Style

5 Rules to Dress Like an Italian

Before moving to the US a few years ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what Italian style really was. I’ve lived all my life surrounded by people with different tastes in fashion, but I never fully realized the impact of Italian culture in the choice of our  garments.

This is valid for womenswear as much as for menswear; I still get baffled when people stop me to tell me that they like my outfit or they ask my opinion on something in a store. When I go shopping with my husband and I start chatting with employees and customers, many ask me: “How can I dress to look like I’m Italian?”

Usually at that point I puff my chest and put on a big smile, and I start listing all the points that I have observed as key to “Italian Style”. Here they are. Take notes.


1. RELAX

This is a golden rule for Italians, in menswear as well as in every aspect of life: abandon stiff constructions and extra thick padded shoulders and embrace softer, looser fabrics that move with your body.

You can read this as a philosophy of life: clothes are our shell, and we want to feel comfortable in them in order to have a positive attitude towards life. Freedom of movement is the first step towards expressing yourself at the fullest. Neapolitan tailoring was born to provide an alternative to stiff English tailoring that didn’t quite suit the Italian spirit (and didn’t allow for nearly enough gesticulation).


2. DRESS DOWN YOUR FORMAL WEAR

It might sound strange, but while it is extremely difficult to dress up casual clothes, it is quite easy to dress down formal ones – and the results can be quite stunning.

In Italy, nobody wants to look too formal. There is a cultural element in this assumption as well: Italians believe that people should not take themselves too seriously, and dressing up in a homogenous way will not make anyone look any more interesting to the society.

This leads me to the next point: yes, it is possible to look elegant without wearing only formal clothes.

How? Easy: you dress down your formal clothes. As long as your clothes fit you well, you can play around with them. That’s why it’s important to invest in casualwear just as much as in formal garments: a few, nice pieces to pair with your more formal clothes will be your best allies in creating a classic (and unique) style that can be worn on any occasion. It’s not a secret that Italians love their turtlenecks – and thank God the trend has been picking up in the menswear community – but there are endless possibilities to dress down your favorite jackets and pants: polo shirts, button-downs, chinos, colorful scarves, etc.

Even easier: wear your best suit and lose the tie. Unbutton the first two buttons of the shirt and vai con Dio.

@AlessandroSquarzi is a master in stepping up his style by playing around with casual and even workwear pieces.


3. EXPERIMENT WITH COLOR

“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most,” wrote John Ruskin in 1853. Of course, he was referring to colors in painting: he was trying to defend Turner’s scandalous skies, which inflamed the walls of the art galleries in London, where cloudy greys and muddy browns were the dominant colors.

Italians are not afraid of colors. In fact, we never were. Think of the vibrant landscapes of the Macchiaioli, who were Ruskin’s contemporaries, and apply that sensibility to menswear.

You’ll see every color of the rainbow walking in any boutique in Italy – whether it is just a little touch, like the stitching, or a vibrant garment that many Americans would label as a “statement” piece.

Combining color is an art – Ruskin knew that well. The wrong hue could throw the balance off and turn poetry into disaster.

Educate your eyes to appreciate colors that go beyond blue and brown, and you’ll experience the same type of sensuous pleasure a painting by Turner provides: harmony, and a tingling of the soul that will be an inspiration for the people around you.


4. LOSE THE BIRKENSTOCKS

If you see someone wearing Birkenstocks in Italy, you can be certain it is a German or American tourist. There is a sort of social stigma on Birkenstocks (and on other, similar-looking footwear) as Italians simply cannot accept them as real shoes. They might secretly wear them around the house, while gardening, but there is no way an Italian would ever show in up in public wearing a pair of Birkenstocks.

As a general rule, try not to choose comfort over style. Pick your clothes carefully, so that they are both comfortable and stylish, and keep those sweatpants in the gym bag.

If you’re looking for casual and summer footwear, I recommend espadrilles; specifically, I like these by Zabattigli, which are hand-woven in Capri. The rope keeps the soles of your feet aerated and fresh, and the sleek style is way sexier than those bulky, Teutonic, panzer-looking shoes.


5. DON’T DRESS WELL ONLY ON OCCASIONS

In Italy, people dress well because they like to. Period.

This is something that is very eradicated in me, and that people don’t understand in America. My husband still gets confused when I wear makeup and a nice dress to go buy groceries.

“Why do you dress up like that? We’re going to Ralph’s.”

“Because I like it,” I reply every time, as I spray my most expensive cologne extensively on my neck.

There is a crucial distinction between being well-dressed and being overdressed. Obviously, I would look ridiculous wearing a cocktail dress in a grocery store; but a nice dress, why not? The same goes for men: nobody is saying you should wear your top hat to go to the movies, but a nice blazer and a few, carefully picked accessories will make you stand out for your elegance without looking out of place.

