by Jann Huizenga
It took Sicily to teach her about fashion.
The best thing about my short-term rental in Ragusa, Sicily is that it comes with a cleaning woman. Lucia arrives every Monday morning sporting a strand of pearls, heels, and a pencil skirt. She doesn’t shed any of them, neither while mopping the stone floors nor while scouring the bidet. I work at the kitchen table in old sweats and listen to her click-clacking through the rooms like some sort of busy bar hostess.
Fare bella figura, which roughly translates to “cutting a fine figure,” endures as one of the highest Italian virtues, on a par with making a pilgrimage to the Pope. As the Sicilians say, L’onuri è fattu a li robbi, Honor is measured by your dress.
I am less honorable than my cleaning woman. Judged by the Sicilian proverb, dishonor dogs my entire nation. For it’s no secret that we Americans—who revere the gods of Comfort and Convenience and traipse through life looking as if we’ve just rolled off the La-Z-Boy to fetch another bag of Doritos—are fashion disasters. Everyone knows it, even the swarthy contadino at the Thursday Ecce Homo market who hawks socks and lacy black things I assume are funereal veils. “Beh, signora,” the disappointed man says when I settle on some socks after pawing through his bargain table, “Sono passate di moda, Those are out of fashion.” He holds aloft some pumpkin-and-acid-green numbers. “These here are fighe, cool!” How pathetic is it that I slavishly follow this old peasant’s fashion tip and buy a bagful?
While I’m shopping one day at Sma, my local supermarket—which also carries cheap clothes—a matron emerging from the dressing room collars me. “Mi scusi, signora!” she brays. “Does this skirt fit me right?”
“Si, signora,” I reply. “It looks good to me. But I’m American.”
“Ihh, mi sbaglio. Oops, I’m mistaken,” she stammers, and hotfoots it away from me toward a battleaxe with a fistful of salami. The attitude in a nutshell.
The topic of fashion comes up in class one day in the English class I’m teaching at the university. My student Davide posits that belts are political in Italy. “We cannot wear pants or even jeans in Italy without a belt,” he says. “Without one, you are a rebel against society.” Francesca adds that an increasing number of Italians make political statements with fashion. “If you’re right-wing, you put on Dior, Fendi, Gucci, or Pucci; if you’re left-leaning, you dress in Dolce & Gabbana.”
Well, either way you’ve spent a frickin’ fortune, I wanted to say, so what’s the diff?
“I’ve noticed,” Francesca goes on, “that Americans don’t care about fashion like we do. My Sicilian relatives who went to the States in the sixties send me a package of clothes every year at Christmas. But I stuff everything in the back of my closet. It’s always so ugly—and twenty years out of date!”
What interested me most about this conversation was not the fact that New World Sicilians cling to the image of Sicily as a backwater, or that going beltless here is tantamount to treason, but that these students enjoy discussing haute couture and fashion designers. Not exactly hot topics on American campuses.
Everything that’s not all stiff and ruffly is metallic. Studded. Distressed to the max. The tag on one raggedy, hemless shirt I buy says, in English, “This garment have soul.” It seems nihilistic to pay top euro for threadbare duds that are just a wash cycle away from total disintegration. But then, much of the apparel here strikes me as pointless. I fondle a funnel-neck chenille sweater on a shop shelf, but when I go to try it on, I see the huge hole, like a vent, that has been cut from the back. For what? So you can warm your neck while air-conditioning your back? Most garments, in fact, contain some sort of peek-a-boo surprise—either a sleeve has gone missing, or both shoulders are absent, or the décolletage nose-dives to your navel, or the skirt is so itty-bitty that your bum droops below the hem. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, can you find a plain old T-shirt. Non c’é!. They either drip with gaudy sequins or bear some unwearable English phrase like Party Monster or Ride Me.
It’s almost impossible to find apparel without animal skin, feathers, or fur. Glamour and dead critters seem intertwined in the Italian imagination. Shops overflow with crocodilian belts, kangaroo-skin skirts, pony-skin pants, python pumps, bags with deer-antler handles. A friend once told me she regretted the short Sicilian winter because it allowed only a few months to enjoy her rabbit-fur coat. As I admire Pinocchio pants (what we call capris) trimmed with gray fuzz—caterpillar?—at my local Stefanel shop, I ask the clerk if it’s real fur. “Well, of course, signora!” comes the reply. When I inform her I can’t buy the pants then, that Americans don’t much like real fur, she recoils in disbelief, as if I’d told her Americans run naked in the streets.
