Every time I hear someone shout “Where’s Waldo?!” at me—a common occurrence if I’m headed home from working a shift—I think of the jaunty fellow in the photo above. That’s a picture of a gondolier decked out in period garb from the early 1800s. Back in those days, Venice’s gondoliers didn’t wear stripes. They were more like butlers, hired by Venetian nobility to work as private rowers for wealthy families.
Today, it’s all about the stripes. It’s a simple get-up, sure, but I try to pay homage to the good taste and refinement of my Venetian forefathers with an attention to detail equal to the double-breasted suit and bowler hat look. Here are a few tips for nailing the contemporary canal cruiser style.
Gondoliering is one of the oldest ongoing professions in the world, so there are a lot of wacky old school rules in the style department that are forever institutionalized. Take, for example those famed striped shirts: even the stripe thickness is regulated. In my early years rowing in Central Park, I made the rookie mistake of buying H&M’s striped shirts, which would have had me laughed out of Venice not only for their thin stripes, but also on account of the white trim that lines the neck and sleeves. In order to get the proper shirt, you have to go to the source: The official store is Bampa off of St. Mark’s Square in in Venezia itself. Look for the trademark “Italia” stitched on the tag. As for the colors: as a gondolier, your shirt is something like a mood ring. The majority of gondoliers in Venice wear blue. Red is a flashy play. It draws more attention. When I’m ready to act as the jovial third nautical wheel to my lovebird passengers, I throw on the red. When I’m sporting a prosecco hangover, well, I keep it cool blue.
The gondolier’s hat isn’t a necessity for the getup, but it is useful for keeping the sun out of your eyes and off your neck. When I was in Venice last March, I was tempted by the hats made by Juliana Longo, which are renowned for their buoyancy (especially helpful in case a breeze catches your brim). However, the lady hat maker there appeared to have instigated some beef among a few gondoliers, and Bampa has become the preferred hat shop. Those models won’t float, but they are hand-woven.
Black pants are the norm of the industry, and while the oarsmen of yore were decking themselves out in circus-tent slacks, I like to stay fitted in Levi’s. Cuffed 521’s to be precise. Why 521’s? Well, you won’t find anyone in Venice sporting them, but they’ve got the flex I need. If I drop a rose or a glass of wine in the bottom of the boat, I want to be able to maneuver my way down without splitting the seat of my pants. Also, slimmer Levi’s are a hipper choice, in case I decide to take a passenger bellisima out for an evening on the town after work.
This is where it’s easy and rewarding to break from Venetian law (I row in America, so I doubt anyone will take a tape measurer to my stripes). Despite the fact that all gondoliers in Venice wear black shoes, for me, flat Sperry topsiders are a must for the traction. And sockless is the only way to go.
Want to learn a gondolier sing like a gondolier? Start with “O Sole Mio.” Find Pierce singing here.