Thursday, 6 March 2008

Bright Lights in Italy

“Per bellezza” was what the chap said, whilst sipping Campari from a green-stemmed cocktail glass. It was a windy February evening some years ago in a local bar, sometime before midnight. It could not have been darker and the wearing of sunglasses could not have been more unnecessary; especially sunglasses that had no apparent tint in the lenses whatsoever. On being asked why he was wearing transparent shades that offered no shade and were clearly not designed to make driving any safer, his reply was, as I have already mentioned, “per bellezza”. The only true translation of this statement is “for beauty”. Unable to construct a relevant or timely response to this, I decided simply to nod agreement; for beauty, how obvious. Were British and Italian attitudes to eyewear really that diverse? I tried to imagine myself in the same ‘sunglasses’, sitting with some old friends over a quiet pint in an English country pub, calmly explaining that my glasses were the result of the sole necessity to look cool and offered me no effective benefit. I realised that this situation would never arise; it just isn’t possible to get away with that sort of self-image in the UK, unless you are a Big Brother contestant of course, in which case it is probably a prerequisite.

The wearing of sunglasses is a fact of life here in Italy; it just is sunny almost all the time, and the Italians are very conscious about their UV protection. Your average British high street might have an optician, with wall to wall frames for reading glasses and a slim selection of shades; which is perhaps why most Brits buy their shades in fashion shops or chain stores. In comparison every provincial Italian town will have at least one optician selling a remarkable range of UV- approved sunnies, from the genuinely cool to the sublimely ridiculous. Though huge sunglasses have only recently become de rigueur accessories and trademarks for celebrity types, for years now Italians seem to have functioned on a ‘the bigger the better’ ethos. Perhaps the biggest exponents of this art are policemen or, more especially, policewomen. Tottering on heels down stone-paved streets in navy-blue uniform, with a white topped hat perched above a mane of highly kempt chestnut hair, whilst sporting a handgun and an enormous pair of black Chanel sunnies is par for the course, believe it or not. The fur coat brigade of older ladies have long been wearing their own mothers’ original sunglasses, often the size of saucers, that were once considered terribly outdated but have recently been made fashionable again by the likes of Kate Moss. Who would have thought that Granny’s shades could ever be hip again?

However, how you wear your sunnies appears to be just as important as their brand or their size. Charlie recently tried on a girlfriend’s glasses, only to find that the arms didn’t reach her ears. It transpired that said glasses had spent about 90% of their life perched atop her head and, therefore, whether they fitted or not was irrelevant. In fact, Italians have a wide range of innovative ways of wearing shades that look neither comfortable nor practical. Hanging the glasses from your ears so that they hang down just below your chin seems to be a local favourite. There is also the bizarre trend of placing one arm of the glasses in the right ear and letting the other rest on your left jawbone, so that the glasses hang across your face in what we suppose is meant to be a ‘jaunty angle’. It is this trend towards wearing vastly expensive designer shades anywhere other than in front of your eyes that really sets the Italians apart. Bronzed beach hunks; the kind that manage to spend two months by the sea with no discernible means of support and who achieve a depth of tan unreachable to most of the population, can often be seen squinting their way across the beach with their D&Gs tucked into the back of their Sundek swimmers.

When you consider that an Italian, on average, spends double what northern European nationals spend on a pair of sunglasses, you have to marvel at their tenacity in keeping themselves at the cutting edge of fashion and self-grooming. But then, they say that the sex-appeal of the classic Latin lover is largely determined by his sunglasses, which may go a long way to explaining all of the above. So, when compiling a list of all things quintessentially Italian, remember to keep sunglasses close to the top of the list. Football, coffee and fast cars may be amongst their greatest exports, but none of these would be half as glam without a pair of “Made in Italy” designer shades close at hand.

3 comments:

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