With hot summer weather here and lots of people visiting Italy, there comes the age-old question of what to pack. What, in the land of fashion and “la bella figura,” will be acceptable to wear in Italy? Is it okay to wear the denim cutoff shorts, flip-flops and baseball cap I wear at home, or will I be forced to wear stilettos mini-skirts just to keep up with the fashionable Italians? As you might imagine, the answer is somewhere between those two extremes.
Truthfully, you can pack and wear whatever you want in Italy – your usual weekend wardrobe isn’t going to get you kicked out of most informal restaurants or museums (although immodest dress will get you turned away from most churches) – but it really is smart to think about what you are wearing and alter it slightly when visiting Italy. You’ll fit in better, and feel more at home.
Of course, I should say at the outset that no matter how hard I try, whenever I go to Italy I always feel out of place. Let’s face it – I’m a wannabe Italian, and will probably never really achieve the goal of looking like I fit in, as much fun as it might be to try. The husband and I make a policy of buying at least one clothing item (shoes count) on every Italy trip, and the unwritten rule is that if we see everyone wearing something in particular, we’ll buy it – even if, at the time, we don’t think we’ll end up liking it. So far, we’ve not been disappointed by a single purchase.
So, here are a few tips for men and women who want to steer clear of the shorts, white tennis shoes and ball caps – in other words, for the people out there who want to try to look less like a tourist and more like you know what you’re doing.
Until 2004, I had never seen a pair of shorts on an Italian man who wasn’t playing soccer. Even in summer, men wore long pants (albeit made of linen or some other lightweight material) and nice-looking leather sandals, if it was a casual setting. Last summer, however, what the husband and I called the “man-pri” made their first appearance, and they’ve been going strong ever since. They’re not shorts, and they’re not trousers, but somewhere between – they’re usually baggy and stop at mid-calf, like a woman’s capri-pant. I couldn’t convince the husband to get a pair, but I’d recommend it to any man willing to take a fashion leap. They’re worn with t-shirts and sandals or fashionable tennis shoes. If you’re not ready for the “man-pri,” stick to long pants – khakis or linen pants are best in the summer when it’s hot, although you can certainly get away with jeans at any time of year. If you must bring shorts, make sure they aren’t too short, and remember to wear knee-covering and shoulder-covering clothing when you visit churches, as many have a dress code. There’s no need to do only button-down dress shirts, although if you’re planning a night at a nicer restaurant you will feel more comfortable if you bring at least one along. Otherwise, polo shirts or nice t-shirts are perfectly acceptable.
Ladies, let me assure you that unless you’re planning to really go all in, you’ll never quite achieve the look you see around you. But you are a tourist, even if you’re trying not to look like one, so stilettos aren’t practical for all-day walks around a city or museum. You can still look stylish, just don’t try to compare yourselves to the Italian women you see. It’ll just be disappointing. (Trust me, I know from personal experience.) 2006 was the first time I saw women wearing shorts in Italy, and it was only younger women (college and under) and with an extraordinarily odd choice of footwear – nearly knee-high cowboy boots. In summer. Crazy. Still, shorts were available and being worn. They weren’t short-shorts, they went almost to the knee, so if you want to bring shorts you might opt for longer ones to begin with. But Italian women by and large wear skirts or dresses in the summer with sandals or heels. Skirts are a fantastic option in hot weather, as they provide a natural “air conditioning” that shorts don’t, and if the skirt goes below the knee you can walk into most churches without worrying about your knees showing (some churches don’t like ankles showing either, so be sure to check). Tank tops or shoulder-baring tops are perfectly fine in the summer, but bring along a wrap or light jacket for the times when you want to see a church with a dress code.
Really, the bottom line is to remember that while it’s fun to try to fit in and dress like a local, you’re a visitor and you’ll never get it perfect in a two-week vacation. Will people look at you funny if you’re wearing shorts? Maybe. But will you see these people again after a few days visiting their city? Probably not. Above all, your clothing has to be travel-comfortable, or you’ll be miserable.
Besides – the Italians have had centuries of practice to look as good as they do. The rest of us are still playing catch-up.