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ITALY EXPLAINED

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy

Some of Italy’s foreign residents may still be wearing t-shirts, but Italians are preparing for the most stressful style-related event of the year: the summer-to-autumn wardrobe switch. Silvia Marchetti explains what it’s all about.

Why the great autumn wardrobe switch is serious business in Italy
It's that time of year again - say goodbye to you flip-flops and dig out your jackets and scarves. Photo by Faith Lee on Unsplash

People have always said to me that Italians stand out (particularly abroad) because of the way they dress, the style of their clothes, the designer labels, the gorgeous bags and shoes. 

But it’s not because they really do dress better than others, rather they are extremely picky about what they wear, and when they wear it, at which precise time of the year. 

Italians are dead serious about adapting their dress code to the different seasons in response to dropping or rising temperatures. The ‘wardrobe switch’ is a major event that consumes entire days of a family’s weekends or spare time. From the kids to granny, all must change their apparel. I remember my grandparents used to mark it on their calendar, a bit like when you have to take the car for the annual check called the tagliando

There are four major wardrobe switches, as many as the seasons. The most tiring is the summer-to-autumn one, which usually occurs mid-September when the summer heat abates. 

Summer clothes are taken out of the closet and laid on the bed, then autumn apparel is plucked out from an upper closet space and neatly laid on the other side of the bed to be scrutinized. 

READ ALSO: Pumpkin risotto and the great wardrobe switch: How life in Italy changes when autumn arrives

It’s then time to do some clearing out: the switch is the time to try on autumn clothes and see if they still fit or are no longer wanted or liked (meaning you’ll be shopping for new ones). 

This stage can take hours, if not days. Jackets, which usually take up more space and are kept in the cellar or attic, are also cleaned of dust and tried on. 

Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash

The summer apparel is then packed away and replaced by the autumn clothes, which are laid out in the same spot where the t-shirts and shorts once were. The same goes for shoe switches. Back in the box with those flip-flops, which are a major no-no after September 20th, and back on the shelves for boots and sneakers. 

When an Italian decides that summer is over, summer is over even if it’s still 25 degrees outside. My boyfriend just switched from shorts to trousers, even though he’s sweating most of the time. 

And it may seem that there’s a particular dress code that everyone follows. Autumn calls for ‘camicette’ shirts, light leather jackets, jeans, and bright little stylish scarves in silk or cotton to protect against the first potential cold air. Rain coats and casual jackets dubbed spolverini (dusters) are also taken out of storage.

The motto is ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, meaning ‘to dress like an onion’, with layers of shirts and sweaters that can be peeled off throughout the day depending on temperature swings. 

READ ALSO: Ten Italian lifestyle habits to adopt immediately

It’s a way to avoid sweating at noon or getting too cold in the evenings. But it’s also a stylish dressing habit to show that we are fully equipped, including financially, to cope with the changing seasons. If you don’t buy at least one new item of clothing per season, that’s just ‘not cool’.

A ‘booster’ wardrobe switch happens again in December, when the piumini, or hardcore winter ‘duvet’ coats, and knitted wool sweaters are taken out to reinforce the autumn apparel. 

Even if it never gets that cold in Italy compared to some countries, Italians still like to wear wool hats, gloves and some even wear furs, heavy boots and mountain-climbing uniforms – perhaps just for the sake of showing off some of their cool skiing apparel. 

Whether in autumn, winter, spring, or summer, the wardrobe switch is also an excuse to go shopping. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Then when spring arrives, winter clothes disappear and autumn attire starts mixing with some t-shirts, sleeveless jackets, and lighter cotton pants. 

But it’s still too early to wear shorts for men or skirts without stockings for women: showing off white bare legs is so unstylish.

Alas, when it’s finally summer, flip flops and sandals pop out again and the switch is an occasion to throw away unwanted summer clothes from the previous year and buy new bikinis, skirts, tank tops and fancy colorful shirts. This can be quite painful if you happen to have gained weight during the cold months. 

Italians are serious about wardrobe changes given their reaction even to just slight temperature drops or hikes.

I know that for foreigners seeing Italians wearing coats now in September even if it’s not yet so cold can be quite shocking in the same way it is for Italians to see Americans or Germans wearing t-shirts in December. 

READ ALSO: ‘Five ways a decade of living in Italy has changed me’

But climate change is disrupting the traditional wardrobe switch. My granny used to say that the so-called ‘middle seasons’ in Italy which are those between summer and winter (she meant autumn and spring) were luckily very long and pleasant. But nowadays even Italy has very short springs and autumns. In recent years there’s been a sudden jump from hot summers to half-winter seasons. 

