Fashion was always famous for its power, but only quite recently have people believed it has meaning. From time to time during the last two hundred years, writers have uneasily asserted that everything important about individuals, even about whole civilisations, could be learned from what people wore; but by the end of the 20th century, the meaning of clothing had become a respectable subject in its own right. During those same two centuries, women’s apparel became ever more conspicuous and volatile, acquiring exclusive claim to the term ‘fashion’. Male dress, on the other hand, became more and more inconspicuous; its changes looked more like the small shifts in tribal custom, while fashion became more unrespectable and frivolous.
Books such as Irene Guenther’s and Eugenia Paulicelli’s, connecting a cultural triumph of the 19th century with a political scourge of the 20th, can expect serious readers; but even so, their opening sections show that both writers still feel they must justify taking fashion seriously. They look at the ways both the Third Reich and Mussolini’s regime attempted to put a nationalist stamp on women’s fashion, each wishing to burnish its own image by controlling the power of female appearance. In both cases, fashion was only an issue because France had kept absolute power over fashionable women’s appearance since the time of Louis XIV. In Italy and Germany, no less than in Britain and America, Sweden and Spain, it was assumed that elegant women would dress in Paris, while less elegant but fashion-conscious women would wear domestic adaptations of Paris trends. It was not considered possible to sustain a superior feminine appearance – meaning an effortless-seeming physical perfection, combining natural endowments with current clothes and grooming – without ultimately owing it to Paris.
In Nazi Chic? Guenther shows how this historical assumption had already prompted a rash of satiric French cartoons during World War One, featuring dumpy, dowdy, or grotesquely rakish German women contrasted to sleek and chic French ones. At the same time, German press and propaganda were insisting that the French modes routinely adopted in Germany were not only debased and ridiculous, but whorish, degenerate and corrosive of German female morals. It was treasonous to look attractive in enemy-inspired garb; right-thinking German women should wear decent clothes suitable for doing proper work in service of the fatherland. Writers and journalists also suggested that German fashion should not only become independent of Paris, but surpass it when the war was over, going on to gain world fashion dominance with its noble, self-respecting styles. Never a word appeared about what the clothes should look like; no analysis was made of which shapes, colours and textures or ways of composing and wearing them might make German frocks eclipse Paris frocks in the postwar world.
Guenther points out that a large and immensely profitable garment business had long since developed in Berlin, selling expertly made ready-to-wear clothing and accessories for both sexes all over Europe, but specialising in made-to-measure tailoring. There was also a flourishing fashion business, with salons de couture and luxurious shops offering high-level ready-to-wear fashion and accessories, along with numerous fashion magazines. Before World War One, German industrial strength and technological skill were already superior to French, and German-made clothing was already being exported to France, often unrecognised as German by its French consumers, or even by German consumers shopping in Paris.
Patriotic enthusiasts could easily believe that consolidated effort alone was needed to create a home product distinctive enough to give Paris pause after the war. To that end, organisations were founded during the conflict to unite the disparate elements of the big German fashion business, to give it what was hoped would become a conquering force. There was still no clear idea about how the clothes should look, though some groups believed that art academies should offer training in fashion design.
By 1915, German feeling was running higher about female fashion than might easily be credited. Rapid industrialisation and its dislocations had produced a deeper fear of encroaching modernity in Germany than in slower-developing countries – a fear that was easy to focus on the way women’s looks had changed between 1907 and 1913. In Germany, this transformation was blamed on fashion’s Frenchness, even though the same changes took place everywhere fashion held sway. Guenther seems to suggest that the Franco-Prussian war had given early-20th-century Germans the feeling that Paris was now out to seduce their women in revenge for their defeat; that uncorseted, clinging, ankle-exposing French dresses were specifically designed to undermine German morals.
In fact, international fashion was modernising women faster than wars or organisations could do. During the ten years before World War One, the modish female body changed its shape, line, posture and surface from top to toe, becoming sleek, linear, self-contained and bipedal. Later, during the 1920s, women’s fashion everywhere came to consist of flexible fabric envelopes that moved in harmony with the body, without distorting its shape or extending its scope, and without sacrificing soft texture or bright colour. The effect was to make the look of dressed women correspond to the look of dressed men instead of contrasting with it, so that the modern male could see the modern female as a creature of similar human shape, with operative legs and feet and an unencumbered head. Even without trousers or strict tailoring, this was generally viewed with alarm as ‘masculinisation’, smelling strongly as it did of sexual equality. Paris was certainly leading this movement, but Weimar Germany (where women voted, as they didn’t yet in France) produced excellent versions, and promoted them in fine fashion illustration.
