Fashion Under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt by Eugenia Paulicelli

Vince Carducci

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.

Fashion Under Fascism

Publisher: Berg Publishers
Subtitle: Beyond the Black Shirt
Author: Eugenia Paulicelli
Price: $75.00 (US)
Length: 256
Formats: UK
UK publication date: 2004-05
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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.