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What is La Bella Figura?

December 16th, 2007


“Their suits, their shirts, their ties, their shoes, their haircuts, even their fingernails were all beyond perfection … bella figura … no American businessman without Italian blood would lavish the time, money and attention that were necessary to look the way they did. To present a bella figura to the world, no matter what was going on inside, was an Italian tradition that reached from the nobility to the peasants.” — Judith Krantz writing in The Lovers. 

La bella figura roughly translated means cutting a beautiful figure, an Italian philosophy that means putting careful thought into the face you present to the world by taking pride in one’s appearance from shiny, clean hair to real jewelry and freshly polished shoes.

To Italians, “presenting yourself well in thought, word and deed is a matter of personal dignity,” writes Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner in “Living La Dolce Vita.”

The foreign visitor to Italy is typically amazed to observe how polished the men and women of the bel paese look, how good they appear to feel about themselves, and how graciously they interact with one another. Italian life is undeniable lived with a constant eye toward aesthetic beauty, dignity and civility. Learning to enhance the body and mind one is born with is more important than having been endowed with genetic perfection,” she writes.

To me, the Italian philosophy of La Bella Figura essentially boils down to always putting your best foot forward, not only physically but in everyway you present yourself to the world.

Stylewise,  it doesn’t mean spending thousands of dollars on clothing, makeup and jewelry. What it does mean to me is being selective, purchasing timeless, classic styles and choosing quality over quantity.It is philosophy that “less is more” – a belief not very common in the American consumer society. But in some European countries that we admire for the pleasure they take in creating a quality life, it is par for the course.

In the style bible, Simple Isn’t Easy, by Olivia Goldsmith and Amy Fine Collins, a famous French architect is quoted saying “American closets shock me. So much, too much. No one can dress well with so many clothes.”

In the same book, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik is quoted saying “It is a question of selection, to choose less. That is something Americans do not understand. They think that more is better.”

 So, yes, I may own a gorgeous purse, but it’s one of only two purses in my closet.Again: it’s a question of choosing less not more. For me less is more means I would rather scrimp and save my money to buy a beautifully cut pairs of jeans that flatter me and will give me years of wear.And sure living this way most likely means delaying instant gratification.

Saving money to buy what you want is not something we are used to in these days of instant credit, mass mailing of credit card approvals and the ability to purchase almost anything we might desire online in the privacy of our own home.What it will mean is an increased satisfaction and appreciation for the things we do own and the desire to care for them so they will last and give us as much pleasure for as long as possible.

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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.