Italian Fashion since 1945
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Italian Fashion since 1945

A Cultural History

Emanuela Scarpellini, Noor Giovanni Mazhar

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eBook - ePub

Italian Fashion since 1945

A Cultural History

Emanuela Scarpellini, Noor Giovanni Mazhar

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About This Book

In the course of the twentieth century, Italy succeeded in establishing itself as one of the world's preeminent fashion capitals, despite the centuries-old predominance of Paris and London. This book traces the story of how this came to be, guiding readers through the major cultural and economic revolutions of twentieth-century Italy and how they shaped the consumption practices and material lives of everyday Italians. In order to understand the specific character of the "Italian model, " Emanuela Scarpellini considers not only aspects of craftsmanship, industrial production and the evolution of styles, but also the economic and cultural changes that have radically transformed Italy and the international scene within a few decades: the post-war economic miracle, the youth revolution, the consumerism of the 1980s, globalization, the environmentalism of the 2000s and the Italy of today. Written in a lively style, full of references to cinema, literature, art and the world of media, this work offers the first comprehensive overview of a phenomenon that has profoundly shaped recent Italian history.

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© The Author(s) 2019
E. ScarpelliniItalian Fashion since 1945Italian and Italian American Studies
Begin Abstract

1. The Cultural Significance of How We Dress

Emanuela Scarpellini1
University of Milan, Milan, Italy
Emanuela Scarpellini
End Abstract

