Diana has just returned from Rome with a newly found admiration for Caravaggio, Roman women, and their street fashion.
Noticing Roman women can’t be helped, she reported. First, they are masters of taking whatever natural beauty or lack thereof and making themselves fascinating. Second, she noticed certain spring fashion leitmotifs. Of note, on her visit, were stunning sun glasses and skinny jeans. She was so impressed by the style that these women projected through a simple pair of jeans that she commanded that we go jean shopping immediately. Finally she was drawn to their way with one another. One Sunday afternoon sitting in a little osteria in Trastevere, she discretely watched a group of young Roman women enjoying lunch together. “You know,” she said, “They didn’t all talk at once. When one person was talking everyone else listened attentively. No one monopolized the conversation. Everyone took a turn speaking.” Hmm, I wonder what this says about our group of friends.
Roman women and their street fashion also made an impression on me on my fall visit. That they made such a strong imprint on both of us is telling. But, of what? Perhaps, it is a yearning for style, not just clothes. Perhaps it is our desire for belonging, community and place. It is, more than likely, some of both. But the main thing is their presence, the way they communicate a sense of beauty and tribe.
The saying goes that every woman should have a “good white shirt” in her basic wardrobe. Roman woman take this advice seriously. In the morning, bending over an espresso at the bar, selecting melanzana violeta for that day’s meal, or riding head-strong on their bikes into the traffic, everywhere I look I see white-shirted women going about their errands. In the evenings there they are again walking arm-in-arm on the ritual passeggiata.
These are not baggy and wrinkly shirts. Designed with darts, slits, and gathers in unexpected places they show the wearers to best advantage. Their collars stand open to display long elegant Roman necks. These necks, in turn, anchor a variety of gold, gem, stone, wood, and plastic beaded chains that twist around to hang just so.
After a few days of white shirt watching, I wanted to try one but wondered if it would feel too structured. Much to my surprise, it didn’t and it looked good, so I made room for one among my T-shirts and pullovers. Such a simple thing for such an grand effect, that’s a good white shirt.
The bag of choice is an overly large slouchy affair made of sand-and-or-bone leather. The more gathers, pockets, rivets, and buckles, the better. Worn over the shoulder, the bag is held tight under the arm, just as tight as the women hold onto one another as they transverse the crowded streets and impossibly congested intersections. “What,” I ask myself, “do they carry inside?” To really know a woman, one only has to look inside her bag where who she is most often stamped right there in its contents. I am tempted to bump into one’s owner, and ask, “Mi scuso, do tell me, what do you carry in this bag?” I am so curious. But, I do not and so I never find out.
The other de rigueur style accessory is the shoe. Shoe shops are everywhere in Rome. But of all the styles and variety in the stores, one basic model shod the feet of Roman woman.
It is the ballerina shoe. These elegant, lightweight flats come in every color and material. I am amazed to see many women wearing white ones as they stride through the dust, churned up by the never ending restoration projects everywhere in the City. I don’t know how they stay white. Perhaps, once at home members of the of shoe guild sweep down to restore each pair to their pristine whiteness.
I will never forget seeing, what I took to be, a mother and her grown daughter walking arm-and-arm at a clip over the cobblestones. The younger woman wore white ballerinas, the older black patent leather. What caught my attention was how from these thin delicate shoes rose up two amazingly tall and strong women communicating purpose and nobility to everyone around them. This is presence.
But, no matter white ballerinas are not for me. If I were to walk out in a pair, I would surely ruin them in a day. I imagine them crushed or dirtied beyond recognition from an unintended rendezvous with a motorcycle or fellow pedestrian. Furthermore the magical shoe guild alludes me. How to care for these delicate white slippers is beyond me.
These shirts, bags, and shoes call out, “I belong to Roman womanhood.” This close-knit society where intimacy is expected, where a glance or a nod is telling, and where companionship is strong. I, too, want to belong to this tribe. Ama Roma.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum