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.
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.