In Praise of Packing Like A Roman

Italian travel pro tip: BYO toothpaste.

by Andrea Whittle
|
Jul 16 2019, 3:15pm

Joan Didion is popular because she is smart, and a great writer, has great chic, and wrote a cool packing list. That the packing list, which first appeared in her book The White Album , is offered as a symptom of her descent into mental illness seems to be forgotten: the orderliness is taken as a sign of her refinement rather than her obsessive-compulsiveness; the bourbon listed above the shampoo as a stroke of glamour rather than an omen. Forty years on, our new column Packing Lists explores how modern people get themselves from A to Z, and hopefully back again.

In her analysis of her concise packing strategy, Didion directs us to “Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume.” I crave a different kind of anonymity. Instead of one-list-fits-all, I pack to emulate the local vibe of wherever I’m going, because I have a weirdly intense phobia of looking like a tourist. This fear is especially strong in Rome, where half of my family is from and I’ve been spending more and more time every year.

Plenty of breathless words have been written about Italian glamour. But Roman style is its own thing. It’s a little more rumpled, looser and artsier than you might think. Lots of cotton and linen, lots of color, lots of prints. It’s cheerful and low-key feminine, but not girly. Rarely will you see a woman fully made up, wearing stilettos or zipped into a tight dress. Instead, it’s ankle-tied espadrilles, flowy printed tops and jeans. It’s on the edge of bohemian, but just tailored enough not to tip the scales. (I’ve heard the look of a certain subset of young Romans described, mostly in jest, as both “radical chic” and “aristo rave.”)

During my most recent trip (still here, might never leave, haha jk but not really) I developed a highly effective style litmus test. The walk from the library where I write and Caffé Peru, the bar where friends tend to gather for aperitivo, takes me straight through Campo de’ Fiori, which in the past ten years has become the epicenter of Bad Tourist Restaurants. They’re the kind of places that have a dude standing out front whose job it is to wrangle people in with a for a plate of mediocre carbonara. Like the opposite of a bouncer. If they ignore me, I look the part. If they hit me with a “Hello! Dinner?” I have failed myself and dishonored my ancestors.

It’s not all that different from the way I dress at home, but I approached my packing this summer with two main objectives: passing the Campo de’ Fiori test and trying not to appear sweaty even though I most likely am (it’s hot, air conditioning is mostly not a thing, and pretty much my entire social life takes place outside anyway, so it’s a moot point). Here’s what I piled into a brown canvas L.L. Bean duffle and a white Away bag that I never would have picked myself but got for free in my former life as a travel editor and am now weirdly attached to:

Dresses

Three tea-length vintage button-front silk dresses, striped or polka dotted

Pile of printed silk dresses from Steven Alan circa six years ago (peak of their game)

White eyelet Veronica Beard dress that’s very “I run a juice bar in Silverlake”

J. Crew bias cut printed cotton maxi dress that looks nothing like J. Crew has ever made before or since but just works

Gioia Bini multi-colored macramé-lace party dress that makes me feel like I’m wearing a sexy, threadbare Persian rug

Three or four printed, flowy dresses purchased from various sort of old-lady-ish “resort” boutiques that work as cocktail attire when worn with the right earrings

Tops

Two plain linen shirts (one white, one blush pink)

Two frilly, billowy Doen blouses that I like to describe as “Shakespeare by way of Ibiza”

Five or six silk and cotton shirts with vaguely botanical prints and various levels of sheerness

Three men’s cotton oxfords, striped

Handful of white tees and black tank tops

Two flimsy camisole-y things

Bottoms

Levi’s 501s, white

Frame Le Crop Mini Boot jeans, medium-wash

Uniqlo light-washed ripped “boy” jeans

Denim miniskirt, to be worn with aforementioned men’s shirts or frilly blouses

Two 50s-ish vintage floral printed midi skirts

Shoes For Traversing Potholed, Cobblestone Streets

Two pairs of espadrilles (one heeled, one flat)

One pair of beat-up (important—too clean and you look like a nurse) Supergas

One pair of velvet Pied á Terre furlane slippers (peach with a purple trim, chocolate brown or raspberry pink)

As many flat, floppy leather sandals as I can manage

One pair of actual heels that I probably won’t wear

Notable Dopp Kit Essentials

Large tube of Good, Old-Fashioned American Toothpaste with all the glittery/whitening/sensitivity bells and whistles because Italian toothpaste tastes funny and has unappealing, clinical names like “Elmex”

Bottle of Huile de Leonor Greyl because Roman water is really drying and my hair gets poofy

Bottle of Aleve (for wine hangovers)

Ohii wake up pen in peach (for wine hangovers)

Layers for Planes/Trains/Automobiles

Vintage Gridiron Twill fishing jacket in army green

Chocolate brown pashmina with rainbow stripes (somehow more subtle than it sounds)

Two Organic John Patrick sweaters (one forest green ribbed cashmere, one navy cotton waffle)

One vintage Scottish cashmere cardigan, hot pink

Etc.

Two brown leather belts, one thick (for jeans) one thin (for dresses)

Mexican cotton tote bag with beige-on-beige stripes

Octagonal straw box purse with leather strap

Multiple zip pouches filled with earrings, tangle of beads, charm necklaces and rings

Stack of books by whichever writer I’ve most recently decided to do a deep dive on

Mobile Office (laptop, notebook and clutch of Pilot V7 Pens)

Two sets of workout clothes and a pair of Nike running shoes (am vain but also love pasta)

Weekend Wardrobe (fistful of bathing suits and stack of printed cotton pareos)

Three pairs of sunglasses

Two passports