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In pursuit of la bella figura

February 27th, 2008

“Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.” 

— Sophia Loren

I knew a girl once who was stunning, just gorgeous, but did not know it. And even though her features were worthy of a magazine cover, her poor posture, her sloppy clothes and her slacker attitude detracted from her beauty, so that after awhile of being around her, you didn’t really think she was beautiful anymore. I used to say, if she thought she was half as beautiful as she is, she would be twice as beautiful as she is.

 Confidence is alluring.

 In my lifelong pursuit of la bella figura, I am inspired by words of wisdom from others. Here’s a few tidbits, taken from Nina Garcia’s book “The Little Black Book of Style.”:

“. . . But when a confident woman walks into a room, it is entrancing. I’ll watch as she moves with poise and self-possession. She is not usually the one in the plain black dress. She is the one in the interesting shirt and the vintage skirt, and I immediately want to know where she got them. And she may not be the most stunningly gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen, but she has a way about her that can make her one of the most intriguing. Confidence is captivating, it is powerful, and it does not fade — and that is endlessly more interesting than beauty.”

 Intelligence is alluring.

“I’ve always found that the women with amazing personal style are powerful, intriguing, and yes, even intelligent. Very intelligent. They know who they are and what they want to project upon the world. These women undertand that what they put on in the morning is the first thing people notice about them. It tells the world a bit of their story. And, more important, their clothes affect how they feel about themselves throughout the day.”

Uniqueness is alluring.

“A stylish woman makes me want to walk up to her and say “Where did you get that?” It is not in any magazine or on any runway I have seen, and I just have to find out where it is from. A flea market, her grandmother’s closet, wherever. I just know that I have not seen it before, which is the most intriguing thing in the world. All of the great style icons achieved this aura of intrigue.”

Garcia says that a style icon knows:

  • How to edit. She only buys what she likes and what looks good on her.  (Garcia says your closet should only contain amazing choices)
  •  To invest in “the bones” . . . and builds from there. (Garcia’s 10 staples: the LBD, a classic men’s white shirt, cashmere cardigan or turtleneck, a trench coat, denim, a man’s classic watch, diamonds, ballet flats, a classic high-heel pump and a great bag)
  • To buy with drama. She goes for that over-the-top, decadent item. If she falls in love, she takes it home.  (“Buy what is truly fantastic. The leopard-print coat, the knock-them-dead dress, the decadent piece of jewelry … you know one when you see one. You fall in love with it immediately … you know you look good in it, everyone else knows you look good in it, and it is going to make you feel amazing … but buy timeless items … make sure you can see yourself wearing it a few seasons later … also consider if it reflects your personal style. It’s like falling in love and going on that first date. You just know.”) Other examples she gives, a cuff, they are always chic and sophisticated; killer shoes (high-heeled strappy sandals in metallic gold or silver); a stand-out coat; a knock-em-dead evening or cocktail dress (you just need one. invest the money in something truly amazing. A hand-beaded dress, a vintage forties dress, a dress that fits you perfectly. It may take you years to comb through sample sales, but find that dress.”
  • The utmost importance of shoes. Lots of shoes. (Garcia says invest in a good pair of shoes. “Even if it’s only one pair .. spend wisely here, because it really matters.” She recommends Manolo Blahnik as the sexiest and safest investment (a sure thing); Christian Louboutin, Roger Vivier, Jimmy Choo or Azzedine Alai. She also says only show two cracks of toe cleavage, no more.)
  • And the power of accessories. Done just the right way  (“Jackie O and her sunglasses. Audrey Hepburn and her scarf. Elizabeth Taylor and her diamonds … should choose her accessories as she chooses her friends, seeking out the ones that complement who she is, let her have fun, make her feel confident when she walks down the street, and stick by her through her ups and downs, her men, and her extra pounds. Because your accessories, like your friends, tell the world who you are. The key to accessorizing is to keep it personal and to keep it tasteful. To make it personal, wear something that means something to you: Grandmother’s old cross pendant or an antique watch or a bracelet from Mexico. “)
  • A good tail0r(“A good tailor is like a good pair of shoes — necessary, worth every penny and capable of making you look ten pounds thinner… a good tailor can make any piece of clothing look expensive … fit clothes to your body without changing the look or shape … make anything you want .. if you have an amazing imagination and an amazing tailor, you can have him make that one perfect item that you want.”)
  • How not to be the fashion victim. She never buys into the trends and she never carries the “it” bag.  (self explanatory, I think)
  • It is not about the money. She wears her flea market Mexican earrings the same way she would wear her diamonds.(Fashion is expensive. Style is not. Some of the most stylish girls I know are certainly not the wealthiest. Ironically, it is often the girls with less money who seem to understand style the best … Garcia recommends: White Hanes t-shirts; L.L. Bean tote; a white button-up; khaki pants, flea-market finds; anything H&M, Target, Uniqlo and vintage steals (cheapest when taken from your mother’s closet).
  • How to mix it up. (self explanatory, for instance, mixing couture and Target clothes)
  • How to be imperfect. She understands that every day is not a photo shoot. (Garcia calls this the Kate Moss factor, something a bit off, hair messy, accessories not matching, shirt rumpled, but looking amazing.)

And that is style.

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What is it about those Italian women? You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, sexy, dressed to the nines just to take the kids to the park. They have a certain something that is indefinable. It is in the way they dress, the way they prepare their meals, the way they spend their leisure time.

It is because they know the importance of la bella figura. Roughly translated from Italian, it means putting you best foot forward in everything you do. It means cutting a beautiful figura. The opposite of la bella figura is la brutta figura, which is what someone might say about the falling down drunken guy at the party or the super tackily dressed woman at church. It means ugly figure.

La bella figura is much more than your appearance. It goes much deeper than that. It is about how you act. It is about how you treat others. It is about how you care for yourself, your home and your family. Living a life in line with la bella figura doesn’t take money. In fact, it is more about how to have class without a lot of money.

Someone who exudes la bella figura will have clean, pressed clothes and be well groomed. They will not be rude or sloppy. Their fingernails will be impeccably groomed. Their hair shiny and clean and their shoes will be polished. They will not have stray threads hanging from their suit hems. They will not be driving a car in need of the car wash.

La bella figura means driving that 15 year old car and meticulously cleaning it and caring for it. It means keeping your belongings in good repair. It means taking time to clean your house and not cluttering it up with meaningless objects.

When you focus all your spare energy, time and money on the things that bring you the most amount of pleasure, then you are truly living a life in line with la bella figura. The best part about it is that you don’t have to be Italian to do so. You just have to think like an Italian.

Italian children are raised to present la bella figura in whatever they do. From the time they are small and are groomed perfectly to attend church or school, they know that appearances count. They count because it is the first thing people judge about you. That first impression does matter. Appearances are also important because when you take the time to look nice, you are showing that you care about yourself. When you care enough to look good, it shows you have good healthy self esteem. Nothing is more attractive than self confidence.

In addition, dressing nice also shows respect for others. If you invite people over for dinner and greet them in flip flops, baggy sweats and a stained shirt, it is really disrespectful to them. The same if you dress sloppy to go to church or even to the market. By dressing nicely and being well groomed, you show respect for everyone in your world.

Having la bella figura means presenting yourself in the best light possible in all your interactions.