"Fare la bella figura" literally means 'to make a beautiful figure.' The phrase refers to the Italian ideal of looking your best at all times and making a good impression. For this casual Californian this ideal may be the biggest challenge that I've faced living in Italy.
Northern Italy is the home of Milano, the seat of fashion houses and world famous designers. People are stylish here. Then, among Italians, Parma is known to be a very fashion conscious community.
The first week of school, I was jet lagged and coming down off of an emotional roller coaster of a year. I was unaccustomed to humidity and was sopping wet every time I stepped outside. So there I am the first day of school in Italy, bedraggled, exhausted and definitely not stylish. I hardly felt the need to dress up for the ten minute walk to school when I was just going home to unpack dirty, dusty boxes. I was feeling good about myself because I had put on some makeup and my fancy Taryn Rose flip flops.
I looked at all the Italian mothers and thought "uh oh." Not only were they thin and beautiful, they were stylish in an understated elegant way. Northern Italian women don't wear a lot of makeup. They don simple, but high quality and finely tailored clothes. They wear dresses, skirts and lots and lots of stilettos. And boots - year round. And scarves - year round. I stood on the sidewalk, hair in a ponytail, wearing casual, almost exercise clothes and flip flops. Needless to say, I stood out like a sore thumb.
I had a conversation with my English friend Diana about the Italian women's seemingly effortless style. Diana noted that if you went to the supermarket in England dressed like an Italian woman does, everyone would think, "what is she trying to prove?" I thought about how people would react if you showed up at Safeway in stilettos, a dress, a scarf - Diana was right. Americans too would think you were putting on airs. The only reason you would wear high heels to the supermarket in America was if you were on your way to or from work or an event. In Italy, however, it a common occurrence.
From my American (i.e. - casual Californian) perspective, it seems like a lot of work to get dressed up just to run to the supermarket, go to the gym or walk the kids to school. But dress up they do. I was no longer in California and if I didn't want to stand out I was going to have to make some changes. Wearing exercise clothes on the street is just not done here and flip flops (my shoe of choice in California) are reserved for the pool or the health club. If I continued my disregard for la bella figura, I may offend someone or at the very least confuse them. My American friend Sarah told me that once she went out in her "tuta" or her exercise suit with no makeup. She ran into her landlady who promptly contacted Sarah's Italian in-laws to inquire if Sarah was feeling ill since she had been out of the house looking so casual. In Italy, being ill is the only excuse for failing fare la bella figura.
The first week I sat back and observed. I saw one woman ride up to school on her bicycle in a tight pencil skirt, gorgeous blouse and stilettos. There was a light summer rain. She rode her bicycle while holding an umbrella, one child on the back of her bike and another in the front. She arrived, floated off of her bike, got the kids out of their seats, grabbed her Louis Vuitton bag and glided into school. Not a hair out of place. I watched - mouth agape. She couldn't be a real mother of two small children. She looked like a super model. I looked around for a film crew. This had to be fake.
I soon came to accept that not only are Italian women stylish, they don't seem to be affected by weather. Italian women's hair is never out of place. The weather reeks havoc on my style regularly. In the summer the humidity leaves my body and head wet and it renders my hair a wet, frizzy, wonky mess. In the spring, the pollen makes my eyes water and my nose run constantly leaving me looking like W.C. Fields. The wet winter rain and fog makes my eyes water resulting in black raccoon eyes from runny mascara. And again, my hair becomes a frizzy wonky mess. Why don't Italian women suffer as I do? Is it genetics? How do they do it?
Fare la bella figura is not limited to young women either. I have seen many an old women doddering along, holding on to her companion for support in stilettos! Stilettos! They can barely walk anymore, but damnit if they aren't going to look good. I can no longer navigate a flat surface in high heels, let alone the cobblestones. The older women also love their hats, fur coats, scarves and handbags. I particularly like to watch the older ladies during the Christmas season as Italians dress up to do their Christmas shopping. At the beginning of December, the older Italian women put on their finest attire as they stroll around the main piazza and shopping streets showing off their coats, hats and handbags It is a far different atmosphere than the images you see of people clawing and fighting over items at WalMart. This is a slow, deliberate shopping experience. Another difference between Italy and the USA, no one in Italy is afraid of PETA. Fur and leather abound, particularly among the older crowd. Fur hats, fur coats, fur trimmed scarves, fur lined leather gloves, fur lined leather boots, leather pants and leather skirts are commonplace.
The Italian women are not alone in pursuing la bella figura. Italian men spend an equal amount of time on their appearance. Italian men's clothes are often tailored. It is unusual to see baggy clothes on men here. Italian men also wear sweaters quite a bit. Not just pullover sweaters, but cardigans. And they like to roll up the cuffs of their pants, jeans, shorts. Italian men also wear scarves as often as women do and they pay a lot of attention to their shoes. They also carry bags made of beautiful leather - or what we would call a man purse, a murse. Older men frequently wear suits, bow ties, fedoras and a scarf. They dress this way all the time - just to go to the post office or the vegetable market. And where the Italian women tend to be understated, Italian men have a flare for bold style. They are not afraid to wear colors and patterns. Lord knows they love a brightly colored pant.
I have observed the Parmigiani for almost three years now. I still don't fully understand how they pull it off. They make being stylish and elegant look effortless and easy. I will never understand how they navigate cobblestones in stilettos. After 2.5 years it still seems like a lot of work just to run your errands, but it is part of the Italian culture. And it is expected. And now I have come to appreciate it. The attention to style makes one feel a bit better when you are out and about. And it makes for great people watching.
The Italian author Beppe Severgnini summed it up best. "Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on."
Below are some photos of Italian stye. These are not my photos. I got these off of the internet, because it is not good form to take photos of strangers, but I assure you that I have seen some version of each of these outfits on a regular basis.