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Patrizia Chen Headshot

Fashion Gaps and Faux Pas

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After more than 23 years in New York, I'm still amazed by the cultural gaps that separate this city from my conservative country, Italy.

Take, for example, a freezing January day, the sky a perfect blue after a heavy snow fall. Not a cloud in sight, the temperature down to the teens. I marched energetically toward the warmth of the #6 train, propelled by the cold, when I was suddenly interrupted by a lady's theatrical exit from a limousine parked at my right.

Impeccably made-up, she stepped from the car and made her way toward her building. The Park Avenue doorman suddenly shoved me aside to clear a path for her. A large Hermès bag in one hand, she held tight to the collar of her blonde coat, a fluffy sable fur shielding her body from the icy wind. Her elegant stride, though, ceased to impress me as soon as my eyes fell to her feet. Trotting uneasily on flimsy paper flip-flops -- wads of pink tissue knotted between her toes, bright red nails sparkling in the sunlight -- she navigated the snowy inches that separated her from the safety of home.

I burst into loud laughter, immediately reminded of my move to the States, my newly adopted country, a couple of decades ago.

All was different and fascinating to my Italian eye, especially in the realm of style. Lost in translation -- at its best.

The weather here seemed just an opinion and not a reality. Imagine those private-school girls who walked (they still do) to and from classes with their skirts rolled up, the few remaining inches of fabric a polite nod to conventions. In 1988, modesty didn't really concern me -- we've all been teenagers. Yet I was shocked by the view of those naked thighs and legs rapidly turning to an unhealthy dark red, then morphing to blue as the temperature dropped to the 20s.

Apparently, my daughter explained, it was not cool to wear tights, leggings or (God forbid) trousers. I shuddered, thinking about my country's doctors. They would've had a field day explaining why this was a no-no. And who was right? Was I over-protective to forbid my child from braving the elements?

Equally, as the thermometer hit 40 degrees, another fascinating phenomenon occurred: everyone threw off coats, hats and scarves. Even in the middle of winter, shorts were dug out of summer storage and sleeves rolled up to the elbows. I, however, continued to huddle up, cozily, inside my down coat, imposing the same on my children while admiring the fortitude of the New Yorkers. Of course, any self-respecting Roman mother would still have wrapped a cashmere scarf three times around her child's neck, and pulled down a heavy hat to protect eyes and ears. Armed with all kinds of woolen garments, we Italians take no risks.

Boys too had their pet obsessions. Strict procedures, for instance, had to be observed before wearing the de-rigueur docksiders to school and that's how those moccasins became another subject of my indigenous anthropological studies. Fist (and harmless) rule: the laces had to be knotted in a special way to allow the foot to slip in easily. Second (probably the most important trend statement) the back of the shoes had to be trampled until they resembled comfortable slippers. Even when it snowed, shuffling, and the sound that accompanied it, demonstrated that fashion dictates had been observed. This European mother -- counting the dollars that she had spent and thinking about the workmanship involved in such beautiful footwear -- wouldn't permit it. Fines were immediately issued and my son was the only one in his school who had to suffer the ignominy of being different.

When I first came to the States as an adult in the '70s, I quickly discovered that regardless of whether I had turned up in the Land of the Free, it was more of the same. So many rules seemed to govern New York's social life -- even more than in Italy. And sometimes weather had to play second fiddle to the seasons!

I was informed that a no-white law had to be respected until Memorial Day weekend, after which I would finally be allowed to wear white jackets and dresses, and even sandals. Early May's temperatures might soar to the 80s, but it still was a no-no to think light. White was permitted only until Labor Day, after which one had to think Fall. Suddenly the palette of one's closet changed to brown and black. Why? My head was spinning.

Then there was the time I was invited to lunch by a fashionable friend. When he came to pick me up with his car and driver, I emerged from the townhouse wearing a pair of linen slacks. He looked at me in horror. He had booked a table at Orsini, a well-known restaurant that only allowed women wearing proper dresses.

Back in Europe, haute couture had already put palazzo-pyjamas on the fashion map for the most famous and admired society ladies, but Manhattan was treating me exactly like my grandfather when he first spotted me wearing jeans. Scandal!

Land of the free? Inspired by the home of the brave, I made him change restaurant...