It was raining on my last night in Venice, but I put on my heels anyway, and minced through the puddled pavers of the Riva degla Schiavoni to Al Covo for a cozy supper.
He was sitting at the next table, facing me, although I didn’t notice him until I was paying the check. He had dark clipped hair, brown eyes and he wore a lavender sweater. Around his neck was a pink and lavender scarf, shot through with silver thread. He wore a wedding ring, and there was something in the way he was sitting with the woman opposite him that suggested she was his wife — familiarity without conversation. She was wearing a complicated beige sweater and jeans.
The meal was ending, we were signing the check, and while I was gathering my things, I felt his eyes on me. I looked up, and yes, he was staring at me so I looked away quickly, but then but made myself look back and he was still staring at me. But not really staring, no, he was regarding me, and his brown eyes were filled with unmistakable judgment: negative. I’d been traveling in Italy a week at that point, so I’d seen The Look before, enough to grant it a title case, and it was, I was quite sure, related to my outfit. Which is to say: not European.
What was I wearing that night? Jeans (nice ones!), and a cream colored sweater. Not as complicated as the sweater his woman was wearing, but still: nice. I felt like giving him the finger, but instead I walked away.
“I just love looking at the Italian men and their nice shoes,” my friend sighed. This was at the beginning of the trip, before Venice had become annoying. We were lazily leaning on the rail of the vaporetto and watching a group of young Italian men get off at Accademia. We giggled and went back to admiring the palazzos along the Grand Canal, but it was a conversation we’d return to over our week in Italy, as we gradually began to tally up the times we’d seen The Look, mostly from women, the flicking of the eyes up and down and then frank, blank, absence of approval. (“I feel like a pudgy, dowdy, awkward American,” I moaned in my journal. Not unlike high school, except for the word “American”. )
It was, in fact, a continuation of a conversation I’ve been having with myself since I started traveling to Europe, which is: why do these people look so much better than I do?
At the Rome airport, a young woman, off the red-eye from New York. Patterned stockings, suede boots to the knee with suede fringe that descended to mere millimeters above the floor. A bright orange stiff leather suitcase, and a slim emerald leather satchel slung across her hips, all encased in a black fitted coat and a blue scarf, just so. Awaiting my connection to Venice, a woman, maybe in her late 40s, early 50s. The burgundy of her nails matches the burgundy leather stripe on her purse. The purse is also lavender, which does not match, but goes perfectly with, the precise muted blue of her jacket. All of which goes with the grey, knee-length skirt. A man with salt and pepper hair and a long nose, collar propped up on black overcoat, black scarf, again just so. Even the people wearing sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts, and even those with the imperfect figures, the muffin tops, seemed more carefully calibrated more elegant and somehow better than what I come across in airports and other places here in the States.
It seems to me that the first step is to articulate what the difference is between the American Look and the European Look. Fashion magazines and blogs make this something of an evergreen topic, but descriptions are either too specific to make for a broader theory, or so vague as to be meaningless. To wit, on the Paris look: “It’s all about a retro urban ensemble that’s a little worn, a little designer, fairly neutral, full of character, unmatched, eclectic, always accessorized and never sporty.” “Your bag should be no bigger than your dog.”
Over the past couple of years, during trips to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Antwerp and of course, this recent trip to Venice, I’ve taken stabs at trying to articulate the characteristics of the European Look. Attention to detail. The same soil once occupied by the Roman empire, the Renaissance. Greater comfort with euphemisms, with the process of reconciling the ugly with the beautiful. Precision. Monochromatic color schemes. Neatness. Confidence. Better tailoring. A social safety net. A different relationship to time. Money. (See this interview on one of my favorite blogs, Deep Glamour, for more on how money affects style.)
At the same time, I’ve also questioned whether these fashion differences that I’m observing are as widespread as I think. Am I suffering from confirmation bias? That’s an error in observation that makes you only notice what supports your theory, or, as Francis Bacon puts it in “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (…) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects[.]”
Have I ignored the European schlumps and fail to consider the lovely-attired Americans that come into my field of vision, who would fit the bill in every way if they were not American? Have I failed to notice their look? (Related concern in re: The Look. Paranoia, insecurity, both?)
Alison J. Stein
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