But I wax shrill. It would be wrong to give the impression I have no stomach for Italian fashion. Al contrario. I’m gradually replacing my dowdy Puritan wardrobe—hauled here in two heavy suitcases—with more sexational items. Not that I’m aiming for a sexpot look, mind you, but when you buy Italian threads, that’s just what you get. Midriff and cleavage and thighs are suddenly bared, you’re fettered in strings-lace-studs-chains—and Presto! You’re a southern Italian tart. It’s like playing dolls into adulthood—with yourself as Barbie.
Lest you wonder what a professional woman does with a sluttish wardrobe, well, she slips into it for work. A weatherwoman on Italy’s Channel 4 turned up on a recent show busting out of her blouse, looking more qualified to lap dance than read the weather. The louche cameraman—who must have been lying on the floor—slithered up her oily legs, then zoomed in and lingered wistfully on her ripe melons as the sober-suited anchorman raised his eyebrows and opined, “Nice dishabille.” In a sudden fit of modesty, she blushed and screened her upper body with her notes. On Channel 2, the news anchor wore a serious look and a black turtleneck sweater buttoned all the way to her chin one night as she delivered news of the disappearance of a little Sicilian girl and atrocities in Iraq. But what riveted me (though I tried to avert my eyes) was the hole in her sweater—big as a picture window—that showcased her ample cleavage. Maybe it’s just me, but eroticized news loses its gravitas.
During his year in Washington D.C., Milanese journalist Beppe Severgnini noted, in Ciao, America!, that working women there “go from their two-piece suit…straight into their husbands’ sweatshirts,” and concluded that the Eastern U.S. was “a strangely sexless land” where “feminine fascination is a no-no.” Scusi, Signor Severgnini; while you may be right about all that, can’t we find a happy medium between the sexless and the supersexed?
In Sicily, even I take seriously my civic responsibility. I’m an idealized version of myself. I fuss over clothes and makeup, suck in my gut, walk taller. I have to get all glammed up even for a trash run because reaching the dumpster involves swimming through a sea of Sicilian eyes outside the Caffè Puglisi. Some days, I prefer to let the trash bags full of smelly fish bones and espresso grounds pile up in the apartment. It’s just too wearisome maintaining the façade.
I try on a pair. They’re distressed, fabricated to look like they’ve already put in years of hard labor out on the ranch. The box says, “Special feature! Damaged by hand.” The scimitar toes form angles so acute that all I can imagine as I hobble about is what great tools of self-defense they’d be if they didn’t kill me. “Molto sexy,” says the shopgirl with no trace of irony. Her own tootsies have been squeezed into a pink shoe so narrow that foot fat pours over the edges like yeasty dough.
When my Sicilian-American colleague, Mary, turns up one day shod in gondolas, I ask, “How can you walk in those things?”
“It’s actually easier than it looks,” she says, inching painfully down the street with me, arms akimbo. You have to have the balance of a circus performer to wear these things.
Sometime later, at a cannolo festival on the steep cobbled streets of Mary’s hometown, Modica, the prow of her shoe wedges itself between two cobbles. She lurches, her chocolate cannolo scudding through the air like a missile. I prop her up as she limps back down the hill. Despite all this, Mary deems my own footwear too sensible and insists I buy a pair of gondolas.
I cave. The cappuccino-colored shoes cost an eye from my head, as they say here, and have killer toes long as skis. “Looks like they’ll take you on a magic carpet ride,” says Husband when I get them home a month later.
At midnight last week, after my British colleagues and I had had dinner out and were waiting for a cab, young men in their full Sicilian splendor were parading on the passeggiata. Bony Brendan sat hunched on the curb in a rumpled shirt, smoking a cigarette and eyeing the catwalk. “God, I hate these bloody Italian blokes,” he said.
I understand the sentiment, born of envy and an outsider’s sense of otherness. After six months in Palermo, I had jotted the following in my diary: These stunners are impeccably barbered, perfectly polished wax figures, the most self-conscious people I’ve ever seen. I’ve developed a passion for naturalness. For folks in dirty blue jeans and faces stripped of harlequin makeup. For people who do not daily turn themselves into works of art. For a cleansing hike through Peoria.
Since reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, I better understand the theatricality of Italian life, the importance of spectacle.