There are many advantages to shopping in Italy. Everyone knows that for high quality and chic designer clothes this is the place to buy. Besides, you will almost always come away with more than you bargained for, at least culturally speaking. One morning of healthy Italian shopping will teach you more about this country and its people than four years of Italian studies at university. Discover how Italians shop, and you will understand their priorities. And although shopping may not be a window to the Italian soul, it is certainly a window to their psyche.
But be advised, if you do decide to “fare lo shopping” in Italy, there are some things you should keep in mind. First, don’t expect to find a shirt in your favourite colour, or even in a colour you think you need to match your beige slacks. It is scientifically proven that in a given season all the shop windows boast the same shades, and if you are desperate for a pair of navy slacks when blue is not one of the two colours that stores have decided to stock this month, you are out of luck. This season it’s orange, turquoise, and avocado green. The fact that avocado green makes your skin look avocado green is of relevance to no one.
Second, when you do “lo shopping” in Italy, forget about personal preference. Although Italians may be secure shoppers with hawk eyes who immediately stake out the clothes they intend to buy, they are not known to be very adventurous in their purchases. Generally speaking, Italians won’t dream of buying an outfit simply because they think it’s cute. Around here, fashion is serious business, and people don’t generally invest in an article of clothing solely on the grounds that they “like it.” Italians buy clothes to suit their bodies, and clothes to suit the times. That’s all. Cooperative clothes should flatter the body, please the eye, and follow the fashion. Minor things like comfort or individual taste are secondary.
Lastly, before venturing down via Tornabuoni, reconcile yourself with the fact that “fare lo shopping” in Florence forces you to know thyself and thy limitations. Perhaps one day Italy will be populated by salesclerks who work on commission and gush about how great you look in a gunny sack. As of now, Italians aren’t so easily fooled. These days, a shop assistant ad hoc has a haughty chin and high cheekbones. She will be coolly aloof and smile sparingly. Young as she may seem, this is not a temp worker trying to save money for college. She has been there seven years. She will be there at least twenty more. That shop is her territory, her professional space, and those three dresses, hanging on that rack, are her field of expertise. Let her show you what she knows. After all, the woman knows her clothes. She also knows how her clothes look on your body. So until you learn to accurately judge clothes on the hanger before trying them on, you may be in for a little heartache.
Last January, during nation-wide sales season, I tried on a green wool dress that I had unwittingly classified as “very cute.” There I stood, turning undecidedly in front of the fitting room mirror, until the saleslady interrupted my preening. “Take it off, you look like a nun.” Amazing how easy it is to save seventy-five euros! Of course, she had every right to make the truth known to me. In a word-of-mouth society, like Italy, there is no worse publicity than sending your customers around looking like convent escapees.
“Fare lo shopping” in Italy builds character. Whenever I feel myself on the verge of an existential crisis, I find it useful to subject myself to a Florentine shopping spree. Humbling or humiliating, it always puts me in my place. Fashion constraints and frank salesclerks serve to remind me of the insignificance of my desires. Try it. You’ll come away with lovely clothes that suit you. They won’t be the colour you wanted or the cut you like, but then, in life and while shopping, compromise is key.