Thursday, 11 March 2010

Life in Italy and in the UK: some differences (1) Appearance

I have now been living in Milan for almost two years so I’ve had many opportunties to compare life in Italy with that in the UK. Some of the differences are obvious (orange trams v red buses, for example), while some are more subtle and take a while to appreciate fully, such as the varying attitudes towards authority, public institutions and figures – and, of course, religion – between the two countries.

Living in a foreign country you become an observer of the people you see every day, a sort of amateur social anthropologist, so I suppose most of the differences between living in Britain and living in Italy are simply due to the fact that most people here are Italian. Consequently, it’s impossible to separate living in Italy from the fact of being surrounded by Italians (and, of course, not being Italian yourself).

The most obvious difference between the Italians and the Brits is their relative appearance. This is especially true in Milan, where your appearance counts for a lot (if not quite everything). When I first arrived in Milan I was inevitably struck by the fact that walking down the street in this city is the closest you can come to attending a fashion show. (Let’s face it, it actually is a fashion show). Even after two years I am constantly surprised by the level of attention and thought that some people have obviously put into the act of getting dressed to go out. And I’m not talking about over-the-top clubbers on their way to a Rocky Horror theme night; no, I mean someone who’s gone to the post office and is standing in the queue to withdraw some cash from their savings account, but before leaving the house has transformed themselves into Katherine Hepburn waiting in the lobby of the Cairo Hilton for a telegram from the Aga Khan. After a while it seems – if not quite normal, then at least commonplace – to see ladies of a certain age in fur coats (and matching fur hats) with elaborate candyfloss hair and enough gold to stock a small Bond Street jewellers. Or perhaps it’ll be a willowy, wannabe supermodel in white drainpipe jeans, leopardskin bolero and outsize Aviators (which always remind me of a fly) tottering along the pavement on six-inch heels, dragging the obligatory chihuahua in red PVC trimmed with gold piping – and this is simply someone coming out of a delicatessen clutching a plastic bag full of cheese and ham, on their way their home to have their tea.

Of course Milan is the global capital of fashion – or of the fashion industry, at any rate – and even people from other regions consider the Milanese ultra-stylish. But paying close attention to the way you look and dress is, of course, an essential element in the make-up of all Italians. As a Brit with virtually no interest in my own clothes, other than that they are comfortable and (generally) clean, the Italian obsession with appearance can sometimes feel like a pervasive and slightly indulgent neurosis; a shared hang-up that’s simply got out of hand, to the extent that it would now seem churlish mentioning to someone that in the quarter of an hour they’ve just spent picking lint off their jumper they could have read an Economist article on quantitative easing.

Every culture defines itself by giving greater weight to things that outsiders generally consider trivial or irrelevant. While it’s a cliché, for instance, that the British always talk about the weather and are obsessed with tea, it is nonethless true that a typical English conversation in the UK will include a consideration of the seasonality (or otherwise) of the snow or rain that we’ve been having recently. (And if you don’t mind, I’d much rather you put the milk in first. In fact, it always tastes much better if you make it in a teapot...) It would be odd, then, if only some Italians – the Milanese, say – were image-mad, while appearance was of little or no concern to other Italians; as it is, the brand horses trotting between the boutiques of Milan’s quadrilateral (the four streets that border the main haute-couture shopping district) are simply expressing in a somewhat exaggerated way a tendency that is present in all their countrymen (and especially countrywomen).


  1. I love your post. It's very informative and give added value for me, thanks a lot.


  2. melanese chodu hain.milan ke pudi me lund dal ke chodunga.

  3. helped with my homework thanks!