Fashion Under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt by Eugenia Paulicelli

The Italian woman must follow Italian fashion. Taste, elegance and originality have demonstrated that this initiative can and must be successful.
— Fascist Party Edict, 1933

Back in my not-so-distant “suit” days, I took up Italian-made clothing as a protest against the button-down Anglophilia of the “dress for success” regimens of Corporate America. My favorite “power meeting” outfit was a Valentino Uomo three-button suit tailored in lustrous black end-on-end-woven silk and wool fabric, which I wore with a charcoal gray shirt and tone-on-tone silver tie, Il Duce style. Mussolini’s attempt to use fashion as an ideological and economic weapon is the subject of Eugenia Paulicelli’s Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt. In this first-ever study of its kind in English, Paulicelli traces the origins of the modern Italian fashion industry in the ideals of the nation’s unification movement and their subsequent cooptation by the Fascist Party in the years leading up to the Second World War.

The role of the Garibaldi of Italian fashion was played by Rosa Genoni. Through her writings and classes, she taught in Milan on fashion theory and history during the first quarter of the 20th century. Genoni proselytized on the need for Italian designers and consumers to declare independence from the domination of French couturiers. The unofficial house organ of the movement to develop a specifically Italian sense of fashion was the magazine Lidel, founded in 1919 with the goal of propagating the ideals of Italian identity and nationhood.

The Fascists took up the fashion industry cause as part of their agenda of managing cultural expressions of nation, class and gender in the construction of a New Italy and New Italians. They sought to tie the ruling order to the timeless values of antiquity and the land. The first was embodied in the Golden Age of the Italian Renaissance, the second in the provincial domain of the peasant. The Ideal Woman of Fascism rejected the gender-bending ways of la maschietta (the tomboy), the Italian version of the Roaring ’20s flapper. Instead, the New Italian Woman would be the model of femininity as represented by the body-emphasizing cuts of knitted sportswear, and she would accept her place in the patriarchal family, bound up in the hand-tatted lace and embroidered aprons of traditional matronly attire. In 1939, Mussolini himself organized “The Great Parade of the Female Forces,” a spectacle of feminine Fascist solidarity that was filmed and then screened around the nation as an Italian version of Leni Reifenstahl’s 1934 documentary on Hitler, Triumph of the Will.

The Fascist fashion program took on economic significance after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, when international sanctions were put on Italy by the League of Nations. The fashion industry had been brought together three years earlier with the formation of the Entre Nazionale della Moda (National Fashion Body), or ENM, in 1932. ENM was charged with coordinating all aspects of fashion production and consumption in the period when Italy was forced to adopt the policy of self-reliance due to import restrictions.

One of the major areas of concern was the textile industry, the foundation as it were of Italian fashion. For many years, Italian silk produced by the artisans of Como (who had mastered the printing and dying techniques Marco Polo brought back from China long ago) were exported at low cost to France, only to be substantially marked up when shipped back to Italy in the form of manufactured apparel. To combat this, ENM mounted “buy Italian” campaigns to increase the market penetration of domestically made products. (Although Mussolini’s mistress Margherita Sarfatti managed to slip off to Paris whenever she felt the urge to buy couture outfits for her trips abroad.) Italy was also one of the world’s leading producers of rayon, made from cellulose resin extracted from pine cones not native to the country. In this case, ENM oversaw private-industry research that led to the discovery of a cellulose substitute made from a plant that grew locally. Called SniaFoccio, the new fabric was trumpeted as “the textile of independence.”

With her considerable background in comparative literature (which she teaches at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City), Paulicelli is at her best when analyzing various kinds of texts. Her reading of 1930s women’s magazine fiction shows how these narratives often functioned as instruments of cathartic release, giving voice to repressed contradictions of duty and desire under the Fascist regime. The so-called “white telephone” films of popular cinema are understood as directing attention toward public fantasies of consumption that aligned with production interests under ENM policies granting monopolies for costume design to Italian manufacturers. The propagandistic objectives of Cesare Meano’s 1936 Commentary and Italian Dictionary of Fashion are laid bare in Paulicelli’s deconstruction of the author’s Mein Kampf-like attempt to purge the fashion lexicon of all French terminology.

For such a short book (the main text weighs in at just over 150 pages, plus an interview, illustrations and notes), Fashion under Fascism is packed with details, many using sources that have never been translated into English. In fact, the casual reader may be a bit overwhelmed by it all, fascinating as it is. And if a criticism is to be made, it’s that one might have wished for more linear structure, a clearer pattern for weaving the threads of the story into whole cloth. But like finding a totally awesome vintage sport jacket at the bottom of a thrift-shop pile, rummaging around Paulicelli’s book (her first in English) offers up its rewards to the persistent.

The Fascist effort to control fashion was ultimately unsuccessful. Paulicelli gives several reasons for this. The first is a simple truth about Italian politics and culture before mid-century: North and South didn’t see themselves as one nation despite decades of unification rhetoric. (This is true even today: Roberto Benigni pokes fun at it in his 1991 movie Johnny Stecchino, about a bus driver from the North who gets mistaken for a Mafia don in Sicily.) The second is the resistance from both designers and consumers, who redirected mandates from above to suit their own purposes whenever possible. Finally, there was ENM’s inability to organize production and distribution to mesh with market cycles. Self-reliance simply wasn’t politically and economically feasible over the long run in an increasingly interdependent world capitalist system. In this respect, the lessons of Fashion under Fascism turn out to be surprisingly timely.