Just back from the land of Armani, Missoni, Fendi, Ferragamo, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Prada and Versace and guess what? Not a logo or designer label in sight. Sure, there were stores all over Rome and Florence filled with fancy clothes and accessories by all of the above fashion luminaries but when it came to street style...niente. I was there on vacation but my secret mission was to check out the style of my Italian peers. Tons of tourists ( mostly Japanese, Chinese and American ) trooped over the cobblestones proudly schlepping shopping bags spelling out the loot within, but the native Italian women I noticed - those of a certain 50, 60, 70 age - displayed a very different kind of style. The clothes they wore so beautifully and naturally were quiet, refined, luxurious and not screaming "famous fabulous fashion." More Carla Bruni (at left) than Madonna, so to speak. These women were beyond chic, beyond elegance, and I was determined to find out their secrets. After a week of observation and conversations, here's how to get real Italian style:
STICK TO LOW-KEY EXPENSIVE-LOOKING NEUTRALS, NOT BLACK. The favored wardrobe colors surprisingly rarely included black. Most of my Italian peers wore mixes of subtle foggy shades of taupe, dove grey, camel and muted greige (a mushroom color- you'll know it when you see it). It looked so much more appealing than the head-to-toe black we've been drilled into wearing. And all those colors work together to create a hazy luxurious effect.
GET A GREAT TAILORED KNEE-LENGTH COAT IN A QUALITY FABRIC. All the 20 and 30 somethings zipped around on Vespas in motorcycle jackets and Moncler puffers. The elegant crowd (our girls) wore shawl collared or demure round- collared topcoats cut straight and slim or with a slightly A-line shape. The fabric was always some sort of perfect alpaca, cashmere or the best quality wool. It looked amazingly sexy in an understated way (like something out of a 50s film) and just right with skirts and dresses or slim ankle cropped pants (though I saw few of those, to be honest).
COLLECT BEAUTIFUL FITTED CASHMERE SWEATERS TO WEAR WITH TAILORED SLIM SKIRTS. There's not much layering and slouchiness going on here. A feminine womanly silhouette is the preferred look to a youthful, boyish, sporty one. I did not see a single woman of our generation wearing jeans or leggings. The skirts they wore were knee-length in updated classic A-line or pencil styles- sometimes with a little pleating for walk-ability- in wool or cashmere. They looked super-fashionable with flats, low heels especially tapered toe loafers or slim boots. Not a stiletto, sneaker, wedge or platform heel in sight! The sweaters were crews or high V- necks worn slim and belted over the skirts, sometimes with an open cardigan added as a jacket. This is a smart way to do comfort.
MAKE SURE YOUR EYEGLASSES ARE UP-TO-DATE. The eyeglass stores were always packed with women our age buying new glasses. None had giant visible logos or were in any way a statement. The Italians look for special materials like horn, wood, subtle color and exquisite workmanship. Things like beautifully designed hinges or a nosepiece matter. The most popular frames were discreet but gorgeous- I suppose like a little Alfa Romeo for your face. Very subtle, very classy.
WEAR GOLD. Load up on stacks of rings and bracelets with cabochard or faceted semi-precious stones. These women wore gold jewelry with a "family history" sort of look like gold intaglio signet rings in brilliant oranges and greens. This is where you can play and establish a signature look.
KEEP HAIR AND MAKEUP NEUTRAL AND NATURAL. Although I saw lots of bad dyed red hair in Italy none of it was in our age group (what is it with those fluorescent shades?).There was not much going on in the way of rampant highlighting and blonding or obvious self-tanning for us either. However, the overall gist is: medium length hair in a classic blunt cut with a few layers - anywhere from chin to mid-neck length, soft eye makeup with a little discreet shadow and liner, nude lips and a hint of bronzing powder for a glow. But that was it! Nails were groomed but appeared to be buffed rather than polished for the most part. Wrinkles were worn - like the vintage walls of the gorgeous villas and buildings - with pride.
Lois Joy Johnson is a beauty and fashion editor and blogger, and the author of "The Makeup Wakeup:Revitalizing Your Look At Any Age". To order, click here.