Traditional Italian Clothing

You couldn't miss a performance by Italian folk musicians or dancers if you tried -- their colorful costumes will definitely catch your eye. The women wear colorful embroidered skirts and bodices over light-weight chemises or blouses, with elaborate hats decorated with flowers or fruit. Men's traditional clothing tends to be simpler, but doesn't lack from attention to detail, with embroidery and metal buttons and pins. These costumes evolved from simpler peasant dress in the Middle Ages.

Italian peasants wore practical clothing for their daily activities, with simple pants and shirts for the men and blouses and skirts for the women, sometimes with a bodice. Most items were made from simple fabrics, wool being very common. Color selection was limited to inexpensive gray and black dyes. One notable traditional Italian fabric is a waterproof type of wool called orbace. Even the uniforms of Mussolini's infamous Black Shirts were made from orbace.

Peasant women wore hats that covered the head with a square, flat section that curved or angled down to cover the back of the head and the neck. The flat top helped the women carry baskets to market. This style eventually evolved into hats with artificial flowers or fruits worn by upper class women, mimicking a peasant carrying a basket on her head.

The clothes worn by wealthy Italian women looked like peasant garb, but they used richer fabrics like silk and velvet. The rich also had access to colorful dyes, so the color palette varied more widely. Upper-class Italian women also tended to wear more jewelry than peasants.

However, for special festivals even peasant women had beautiful dresses and bodices. These were dyed in bright colors, hand-crafted with detailed embroidery and sometimes used better fabrics. The dresses were passed from mothers to daughters for generations. Because many of the special events the dresses were worn for were harvest festivals, food and nature themes are prevalent in the design. Later, the Catholic Church co-opted these celebrations and turned them into saints' days, so Christian themes appear often as well.

In the next section, we'll learn about some of the more unusual Italian traditions.