Look at Her: The Old Women of Bergamo

“I don’t do fashion. I am fashion.” — Coco Chanel

The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be. — Bill Cunningham

There’s a lot to love about Bergamo, especially in December. The Italian town is decorated for the holidays with lights, music, outdoor Christmas villages, and vendors roasting big pans of chestnuts on street corners. Of course, the food and wine are exquisite. There is the ancient and beautiful old town that winds its way up high above the city on cobbled streets next to stone walls that date back to Roman times. At the top are panoramic views that include both palm trees and snow-covered mountains. There are the charmingly narrow cafeterias, no bigger than a walk-in closet, where locals drink espressos and macchiatos while standing at the bar. There are the beautiful old churches and the friendliness of the locals. There’s Tony, the proprietor of the eponymous Tony’s Bar, a jovial and generous Italian who, in one of those increasingly common small world instances, lived for a time near us in Arlington, Virginia.

But of all the things I love most about Bergamo, hands down, it is the old women.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” — Bill Cunningham

A small city — population 110,000 — located in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, Bergamo is almost smack in between Genoa on the Mediterranean and Venice on the Adriatic. From the town’s seven hills you can see the snow-capped Alps to the north. It’s about an hour south of Lake Como and an hour east of Milan.

We arrived very early Friday morning from Spain, after a long and late ex-pat Thanksgiving in Jávea. As it was too early to check into our hotel, we dropped our bags and walked around town taking in the sights and getting oriented. I was still a bit bleary-eyed from just a few hours sleep, my hair was unwashed, and I was in my loosest and most comfortable clothes. It didn’t take long for me to feel painfully self-conscious about my appearance. Within minutes I began to notice the level of street fashion on just about everyone, particularly the old women.

Almost everyone in Bergamo is extremely well-dressed. This comes as no surprise, given the proximity to Milan, the fashion capital of Italy, and one of the most stylish cities in the world. In addition, Bergamo is a university town, which adds an element of youthful style, energy, and quirkiness. It is unlike many other European towns and cities I’ve been where the old women, though stylish and well put together, tend toward more “age appropriate” dress.

“When you don’t dress like everybody else, you don’t think like everybody else.” — Iris Apfel

But this was definitely not so with the women over sixty (and mostly, over seventy) I noticed on the streets of Bergamo. They do not fade into the background. They seem to refuse to internalize the message tacitly fed to women over fifty: “If you’re going to exist, please do so as inoffensively as possible.”

Nope.

These women took their dress to the next level, from elegant to extravagant. The old women of Bergamo are fabulous and they know it. Favoring large statement eyeglasses, stunning hats, and often very high heels, they own the streets, striding briskly down the sidewalks or weaving expertly through traffic on bicycles, in impeccable and often show-stopping outfits.

I use the term “old women” deliberately. It’s partly an attempt to reclaim the words from something disparaging to something more empowering. I dislike terms like “older women,” “mature women,” or, particularly loathsome to me, “women of a certain age.” I can’t stand sanitized language, especially when it comes to aging. It feels patronizing. Euphemisms like these are society’s attempts to soften the indignity of growing old, particularly when it comes to women, while at the same time trying to push old people out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. And it’s no secret to women that this ageist prejudice is especially directed at us.

“I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color.” — Wednesday Addams

I think it was Gloria Steinem who lamented that after age fifty, women become invisible. So I love when women this age and older push back against ageist societal barriers:  Bad Lil Baddiewinkle. Diane von Furstenberg. Yoko Ono. Carmen Dell’Orefice. Iris Apfel. Iman. Diane Keaton. Helen Mirren. Tina Turner. Cher. Joan Didion. Dolly Parton. Tao Porchon-Lynch. The list goes on and on.

But I especially applaud the women who, despite not having the name recognition and perhaps the bank accounts of their more famous sisters, nevertheless resist the old woman stereotype. They don’t buy into the idea that they should do society a favor and fade into the background. Through their clothes they force you to look at them. They are nothing if not visible.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and these women just like to wear what feels right and fun. Regardless, through their choice of clothes, they don’t “act their age,” which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. This includes a surprising number of women, which goes to show just how deep-seated internalized oppression can be. One of the first tenets of feminism is “the personal is political” and whether or not they are aware of it, these women are engaged in just that: a political statement about age, about being female, and about unabashedly taking up the space that society now tries to deny them. To me, they are on the front lines in a battle against a sexist and ageist paradigm. They are my heroes.

The weird thing is a lot of the time now I look in the mirror and I don’t see my real age. But then I see a recent photo, or I accidentally hit the selfie button on my camera and, suddenly and unexpectedly, I’m face to face with myself, and it is like a punch to the gut — or more accurately, my ego. I know that there is more to life than youthful good looks; that it’s important to cultivate a life rich with friends, work, intellectual endeavors, causes, hobbies, and the like. But let’s face it, it’s hard to feel passed over simply because of one’s physical attributes, or lack thereof, at least in society’s eyes.

Fortunately, I learned early on the importance of finding role models for all stages of my life. I’m grateful I’ve had plenty. Now I can add the old women of Bergamo to my list.

“A great dress can make you remember what is beautiful about life.” — Rachel Roy

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting a vintage shop with an array of clothes and accessories from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. The owner, Mirella, was a tall, slim, elegant woman in her seventies who wore oversized glasses, a gorgeously cut emerald dress and buttery leather boots with four-inch heels. I stayed for over an hour, trying on clothes, while Peggy Lee and Blossom Dearie played in the background. All the while, Mirella fussed with my hemlines, added belts, and found shoes to complete an outfit. It was like playing dress up when I was seven years old. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian so we muddled through in Spanish. We laughed a lot. The walls of the shop were adorned with fashion shots of a doe-eyed model, circa 1970, who was at once sultry and breezy. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were photos of Mirella; still as elegant, angular, and rail thin as she was in the pictures. Honestly, as beautiful as she was then, she was more so now.

While I deeply regret not asking Mirella whether I could photograph her, I was able to get shots of a few of the many fabulous women of Bergamo. I wish I could have taken photos of these women from the front, but by the time I spotted someone interesting and grabbed my phone it was too late. Most were very fast walkers, even in heels and on cobblestones. But more than that, it somehow felt invasive to take their pictures head on. I guess I could have asked, but I lost my nerve, especially since I speak only three words of Italian: buongiorno, grazie, and per favore. But every image in this blog comes from a place of deep admiration. These women had style. They owned their lives. They, and no one else, were in charge.

“People will stare. Make it worth their while.” — Harry Winston

The old women of Bergamo? They are going places. They’re going boldly and they’re going visibly. And they’re going on their own terms. But one way they’re not going?: Gently.

And to that I say, “Brava!”

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