Guenther acknowledges the success of Nazi male chic – those ravishing, stiff black SS uniforms so romanticised in movies – but only to exclude men’s fashion from her account. She instead makes clear why there could be no Nazi chic for women. Since the 18th century, Jews had created and purveyed virtually all German elegance; and under Hitler, a carefully fostered fear of contamination by Jews easily swamped mere disapproval of French couture. Paris designers weren’t stunting the growth of German fashion, the Jews were: they were at fault, if only for making money out of whorish French fashion. By 1938, all Jewish businesses that served the garment trade – with textiles, trimmings and fastenings, with thread and seam-binding, padding and boning, buckram and interfacing, with custom tailoring and couture dress-design, with ready-to-wear tailoring and dressmaking, with machine-sewing and hand-finishing, with distribution and merchandising at every level, from designer salons and great department stores to little boutiques – had been wholly Aryanised or wiped out.
Purged along with the Jews was any possibility that Germany could eclipse Paris in the manufacture of chic. This was not immediately apparent or important to those eager to dress German women as paragons of the Third Reich. In 1933, the Nazis favoured putting women in traditional folk-dress, of which Germany had many regional styles featuring quaint head-dresses and braided hair, and some women began to wear such trappings at public entertainments and ceremonies. Photos of models dressed this way appeared for years on countless posters and in magazines, all wearing sweet smiles, with tendrils of sunny hair escaping from their buns and braids. These made a strong impression outside Germany, but most German women preferred being attractive in the depraved modern way, like Dietrich and Garbo, or maybe Bette Davis, and dressing, like the rest of the modern world, in imitation of Paris. Folk-dress invoked notions of national purity, meaning no make-up and no permanent waves, no smoking and no cocktails. Some eager Nazi supporters went in for it, but only the very eager.
Meanwhile, the wives and mistresses of high-ranking Nazi officials appeared in public wearing mouth-watering couture ensembles, painted lips and modern hair. Hitler was no help, either; he said nothing about the correct Third Reich look for women, except that they should be beautiful. More discouragingly, support for peasant clothing went along with the idea that rural women should keep sheep and grow flax, spin, weave and dye the wool and linen, cut and sew the skirts and bodices, starch and pleat the collars and aprons, and then embroider everything. But these women had their hands full doing ordinary farm work, and the plan never got off the ground.
How about uniforms worn with skirts? This idea had more success. Women were already wearing uniforms for service jobs such as postal delivery, and later, as elsewhere, there were female military auxiliaries; but this was not the way to create an attractive national image of feminine beauty, to which all Germans might now aspire, and tomorrow the whole world. Identical female gym or swimsuits revealing uniformly fit physiques were fine for sports events; but again the true aim was to replace Paris fashion, this time for a thousand years, with superior Nazi productions.
The real fight, however, was not about ways of looking chic; it was about attracting exclusive government attention and financing. The true power struggles were among and within the urban centres where fashion and its tributary industries – textiles, lace, leather – had traditionally flourished. In 1933, as in 1915, a German Fashion Institute was founded in Berlin with the aim of integrating the separate elements of the industry, including fashion schools, and thereafter to acquire unique government recognition and backing. But rival cities such as Frankfurt and Munich had their own fashion institutes, and in the competition for leadership and economic advantage, all were warring internally and with local labour organisations. No coherent, uniquely Nazi fashion machine ever managed to get going. The multipartite and freshly Aryanised industry went doggedly on, its representatives still quietly visiting Paris for inspiration as late as 1939. Guenther devotes a chapter to the Deutsches Mode-Institut (which later mutated into increasingly ineffective versions, and finally ended only with the German surrender) as a sort of lesson: fashion thrives in a competitive and critical climate, where it can be freely inspired by sexual, political and aesthetic daring; if it is conceived as an expression of a totalitarian ideal, it will be still-born.
In 1940, when France fell, the Paris couture houses that remained open went on serving the Nazi elite, along with plenty of rich French collaborators. In Germany, women had gone into war work, while propaganda urged them to serve the Fatherland by having children and rejecting all vanities. Shortages of textiles, leather and thread had already resulted in shortages of garments and shoes, which became increasingly scarce. Clothes rationing went into effect and was strictly enforced. Those applying for new items had to prove that the old ones were wholly unusable; people were jailed and some were executed for small infractions and deceptions; and there was no shortage of corruption.
Meanwhile, German women mended their decaying shoes with cardboard and resoled them with cork or rope, made their own hats out of old newspapers and wood shavings, unravelled empty grain sacks so as to knit the scratchy yarn into underwear and socks, and stitched together new dresses from the good bits of worn-out ones. Eventually, they remade the uniforms of their slain husbands and sons into clothes for themselves and their children, applying decorative motifs over the bullet-holes. In the early 1940s, it was still normal for women everywhere to know about mending, patching, darning and knitting, and how to plan, cut out and sew garments with linings, facings and hems. All that competence and ingenuity enabled women to use every shred of cloth; but it was difficult to find anything to use for nappies, sanitary wear and rags for cleaning.
