot be found elsewhere. Italians use lots of miscellaneous things,like expensive scarves, bags and stylish hats, that other people can’t even understand the reason for such luxurius items. To be fashionable is like eating a gourmet meal everyday! Can you live without it? It doesn’t always have to be expensive.

  • I used to live and work in Rome. And had to wear a suit for work. Opposite for me. Italians thought I was romano. Not just your clothes. It’s the way you carry yourself too. I’m second generation Italian (possibly like you?) but brought up in England. A lot of attention on appearance in Italy. Italians are good at what they know. Don’t take them out of their own environment though!

  • I just left my (Italian) fiance in Livigno, and was there for Ferragosto. I am sure he was tired of me commenting, “Camouflage shorts! short shorts! plaid shorts! Of all the styles to take from America it had to be camouflage, short shorts and plaid?!”

  • Well written and funny read Rick! So interesting to read this from a fellow Floridian…and darn “If you like my meatballs wait til you see my salami!” That’s my favorite shirt! lol, jk…It’s been almost 3 years since I’ve visited my family in Athens but people generally dress very well there too. Many have less outfits. Quality over quantity.

    • Yes, an important point–quality over quantity. Which also has to do with the fact that the houses/closets are a lot smaller in Europe. We were in Athens last year and noticed the same thing…people paying attention to their general appearance compared to US/UK. Thanks for the comments, Alex!

  • Ahahah – that brutal attack’s coming right now, Nicola!

    In my opinion, we Romans don’t dress really different than everyone else. In fact, compared to the Milanese, we’re rather sloppy… anyway, I feel that the thing about Italians sheepishly following fashion, spending loads o’ money on designer clothes and generally dressing sharp is, in fact, a stereotype.

    Yes, there are fashion victims and people who like to dress well, but your average Roman (who’s not that wealthy lady walking in high heels on cobblestones looking to shop at via Condotti) is, actually, rather un-stylish. And yes, teens nowadays are particularly brand-conscious (is that even a word in English? I’m afraid I just made it up, so feel free to correct me) but the rest of us is not – again, with the possible exception of the Milanese ;).

    Finally, if there’s a concept whose true nature foreigners seem unable to grasp… that is the abused, trite, so-called “bella figura”. It’s not about dressing up, or having the best clothes -it’s about being well-mannered and behaving properly; as long as you don’t dress in rags and aren’t embarrassing yourself by saying/doing inappropriate things… you’re having your own “bella figura” moment. Designer clothes have no place in it (and most Italians can’t afford them anyway).

    Rick: yours was as spot-on article (I don’t, however, agree with your friend!). So, to answer your question: “How does an Italian dress?” Really no different than everybody else…

    • Finally a voice of dissent! Well, I agree with much of what you said (as far as my foreigner’s perspective is relevant). I especially agree that the younger generation in Italy is abandoning good taste in favor of certain “brand-consciousness” (yes, I believe it is a word, or if not it should be). And yet, if you look at the bigger picture, Italians still have more tasted than other cultures when it comes to dressing appropriately. Not even “fashion” so much as just looking nice. Thanks for the comments!

  • Well said Rick. I particularly notice when in Italy how obvious the tourists do look. More than anything it is the joggers with anything and everything that is a give away. We don’t necessarily need to have big cameras hanging around our necks anymore either. But having said that, it is still OK to look like an Aussie. Lyn

  • Hi Rick!

    let me tell you, I had a sincere good laugh whilst reading your article! Particularly I enjoyed your friend’s comments. It is evident to me that he or she must have been Italian.

    Having lived abroad for so many years now I do really get the grip on how and why Italians look different.

    However I’d like to toss the coin and show you the other side of the medal. As much as a foreigner in Rome can be instantaneously spotted, the same can be said for an average Italian abroad. Particularly if he is not so used to travel.

