Are there any dress codes at all in Italy?
Have a look around and the answer (a resounding “no) will become immediately clear. I am not sure just when or why this happened, but some time ago, Italians decided to emulate us Americans and go casual. And they have done so with a vengeance, in effect looking far more sloppy than many American men I know. And although men and women have chosen different routes to sartorial freedom (more about the ladies below in a separate chapter), it just ain’t the Italy I fell in love with when I first came here lo those many years ago.
How things have changed!!! Italy and I go back a long way and when I first came here as a college girl I remember being terribly impressed with the elegance of everyone I met, men and women alike. Donatella and Marisa, the Italian teachers at the Syracuse University program in Florence, were physically extremely different, one blonde and curvaceous, the other slim, small and dark. But they were both terribly elegant, coming to work in suits or twin-sets, with just the right amount of jewelry, and the inevitable Hermes scarf, tied to their handbags and I remember writing to my aunts Ruth and Selma, who had been schooling me in how to dress, about what I had observed and now wanted to imitate.
Wasn’t underwear an under garment?
Some say it all started with the late Italian fashion designer, Gianni Versace, who before his murder in 1997 had convinced a lot of woman, Italians and not, that looking like what was once called a streetwalker was the new look. Madonna bought into that totally and – followed decades later by Lady Gaga – persuaded others that showing your underwear was fine and dandy and not, as my mother (Thanks, Mom!) taught me the your bra straps and panties were not something to be shown in public.
Indeed, when I first came to Italy, it would have been impossible to believe that any woman here would ever go around with their bra straps (or thongs) showing. But things do change (from my point of view for the worse) and after all Versace (and his sister, Donatella) were/are Italian.
Clearly, this is not a purely Italian phenomenon. I have seen working-class British women on holiday with more bra showing than blouse, and the hooker look seems to be very big among some American girl teens. But what about the penchant of even many Italian professional women – for example some TV journalists − for looking sexy as compared to their counterparts among American and French woman who instead would opt for looking business-like.
In a story from a few years ago, Financial Times reporter Adrian Michaels told how passengers getting off planes from Milan were greeted by an enormous poster of a woman’s cleavage to advertise the business products of Telecom Italia and how both Rome and Milan were plastered with billboards of three scantily-clad computer-generated damsels advertising the cell phone provider named “3”. As for Italian television, semi-nude dancers or nearly naked show hostesses are the rule and have been for the last 20 years. No quiz show or variety show is without its vallette (think Playboy bunnies without the tails and ears) and even “Striscia la Notizia”, an extremely clever evening news spoof, dotes on its two wiggling, pom-pom girls, one brunette and one blonde. Not surprisingly, every season thousands of young Italian girls show up to try out for the two “Striscia La Notizia” parts, roles that guarantee them, at the very least, a future on the pages of Italy’s gossip magazines. What are the requisites? Charm, an ability to gyrate gracefully and, of course, sex appeal. According to press reports, many of the tarted-up girls who signed up for taking part in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties – a role which may or may not have meant they might have been called on to participate in some kind of sex act with him – were urged on by their were urged on to take the job by their mothers, something that goes far to tell you what values are like in Italy these days.
Several years later when I was in Rome to do the research for my doctoral thesis, I remember noting how even the most lowly secretaries at the Foreign Ministry, wore suits, stockings and pumps, and looked as if they had stepped out of the pages of the Italian Vogue. But that was 30 years ago and today, go to any Italian ministry or office and most of the women are casually dressed in pants (jeans) and walking shoes. Among them there will also be an ample representation of the sexpot Italian woman – see BOX – a phenomenon that has always been present here but which grew sharply during the Berlusconi era.
And the men! Back then, even when they were in casual corduroys or slacks, Italian men always looked fantastic. No short socks for them. Their trousers were always the right length. If they knotted a (cashmere) sweater around their shoulders, they looked as if they had been born that way. Their leather jackets were neither too new nor too old. They were always carefully shaved, and their hair was thick and beautiful. Fantastici! Bellissimi! One didn’t know which one to look at or flirt with first.
Today, it’s a whole different ball game, especially where younger men are concerned. With the exception of men in more formal jobs − banking (that is, the executives, because I can’t remember the last time I saw a male teller with a jacket and tie), journalists (but only those who cover government), members of parliament and diplomats, just about everyone you will see looks as if they are, literally, on their way to a ball game — or about to play in it. Sneakers, running shoes and trainers have replaced those wonderful Italian leather shoes. Jeans and baseball caps are ubiquitous, just as they are in the U.S. And once the weather gets warm, baggy bermudas or, even worse, pinocchietti or clam diggers (worn not with sandals but with trainers), reveal all too many unattractive legs.
In my neighborhood, Trastevere, where there are many students as well as men who don’t seem to have steady jobs, or who are artists (or would-be artists), men show up at the bar for their morning coffee in a state in which in bygone days no respecting Italian would have allowed anyone else to see him. Now I know this is a generaitonal thing, but to make things even worse (at least to my mind) many under 40 Italian men (and alas, a few greying ones, too) seem to shave only once or twice a week (I call it non-designer stubble). In addition, a great many are bald or balding (this is said by some to be the results of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, by others to be the effect of the hormones in meat), until recently the most popular male look has been shaved heads and goatees meaning it is often difficult to tell one guy from another. (More recently, full beards appear to have been csprouting their way back in, the best thing about this being that the unshaven look is in a slight decline.
This casual and sometimes unkempt attire spills into restaurants, churches and museums so if you are not from a generation which thought one should always get a bit dressed up for theaters, concert halls and nice restaurants, you can fill your suitcases with jeans, sweaters, running shoes, sandals and not much else.
Just a couple of provisos. Some churches do set some limits on summer bareness (short shorts, scoop neck tops and baseball caps really are a no-no). And although there is practically nowhere in Italy today where men HAVE to wear a tie, there are some high-end restaurants where men must wear jackets.