Dressing for Italy

Before coming to Viterbo, I did a lot of practical, random, and/or anxiety-induced Google searches about life in Italy. Several of those were related to what to wear — what would be seasonally appropriate and help us blend in at least a teeny bit with the locals?

The internet was packed with advice. Italians wear mostly black! Men never wear shorts! Nobody wears jeans!

But here’s what I’ve discovered: All those advice lists are just generalizations. Italians, like most Americans, wear pretty much whatever they want.

I’ve seen cargo shorts with comfy t-shirts and soccer team ballcaps. I’ve seen designer dresses with 4-inch heels. I saw a lady on the train yesterday in a jean jacket, tulle skirt, and sheer pantaloons (and she made it look super chic). I’ve seen Hawaiian shirts and acid-washed jeans and bright-white thobes and silk pants and cotton sundresses and magenta saris and black leather jackets — and half the under-30 population here seems to own the same Levi’s logo t-shirt.

Do some people look like tourists? Well, sure. Italy is packed with tourists. We’re not all magically going to look Italian if we try hard enough. (And there’s no one way to look Italian!)

If you’re Henry, Italian style is tie-dye, Avengers swim trunks, and teal sandals with one sock.

So what should a visitor wear to Italy? After a month here, I do have some practical advice.

Wear comfortable shoes. Unless you want to spend a bucketload on taxis or are brave enough to rent a car, you’ll walk a lot in Italy. Living in a small, walkable town, combined with touristy stuff, has had us walking about 5 miles a day on average. After yesterday’s trip to the Vatican I hit 8.2.

So what constitutes comfortable shoes? Whatever you normally find comfortable and like wearing with the clothes you pack. That’s it. I brought my favorite summer hiking shoes and a pair of Naot sandals with good arch support (which I found thanks to one of those advice lists — Travel Fashion Girl’s “These Are the Shoes I Packed for Two Weeks in Europe.”)

I love my Naot sandals

Dress to suit your reaction to the weather. You probably already know it gets hot in the summer in Italy. I walked around Rome with my photography class on Friday in 99-degree Fahrenheit weather, plus humidity, and I have never been sweatier in my life (eeeeeeew). But remember that I’m from relatively dry, cool North Idaho, and heat is subjective: I saw multiple dudes strolling around in full suits.

The lesson is, find out what the average temperature and humidity levels are where you’re going, and wear what you’d be comfortable wearing if it got that hot/cold/whatever at home.

(Also I recommend just not going to Rome if it’s 99 degrees out. Seriously, eew.)

Leave room for new stuff. Give yourself wiggle room to adapt to what feels good when you’re here, especially if you’re here for a few weeks. Yes, Italy has super-expensive clothing shops, but in my experience it’s been easy to find affordable clothing to suit my needs. I’ve never really been a long-flowy-dress person, but it turns out long flowy dresses feel awesome on treks across cool little towns on super-hot days, so I’ve bought a few.

A woman in a long dress eats gelato on a sidewalk with two children
Long flowy dresses are also practical for perching on sidewalks to eat gelato.

(They’re also cathedral/church-appropriate — yes, you really do have to cover your shoulders and knees in many churches, especially those that attract a lot of tourists. Some places will give you a poncho if you forget, but others will turn you away. A light scarf helps with covering shoulders when it’s hot, and there are plenty of shops and street vendors that sell pretty ones.)

If you’re really curious about how to dress for travel in Italy, I have one last piece of good advice: Go travel in Italy. Then you’ll find out what works for you.

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