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Sicilian Style?
by Antonella Gallo

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Stylish in Sicily.It's something they'll never mention in GQ or Esquire, where advertisements for Italian fashion, alongside "advertorials" to match, are the order of the day. In the American edition of Esquire you sometimes have to leaf through twenty-five pages of ads before arriving at the magazine's table of contents, and most of the clothing ads are for Italian products. Sure, half of Dolce & Gabbana is Sicilian, and their style is cutting edge, but here's the eternal paradox left unrevealed until you spend some time here in Sicily or the rest of Italy: Most of the "Italian style" you see worn by men in offices and even on the street is actually based on American and British influences. Yes, all those light blue, button-down collar shirts of pseudo oxford cloth worn with blazers and jeans by young Berlusconi-ites and paunchy, gray-haired "wannabe studs," the khaki trench coats, the chinos, the waxed-cloth rain coats, the deck shoes, the polo shirts --all originated far beyond Italian shores. You didn't know that? You thought these items were created by stilisti in Milan or Rome? Think again. Yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Does a bona fide "Sicilian Style" really exist? Yes. But it's far more eccentric and cinematic than realistic, with its contrasts of dark and light, its studied combinations and archaic formality. Anyway, how many Palermitans and Catanians do you suppose can afford overpriced suits made (often outside Italy) by Versace and Armani?

In truth, Lacoste, Timberland, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, Barbour and their numerous imitators have supplanted any claim that the "natives" ever had on men's fashion. The originality in Italian fashion has been left to the realm of what women wear, not men. In any case, except for items sold by Bucoli and a few other firms very little of what you see worn in Sicily is actually made on our island. Even small towns have shops selling apparel imported from China.

How did it ever get this way? Italian tailors are still among the world's best, and Italy's designers are nothing if not creative. But it's not just about runway modelling and the cutting edge. The point is that "foreign" styles sell well to Italian social climbers as well as everybody else. Hardly anybody seeking to dress like a Brooks Brothers man has ever been anywhere near a Brooks Brothers store. That said, little of what is worn in Sicily is made (in one place or another) by "Italian" firms, most of which manufacture outside Italy. The Levis and Dockers sold in southern Italy are made in Hungary or some other European Union nation where labor is not too expensive, but as the retail price is still ridiculous most Sicilian men wear "knock-offs." In these austere times, the classic outperforms the trendy, and Italian men, compared to their wives and sisters, seem to prefer to save their money by purchasing things that will last more than one season. It's an open secret that as soon as they arrive in New York Italian men go to Brooks Brothers and other stores to purchase clothes which --among other factors-- would cost a fortune in their "high fashion" Italian versions. There's also the question of fit. Most British and American jackets and trousers simply fit better than the Italianate clothes traditionally made for scrawny boy models who've never pumped any serious iron at the gym.

What's so obviously ironic in all this is that while many people outside Italy (where most Italian high fashion clothing and, for that matter, Italian sports cars, are sold) regard Italian fashion as being in some way superior, Italians themselves view foreign sartorial influences as somehow more appealing than Italian ones. But then, particular styles are hardly the province of a single country or caste, and foreign firms are happy to sell their wares in Italy. Research indicates that Italians are more likely to purchase based on brand prestige rather than actual quality, so snob appeal may play a role here. But again, that's true among many non-Italian consumers as well. James Bond wears Brioni, but that's part of a marketing phenomenon known as "product placement" --and let's not forget that he's only a fictional character, if a well-dressed one.

For the record, here's a brief breakdown of the history of some of the favorite "Italian" men's fashion items.

Jeans. The fabric is similar to cotton twill once in made in Nîmes, hence de Nîmes (denim). The word jeans comes to us from the French Gênes (for Genoa), where sailors wore heavy cotton pants. Etymology aside, jeans as we know them were developed in the western United States by Levi Strauss late in the nineteenth century. Strauss used heavy canvas and rivets to make these durable trousers. Popular for decades, jeans certainly can not be said to be the province of one country or another.

Blazers. Another Victorian development, either as sporting attire or as part of dark-blue naval uniforms, depending on which history you accept. The Italians may have been among the first, in the 1990s, to abandon metallic buttons in favor of black or blue plastic ones, though initially this was probably for economic reasons rather than purely aesthetic ones. The blazer-and-jeans look is much abused by Sicilians over fifty; it's not very flattering on short, stout, gray-haired men walking along Via Libertà in Palermo or Catania's Via Etnea.

Tweed. Heavy wool twill has existed in Italy since ancient Roman times, but the distinctive weaves associated with British fashion are based on Harris Tweed, woven in a specific region of Scotland. The original plaids were based on tartan, another Scottish fashion.

Polo shirts. The original design was created by British officers enjoying polo in India and what is now Pakistan, where the sport was first played on elephants rather than on horseback. Jean René Lacoste (1904-1996), a French tennis player, invented the version best-known today. The button-down collar was reputed to be a part of some of the first polo shirts, later adapted to use in coarse "Oxford" cloth shirts in America. Until the 1980s anything but white shirting was rarely worn by Italians in combination with dark suits.

Loafers. Aldo Gucci updated the look popularized in America, adding tassels and other fancy details to these laceless shoes. Deck shoes are a similar style of American creation, essentially loafers with laces.

Khaki. The color was developed for British military use during service in India (where "khaki" means "dust") in Victorian times. The same shade was then used in trench coats (first made by Burberry) and combat uniforms in the First World War. Chinos (khaki military trousers worn by American troops) were developed during the same period, so-called because some of the twill cloth originally came from China. Civilian use followed the Second World War, when returning soldiers introduced it to the American college campus. The safari and hunting look (things like bush jackets) popularized by Hollywood and Ernest Hemingway traces its roots to Britain's African military adventures, and several genera of jackets later adapted to civilian use reflect this pedigree. Taking a clue from their military betters, the Italians imitated these styles during their attempts at African empire-building until they were kicked out of Ethiopia and then Libya during the 1940s by (you guessed it) the British and the Americans; khaki uniforms tend to look less dignified when one is wearing one's tail between his legs, but certain clothes can soften the blow of even the most humiliating defeat.

Coppola caps. For this we have to thank the Sicilians.

About the Author: Antonella Gallo, who teaches art in Rome, has written numerous articles on arts and artists for Best of Sicily.

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© 2009 Antonella Gallo