This affects the way Italians are dressing, as I see fewer leather jackets around or raincoats unless it’s actually raining. The other day I was swimming in a pool and in the afternoon when I came back home there was a strong wind and I had to put on my piumino (long duvet coat) plus a hat. 

Luckily I have a huge walk-in closet so the left part is for winter, the right part is for summer and in between are all those items that used to fall within my granny’s ‘middle seasons’. So I always have everything at hand to cope even with the uncontrolled effects of climate change.

Friends of mine are already going into depression because they’re planning the wardrobe switch for next weekend – but they already miss the summer and don’t want to give up on the sexy shorts and elegant sandals. 

There’s no doubt about it: when it comes to clothes, most Italians can be very fussy indeed.

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LIVING IN ITALY

Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Most towns in Italy have a pretty 'centro storico', or old town centre, full of charm and history. But there are plenty of reasons why Italians don't want to live there, says Silvia Marchetti

Charming or boring - What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Italy’s rural villages lure foreigners with their fascinating historic centres and bucolic vibe, but they’re not always as idyllic as they may seem at first glance.

Living in such villages, many of which are depopulated and in isolated places, built around a more or less intact ancient district, has pros and cons. They come with caveats.

The plus points are of course the old architecture and picturesque buildings full of history, surroundings with great countryside or mountain views, fewer crowds, authentic food and traditions, and welcoming neighbors. There is that ‘microcosm’ ambiance that makes you feel at home in a small place.

But one must go beyond the romantic, aesthetic appeal of old districts and look at how practical it is to actually live there.

Last weekend I visited a small village in the province of Rieti called Percile and nearly broke my leg climbing up and down the layers of huge stone steps, which were the actual alleys, wondering how residents could do it every single time they left their homes. It’s like a killer open-air gym.

READ ALSO: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

While some foreigners might view such daily feats as part of their sogno all’italiana (‘Italian dream’), Italians are not as keen on reliving the bygone days.

Historic centres are all structured in the same way: a bunch of houses cropped at the feet of a castle, church or fortress, with narrow, winding cobbled alleys where ankles get easily sprained, and ragged stone steps connecting the various levels. 

The semi-deserted old town centre of Rignano Flaminio. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cars are banned, finding a parking place nearby is hell especially in summer, and the pavements get slippery when it rains. And in small villages where most locals have long left, or return just for weekends, shops, bars, restaurants and pharmacies tend to be located in newer areas or in nearby towns.

In the past locals fled from these places due to harsh living conditions, searching for a brighter future elsewhere. They left behind empty houses, so today many historic centres are partly abandoned and inhabited by immigrants or adventurous foreigners looking for a quiet retreat. 

Italians tend not to buy houses in old neighborhoods unless they have nostalgia for their roots and want to reconnect with their ancestors, or eye an investment like a B&B. They’d rather buy country houses with a garden, plot of land, and if affordable, a small pool.

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

My Italian friends have never even considered buying an old dwelling in the historic centre of a rural village; they find it uncomfortable. And so do I, unless I’m sure to have everything I need at hand and at a short walking distance.

“I’m Sicilian, but I’d never purchase a cheap or one euro home in Sicily’s ancient neighborhoods, no matter how fascinating these are. I would not know where to park the car and just the thought of carrying heavy grocery bags and bottled water up staircases scares me, old homes don’t come with elevators”, says Rosi Gangiulo, a pensioner from Palermo.

Crumbling houses in Percile. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also a few prejudices involved too. Unless it’s a unique, stunning town like Civita di Bagnoreggio in Lazio suspended above a deep chasm, or Renaissance-era jewel Pienza in Tuscany, living in the old part is seen as (and often is) the place for poorer or migrant families, while owning an attic in the newer area where all the pubs and shops are is ‘cool’.

In the medieval historic centre of Rignano Flaminio north of Rome, few locals remain, hens run freely amid grass-covered ruins, and entire families of immigrants live cramped in tiny one-room apartments. 

Former Italian residents have moved to the countryside or to the modern outskirts, certainly less charming but easier to live in.

Some seemingly picture-perfect historical centres are best admired at a distance, rather than experienced from the inside. Last time I visited Torrita Tiberina in the Tiber Valley it struck me how most homes in the medieval district were shut, abandoned or decaying, with nobody around. 

I happened to bump into a young Neapolitan man who asked me whether I knew what time the bus to Rome was. He told me he had been living there for four months, focusing on writing a book.

“The silence is great but it’s just too quiet. I don’t have a car and each time I had to buy something I needed to get out of the historic centre. It also became unbearable having no next-door neighbor to chat with.

To be sure old villages are the right fit, one has to look beyond the charm and really evaluate whether they’re livable as well as beautiful.

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