The German high-fashion industry continued nevertheless, the hope being that it would generate some national revenue to help finance the war. Luxurious feminine designs were created for export only, and glossy photos were published in German fashion magazines. Guenther shows us some of these ornate ensembles, which look undeniably heavy-handed (maybe it’s the bad photos); and she describes others from the magazine Die Mode, first published in 1941, showing fur coats, velvet and feather-trimmed hats, fine leather accessories and lace-trimmed satin underwear. Models wearing German couture appeared on the runways of Occupied Europe, as if to demonstrate that there was still a healthy fashion industry in wartime Germany. In England, an industry had been set up to produce austerity clothing, but there was no such thing for German women. Instead, German fashion went on trying to outdo Paris, even though German citizens owned fewer and fewer clothes of any kind.
All households were repeatedly compelled to give up their used garments and shoes ‘to the needy’, especially in winter, and government staff made regular house-to-house collections. Guenther suggests that most of this extorted clothing was not given to the poor but sold to fill Third Reich coffers; and she tells us that during the war, theft from the collections was punishable by death. Everyday clothes were still manufactured, but in severely rationed amounts, since thread and textiles were first used to clothe the army.
It’s not clear how the lush photos in Die Mode were received by increasingly ragged and demoralised German women. Guenther asserts that the idea behind fashion photos of couture-clad models was to deny the wretched state of things, to give the impression that nothing had changed in the character of Germany under the Third Reich. The Nazi regime might thus appear essentially benign and liberal and Weimar-like, even un-political, as if ‘one elite had seamlessly replaced the other’ in 1933. Perhaps some German women enjoyed contemplating out-of-reach luxuries, while they rag-picked in rubbish bins or gave up their treasured bridal veils for use as mosquito netting by the Afrika Korps.
Guenther is an impassioned historian, but not a gifted writer. Only half the book is text; its other half contains impressively voluminous notes and lists a great many sources, some untapped until now. The complicated weight of the subject affects her prose style, which is bumpy with infelicities: ‘Money and connections equalled fine fashioning for some women in the Third Reich.’ Never mind. All other books about fashion in modern Germany are apparently available only in German. Nazi Chic? is a remarkable and welcome document, a careful look at familiar terrain from a fresh perspective.
Eugenia Paulicelli makes it clear that dress in modern Italy had a very different history during the same period. She, too, locates a failed attempt to create a non-Parisian ‘Italian look’ for fashionable women in the early 20th century, but sixty postwar years have shown that the later attempt, begun under Mussolini, was a step towards eventual success. The work of Italian fashion designers had acquired a distinctive character by 1950, recognisably un-French, but equally recognisably un-Fascist. By now its dynamic variety has been so vigorously developed that people all over the world have no trouble telling Versace from Armani or Missoni, just as they had learned to recognise Gucci and Pucci by 1960.
Unlike the Germans, who were at pains to create feminine fashion expressing National-Socialist wholesomeness and idealism without considering what forms to cast it in, the Italians went straight for visual and tactile effects, confident of expressing only themselves; and where Germans thought to dominate, Italians instinctively aimed to please. Well before Paris took the lead, Italian elegance had been known for its refined sensuality, its sprezzatura, which might now be called ‘cool’, and for its simply cut garments exquisitely made in beautiful materials. Looking back at their history, 20th-century Italians had become as irritated as Germans about France’s persistent grip on world fashion.
They had been better at elegance than the Germans; but like them, the Italians had been unable to centralise cultural power in one city. France could seize permanent hold of la mode because 18th-century Paris became the hub, and all other towns knew their place as part of la province. Regional elegance in Italy was not seen as ‘provincial’, and neither was regional German elegance. Frankfurt and Milan, Venice and Munich were acknowledged capital cities, with their own powerful stylistic traditions and material specialities. Fascism could not entirely get rid of these divisions, any more than 19th-century unification had been able to.
Taste in dress was an obviously important part of the Italian Renaissance, sustained by the specialised crafts that made the fortunes and reputations of different towns, celebrated not just in local frescoes but on painted panels later dispersed all over the world, displaying a happy synthesis of art and fashion, supported by religion, literature and politics. In the early 16th century, the importance of deliberately using dress as a personal attribute – a costume designed to enhance the self as a specific character – had been enunciated in dialogue form by the Florentine diplomat Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier. His first magnifico says that the ideal gentleman should never dress extremely, but follow the custom of the majority; that he should favour dark colours and especially black, which is ‘more pleasing in clothing than any other colour’, except for festive or masquerade dress, or garments worn with armour. Another speaker says that the courtier should consider ‘what manner of man he wishes to be taken for and dress accordingly; and see to it that his attire aid him to be so regarded, even by those who do not hear him speak or see him do anything whatever’. That’s the whole message. Fashion is considered of great importance, but not in its changeable dimension – imitating the styles of other countries is disapproved of – and here it refers only to men.
