Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Perfect Disguise

I am in my sixth month of living here in Italy. Plenty of time to form some first impressions about life here and make a few “uninformed but feels true to me” observations about what it’s like to be a woman in Florence. More to the point, how I can on the surface more easily blend into the crowd, given that my eyes are light blue and my hair is bright blonde. That means changing my wardrobe, which is definitely American and for those with a keen fashion sense, entirely Midwestern.

In order to become part of the neighborhood and walk around without the constant staring I currently deal with I will have to make a few costume changes. Almost all of them are drastic changes that would guarantee if my family passed me on the street they would't recognize me. With their central Minnesota tastes and upbringing they would probably laugh discreetly into their hands and wonder what I was thinking when I got dressed or maybe that I got dressed in the dark. But what they think doesn’t apply here. I have made a short list of things I must do to disguise myself as a Florentine woman. Or at least as someone from the north of Italy.

I must “dress” every time I step out of my apartment door. Comfortable is not a consideration when dressing for the street. Goodbye to my comfortable, lived in jeans and t-shirts and hello to dark blue, skin tight jeans with a crease ironed into them topped by several layers of shirts and sweaters. A tailored suit in a strong color would be better. A long top or short dress over leggings is acceptable. Pajama bottoms and your oldest t-shirt should never leave the bedroom. I bet these women don’t have pajamas, they probably float around in negligees and high heel mules with fluffy stuff on the toes.

Ponytails are for working out and for young girls. And even they have the good sense God gave them to wear a ribbon, fake flower or a series of barrettes to dress it up a bit. Of course, so many of these women have acres of gorgeous hair that curls and stays put. It has to be fun to do stuff with their hair. Mine looks combed for five minutes and holds a curl for less than that. Keeping it in the ponytail is a struggle, anything fancier will require the purchase of blow dryers and curling irons and hair “products” by the case.

At the very least, if I won’t dress more formally, I should be wearing make up. A nice daytime coating of foundation, mascara and a strong lip color is vital for women over the age of 30. Very strong or bright lip color is essential, so that when they frown or press their lips together in disapproval it can be seen for blocks. OK, I’ll try to be generous here…maybe they are tsk-tsking behind their lips and pitying my horrible fashion sense, but I don’t think so.

I must become bedazzled. Shiny is very, very in here. Bright rivets and buttons on jeans, rhinestones too. Rhinestones on everything. Pants, skirts, tights, shirts, jackets and shoes. Some women seem to find the rhinestone a little too flashy but never fear, they have options. There are sequins for the discerning and sophisticated woman and when used liberally give every outfit that little bit extra sure to catch someone’s eye. Even t-shirts designed to make a political statement are fair game for bedazzling. Yesterday I saw a woman with a Che Guevara t-shirt, but only his cigarette was bedazzled. I’m unclear if she liked Che or liked smoking and I wasn’t gonna ask. My guess is that the delicates these women wear are also bedazzled so that they have a complete ensemble, not that they would show anyone, but they would know.

Not everyone bedazzles their clothing. Women “of a certain age” and working women often opt for shiny material in bright colors as more suitable for their situation. And of course you must accessorize. Jewelry is large, chunky and (everybody now) shiny. Large, long necklaces, drop earrings to the shoulders, rings and charm bracelets that jangle and catch the light even during a lunar eclipse are essential to the wardrobe.

I must learn to do everything in heels. This won’t be easy. I think these women have spent their whole lives wearing these things. They probably get training heels for first communion. And they can move…wow. I don’t know how many times I have been passed on the sidewalk by a four foot tall 60-ish woman in stilettos talking ninety miles an hour on her cell phone and not even breathing hard. Flip-flops are for college students, Keens and Chacos for tourists, and flats for teenagers. The serious woman in Florence wears heels with everything. Boots, dress shoes, sandals and, yes even tennis shoes have heels. Because the tennies are technically wedges they are typically jazzed up (we could say bedazzled) by making them silver or gold metallic and yes, shiny. Flats can be worn if necessary but then have to be actually bedazzled, the more the better. Boots and sandals this year appear to be sporting numerous straps and rivets, the more the better. My next accidental fall in Florence will more than likely be from the top of a pair of four inch stilettos, but I will look fabulous on the way down.

Showing any amount of cleavage is acceptable as long as you cover your shoulders. This one I really don’t understand and that may very well be because I was raised Lutheran. Catholic sensibilities are very different. I once had a boyfriend lecture me on the views of the Catholic church regarding birth control as support for his NOT using a condom as he undressed for premarital sex. So he was Catholic when it served his purpose and not Catholic when it didn’t. Maybe it’s the same thing for these women. Maybe the strict rules about covering knees and shoulders pushed these women to show off something the priest didn’t feel strongly enough about to restrict. Maybe Italian women have ugly shoulders. We may never know. Whatever the reason may be, the result is that women flaunt what they got while keeping their shoulders discreetly covered. I wear my tank tops and get the evil eye. Makes me wish I had cleavage to flaunt, but all I have are great shoulders and I will be showing them off despite the glares and pursed, ruby red lips.

Learn to smoke. Smoking here does not make you a pariah. You are not forced to smoke out of sight behind the building next to the organic dumpster. When you aren't allowed to smoke inside you stand in the doorway. Smoking is everywhere and they start at a very young age. I don't find smoking attractive, but Italians seem to. They have elevated smoking to an art form. My favorite is the guy in the park who does his fitness walk with  cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Classy. Maybe, with the right clothes, the hair and the make up I'll look like Greta Garbo, or some other elegant 40's movie star who smokes with style. Maybe someday I would even have that sexy smokers voice that some women get. My luck I'd end up sounding like Jimmy Durante.

More is more. It was 85F here yesterday and most women were still wearing a shirt, scarf and jacket. Some still in layers of shirts and sweaters and coats. Italy is a center for fashion and they love to try things out. They actually wear the stuff we look at in Vogue and wonder "how do they walk in that?" I am finding that there is not a lot of subtlety in Italy. Why they choose to dress this way I just don’t know, but it fascinates me. I watch them sometimes and try to figure it out. I see a woman in a mini-dress with plunging neckline and long sleeves, (bedazzled) tights, boots with 3 inch heels and fringe, one purse, one extra bag for possible purchases, wearing her weight in gold jewelry and often being escorted by an elderly man who makes those purchases for her and I wonder…who told her that looked good?

I think, as an experiment, I will go to a shop and try on everything that my Midwestern upbringing says is wrong. I will probably look like every other woman in the store…and that’s the whole point, right?

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