To everyone worrying about what people will think of your choice of clothes, I say: if you are the only one well-dressed person in the room, you shouldn’t be the one feeling embarrassed. Rather, all the others should be the ones feeling shabby and looking up to you.

Occasions shouldn’t make the man. We are better than the sum of social boundaries we are submitted to, and clothes are a way to let our personality spark any time of the day, any day of our lives. Why waste an opportunity to do so, and let trivial actions get in the way?


You might have figured at this point that the Italian Style is much more about attitude than it is about clothes. I’ve read many articles on the Internet that teach you how to “dress like an Italian,” and I think they all missed the point.

There are really no rules when it comes to expressing yourself, and even an extravagant flair can be turned into a jaw-dropping detail that will step up your game. This is the secret of the Italian Style: as long as you like what you wear, and you’re confident enough to pull it off, you’ll be fine.

@AriannaReggio

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Arianna Reggio

Arianna is an Italian trapped in Southern California, and she's still trying to cope with the fact she's living in a country where they put pineapples on pizza. She is into both Style AND Fashion, but she hardly ever writes about it because all her free time is spent between yoga, rock concerts, and Victorian poetry.

19 replies »

  1. I would totally agree with you but add, for those of us of an English persuasion, the likes of Paul Smith combine the best of both countries. As our weather is slightly worse than Italy or California, team a pair of jeans with boots from Cheaney or the ubiquitous Clarks desert boots and jump on your Lambretta!

    • I love that!
      Paul Smith is rather popular in Italy on account of their bright colors and slim fit and while it doesn’t compare quality-wise to other English or Italian tailoring houses, I’ve always liked the playful vibe of the brand.

  2. There is no question that the Italians are the best dressed men in Europe. The only people that come close are the British upper class. While endorsing all Arianna’s comments beware over theatricality of the sort one sees in all those photos from Italian menswear shows.

    • Hi John,
      Theatricality is a plague of the era of social media and it affects menswear as well as womenswear.
      Never would I dare to show up in public dressed like the bloggers and fashion editors outside the runway shows during the New York Fashion Week!

  3. Great article and very timely as I was recently perusing the Italian CBD thread. I live in Southern California and have been very interested in the Italian aesthetic as of late. Most American menswear (especially CBD) seems to be derived from English styles. That’s fine for the Northeast or professions like law or banking, but doesn’t seem to fit SoCal’s climate or casual vibe.

    Any suggestions for images showing whatever the Italian equivalent of ‘business casual’ is (assuming they have one)? The Italian CBD thread was heavy on CEOs and social dilettantes but a bit short on more practical fits.

    • Hi Patrick,

      I understand your situation since I live in SoCal as well and I have a hard time accepting the fact hoodies are common office attire 😛
      I might dedicate an article to Italian “business casual” in the future, as it’s an area worth exploring and it could be applied to business environments in the West Coast.
      Thank you for stopping by!

  4. I’vd been all over Italy, its a total myth that that all Italians are into style or clothes. Far more bad dressers than good, just like every where else.

    • Hi Simon, thanks for your comment.
      Most Italians do care about style and clothes – but that doesn’t translate automatically into good taste as we commonly refer to it on the forum.
      Also notice that this article is written in the perspective of classic clothing, which is not obviously the only style Italians favor: many people, especially the younger generations, are very much into streetwear and fashion.
      Have a good day!

  5. McNulty: You know what they call a guy who pays that much attention to his clothes, don’t you?
    Bunk: Mm-hmm, a grown-up.

  6. I’m interested in your take on English’s use of color, to me the Italian way has always been more harmonious while the English way has always been more contrasting (perhaps it’s also because they’re not as “soft” looking, think about how English guy wear red pants, it tends to “pop” more).

    I personal prefer English Monday to Friday, while being Italian on the weekend :p

    By the way how do you like Paul Stuart? I think it is one of those that play the English way better than most English brand I have seen. Though their line is getting softer shoulder treatment these days as well.

    • I think you are correct, the heavier construction of English garments makes it harder to pull off extravagant colors, and these are more common in accessories rather than clothing (with the exception of Jermyn street shirts).
      Also, I find delightful that the color palette is reflective of the surroundings and the nature of the two countries, with the Italians favoring light fabrics with pastels in the summer and the English countryside featuring tweeds with earthtones in the fall and winter.

  7. Arianna,
    Thank you so much. Could you post something more often? Every couple of days would help. I live in Colorado and the folks here dress like crap. Birkenstocks would be considered “formal” here. Appreciate your expertise and advice!

  8. You are spot on. I am an Italian American – working in NYC, and have been dressing this way for years. In fact, most professional men in NYC dress this way. The one thing I would like to add is the importance of a great tailor. A great tailor will make you look your best.

    • I absolutely agree with you Stephen! A good tailor who understands your proportions and how clothes should fit on you is the best thing that could happen to a man that cares about clothes. Have a great weekend!