Passion & Purpose
... and perhaps a little shame.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY NATASHA TABUNOVA
As one walks around Rome during summer, the heat simmers the air as the sun bakes the multicolored stone to their brightest terracotta hues. During the brilliantly lit day, I wandered amidst the ruins standing regally but with bittersweet loneliness pressed against the modern city sprawl. The ruins are mesmerizing, with deep green ivy entwining them and seemingly their only protection from the centuries of abuse they endured. I also walked these streets at twilight. Occasionally, hearing a stringed instrument, I would decide to follow the music down isolated paths that narrowed significantly the deeper I entered the city’s warrens. Eventually, I would see spills of light illuminating a taverna or someone’s home with an open courtyard filled with lush palms. Through the veil of sweat pouring down my face, I realized in my wandering that there is a pattern to Rome. It is an unambiguous trichotomy that influences Roman fashion and architecture. For over 2,700 years, humans have been drawn to these hills in the palatine and have left an imprint on their descendants.
The Roman trichotomy is based on three competing influences. Above everything else are the somnambulant ancients in the form of marble, stern-eyed senators, and emperors. These ancestors also left behind their grey, crumbling pillars of stone and the architectural relics of a proud, unchanging empire. This ancient culture influenced Romans to believe in structured, elegant fashion and not flashy trends. The Fashion industry in ancient Rome was nothing like today’s fast-paced industry. Styles of ancient Roman clothing and jewelry changed slowly across the centuries. But this did not mean that fashion and personal adornment were not essential to the Romans; far from it. In a society obsessed with status, clothing and jewelry played a crucial part in outwardly indicating one’s position in the world. Expensive fabrics and precious jewels were indicators of wealth. But overt ostentation was frowned upon, suggesting newly acquired wealth and a lack of nobility. For men, in particular, their appearance could be interpreted as a sign of effeminacy or even immorality – the greatest of Roman insults. And although most Ancient Romans wore colorful clothing, the mark of respectability and status among all social classes was clean; uncluttered fabrics draped in elegance.
The second part of the trichotomy is the Renaissance, with its opulent jewel-like tones and gilt-laden architecture favored by the new bourgeoisie. The Renaissance brought into the fashion mix the use of accessories such as detachable collars, cuffs, and more advanced cosmetics. The principal characteristic of the Renaissance female dress was its fullness. Just recall all the enormous, hooped skirts that made women look like walking cowbells. Men’s fashion, on the contrary, except for the upper garment, was usually tight and very scanty. You can see the multiple layers of fabric in the portraits of people as you visit any of the dozens of museums in Rome. The images of this age may suggest that people wore dark heavy layers, but Roman fashion in the renaissance was lavish when considered within the context of the fifteenth century. Gowns were particularly colorful as they were dyed into vibrant jewel tones. Sleeves symbolized wealth and status and were detachable so they could be redesigned with gold thread, jewels, and even pearls. However, Renaissance beauty was not skin deep. To be considered beautiful (and fashionable), people had also to be virtuous. This concept is essential since it still has an impact today in Modern Rome. The final part of the trichotomy is the utilitarian, modern European Union. Italy is a resolute member of this alliance that rhapsodizes uniformity and structure. Modern Italian fashion, following European norms, has a sedate aesthetic that revels in its practicality. Contemporary Roman style is mostly about elegance. Not too colorful. Not too outlandish. Instead, simple elegance in mostly subdued color combinations. Of course, there are exceptions in modern Italian fashion, such as the clown circus-like atmosphere of the latest season at the house of Moschino, but Romans do not blindly follow trends. They never have in thousands of years. I considered this trichotomy as I lumbered like a wild-eyed wildebeest through the cobbled streets. Admittedly, fashion in Rome has evolved these past few thousand years, but like a precocious child, it has nabbed the most intriguing bits from the stern ancients, renaissance burghers, and contemporary ascetics. Consequently, I became obsessed with identifying the modern Roman natives littered among the crowds. In no time at all, I realized how laughably simple it was. Romans glide through the press of tourists and Italian hicks from lesser cities like smooth-skinned sharks. They have a lithesome, knowing walk and tilt to their heads. From their stance, you can almost hear the Romans quietly declaring to the rest of the herd: “You will never be one of us.”
