Fashion. Fascism. Two words that sound undeniably similar yet never thought of in the same vein. However, the ties between fashion and the Italian fascist regime in the first half of the 20th century are surprisingly…close. Milan is known as one of the world’s fashion capitals, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the rise of Italian fashion as we know it emerged alongside none other than Mussolini’s fascist regime. Nation building has historically been a rather patriarchal endeavor, making the control of women a central component of this project, so I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that Mussolini capitalized on fashion as a means to sculpt the “New Italian Woman.” Fascism has played a role in other corners of the fashion industry as well. Take, for instance, Balenciaga notoriously designing dresses for wives of Nazi generals or Coco Chanel profiting off of Nazi patronage during the war as a benefit of having a German officer lover.
In the 19th century Italy, the nation was on the hunt to refashion itself and reach back to its roots in an attempt to rise out of economic decline. In Niccolò Tommaseo’s novella Fede e Bellezza, he calls on the nation to begin the soul-searching process of moral transformation — and what better way to do that than to look inwards? This urged the body of the nation to steer clear of external influences and revisit the peak of Italian culture: the Renaissance, embracing velvet as a means of expressing this newfound cultural resurgence. This period of cultivating Italian identity, known as the Risorgimento Period, came to be characterized by splendor, virtue, and beauty. While the tendency to steer clear of external influences was maintained in the fashioning of a modern identity under Mussolini’s fascist regime, what was seen as fashionable took some dramatic turns in the next phase of Italian fashion history.
Fascism was born following the first World War, as many countries were in search of national unity and the reassurance of having strong leadership, bringing about a massive spread of authoritarian regimes around Europe. This paved the way for Benito Mussolini to weaponize his charismatic personality and rise to power in Italy, coining the term “fascism” in 1919, which would come to be characterized by extreme nationalism, corporatism, and an obsession with cultivating an “ideal” humanity (think blonde hair, blue eyes…). For a regime predicated on the importance of national superiority, cultivating a collective image was practically a necessity, and what better way to curate one’s appearance than through clothing (we all wear it!). The corporatist allegiances to the fascist party made it possible to influence the sorts of commodities people were exposed to, in this case, fashion.
At this time, Italy was attempting to distinguish itself from other nations. This manifested itself in the realm of fashion. For instance, the Ente Nazionale della Moda (National Fashion Body, ENM) sought to eradicate foreign terminology from the language of fashion by publishing the Commentario Dizionario Italiano della Moda (Commentary on the Italian dictionary of fashion). The regime also invested in a “buy Italian” campaign driven by a desire to distance Italian fashion from France, which reigned as the world’s fashion capital (and had been for years). The mass media was a vehicle to making this vision a reality. From newspapers to magazines to cinema, propaganda was spread, hoping to foster this collective identity. For instance, the Princess of Piedmont, Maria José, was pictured on the front of the La Donna fashion magazine in 1933 wearing regional attire. This photograph was found alongside drawings of folk-inspired evening gowns drawn by the designer Brunetta Mateldi. The hidden message being that women should embrace nationalism, using the princess’s royal image to urge women of the upper classes not to purchase their attire abroad (namely in Paris) but rather make their purchases within the national boundaries.
As noted earlier, nation building is rooted in the patriarchy, making it no surprise that control of women is a central tenet on the agenda. Physical perfection and the mastery of the body are a (gendered) obsession fascists have regarding building the “ideal” human population and has given birth to a futile hunt for perfection. This fascist fascination led to the rise of plastic surgery, the standardization of sizes, and an upsurge in exercise — all of which proliferate to this day. Having the perfectly curated woman, then, was a key component of cultivating Mussolini’s utopic Italy.
If the image of the nationalistic princess isn’t enough to convince you, then perhaps his 1939 The Great Parade of the Female Forces will. In case you can’t decipher what this parade entailed just from its oh-so-telling name, it was organized for the young women that would come to define the “new Italian woman” and was filmed to be broadcasted nationally. Essentially, this was the fascist court’s attempt at burgeoning a feminist movement while maintaining complete control over it. The ENM sought to replace French haute couture with styles exhibited by the Massaie Rurali (MR), an organization for peasant women that was idealized as the nation’s mothers by the fascist party. At the parade, the MR marched in regional costume wear characterized by peasant blouses with billowing sleeves, lace-up bodices, square collared vests, full skirts, necklaces, earrings, shawls, lace collars, ornaments, and headgear. This look was quite utilitarian as it embodied their role as “ladies in the field.” However, it still maintained the ornamental aspects inherited from Renaissance fashion.
What is now emblematic of Italian fashion — characterized by glamour, sophistication, and a hyper-feminine physique — was largely inherited from Mussolini’s regime. Off-the-shoulder necklines, chandelier earrings, scarves, and full skirts were adapted from the MR maidens. Similarly, in the 1930s, women’s fashion reflected the hyper-militarism of fascism around Europe at the time. Wide-shouldered suits with slim skirts and buttons saw an upsurge over dresses; however, the dress style inherited from the Italian peasantry still maintained popularity.
Against all of Mussolini’s attempts, he could not control all of the women under his regime, and as much as fashion was a vehicle of control, it was also a means of resistance and subtle subversion. Despite attempts to dictate what Italian women wore and what Italian designers produced, many folks went against the grain. Not every woman was convinced by the peasantry attire, and many still sought after Parisian fashion magazines that they could then replicate for their own. Despite being a platform for fascist propaganda, magazines gave female writers, such as Anna Banti, Alba de Céspedes, and Gianna Manzini, the opportunity to vocalize their opposition and resistance to female oppression under Mussolini. Design and production in the fashion industry provided one path for women to carve out and invent spaces for themselves under the authoritarian state, such as prominent fashion designers at the time, Fernanda Gattinoni, and the Fontana sisters. But there were also a number of designers that strayed from the beaten path, namely the famous shoe stylist, Salvatore Ferragamo and fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli who developed their fashion from sources beyond Italy.
While Mussolini’s attempts at crafting the ideal “New Italian Woman” may have been futile, it exhibits how fashion has historically been employed as a vehicle of control but also resistance. Although it is easy to look back at fascist propaganda and wonder how people fell for such advertising, it’s interesting to flip the mirror back onto ourselves and think about all the marketing campaigns (can we dare classify any of them as propaganda?) we have fallen victim to. While legacies of human perfection have strong ties to fascist idealism, we don’t often make the connections between the workout campaigns, beauty ads, and other fallacies of perfection the media force-feeds us and their fascist roots. Any attempts to tell women how they should look or what they should do are never met without a fight, and no one exhibits this quite like the women of the fascist Italian regime that subverted Mussolini’s regime’s attempts at controlling their image.