My mother’s advice has always veered towards the practical and commonsense but it can be lofty at times, and downright inane if aimed at a 17 year old. The piece of advice that drove me stir crazy was: “Always wear nice underwear. You can be caught in an accident and end up at the hospital when you least expect it.”
Two things can be gleaned from this statement I went about ignoring for years: 1) having lived through a war, she likes to be prepared for all eventualities; 2) it’s easy to see where I get my worst case scenario approach to life. I would invariably quip that ER doctors had better things to worry about than faded knickers but for all I know maybe on a slow day they kvetch about the hole-y bra behind curtain number 3.
This statement also sums up my mother’s attitude to stepping out of the house, whether it’s for lunch at a fancy restaurant or to pick up some bread at the bakery round the corner. In fact, it sums up most Italian women’s attitude to grooming.
When sofagirl wrote the post on how to look like a Parisian, and of the gluttony of books on how French women stay thin, raise their children, look effortlessly chic and fuckable at a drop of a hat, I was in Italy, and I spent some time looking around at Italian women going about their day. Women on the bus, at work, buying bread or sitting at a cafe. Especially middle-aged women.
In the LaLa land where I live there are three categories of middle-aged women:
- the ladies who lunch, i.e. those who have time and money or who work in high-powered positions, who are invariably perfectly groomed. A bit too perfectly: the hair doesn’t budge; the nails are long and a bit too shiny; the faces too smooth; the clothes too “designer”;
- the ladies whose grooming has gone awry amidst poor choices of frosted lipstick, velour tracksuits and (this gets me every time, that someone actually invented this) the visor hat that keeps the face shielded from the sun but the hair perfectly coiffed. Really. It wins the Oscar for ugliest and least flattering garment ever.
- those who don’t give a rat’s ass and will step into Ralph’s in tattered tracksuits, grimy hair and devil-may-care attitude.
Come to think of it, there is a subset of moneyed women – who epitomize the blonde Californian of our collective imagination – who glide through life shaking long honeyed tresses made to look as if they just rolled out of bed, sporting faded jeans and live-in cashmere sweaters that scream “millionaire alert” if you look closely. They are very beautiful and no match for mere mortals so we will not take them into consideration for the purpose of this post.
In Italy, middle-aged women are more uniform. Even those who cannot afford Chanel suits or cashmere twin sets take pride in how they look. I don’t believe they stop to think about it before they leave the house in the morning – it’s just how they grew up, maybe confused by mixed messages of desirability, objectification and routine cat calls when walking down the street married to a genuine desire to look their best. It’s all so ingrained that 98% of the women would not dream of popping our for some milk in slippers and pajama bottoms. It’s not about being fuckable – it’s more to do with self-respect and vanity alike.
Italian women rarely look out of place – whatever the occasion. Their hair is always nicely cut and styled even if that style might be pushing it behind the ears and combing it neatly or pulling it into a pony tail.
The nails are manicured, sometimes polished, but no French manicure in sight (not even in France, may I add) and never so long that get in the way of daily life.
Clothes might be bought at H&M but they are appropriately put together – it really isn’t hard to match a pencil skirt with a crisp shirt, or a pair of pants with a pretty sweater and maybe add a scarf or a brooch or a stylish handbag.
There is always a hint of makeup – just a bit. My mom, at 77, wouldn’t dream of going out without a smidge of lipstick – nothing else. It can be mascara, or foundation and blush, whatever enhances one’s features without looking like war paint.
And it all looks very nice. And stylish. And it says “I care enough to have made an effort.”
After nearly 20 years in California, I sometimes fall prey to lounging around the house in pajamas long past clearing the breakfast table or in yoga pants covered in dog hair, until I catch sight of myself in a mirror and I will run to clean up and put something nicer on and just as comfortable – even if no one is looking, even if no one is expected, even if I am not planning to leave the house. I do it for me.
Before leaving Italy, my mother slipped a leopard print bra and panty set in my suitcase. It’s really cute and makes a change from the sea of black that populates my drawers. It took me a long time to finally heed her advice and promptly discard underwear past its prime. I do it for me. And for that ER doctor who might end up saving my life. May he or she not be offended by faded knickers.