Excerpt adapted in part from my book, Living the Palio.
The strongest direct symbol of personal contrada identity is the contrada scarf, or fazzoletto, which is typically worn around one’s neck. Today, as in the past, the authentic fazzoletto is made of 100 percent silk and is given to someone born and baptized into the contrada. Ideally, contradaioli receive their fazzoletti (plural) when they are born and keep them for life. Still, as globalization and demographic changes continue to influence the contrade, it is now possible to be born or to marry outside the contrada and still receive a silk fazzoletto.
Contrada memberships have been determined for centuries based simply on where a person was born in the city. Prior to the advent of modern-day hospitals, the actual location of the birth is what determined a baby’s contrada membership. To say that someone is “born into the contrada” today, however, refers more generally to the location of the family’s home within the contrada’s territory.
Take, for instance, a baby girl “born into” the Giraffe. Even if she moved across town or to another country later in life, she would remain a Giraffe. In other words, to be born in a contrada is essentially the gold standard of community membership. That person has a special place—a home—and a dizzying array of extended family members for life, no questions asked. (End Excerpt).
So, is it ok for visitors to wear scarves too?
Visitors around Palio time seem to enjoy wearing the colored scarves for fun, or maybe to feel closer to the Sienese culture. Nearly every souvenir shop and stand sells inexpensive “knock-off” scarves for tourists (Note: their designs are slightly different from the “authentic” fazzoletti worn by the Sienese, and they know the difference). Also, sometimes a contrada will sell polyester versions of the fazzoletto to guests attending their contrada dinners, such as the cena della prova generale, the night before the Palio.
From my perspective, if a visitor is respectful amongst the real Sienese and is not pretending to blend in like a local, it’s ok to enjoy wearing the tourist scarves. However, it is important to note that the Sienese generally consider it bad luck to wear their fazzoletti outside of the four days of the Palio (except at other official contrada functions). They will also only wear their fazzoletti if they are one of the ten contrade selected to race; the other, non-racing contrada will not wear them, even during the days of the Palio. Should you venture into a contrada neighborhood not running, but their colors are around your neck, you will easily stand out! The same is true should one accidentally end up in the territory of that contrada’s rival (so don’t expect much friendliness there). The emotions of the Sienese run high around Palio time, so it is wise to keep this in mind when deciding to wear a scarf. Beyond this, most of the time it’s fine to wear the tourist scarves around the Campo, as the local Sienese are generally accustomed to it. Hopefully this information provides some useful context regarding what the scarves mean, why they are worn, and when.