Jenny and I started a new Italian class today. It has a cute theme, which is that every lesson is built around some aspect of Italian culture- food, music, etc. Today’s lesson was about fashion.

Clothing was a great topic for the class. We started with nouns related to articles of clothing, then adjectives for describing clothing, then read some history about the fashion industry in Milan (which afforded us an opportunity to work on pronunciation of some tricky letter combinations).

Developing a shopping vocabulary here is not easy. Anyone who has ever taken a college course in psychology, linguistics, or philosophy has probably heard the apocryphal story that “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” that is meant to capture the belief that languages come to represent what is important in people’s environments. Jenny and I have a running joke that “Italians have 100 words for shirt.” Want to know the Italian word for “sweater?  . . . well, it depends upon whether it has buttons or not, whether it is thin or thick, how it is to be worn. “Jacket”? . . . the correct word used will depend on the thickness, length, whether it is worn over other clothing or not. I once used the word for “boot” to describe a pair of tall shoes. But I was corrected: the footwear in question did rise above the ankle, so it was not a “shoe,” but since it rose only an inch or so above the ankle, I was incorrect in using the word “boot”.  I got to learn a new word, which essentially means “big shoe.” Clearly clothes are important here.

A very challenging part of the class involved us watching an episode of the Italian version of “What Not to Wear” that is called “Ma come ti vesti.” We had to figure out the dialogue. Our instructor wanted us to attend to the male host, who, we were told, spoke perfect Italian– unlike his female co-host and the person whose wardrobe was being corrected. As an added benefit, the male host had a real histrionic flair that made his speech (purportedly) easier to parse. (We also had to do the same exercise with a YouTube parody of the program where the contestant ended up being dressed in a burka). Sadly, the Italian woman whose wardrobe was viewed as needing to be remediated seemed to be dressed much better than most people I know. . .

Each class ends with a session where we all have to chat. Consistent with today’s lesson, we learned how to make comparisons about things we liked and disliked. But this ended up being a bit thorny and funny. The instructor asked us to go around the room and talk about what we thought of the Italian fashion. It didn’t start off well when a Brit in the class said that she found Italian women’s clothing “vulgar” – which afforded us an opportunity to increase our Italian vocabulary with useful words such as “cleavage.”

A classmate from Paris felt that clothing here lacked individuality. An unusual aspect of shopping in Rome is that customers are not supposed to touch the clothes. I’m so used to walking through a store and collecting what I like over my arm. But here, you point to an item that you want, and the salesperson gathers it and necessary accessories. Our instructor conceded that Rome is “provincial” and really about antiquities; one has to head to Milan to see serious style (or Naples or Bologna for serious food).

Following the comments of my classmates, I felt awkward admitting that I really like the way people dress here. I’m so used to the bizarrely casual culture of Madison, Wisconsin that I’m still stunned when I see mothers dropping their kids at the school bus stop in the morning looking so. . . fabulous. We do live in a very upscale part of the city, so we get a biased sample. But people are very well put together when they go out. As I wait at the children’s bus stop, I enjoy the people-watching. Women almost always have their hair perfectly styled, are wearing a beautiful scarf, and very stylish high-heeled boots; they jump on their motorcycles, pull out their cell phones, light a cigarette, and take off weaving between cars with all these things in balance. . .including huge leather handbags big enough to hold a small child. Men here have a nice look, too. They often wear a well-tailored suit or jacket, which they pair with bright, bold colored shirts and extremely festive ties, looking dapper regardless of how sweltering hot it is outside. The men also wrap bright scarves around their necks if the temperature drops below 90 degrees F. The overt sex appeal of the style of dress—even among the more mature (in Italian, it is considered rude to use the word “old” for people; the word is used only for objects)—is fascinating..

Jenny told the class that she finds Romans intimidating because they do always look so well assembled, even first thing in the morning. We learned that the culture here is that dressing up before you go out shows that you are well mannered. Good grooming in public is a sign of respectful behavior and good upbringing. You don’t appear in public without shaving, applying make-up, fixing your hair, straightening your tie. . . . I laughed when I thought about what my friends and I wear to drop our children off at the bus stop or run errands back home (running clothes, fleece pullovers, sandals, sweatshirts) and wished that I could show the class a photograph of pretty much any department faculty meeting or the crowd coming out of the theater on a Saturday night back in Madison. I think most Romans wouldn’t do yard work in what I wear to teach! I do still show up at the school bus stop wearing jeans and fleece and everyone is still very friendly to me. . .though shopkeepers often glance at my clothes and immediately begin using English.

As the class was ending, the instructor said that he had a question for the Americans. He wondered why American men stroll through Rome wearing shorts. Indeed, “short pants” as they are called here (the word itself suggesting that something is amiss), seem peculiar and maybe even crass. Shorts are seen as children’s clothing and people here react to them as we would seeing an adult in a restaurant wearing a bib. (Sure, one can see the utility, but it looks silly). After being immersed in the culture here, it now does look funny to me when I see adult tourists walking down expensive shopping streets wearing shorts, especially with nice sweaters or jackets. Since we seemed to be on a roll, the instructor added, with all sincerity . . . “and why do you go to museums and restaurants wearing flip-flops. . . aren’t those for the shower?”

It was good to learn the Italian word for flip-flop, though I’ll probably never use it and have never seen a pair displayed in a store here.

We all gave up and went home when the discussion turned to why Germans walk around the city wearing sandals with socks, mostly because any attempt at explanation for German footwear was beyond the level of our introductory course (and it made us miss Madison).