Vintage Rodo bags circa 1960s-1980s
When I was in my early twenties, I lived for a summer with my mother’s cousin in Tivoli, a medieval hill town on the outskirts of Rome. Newly graduated from college in the spring, and craving independence, I left behind my books and my husband – who at the time was the boyfriend I had just rented an apartment with – in New York City. My mother’s Italian cousin was married with two daughters, ten and fifteen years older than me. As sometimes happens in families, the sisters were opposite in every way. The older of the two, Milvia, a black haired tomboy, had her own apartment and a car. Luciana, a glamorous red head, lived at home and never showed the slightest inclination towards something as practical as driving. While Milvia was chatty and immersed in one community activity or another, Luciana was introspective with a girlish shyness. I admired both sisters for their Italian flair and wild long hair. But it was Luciana, though technically the younger in the family, who stood out in my eyes as the chic older sister. She had the style of a 70s movie star, the likes of Claudia Cardinale.
And so, on the hot Saturday afternoons of that summer, Luciana and I strolled through Tivoli window-shopping together. I had seen Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” enough times to know that Italians care about being well dressed and groomed; all the same, the afternoon walk – the passeggiata – was a revelation to me. I was amazed by the broad display of style. Up to that summer, my identity and self worth had been linked to school and to campus life, where aside from the occasional formal event, dressing well and looking put-together wasn’t a top priority. In sartorial matters, I was different from other young women my age. I appreciated and respected great style but it intimidated me. I didn’t feel I possessed the knack for dressing that society admires in a fashionable woman. Instead, I stuck with what felt safe: the all-American classics of sweatshirts, t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. Here walking along beside Luciana, seeing all the elegant women nearly brushing against us as we weaved in and out of shops, I was aloft in a setting far more sophisticated than any I had known before. Who would I become in the post college world I had newly entered? And more importantly, what would I wear?
It became plain that rather than being indebted to a particular designer label, Luciana owed her movie star appearance to the old fashioned virtues of mindfulness and self-control. She resisted fads and gravitated instinctively to brands that were in tune with her unique vision, personalizing each ensemble with jewelry or through the way she belted something or purposely chose to forgo a belt altogether. Most importantly, she looked confident and relaxed in her clothes.
And this perhaps was the greatest lesson of that summer: the difference between ease and comfort. For the first time in my life, I discovered that looking effortless is not the same as wearing shapeless or ill-fitting garments. Seeing the care Luciana took each day in composing an outfit, I realized style involves making a decided choice: discovering the right silhouette for your body and sticking with it regardless of trends. This in turn requires the difficult task of editing – sorting the unflattering cuts and colors from those that complement your body type. But being aware of your body and knowing the difference between the flattering clothes and the less than forgiving ones takes real skill. A skill Italians have in spades.
Italian actress Claudia Cardinale Rome, 1961
In his Renaissance advice manual, The Book of the Courtier, Baldessare Castiglione, a diplomat and writer, takes pains to outline the necessary physical and emotional attributes constituting the perfect courtier. He exhorts his readers, “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura (nonchalance), so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” This then is the Italian creed Luciana had so generously let me in on: a faultless attention to detail in order to present to the world an unstudied elegance.
By August, as the end of the summer neared and the eve of my departure arrived, I had amassed a generous assortment of hand-me-downs from Luciana’s closet. Into my suitcase went an orange cotton fisherman’s sweater, a light summer jacket, a floral mini skirt, various long sleeve tops, a hairclip. But one item stood out among all the rest: a honey-colored laminated wicker bag with a gold chain strap. Stenciled on the lining in gold lettering was the word RODO, a Florentine company that began producing bags in the 50s and remains in production today. I had never before seen a purse so refined but completely practical and chic. It articulated all that I admired and all that I had learned about Italian style: that mixture of whimsy and deadly serious put togetherness. More than any other object I owned it was the embodiment of sprezzatura.
Back in New York City I stayed faithful to the Italian creed, dressing with care and carrying my RODO bag everywhere – to weekend brunches, to lunches, to cocktails and then on to dinner. I had the bag for years until one day the chain strap broke. I was entrenched in the mayhem of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn and didn’t know anyone who could repair the strap. And so, in a fit of desperation, I packed up the RODO bag in a box of Salvation Army donations. I never saw another one again until a decade and a half later at a flea market in Los Angeles. It was only there, as I gazed upon a table full of RODO bags, that the loss of Luciana’s bag washed over me. And the joy: I had been reunited with an old friend after a lifetime of separation. Though it was without a gold chain strap, I purchased a honey-colored clutch from the vendor. With bag in hand I stood instantly reconnected not only to Luciana but to the lessons of that summer. I was united again with that long forgotten part of me: the adventurous young woman who left her boyfriend (if only for a short while) to live carefree and uncover her style in a medieval Italian town.
Of course by now, with the help of Ebay, I have collected many RODO bags in various shapes and colors. But each time the feeling is the same: when I swing the gold chain strap over my shoulder and head out the door, I’m swept up once more in the glamour of those Italian summer afternoons.