Talking about fashion with my nonna—that’s grandmother in Italian, although everyone calls her that as though she’s mononymous—is a bit of a challenge. For starters, when I sat down with her this week as she turned 90, I noticed a bit far along into our discussion that she didn’t have her hearing aid in.
Second, it’s very apparent that the way I talk about fashion all the time (what’s trending, where the industry is moving, forms of personal expression, etc.) doesn’t carry quite the same perspective as someone who grew up in Italy before World War II, moved to a new country in her early 20s but never quite lost a sense of homesickness, was a housewife for most of her life, and has witnessed nearly a century of life.
When Nonna, whose name is technically Maria, is home, she always relies on a uniform of slip-on shoes and a housecoat. When she steps out, it’s always more polished: trousers or jeans, sweaters, tailored jackets, a silk scarf. She’s someone who takes pride in her appearance when she’s out in the world but whose priority is herself, her comfort—and should you ask her what’s most important across any topic of conversation, she’d say her family.
Still, I credit her influence a lot when it comes to my own appreciation of fashion and how I’ve navigated my personal style, despite our very different lives and paths. Some of it is engrained in the way I was raised, and some I only now realize as she’s reached this milestone birthday. Though I could fill a novel with the stories my nonna has told me over the years, the top three takeaways when it comes to style are below.
@ginaalilbit; PICTURED: Nonna with my Nonno Antonio in 1953, just about a year after moving to the United States
Dress for Yourself First
Some of my earliest memories of my grandmother are of her sewing Halloween costumes for me and later altering pretty much everything I wore between the ages of 5 and 20. I always knew she’s an excellent seamstress—a trait that’s not hereditary—but evidently, our shared appreciation for fashion goes back further than that. “My mother would give my sister and me pennies after we’d go to church,” she told me about her childhood in Monte di Procida, a small town in Naples. “My mother said to buy whatever candy we wanted. But I didn’t buy candy. I saved and bought magazines.”
Nonna explained that she loved to buy magazines to see what celebrities were wearing, what was happening in the world at large, and how styles were changing every six months. Furthermore, she taught herself to sew whatever the styles of the moment were for herself. “On my block, I was the model a little bit,” she says with a wink, referencing about her love of wearing whatever was new and modern at the time. “Nobody else did that.” But while her adventurous spirit might have always steered her to try things not readily available in her small coastal town, it’s her discerning nature I appreciate just as much.
“You can’t like everything, that for sure,” she told me, adding. “You can do nothing to change people other people’s mind. Dress for yourself, if that’s what you like.”
@ginaalilbit; PICTURED: Nonna, Nonno, and my mother, Theresa, on Christmas Day 1955
@ginaalilbit; PICTURED: I'm not sure of the exact year here, but Nonna's printed top could easily pass for Simone Rocha S/S 18, no?
Quality Over Quantity, Always
Nonna immigrated to the United States in the early 1950s with her husband, my nonno. Naturally, I had to ask her if she liked fashion in Italy better than in America. Unsurprisingly, she said Italy without hesitation, referencing her first time shopping after arriving in the U.S. “I had to go to a communion, and I didn’t have a dress. I told my friend to bring me someplace to buy one.” She made a very disapproving face and continued, “Oh, I didn’t like it.”
She told me that the dress wasn’t sewn well, and the seams were all sloppy, something she would never stand for in her own sewing work. “I said, ‘Why did you bring me here?’ and my friend said, ‘It’s a little cheaper.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m not buying this dress.’”
While my grandfather, a longshoreman, and grandmother, a stay-at-home mother of four, didn’t have much money to spend on things that weren’t vital, such as food on the table, Nonna’s always appreciated quality over everything else and has an appreciation for what makes a piece of clothing valuable, special, and worth saving for a long time to come. “I would spend more money on a good dress,” she said, despite her small budget at the time, “but I would have it forever.”
@ginaalilbit; PICTURED: Me, Nonna, and my sister, Marisa, at her middle school graduation in 1997
Appreciate; Don’t Compare
I don’t think I’d ever talked to my grandmother before this week about dressing for her body type. As someone who made her own clothing from a young age, she’s always been attuned to what styles she feels best in and how to cater the tailoring to her shape. “Was it important to dress for your body type?” I asked her. “Yeah!” she said. “I like to show my body.”
Nonna’s favorite style leans a bit more classic and elegant—think silhouettes from the ’40s and ’50s—and I wouldn’t say she’s personally a fan of tons of exposed skin or clothing that’s clingy, but I see her appreciation for her own body as one that feels in line with her general character: being someone who celebrates whatever she has, who feels it’s more important to live truthfully than to compare yourself to anyone else.
“Everybody, they look at me and say, How’d you do this? How’d you do that?” she said at the end of our conversation, which at that point had become as much as style as the life she’s created and the family—which also includes 12 adult grandchildren—she’s grown, “but I don’t open my mouth that I did it better than you. Maybe I wasn’t the best mother or the best wife, but I did what I did, and I think it looks good.”