A jazzy music from the ’30 was filling the air of San Francisco’s street the other day. As I got closer, I recognized the music of Duke Ellington playing from of a boom box sitting on the pavement next to a shoeshine stall. I looked around and suddenly I was catapulted in a different time in a different country. The colors of the street turned sepia colors and I was a girl in Italy walking together with my father, in a time when men took a great care of their exterior appearance and just like women, men too went into extensive hours of grooming to achieve a polished look. In my vision, shoeshine stalls were at almost every city block, ice cream vendors screamed to have the best ice cream of the entire city and bicyclists filled the streets with only a few cars, but the sound of San Francisco’s cable car returned me to reality. The magic of being in another era lasted a few seconds.
The street shoeshine stalls are disappearing in Italy too, as people find more convenient to polish their shoes at home. However, there is a majority of people in Italy still cleaning their shoes before leaving home. Italian people wear leather shoes more often than tennis shoes and the “dandy” affected look is still very much a high game in Italy. To have dirty shoes is a sign of sloppiness and uncaring to make bella figura, the Italian art of looking good in the eyes of others.
Kids shined shoes of American GIs during WWII out of necessity to make extra money. Italian film-maker Vittorio De Sica took inspiration from this new street activity to produce a film called Sciuscia’, which was the word kids shouted to American soldiers to attract their attention and let them know they were open to shine shoes. It was the way English sounded to them Shoeshine – Sciuscia’. They served only men and continued to these days.
An Italian shoeshine is a colorful street character. The man who wants to shine his shoes will be asked to sit on the high chair while the shoeshine will sing at him some Opera Aria or any well-known pop music, otherwise the two men will start talking about politics and sport, two favorite subjects men talk about in the street with strangers. A shoeshine might not be a highly educated person, but can speak four or more languages easily. At times, I heard them babble in Japanese, Chinese and Arabic, aside from the common European languages they have mastered well and mostly learned in the street from tourists. Rest assured that at the end of his service, the shoes are like brand new and the customer leaves amused.
Every home in Italy owns one elegant wooden box with all the necessary items to shine shoes beautifully and if not they have the basic creams and brushes lose in a drawer. I have a cedar box my mother left me and every time I go out the door, I polish my shoes and remember.
Now, it’s September and as every September it’s time to go through my shoes, get rid of the pairs I don’t want anymore and polish all the winter shoes. My shoes are well kept and someone else will have the chance to enjoy them the second time around.
Feet are the end of our body and often are not the prettiest part. They support the weight and the beating of the walk. We make them swollen and tired, the least we can do, is to make them look good. Shoes tell the story of who we are and men with polished shoes have my attention! Ciao,
Copyright © 2013 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved
Valentina Cirasola has been a lifetime designer in fashion and interiors. Her extensive knowledge of colors and materials led her in both directions successfully. Vogue Italy and many prominent publications in California featured her work. Among designing and remodeling homes, designing custom-made furniture and writing books, Valentina is now teaching etiquette, table manners, table setting and life style. Check out her latest book Red-A Voyage Into Colors on the subject of colors, available on