Fashion has always been important to Italians. It is a way to express yourself: you can show off your personal style, social status, where you’re from, and who or what you support. Throughout history, fashion changed with the times and often aligned itself with political movements, including fascism throughout the early twentieth century. Fascism is a political ideology that swept through Italy in between World Wars I and II. One of the major feats of fascism is the attempt to control every aspect of one’s life. These fascist fashion trends affected not only Italian citizens, but also shaped Italy’s national identity and how other countries perceive them. According to Il Duce Benito Mussolini, he says that
“Fascism conceives of the States as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived in relation to the State.”Benito Mussolini on Fascism (Mussolini).
Everything and everyone in a fascist state should be involved in improving their state’s glory. With fashion, that would mean wearing Italian-made clothes that reflect the values of the Italian state, which often meant traditional feminine skirts and dresses rather than pants. These fascist fashion trends were made in response to current fashion movements where women began dressing more less modest and more masculine. After World War I, women had new freedoms that they did not have before. Mussolini feared this feminist takeover in Italian society and wanted to stop it before it went further, so he created reactionary fashion trends that would influence the future of Italian fashion (d’Avignon).
Fascism was a political movement that is characterized by a strong authoritarian leader whose views on nationalism and a return to a mythic past (Rome in Italy’s case) dominate individuality, self-expression, and political or ideological opposition. This totalitarian form of government spreads its beliefs typically through propaganda across several kinds of mediums such as the radio, magazines, posters, and films. In Italy, the ideology broke off from socialism when former socialist Benito Mussolini returned from serving in World War I. In 1919, he founded the Fasci di Combattimento, known as the “Fighting Bands,” where these squads targeted socialists with violence by beating them up and forcing them to drink castor oil (History.com). It is interesting that the party was known for their black shirt uniforms because it is one of the many ways people can express themselves through fashion. Fascism appealed to Italians because of the country’s state after World War I. The Italian economy was in shambles due to high unemployment and debt. Italy’s government also found themselves in a deadlock situation, so they could not make necessary executive decisions. Here comes Benito Mussolini, a charismatic politician. He campaigned on bringing back law and order, providing economic assistance, and preventing the spread of communism. All three of these promises were attractive among the Italian people, especially with the middle and upper classes who feared a communist revolution such as the Bolsheviks in Russia. In 1922, Mussolini marched on Rome with his supporters and was appointed Prime Minister by King Victor Emmanuel III. Shortly after, Mussolini crafted his “New Italy,” in which he created institutions that would inhibit any kind of individuality in the Italian fashion realm such as the la nuova Italiana, massaie rurali, and the Ente Nazionale della Boda (d’Avignon).
Women exercised several new freedoms in the early twentieth century. During World War I, many worked since the men were off fighting. They also wore makeup, went out at night, and drank alcohol. Women followed a fashion trend known as la maschietta, which means “the tomboy.” They wore more revealing and masculine clothes such as shorter skirts, tailored pants, and lower necklines. Fascists realized that fashion played an important role in their propaganda because it was something they could control all aspects of, from producing the textiles to publishing fashion collections and magazines. Around the same time, Nazi Germany was also experimenting with “fascist fashion.” Hitler created the German Fashion Institute to counter the French and other foreign fashion movements that contrasted his views of women and fashion. In 1936, Walter Benjamin published his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” He wrote about the connection between fascism, politics, and aesthetics in Germany. Benjamin’s argument was that these attempts of using aesthetics for political goals were successful because of the new technology being used to share information: spreading propaganda through the radio and magazines.
Similar to Hitler, Mussolini also despised French fashion. He disliked the newfound freedoms women possessed during and after World War I and wanted to revert back to the patriarchal society. As a result, Mussolini launched la nuova Italiana, which is known as the “New Italian Woman.” According to the la nuova Italiana, women should wear clothes that are “glamorous, sophisticated, hyperfeminine” in contrast with the more masculine clothes women were starting to wear at the time (d’Avignon).
