• Sophie Eloise Kelly

'It's Self-Respect - not Vanity'. A stylish lesson from Italy.

In April of 2017 I somehow found myself at Gatwick Airport, strategically trying to place my enormous bag on the check-in belt so the edge would hang over slightly and the scales wouldnt weight the whole amount. It worked, I flashed my passport at the desk attendant and checked in for my one way flight to Verona in Italy. I was nervous – mainly about the baggage situation (I had definitely been over my 23kg allowance), but also as I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for – or how in love I was going to fall.

Before I go on, there are several things in life you simply do not say no to; a complimentary upgrade (on anything), any form of free food (especially cake) - and a date with a prince. A new one for the list; any job that requires you to relocate to Italy. Just say yes. Straight away – and go and pack your bags. I guarantee this is a decision that you will never regret – and you can thank me by sending me some beautiful small leather goods later on.

For me, Italy was one of lifes’ unexpected gifts – if there is a god up there I honestly feel I need to send him a bottle of wine or something – just to say thank you for dropping something so great into my life. I had signed up for one ski season thinking I’d go and spend a few months drunkenly zooming around a few ski slopes then my graduated and grown up self would come home and behave. A few months into France, the opportunity to work in Lake Garda arose and all I could think of was that chapter in Eat Pray Love where she moves to Italy and has to buy bigger jeans simply because the food is so good. This – and that riding a bike around an Italian village all summer would be part of my job meant I just could not say no.

So there I was, slightly less anxious now my bag was gone and ready for the next big adventure. Well, at this point I think I was really just ready for a nap – but after that. There are some places in this world where you will arrive, and even though you’re pretty sure you’ve never been there before, they feel oddly familiar and comfortable. Places that you ‘get’ - and places that get you. I didn’t speak a single word of Italian but I was only in the country a couple of weeks before I found out I definitely spoke Italian. Aside from some small glitches in mass financial management and a history of philandering politicians, there are many things about life that Italians get very very right – and you can see why it’s considered one of the happiest countries in the world. To name just a few; there’s no such thing as ‘on time’, your lunch break is always at least 2 hours and caring about your appearance as a woman is a sign of self-respect and intelligence – not vanity and vacuity. They work to live, not live to work and everything is beautiful; the buildings, the landscapes, the food, the people, the clothes – don’t even get me started on how stylish they are. Once I realized that dressing well was part of the way you live here – and that no one was going to question my intelligence for getting excited about a Zara sale, there was No Stopping The Shopping.

Living in Italy changed everything about how I view dressing and appearance. You see, I LOVE clothes – and it started young. As a 6 year old I was desperate for a pair of Baby Spice style knee high platform boots and loved everything she wore. At 7 I would drag my aunts upstairs and inflict fashion shows on them – getting very excited about the new purchases from my seasonal trip to Next kids. My shoe obsession meant I spent many afternoons frowning in quiet resentment whilst being fitted for ‘sensible’ shoes in Clarks when all my friends were allowed platforms from Tammy Girl, or if they were really lucky - Dolcis. There was a heavy leopard print phase around aged 9 (thank you Shania Twain) and once I discovered Britney Spears at 11, all sense of style went out of the window and everything became cropped and tacky.

At 14 the Miss Sixty effect reigned which involved sneaking out to under 18s nights in what can only be described as a large white denim belt - and some terrible terrible white stilettos. Then came the baggy jeans and Timberlands when we were all going to be street dancers, followed by a sixth form full of gypsy skirts, primark belts, 3 tonnes of fake tan and a lot of bad back combed hair. It was very normal for most of year 12 to spend all of Friday completely bright orange- and smelling like a bunch of gone off digestive biscuits. Of course, later that evening we would all emerge (after a few showers) as beautiful bronzed goddesses – even though it was January, clearly no one had seen any sun in months and we were all just off to stand around in someones kitchen drinking bicardi breezers . Anyway my point is; I have always loved dressing up. I’ll happily accept any opportunity to go to a ball, wedding, formal dinner, etc etc– purely for the dressing up factor. Having to find an outfit for an event just makes me think ‘woohoo new styling project!’. In this respect I am still 11 with my school desk decorated with pictures of Victoria Beckham - my then current style icon. A move which later caused a few of the girls in my class to confess they had wondered if I was a lesbian. Nope, sorry girls – just obsessed with the clothes.

