It is no secret that Italians like the idea of “la bella figura” which literally translates to “the beautiful figure.” It specifically means to dress well to make a good impression. Wanting to look appealing is a common desire for Italians, an integral part of the culture we are immersed in as children. In general, we like to look chic whether we are attending a formal event or an informal gathering with friends. In Italy, it is not unusual to spot an Italian woman wearing trendy shoes while grocery shopping or a man dressed in a suit riding a bicycle on the hottest day of the year. La bella figura, though, is much more than appearance. It is also about dignity, hospitality and politeness.
For many Italians, la bella figura stems from a sense of self-respect and decency. In this case, the word “bella” means “proper” and “figura” means “decorum.” An older Italian woman who believes in the importance of la bella figura chooses a dress code that is more suitable for her age. A young woman who cares about appearance doesn’t wear sloppy sweatpants in public. An Italian college student would not show up to class wearing pajamas or flip flops, more suitable for bed and the beach.
Many Italians also pay close attention to their looks for fear of being criticized and making la brutta figura (a bad impression). Worrying about projecting a poor image while in public is especially true in little villages where everyone knows everyone else. But, even on the main streets of a bigger city, Italians are sure to put their best foot forward. In the States, people are generally hesitant to express negative comments about a person’s look, whereas Italians can be very frank and outspoken. During my last trip to Italy, someone uttered “you look like you are naked!” referring to my salmon colored dress. I must admit, I felt a little uncomfortable and went back home and changed clothes.
Italians’ wish to look good prevails not only in public, but also at home. Have you ever noticed that the inhabitants of the Bel Paese are some of the most cordial people on earth? Our inviting attitude originates from wanting guests to feel welcomed, but also from needing to make a positive impression. In this case, making la bella figura is all about showing congeniality and generosity. For example, when arranging a special dinner for her guests, an Italian host will plan the event thoughtfully bearing in mind that anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte (the eye wants to be satisfied too). She will seek to impress her guests by setting the table with care. She will prepare a menu that is as rich in taste as in quantity. Discovering that she served the coffee in a cup that was slightly chipped, or God forbid, there was not enough food would be embarrassing.
The concept of la bella figura also relates to exhibiting good manners or le buone maniere. Here, the term “bella” means “good” and “figura” “behavior.” For example, an Italian mother wishes that her child makes a good impression by acting properly in school, listening to his teacher and getting along well with his classmates, not acting as a “maleducato.” This term, “badly educated,” has nothing to do with the level of education achieved in school. Instead, it refers to a person being uncivil and impolite. So, a man cutting in front of the line at the gelateria will impress no one, no matter how well-dressed and handsome he might be.
For those who did not grow up with the concept of la bella figura, the idea of a man sweating in a suit in the summer sun or a woman resembling a runway model while buying milk might seem a little odd. But, for Italians who live it, looking good and feeling good about yourself go hand in hand with the essence of what it means to be Italian. Most importantly, la bella figura is about behaving with respect which, in my opinion, is much more enchanting than appearing polished from head to toe.