    I don’t know if it is just because I am Italian but I think I’ve got the sixth sense to spot them. Particularly in airports. 9 times out of 10 if you see somebody with sunglasses, regardless of the weather, the temperature, the country he is in, he is Italian. There is this wonderful thing about having always sunglasses on that can be traced to the following line from an Italian song: “c’e’ chi si mette degli occhiali da sole per avere piu’ carisma e sintomatico mistero”. That basically means: you put on your sunglasses just to look cool; to surround yourself with a certain mystical aura that convey a charismatic mystery to whoever is looking at you. Such way of course applies to men and women. Sunglasses as a shade to tell people: you think you know who I am but actually…. you don’t. by the way: I look cooler than you.
    And then there is this mix of tight dresses (shirts, trousers, skirts etc.), being tanned, dark hair, as well as shoes (in terms of manufacture, shape, color) that is a clear sign of classification.
    No matter where you need to go, you always have to look, because the aim is to impress, to shine, to be over and above the average of a common mortal. You must be recognized and recognizable at any given time.
    So given that all those accessories listed above have got a capital importance, it goes without saying that as soon as somebody does not apply the same sort of fastidious and meticulous attention to each singe little detail…. that’s it. He or she is spotted.
    And then let’s not forget about another thing. The way of moving, the manners, the gestures, all are main ingredients to make yourself recognizable. That means: a tourist, a foreigner, doesn’t look the same, doesn’t move the same, doesn’t ACT the same, does not have the same blend of all the previously described ingredients hence….
    Be sure that, should any Italian recognize a bit of himself in my description, there will be a brutal attack saying that I am wrong. Hence I know I’ve hit the bull’s eye just straight into the centre.


    • From what I can figure out, lower waist, higher crotch, and a tighter fit overall. It takes some getting used to, especially for men, I think. As one commenter said, “Where the heck do you put your wallet and keys?” ha, ha…

  • This is great Rick, and I think you are right. The Italians have an innate ability to spot Americans or anyone who is not Italian simply by our dress. Loved the article!

  • i’ve been in italy for a long, long time. my hair, eyes and five feet 11 inches give me away….i’ve been dressed from head to toe in max mara and custom-made italian shoes and been told that i need to learn to dress like an italian 😉

    • It’s funny, because an Italian just wrote to me saying the exact same thing…he can always spot his fellow countrymen when abroad. I can, too, sort of. But usually only after someone points it out to me. You’ve got a better eye than me–I’ve still got a way to go!! Thanks for the comment…ciao!!

  • Oh and we live here in Italy and were living in Germany just a month ago.. we have lived in Europe about a year and a half. So we aren’t just visiting.

  • I am currently in Italy right now and I see 90% of men with fanny packs and Murses ( Man Purses!), Oh and man-pri’s ( Capris for men lol) and sandals with socks yes it happens all to often here.. Women seem to dress up more however if the are going into a church dresses are long and shoulders are covered. but they all wear tank tops and halter tops.. all the time. so I am a bit perplexed.. Oh and I can never get rid of my bright neon Orange Converse all stars. I love them! LOL…

  • Rick, so so funny and right on about the typical American tourist abroad.
    Once I had lived in Europe for a year or so, going back and forth between Switzerland and France, I dressed more like a Continental and it was always interesting to watch the Americans walk around and also so LOUD!!!

  • I’ve only been in the Veneto 3 years, but some things I’ve learned: 1) No white socks ever. 2) No running shoes as casual wear (that is, wear only when running). 3) your clothes have to FIT in the European way (that is, not ‘almost fit’ like Americans like to wear their clothes). Oh, and 4) T-shirts are OK if they fit closely (see #3) AND English words are stylish. In fact, the more confusing the combination of words and inexplicably prominent the wording, the more stylish the T-shirt is. (I don’t claim to understand why). 5) Polo shirts for guys have their collar UP – but make sure the shirt’s collar is thick enough to stand up. Lastly 6) it’s all how you carry yourself. Don’t rush, Italians never rush around (unless they’re blasting down the Autostrada). Walk like you’re getting paid by the hour and you know people are admiring you!

    • Bill, those are some fantastic observations. Especially what you said in #6. This “rule” sort of trumps all others. If you can pull it off, then go for it. But there in lies the problem for many of us. Once in a while, when I let my Italian wife choose my outfit, I almost seem to fit in with the crowd. However I must admit that in those situations, I almost always feel uncomfortable–although I can’t say if it’s a physical or mental discomfort.