Arrogant? Perhaps. But for over 2,000 years, these people have had a complex fashion industry that has consistently rejected sudden spasmodic trends and faddish celebrities. From Lucius Cornelius Sulla, arguably the first dictator before the birth of Christ, Rome has determined what the “fabulous” should wear in the rest of the western world. Think of it this way, when Paris was still nothing more than a soggy group of rustic fishermen living in a swamp by a river and dreaming of their next rat-fur cloak? The Romans already had their fashionistas rock the use of silk damasks, translucent gauzes, cloth of gold, and intricate embroideries. Sitting in the sidewalk cafés with a carafe of robust chianti glittering in my glass, I observed the parade of Roman women and men walking by. Of course, they were elegant, but not in a stuffy formal way. They visibly created an aura of detached coolness and languid regard for their surroundings. In Rome, one rarely sees the stereotype of a motherly Italian woman wearing sturdy clothes and waving about a kitchen utensil. These contemporary Romans were practical but also très chic. For women, the norm on the street was the use of separates with at least one foundational neutral color. I assert that much of this consistency that I observed comes from the trichotomy of influences discussed earlier. Quality fabric, playful colors intertwined with neutrals, elegance, and a focus on gorgeous bags and shoes are all characteristics from ages past. For example, there is an acknowledged fact about Roman women; they would sooner purchase a single quality white blouse that is beautifully cut instead of the latest, trendiest wear from over-eager designers.
Roman men have a similar aesthetic based on quality. I shan’t lie; I observed with greedy and jealous eyes as the Roman men stood near me casually unconcerned by the baking heat as they effortlessly wore dark grey or navy blue slim-cut blazers with tapered slacks in subtle patterns. And woe to the Italian republic if you catch a Roman man with anything as coarse as brilliant white, thickly cushioned sneakers, or plastic flip-flops. Roman men wear espadrilles or loafers from one of the many houses specializing in footwear. I glared in anxious envy when I walked amongst them, sweating like an over-scheduled sex worker on a discount. I knew I would never be one of these self-possessed Romans since I did not grow up with thousands of years of fashion history. But at the same time, I refused to be ashamed of my post-colonial aesthetic. In that moment of confused reflection, near the hideous Emmanuel I Monument, I stepped off the curb and onto the cobbled street. Since I was filled with defensive spite, I forgot to glance at the ground and stepped into a depression. Cobblestones don’t last forever, you know. My left leg buckled, and in desperation, I veered to the right, which only caused me to slam my knees onto the stony ground. So many emotions surged within me at that moment: intense pain, a feeling of shame for my envious attitude, self-pity, and heated exhaustion. My breath rushed from my lungs as I moaned through my conflicted feelings of embarrassment and anguish. Usually, one would quickly scramble to one’s feet, loudly declaring, “I am all right!! I am fine!! Nothing to see!!” and then scurry away, hunched over in deep disgrace. But at that millisecond, I had an epiphany. Yes, I had cascades of sweat running down my face and salt-staining my t-shirt and shorts. Yes, I had just shown the Roman people that I have all the grace of a drunken lemur. But I also realized then that the Romans were not and had never been judging me. I also recognized that I should instead be grateful for the opportunity to learn from Roman fashion history and its innumerable designers. So, in a rush of acceptance, I raised my hands in supplication like Sargent Elias’ death scene in the movie “Platoon.” In slow motion, I gave a great sigh and let my body fall to the side and onto my back. I needed a moment to process my feelings, and lying in that filthy gutter near the curb, I found myself again. Too soon, the gentle Romans walking over my carcass suggested that I get up since the Carabinieri were coming to arrest me for vagrancy. But it only reaffirmed that although I could never be one of them? They still cared.

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