Observing Italian Norms: La Bella Figura

Aug 9, 2018 1:30:00 PM / by Allyson Barnes

Allyson Barnes

Allyson Barnes is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2018, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An Anthropology, Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, and Studio Arts major at University of Colorado - Boulder, she is studying abroad in Florence this semester.

In this week's post, Allyson draws from her classes and observations of Italian dressing and explains the philosophy of La Bella Figura.


An interesting thing about being abroad is you notice not just the big differences between your home and the new country you are in, but also the slight cultural differences such as clothing styles, eating preferences, and other social norms.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_Summer2018_From Allyson Barnes - Looking Far into Florence

As an anthropology student, I have always loved analyzing the people around me, as strange as that may sound. I enjoy finding the little things that really make a person who they are. No matter what it may be, there are certain factors that define someone and I love getting to figure out what they are.

This was no different during my study abroad experience in Florence, Italy. I loved comparing the lifestyles of myself and my friends and family to those of the local Italians that I was lucky enough to be able to observe. There were many things that were vastly different from what I was used to back home. But what surprised me was that there were many things that were similar too. I’ll go more into that later.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_Summer2018_From Allyson Barnes - A Cloudy Day

My Cross-Cultural Psychology class actually made doing my “research” even easier. The entire focus of the class is doing exactly what interested me most about travel in the first place: figuring out what really made our lifestyles different from other people around the world. It isn’t as if Italians are an entirely different species or something, they are people just like us and just like anyone else in the world. We all exhibit the same basic needs and that is one of the many things that ties all cultures together and defines us all as humans.

One thing I was drawn to in regard to Italian culture was the clothing. For those who aren’t familiar with the climate in Florence, during the summer time it gets very hot and very humid. I was miserable even when I was in shorts and a tank top. Of course, that outfit choice made me stand out as uniquely American, because an Italian would never wear that. “La Bella Figura” is a term I learned in my Psychology class at CAPA. It basically means that Italians really care about their appearance. Even in sweltering heat and extreme humidity, people dressed modestly and very formally. For example: I was sitting in a park one extremely hot day, and I was wearing my same shorts and tank top look, when a woman walked by speaking Italian into her phone whilst wearing slacks, boots, and a cashmere sweater. It was intriguing to me because as Americans, we place so much value in convenience and comfort so we wouldn’t choose to dress like that in that weather because we would be uncomfortable. But a big part of Italian culture is physical appearance and how you present yourself so they would sacrifice comfort in order to appear better.

CAPAStudyAbroad_Florence_Summer2018_From Allyson Barnes - Overlooking the City

There are some similarities to draw between the Italians and us as Americans. We may not follow the strict social guidelines that have been placed by the Italians, but we do follow similar expectations as to what rules to follow when choosing clothing for the day. Italians simply have the rule that everyday and every event should warrant the best clothing and professional attire. Whereas us as Americans choose different clothing based on the occasion. We still have guidelines to follow when choosing clothing, which is the same as Italians, but they are just different depending on the rules.

Overall, I found that being immersed into another culture was such an amazing experience. It allowed me to gain insight into the way other cultures function. I learned a lot about the day-to-day lives of Italians through locals such as my friend Tulio who I mentioned in an earlier blog post, and from my professor, especially my Psychology professor.

Thanks Allyson!

Allyson's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Florence Program

Topics: Florence, Italy, Cultural Insights, Cultural Differences