Alas, then I grew up and realized that for some bizarre reason, we have come to associate a woman who loves clothes and dressing up with a lack of brain cells. This has since been followed by many failed attempts at trying to suppress my obsession. This may not be true to everyone, but some of the experiences I have heard shared from other women, and indeed some of my own have shown that caring about how you look has since developed connotations of vanity, shallowness, lower intelligence and an assumption that you might not take your job as seriously as someone with no interest in who wore what to the Met Ball. In some circles, a interest in maintaining your appearance can kind of ignite the silent smirk... ‘oh look here comes Barbie..’ – which is just completely unfair. T.V. and the media do little to disparage this with shows like Love Island, Made In Chelsea, TOWIE – and although I love it – Sex and The City (I’m sorry but Carrie Bradshaw was pretty damned shallow..), all actively enforcing such stereotypes. Incredibly glamorous characters will little else going on other than their shopping habit, subtly promoting the belief that ownership of an amazing wardrobe and a good brain or a kind heart cannot seem to exist in the same person. There is judgement around having a shopping habit and an interest in your looks. In a previous life I once had someone make the suggestion; ‘well maybe if you spent a little less money in Topshop, you’d be able to come on our summer trip to South America’ - Rude. I’ll enjoy Topshop if I want to thanks – and is it that part time restaurant job that’s funding your trip? – oh no wait it's Dad. Ok then. I’ve encountered my fair share of similar snarky comments from people who seem to possess ann air of superiority because they don’t wear make-up or high heels. By all means, this is your prerogative – but there’s no need to try and shame me for something that I *really* enjoy.

So, after years of hiding my love of clothes from employers, dates, colleagues, my cat, I rocked up in Italy realising I now had free reign to go totally mad and wear all of the clothes and colours I’d spent rather a lot of time hiding away in the back of my wardrobe. The Italian attitude to appearance is completely different. As a woman you do not have to sacrifice your personal style in order to be taken seriously as a whole person. In fact it’s quite the opposite. I had many a hotel receptionist look at my funny and say; ‘Sophie, what eez wrong with your ‘air? You eenglish girls are always so..sooo mezzy’ do you have no self-respect?’. And we are – it’s cool in the U.K. to not wear make up, roll around in shoes that are falling apart with bits of string on your wrists whilst declaring ‘im sooo hungover’ from your make up free face. We’re all very keen to look like we haven’t made the effort. This is a concept that is totally lost on many Italians. Looking good is not a sign of vanity or a shallow personality – it’s a solid sign of self respect. Why would you not want to look your best AND have some fun with it? Life is short, you should enjoy the beautiful things –and getting dressed can be one of those. It’s creative and it’s a way of expressing yourself and your presence in the world.

I spent my first trip to Verona silently gawping at all these incredible women of all ages, shapes and sizes, draped in stylish layers and fabrics, proving that it doesn’t matter what age or size you are, you can always look amazing. They had big sunglasses, lipstick, immaculately manicured hands – and there was always a scarf. Fashion was present – but first and foremost you wear what suits you and your body – and most importantly you wear whatever the hell you want.

There are a zillion things I loved about Italy and this is the first of many posts, but finding a place where there's no import tax on leather and everyone gets as excited about handbags as I do, was amazing. I arrived with a 25kg bag and went home with 38kg in two bags after getting pretty much my whole wardrobe shipped out - and lets not even talk about all the clothes I bought. I’m back in the U.K. now but no longer hiding how much I adore clothes, and despite the incredibly disapproving looks from the cat, my shopping habit is alive and well.

You're appearance is part of who you are and if you’re going to assume my commitment to good hair and a regular nail appointment means I’m not smart, kind and capable also – then you need to take a trip to Italy and get back to me. Although I do still reserve my right to be as scruffy as I please when I really cant be bothered, the Italians have an approach to dressing up that is to be admired, and something I will not be forgetting any time soon - with the only downside being it makes you really really poor!