Survival guide – the Dress Code

Or… how not to stand out like a sore thumb on holiday in Italy.

Now you might be asking yourself who the heck cares about dressing like an Italian, especially if you are just on holiday, and certainly you want to make sure that you are comfortable while travelling. Now hold that thought and consider:

1. Tourists are far more likely to be targeted by pick-pockets and petty criminals (as they are in all countries)
2. Italian stare for longer than the British or the Americans. It isn’t them being rude, “appropriate stare time” varies from culture to culture and here it is longer. If you want them to stare less, it is a good idea to blend in.
3. If you are a woman, unfortunately there is a misguided impression that foreign women are “easy”. Avoid unwanted attention by looking more like a local
4. The Italians dress well in general. Nothing wrong with picking up a few tips!

photo credit: ffela via photopin cc
photo credit: ffela via photopin cc

For this post I am going to cover the typical tourist dress code “errors”  – even just following these few tips should be enough, although the subject of fashion in Italy is of course far more complex than this!

1. Showing too much skin is a no. Yes you will see some women dressed skimpily, but not many and most of these will be very young – I am talking early twenties or younger. This doesn’t mean you can’t show off your legs, your arms, your cleavage or whatever else is your best feature, but just don’t try to show it off all at once, no matter how good a figure you have… simply because the Italians don’t tend to and you will stand out as a tourist immediately.

2. Baggy clothes are worn only by very few people. The Italians like to make sure they look elegant and are very careful about the fit of their clothes. They will often buy off the hanger then take the clothing to the tailor to be altered so that it fits perfectly. You certainly do not need to go this far, but I would suggest making sure that you are not wearing huge baggy tshirts, sweatpants or jeans with a baggy butt.

3. Jeans. Italians wear jeans all the time! I am not sure where this idea that they snub the denim comes from, but they wear jeans more than we do in the UK, in fact they are perfectly acceptable attire even for the office. This comes with three big caveats: the first is point 2. – make sure your jeans FIT. The second is quality. Good quality jeans in a dark wash look quite elegant. The third is footwear. You CAN wear sports shoes, but they must look NEW. Leather shoes are a far safer bet, moccassins are a good idea for men and women often wear boots over jeans in the cooler months, swapping them for sandals, pumps or ballet flats in the Spring and Summer.

4. Footwear – pretty much covered by the above, but one more point. Please be careful with the socks, and I’m not only talking the old socks n’ sandals combo (a sartorial sin in any nation) but also what socks you wear with closed shoes as well. The Italians want their socks to go utterly unnoticed and will wear them in the same colour as their shoes or trousers. It is a daily battle in our house to make sure R has the right socks for his outfit… drives me bonkers. Ah, and flip flops are for the beach only.

5. Bags. No bumbags/fanny packs. Please. Good quality leather or canvas bags don’t have to be expensive and look far classier… and more Italian. You can get away with a backpack, at a push, but it has to be in decent condition and only while casual clothing.

6. Bright colours. I break this rule constantly 🙂 I love bright colours, and I really don’t care that the Italians don’t seem to. They like neutrals and muted colours. I wear these too, but I my favourite dresses are emerald green, watermelon, sapphire blue and scarlet in that order. Guess what though… whenever I wear these things all of my Italian friends have the same reaction Oh, che bella! Sei così… inglese! (Oh how lovely! You look so… English!)

7. Makeup, hair nails… grooming. Always done. Never overdone. Easier said than done! Italian women wear make-up every day but prefer to look as though they aren’t wearing any. They look after their hair and manicure their nails. The men do the same, aside from the makeup (well, mostly). And they all wear perfume/cologne…. they just don’t bath in it.

All of the above is a huge generalisation. There are Italians who are sartorial disasters. Italians who love bright clothing like me. Italians who wear too much make up or none at all. Italians who don’t give a monkey’s about elegance.  The above are guidelines, not rules… but you will look less like a tourist if you follow them! Any other tips? Thoughts? Experiences? Let me know 🙂

PS it is untrue that blonde hair marks you out as foreign… blonde or red hair is less common than brown or black here, but it is not so rare as to attract stares all by itself.

With love, from Italy

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Francesca Maria says:

    Great advice, you are so right! I always tell my foreign friends to try not to stand out and not to look lost and confused like tourists normally do.

    1. Yep… I forgot to add “wear dark glasses so if you do look confused and lost noone can tell” lol

      1. Francesca Maria says:

        Ha-ha, that’s so right. My husband is Japanese and in order not to stand out here in Trapani and look “more” Sicilians he wears sunglassess and the “coppola”, the traditional Sicilian hat you may have seen in the Godfather:)

        1. Haha does it work???

        2. Francesca Maria says:

          From a distance, yes:) There is a Japanese lady living here for many years, married to a Sicilian and she goes around by bicycle. She said very often kids yell after her “Hey Cinese” (Chinese). But she said she’s used to it, so she doesn’t get offended. This should show you the backward mentality. It’s not their fault though, Sicily is a very poor country and education is not a priority unfortunately.

        3. Trust me I know… I live near Naples, it is no better here…

  2. The Sartorial Coquette says:

    Great post and advice!! It is true that fashions change from place to place, even if it’s only a short distance like from New York to Boston.

    1. Definitely… There is quite a difference between major cities here too


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