      • I think you all said it, we Americans like to feel comfortable in our clothes and stylishness takes a backseat. Italians on the other hand as well as the French prefer to be stylish or chic, and when we try, we feel uncomfortable. Our son always commented on how Italian men fit into their pants, shirts and jackets- he loves Hawaiian shirts and floppy pants of all sorts, and one day remarked pensively “no wonder the men there need purses.”

    • In how people dress and other areas of life in Italy, ” la bella figura” in its widest sense plays a big role for Italians. It is difficult to describe what exactly that really is, but our Italian friends are telling us that it is an important feature of Italian life/culture and dressing is just one part of it.

      • That’s right, Sabine. How people dress is the most obvious aspect of “La Bella Figura,” but by no means the whole picture. It’s one of those things that defies an easy description, and there is certainly no direct translation for the phrase…at least not in English.

          • I agree with your comment on ” bella figura”, but I also think it has a lot to do with the Italian society that for a long time was structured along rigid class lines , ergo, pretending that you are better off than you are, showing off in order to impress others and a general sense of caring much about what others think of you. There is much of this ” bella figura” conceptin all European societies, part of this is still generational and is slowly disappearing among the young, however the wealthier and egalitarian they are, the less there is of that. If you look at the German or Scandinavian society, there is very little of that now. I always wish I could give Angela Merkel even meek advice on dressing a bit more innovativley, but they don’t care there much. Dressing well is therefore a way to show other people that you are someone. I guess, we Americans do this through our homes, some through cars but not generally through our clothes. This ended in the 60ies revolution when I was a kid and a hippie in SF!
            We all cut our hair, got to work, changed clothes…. and our kids are now the ones in Italy that need advice on how to dress for ” the continent.”
            Life is so interesting!

            • Sabine, I like your point about Americans doing the same, “through our homes, some through cars but not generally through our clothes.” I never quite thought of it like that, but I think you have a point. You could (over)simplify it down to Italians placing emphasis on appearances and Americans valuing (the spoils of) achievment.

              • I think you said it quite well. In some of our friends’ homes here, you would need an intercom to find one another and all who is living there often is an elderly couple. sometimes I think dressing up in jeans with rhinestones is quite an innocent sport….. But seriously, I think Europeans in general spend much less on housing than we do and more on clothes and accessories. Fun topic!

              • It’s interesting to see the differences, ma I think things are starting to change or at least here in Vancouver. People are choosing to give up their cars and big homes to be able to live in the downtown core (just like Europe), in smaller spaces. Who the hell wants to drive for 2 hrs. to get to work, I ask you? As far as the clothing, what can I say about the west coast of North America, perhaps we are far too casual? Ma it’s sure comfortable, too large jeans and all!

  • We are both originally from Europe, Spain and Germany, but have live in the US for a long time and are US citizens. So we know all about these general dressing rules and blend in quite well. The last time when we were in Rome, our son Brian came to visit, of course in shorts, flip-flops and his baseball cap. People told us all the time that it was so nice of us to show ” our young American friend around the city.” But we live in CA and this is pretty much the uniform of anyone under 50. On a good day he wore jeans. Then he is 6.3 and about 210 pounds and would not easily be taken for an Italian ever.
    By the way, the remark about sandals and socks is really aimed at the Germans. They seem to always wear these on our beaches in CA. Too funny!

    • Good point(s), Sabine. I suppose that was part of my giveaway, too…I’m also 6’4″, 210. No mistaking me for an Italian, really, even if someone dressed me properly.
      And oh yes, the sandals are certainly a German stereotype world-wide. I’ve seen it on the beaches of Florida, too!

  • It is in the shoes…. When one of my son’s friends (early 20’s) came to visit me in Rome, he wore skate board shoes. No one could figure out where he was from. Since I have long ago mastered the chameleon-skill of blending into the area of an elderly woman in Rome – when I want to – he was a real mystery until he opened his mouth!

    • You’re so right about the shoes! I’m going to expand on this topic further in future posts. Again, one of those aspects of Italian culture that seems so nebulous to uno straniero like me. I love learning about these things. Thanks for the spot-on commentary!

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