1 The Social Function of Clothes and Classes

“In the life of a society, the deepest mysteries are on the surface”.1 That was how the revolutionary Aleksandr Zinovev began one of his writings, with an observation which seems perfect for fashion, as clothes are a, perhaps unexpected, key to understanding the culture of a society. So much so that in order to comprehend how and why Italian fashion came into being, and why it has been successful, we first have to explore the mysteries Zinovev referred to. If it is in fact true that clothing is deeply imbued with a society’s cultural values, then its development cannot be understood without first decoding its symbolic meaning—and it is precisely from here that we will start.
In Sicily, they say “Eat and drink according to your taste, dress according to other people’s tastes”. This proverb accurately grasps what is perhaps the most obvious aspect which emerges from any photograph: the way we dress has a strong social significance. Our clothes reveal a great deal about us, from the first glance, since we live in a society organized and structured in accordance with precise rules (including clothing).
This aspect had already attracted the attention of great scholars over a century ago, for example when the German sociologist Georg Simmel chose fashion as the paradigm to explain the most profound mechanisms of modern society. We tend to imitate others because of our need to belong to a particular social group; at the same time, we also want to differentiate ourselves and affirm our individuality, partly detaching ourselves from the group. In this unresolved ambivalence of imitation/differentiation lies the key to understanding fashion, as well as all human behaviour. In practice, this means that the people belonging to a given social group dress according to similar criteria, in order to be different from other groups, apart from some individual peculiarities. The inferior social classes tend to imitate this behaviour—but as soon as some forms are followed by everyone, then the superior classes abandon them and look for new ones and so the cycle restarts. It is the basis of the “trickle-down” theory, of the tendencies which descend from top to bottom, of the “class fashions”, as Simmel puts it.2
Dressing following certain rules is therefore seen as an integral part of the forms of “ceremonial” which are the basis of human relations.3 But why is this appearance so important? Another great scholar of the end of the nineteenth century, this time an American economist, Thorstein Veblen, in his attempt to present an overall picture of the new society which had emerged from the Industrial Revolution, devotes a whole chapter to fashion in his book. Power and wealth are not enough to gain social prestige: they have to be displayed. And so what can be better than luxurious apparel? One exhibits one’s prosperity by flaunting a useless and flamboyant consumption, in fact “conspicuous”; and one also shows, through the characteristics of the garment, that one is not obliged to work, but has dedicated oneself to enjoyment, to leisure (it is sufficient to wear sparkling patent leather shoes, immaculate clothes, cumbersome hats, or clothes more suitable for elitist sports than work).4 An adequate wardrobe also included four or five changes of clothes a day, in order to be perfect on every occasion: a walk in the city, sport, afternoon tea or visiting friends, a restaurant, gala celebrations and the opera house.
This had become all the more important with the disappearance of the old society and its rigidly distinct class divisions and the new suddenly acquired wealth had radically altered the equation which had from time immemorial informed the social structure: rank equals wealth. So that there would be no mistake, for centuries the sumptuary laws had meticulously laid down the type of clothes, the materials, the jewels, even the colours which every class was authorized to use. One only needs to visit museums to see the numerous portraits of nobles and the upper classes—with their lavish garments, of silk, velvet, lace, adorned with ribbons, embroidery and garlands, embellished with jewels, as well as having sophisticated hairstyles—and then compare them with the rare paintings depicting the common folk, with their cast-off cotton clothes, of faded colours, badly cut, in order to understand that they were two incommunicable, incommensurably different worlds. With the passage of time, all this had come to an end. In the modern metropolises the styles became mixed up and it was more difficult to show others one’s wealth, old or new. Hence the way one dressed could appropriately re-establish the social distances.
Certainly, once upon a time it was easier and one could immediately recognize a person’s rank. Now instead it is more complicated, more subtle. But—Veblen warns us—in order to work it is important that the observer should still be able to decode the style of the way we dress.
If we wanted to start our journey of discovery of Italian fashion and clothing in the 1950s and early 1960s, what would we find? Would the results tally with these social themes? Absolutely. The photographs of this period present a scene in which social differences are obvious: the first deduction an observer could make is that the clothes had a marked hierarchical connotation. There are various elements which indicate this. In the first place, the quality of the clothes: in observing for example some photographs of passersby in the street and others of men at a party (they appear in the background of a photograph of the soprano Maria Callas at Ischia in 1957), one can see the high quality of the materials and the perfect cut of these men’s suits, the way they have been ironed, the immaculate white shirts, the well-formed knots of the ties, the handkerchief in the breast pocket and so on.5 And naturally the same was true for the women. These are all elements which are completely or partly missing in the photographs of the common passersby.
Secondly, there are the accessories. As the journalist Colette Rosselli, the author under the pseudonym of Donna Letizia of a very successful book on etiquette, wrote: “It is the accessories, gloves, a handbag, perfume, which first of all reveal the elegance of a real lady”.6 In another photograph of Maria Callas in 1956, the singer is shown seated, wearing a shiny mink fur coat, a small hat covered with a cascade of small white flowers surrounded by a veil, a necklace (barely visible), pendant diamond earrings, long white gloves and accentuated make-up. The whole picture suggests an image of great sophistication. We cannot see her handbag (always a very important element of the style of dressing, which must rigorously match the shoes) and we cannot smell her perfume, if there was any. But what we can see is sufficient.
Accessories are important elements in the social construction of how we dress, even if at times they are not very expensive; their significance is above all symbolic. Let’s consider hats. They have a very ancient origin as protection for the head and were made of fur or animal skins. Through the centuries they have undergone an incredible development, with the varied shapes and forms: bonnets, calottes, helmets, birettas, bibis, toques, top hats, bowler hats, kepis, turbans, fur, three-cornered and panama hats7; soft or hard, sober or full of feathers, ribbons and ornaments; tall or compressed, with wide or narrow brims and made of practically all the skins and materials imaginable: from simple protective measures, hats have become indicators of status. Not for nothing they are often depicted on the heraldic shields of nobles and ecclesiastics8; not surprisingly a hat, the Phrygian cap (worn in Ancient Rome by the freed slaves, and therefore a symbol of liberty), became one of the emblems of the French Revolution. To return to the 1950s, upper middle class men predominantly wore soft felt hats with floppy domes, like the Homburg launched in 1890 by Prince Edward of England9; while workers and common people wore at most simple berets or Basque caps. Similarly, upper-class women had many small refined hats, to be worn at parties and at the theatre (like the one worn by Maria Callas) or adorned with a thousand flowers, ribbons, veils, lace, fanciful accessories, as well as large, broad-brimmed hats. But they were not for everyone, as Alessandra recalls: “beautiful ladies … wore hats. I used to like looking at them; [they were] all broad-brimmed”.10 In fact, other women, apart from really special occasions, usually wore simple bonnets or foulards of different styles, or nothing at all. Therefore, a single glance at a person’s head would give a lot of information. But why are hats so important? It is easy to reply if one thinks ...

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