This is a fashion show that was first broadcasted on a newsreel known as the Unione Cinematografica Educativa, known as the Istituto LUCE. This institution along with others spread fascist propaganda, such as what clothes benefit the Italian state the most (Paulicelli).
This video is a clip from Alessandro Blasetti’s 1937 movie Contessa di Parma. Here you can see some of the common fashion trends at the time including long dresses and puffy sleeves. Another fascist fashion movement in Italy is the massaie rurali, which translates to “ladies of the field.” This spread through rural Italy, where women were advised to wear traditional peasant clothing and promoted motherhood over any other profession. Mothers were paid to have children so that there would be more little fascists running around Italy. According to Mussolini, the quintessential Italian woman was someone “whose buxom beauty signaled domesticity, and reminded women of their procreative responsibilities to the nation” (Zanoni 44).
This poster perfectly depicts Mussolini’s massaie rurali. The woman is wearing traditional peasant clothes: a long dress with large sleeves and a corset. She is a mother, holding a baby in her arms. The poster says “Rural Housewives Agenda,” meaning that all women in rural Italy should follow this example of dressing modestly and having children.
This next piece is a World War II propaganda poster that includes a mother, her child, and soldiers in the background. It reads, “The Italian woman, with her renunciations and sacrifices advances alongside the fighters.” Once again, the woman is wearing modest clothes, a long skirt and long sleeves. The poster demonstrates what women during World War II should be doing while the men are fighting. Through these movements, Mussolini “strove to exclude all forms of individuality” for both Italian women and fashion (Zanoni 47). He wanted women to remain inferior to men by reinforcing them to refrain from exercising their new freedoms from World War I by dressing in traditional clothes, staying home, and having children (Lucyk-Berger).
Controlling the fashion industry in Italy was easy for the fascists when economic sanctions were placed on the country in 1935 after invading Ethiopia. This led to a “buy Italian” campaign where people were advised to buy Italian made goods — once again to promote Mussolini’s “new” Italian identity. The fascists loved this because they could control the fabrics and textiles that entered or exited the country. The government also created institutions such as Ente Nazionale Della Moda (National Fashion Board of Italy) to control all aspects of Italian fashion and dictated what one can wear and what one cannot wear. Their edict states, “‘The Italian woman must follow Italian fashion. Taste, elegance, and originality have demonstrated that this initiative can and must be successful’” (d’Avignon). The board also created the Commentario Dizionario Italiano della Moda (An Italian Dictionary and Commentary on Fashion), which translated all fashion terms into Italian. The importance behind this move was that all words that were borrowed from other languages were provided a new Italian translation in order for the language to be more “Italian.” Similar to fashion, language is another way one can express oneself and view the world. Speaking Italian and Italian only is a great way to preserve a national identity.
Another instance where Mussolini took advantage of fascist propaganda to control the public is through his Great Parade of Female Forces in 1939. This march features Mussolini himself walking alongside women in solidarity for the government and ideology. It was filmed and then used to promote fascism and that ideal Italian woman would stand with Mussolini and wear traditional garb. This piece is often compared to Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, which depicts scenes from Hitler’s rallies. These pictures and videos of the Great Parade of Female Forces depict the massaie rurali, the rural Italian woman in the eyes of Mussolini.
Most historians and scholars agree that Mussolini and the fascists were not successful in their efforts to control the fashion industry. Even though Mussolini tried to unite the Italian people under his new Italian state, the north and south still did not feel these “Italian” sentiments. Instead, they still identified with their city and region rather than “Italian.” People also resisted the fashion instructions and “advice” by dressing however they wanted, buying foreign pieces from France and the United States, and following those trends. Some fashion magazines still used the French terms the fascists attempted to erase. Designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli deviated from the rules while others were complicit in following them. Finally, the self-reliance and “buy Italian” strategy was not sustainable long term. In conclusion, the fascist fashion movement that took place in Italy was a great attempt to control women but fell short. In a time of strict fascist rules and fashion suggestions from the government, the Italian people found themselves through fashion.
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