The moment I would see my neighbour Elena wearing her long mink fur for Sunday mass, I’d know that the season had changed for good. Even if the air bore no sign of chill just yet, the pages on the calendar had been turned, and the ritual of adapting the wears to the season as it was marked on the wall had officially begun. Time to remove the winter coats from their cases, unpack the sweaters and scarves, and be ready for a few months of darkness and layered fashion.
Is there something more quintessentially Italian than a sciura walking down the city centre enveloped in her full-length mink fur? Many of them would have purchased theirs decades prior or inherited them from their mothers and grandmothers, who, in their time, might have saved and saved to obtain one of these forever symbols of class and cold-weather elegance. Now, they’d parade them in all their shiny glory, caring for them with the regard that is afforded to family assets, storing them in late spring and pulling them back out after the summer of San Martino in mid-November, sending them to the specialized cleaner at every cambio di stagione.
When furs make their appearance in the streets of Italy, rest assured that they won’t come alone. Rather, they will announce the advent of a series of other garments that identify not just a way of dressing for the season but a zeitgeist that is deeply ingrained in the culture of the peninsula. A vision that could easily be summed up in a few simple concepts: style. health, comfort, and balance. Often – if not always – in this order.
Italians live by the golden rule that head and feet shuld always be kept warm and dry. In the cold months, this translates into long cashmere socks and tights living under boots and waterproof footwear, protecting their ownersfrom the risk of colds. A long coat or puffer jacket to break the wind. A merino wool scarf in complementary colours to protect the neck and avert the dreaded cervicale. Bonnets and hats to block the cold air from entering the ears, but mostly to protect the hair from the ruffling humidity. Fleece-lined leather gloves against the occasional frostbite. Underneath, a turtle neck, a chunky jumper or a soft twin set in matching autumnal shades, or else a warm cotton shirt and V-neck vest under a tweed blazer.
Style is crucial, style is key, most especially when it comes to broadcast living. It’s a fine line between bella figura and colpo di vento – between looks and shape. This is why the biancheria – the layer that lives underneath what one sees – is perhaps so very important for Italians: it brings in that idea of health that is at the core of any cambio di stagione while never compromising on style. Lace-trimmed tank tops, silk-blend ribbed undershirts or, better still, vaguely itchy wool-blend warming t-shirts aptly called maglia della salute: mandatory health-protecting wears that promise to keep any chill away from one’s skin while also preventing any cold sweats challenging the already-tried lungs.
And yet, what goes on in the public eye is not always what happens in the safety of the home.
I can hardly think of an instance in which I’ve seen a member of my family not changing into house clothes the moment they’d get home. This is when comfort takes over style, when practicality kicks in without compromising on reputation. For one, because Italian houses are often old and scarcely insulated and therefore never excessively warm. But mostly because we allow ourselves to be truly comfortable only when we know there won’t be any eye-witnesses judging on our sloppiness. This is the glorious moment of stretchy pants in warm high-tech materials, wool or fleece zip jumpers, and long-sleeve t-shirts; but also of flannel pyjamas and warming lounge robes and fluffy socks and house slippers and any other piece of clothing that would induce a sigh of relief and summon some cosiness.
I wonder whether it was my grandmother who unintentionally passed this concept of private versus public dressing on to me. She would always change out of her domestic outfits to walk out of the door. No one has ever seen her without her fur-lined alcantara coat, wool skirt and thick tights outside the house. She would forever have a silk scarf protecting her head from the wind. Cambiati, would be the imperative. Ci prepariamo per uscire? (Shall we get ready to go out?), would be the question. Even when going out meant walking the dog or getting groceries, we would change into something we deemed decent. And when that’s not a possibility because of time constraints or other instances, a cross-generational long puffy jacket and a beanie would be thrown on to conceal the chaos.
Self-consciousness, vanity, and a touch of pride all play a role in these dynamics. However, I also see this switching in and out of outfits as a resourceful necessity – a habit that stems from a love and care of clothing and a desire to save one’s most valuable, most beautiful items for when they can truly be appreciated. This, alongside the ritual of ironing, dry-cleaning and neatly storing them all away at every turn of the season means that they can last and look good for many, many seasons. And, on lucky occasions, even be passed down to the next generation so that the bella figura can carry on.