f all the great lessons Italy taught me, “There’s no place too dark for a pair of sunglasses” probably made my Top-5. Wearing them under any circumstances is taken for granted. That they make you look cool is an obvious explanation. But since everyone else does the same thing your swagger is usually canceled out. Another possible reason is that designer glasses are often the most affordable item in a high-end collection. They give the wearer the illusion of belonging to the world of high fashion.
In the United States, people don’t see it that way. Americans find wearing sunglasses inside impolite. I don’t know why, since no one makes eye contact anyway.
I Googled “portare occhiali da sole” to get a better take on the Italian perspective. The results included a philosophical reflection by Umberto Galimberti in La Repubblica. He claimed (with help from Plato and the Bible) that when someone wearing sunglasses looks at someone without them, the latter is negated as a person and made into a thing. It destroys reciprocity. What Plato had to say on the matter wasn’t clear.
My English search — “wearing sunglasses inside” — led me to a multitude of hostile forum posts and blog entries. Hatred for the indoor wearer spared only those with medical excuses.
The most far-reaching example came in connection to love. When there’s “one little thing” that bothers you so much “it actually makes you physically cringe, you know it’s time to say; ‘I love you but…'” The “little thing”? You guessed it.
Then there was Anna Wintour, fashion icon and editor of Vogue. She’s has long been criticized for wearing sunglasses indoors. In a 60 Minutes interview, she not only defended herself but also gave me ammunition. “They are seriously useful,” she said. “I can sit in a show and if I am bored out of my mind, nobody will notice… At this point, they have become, really, armor.” The last word is crucial.
Coolness aside, some of us wear them to fend-off society. As an introvert, I consider sunglasses as one of life’s simple pleasures. I sometimes need a break from people and sunglasses become a “Do Not Disturb” sign for my face. It’s especially true in Italy, where eye contact is intense and unusually prolonged.
While Americans get exasperated thinking that people wear them inside to draw attention to themselves, they actually have it backwards. The wearers do it to become invisible.
Or to recover from humiliation.
While waiting for our luggage at Philadelphia International Airport after our flight from Rome, my aunt and I watched a young Italian guy get busted by the police sniffer-beagle and its handler. After nonna‘s carefully-wrapped sausage was confiscated, the man slowly donned his sunglasses.
He didn’t do it to attract attention to himself — unless being busted for meat-smuggling makes you an instant celebrity — but to get privacy while he recovered his pride. There may be no nobler reason.