Thursday, January 5, 2012

Manners, morals and la bella figura

January 6, 2012
Essential to the Italian culture is the concept of “bella figura,” good figure, but the literal translation is not sufficient to comprehend the meaning. It relates to making a good impression but goes even further. It has been described as putting your best foot forward in everything you do, especially in style, appearance and public behavior, as a way of showing respect to yourself and others. Although she does not use this term, Fanny undoubtedly believed in it, as can be seen throughout her chapter titled “Of Manners and Morals.”

“A well-groomed man or woman is mentally well-groomed, too. For resort wear, casual attire is permitted, but even on the Riviera, gentlemen and gentlewomen are always properly attired when they dine in restaurants. My beloved (peasant-born) father wouldn’t even go to the bank unless he was neatly dressed.

She also decries the loosening of standards evident in her day in clothing and grooming styles that had become both more casual and more revealing: “Women who walk around in public with curlers in their hair are lacking in self-respect (and) respect for others . . . Those who flaunt and tempt men by their display of flesh are the type who flip about from man to man; they can’t even hold one man in marriage. It takes a man with a great heart and mind to know love and life and to love truly. The Don Juans of the world and the sexy nakedness of the harebrained women display lack of depth of mind and feeling. Vulgarity is not a synonym for thought, love, life, truth, beauty, or reality; and the cheap vulgarity displayed in dress, manners, and attitudes of defiance toward society are symptoms of humans who are in deep mesmeric slumber of morbid self-hypnosis created by excesses, by their own inner doubts, fears, hatreds, and insecurity.”

Fanny assuredly would have abhorred the low riser jeans and plunging necklines that have become popular for women in recent times. And one can hardly imagine what criticisms she would have aimed at the baggy pants popular among young men. While I would have applauded her condemnation of these tacky trends, I think she takes her philosophy too far when she starts stepping squarely on my own toes. Having been raised in the style of the Northwest, I love my jeans and flannel and cotton shirts, and I have never been comfortable wearing a tie.

Had Fanny lived in Gig Harbor, we may have butted heads over her expectations for apparel, because she wrote: “A true gentleman wears a coat and tie to honor his wife or lady friend. There is entirely too much casualness in everything today. There is a place and time for everything, and a public place is no place for the undressed. A high-class man or woman dresses for high class, and that doesn’t cost too much money. Simple good taste is never expensive, but oh, how lovely!”

It does sound quite lovely, I must confess. I guess I am pretty much a hypocrite when it comes to la bella figura, because one of the things I most enjoy about Italy is watching the stylish appearance of the people, who stand out even more in stark contrast compared to my drab garb. Fanny was a first-generation Italian American, and I am second-generation, so to some extent I resign myself to being farther from the Italian ideal. On the other hand, if my goal for visiting Italy is to become more Italian, this is an area to which I must devote more attention; so thanks, Fanny, for the advice.

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