Most of The Book of the Courtier is about manners and morals, games and love. Only two or three pages are about clothes, and Paulicelli gives a false impression by calling it ‘the first theoretical investigation into the social and political meaning of dress’. A gentleman’s mode of dress is shown as one form of his good manners, requiring the same unaffected modesty as other courtly behaviour. The only remarks about women’s apparel concern the excessive use of cosmetics, disapproved of as a sign of affectation and lack of ease. What Castiglione does approve of is the opportunity to glimpse a woman’s charmingly clad foot and ankle when her skirt unexpectedly sweeps up as she turns, seemingly unaware of exposing them. We have heard similar comments in later centuries, the sum of which indicates that the erotically suggestive elements of a woman’s clothes, grooming and manners are something she must arrange most carefully. The effects of cosmetics, décolletage and leg-and-skirt management must show the same disciplined unself-consciousness as superior male dress and behaviour. Just as the public identity of a man is defined by his dress, a woman’s sexual presence is defined by hers; and apparently, if a woman’s dress and adornment fail to lend her any sexual allure, their details won’t register and don’t matter.
Castiglione’s book was translated and made a great impression in France, Spain and England. Paulicelli cites other similar Italian Renaissance works, suggesting that these books show awareness of constant and possibly threatening changes then occurring in the world (she mentions the Emperor Charles V and the Inquisition) in their impulse to fix the importance of public appearance in terms of ‘laws and limits conforming to the values of those in power’. It would seem that Italian Fascist propagandists seeking a national ‘look’ would need only to create and control a modern version of the self-aware and politically potent style that had once unified a diverse Renaissance Italy. Such a revival could become a source of Fascist pride by reflecting glory on the whole nation, as before. In modern times, though, Italy would need its own modern sartorial idiom, with more emphasis on the feminine.
In this connection, Paulicelli emphasises the pre-Fascist efforts of several women, first Rosa Genoni, a dressmaker born in 1867, later a writer and socialist activist, who wished to turn the sleepy Italian fashion industry away from lazily copying Paris and into something as aesthetically important to Italy in the 19th century as it had been in the Renaissance. Having spent two years working in the well-organised French fashion industry, Genoni thought Italian fashion should copy French business methods, not French style. So did Lydia De Liguoro, founder in 1919 of a magazine promoting a new Italian aesthetic. Under Fascism, she urged the founding of a national organisation that would help the regime get a grip on the potential economic power of the fashion industry. In practice, this would mean the effective production and sale of women’s luxury goods.
The Ente Nazionale della Moda was finally founded in Fascist Italy in 1932; but like its counterpart in Germany, it fell victim to rivalry among the textile-industry cities, and to their common unwillingness to be overseen by a regime in Rome. Inefficient bureaucracy didn’t help; but in any case the artists designing the textiles insisted that good design must be at once various and individual, free to borrow, combine and change. It soon became clear that Italian fashion design could never be forced to assume a recognisably Fascist national style. That was something nobody wanted.
Italian women’s clothing had always been made by local dressmakers working independently all over Italy at every level of skill. Dressmaking offered an ambitious woman the opportunity to found a small business and expand it, while the less ambitious with trained fingers could always find work in someone else’s set-up. Designs originating elsewhere, often in Paris, were freely modified and remodified according to the abilities of local workers and the taste of local consumers. When Fascist Italy became an autarchy, synthetic fashion fabrics were developed with much greater success than anywhere else except in the USA; and because of them, the happily fragmented, artisanal fashion business was able to continue throughout the war.
In the late 1930s, the Fascist Italians adopted the American idea that puffing the clothing industry in popular movies could help sell certain fashions and promote certain attitudes – as if America had shown them how to imitate Castiglione. Designing superior Italian clothing was clearly no problem. The challenge was making certain uses of it seem desirable, and the best solution was to film melodramatic movies about fashion, set against the background of an elegant shop or department store. A big enterprise devoted to fine clothes would represent the world, and the wearing of certain styles – sometimes the deceptive wearing of them – would be given great importance in the drama.
One character might be a ridiculous Frenchman, whose silly mannerisms and appearance would make everyone laugh, while a powerful, self-made Italian woman would seem to owe her rise to the elegance of her suit; and an impoverished beauty might snare a count by appearing at the races in a chic dress she didn’t own, but modelled at the shop. (And what if it got torn? More drama.) In America, a week after such a film opened (Roberta, say, in 1935), copies of the same suit and dress, plus accessories, would be available at Macy’s in New York – and now, too, in Italy at La Rinascente, its Roman equivalent. Male characters would be used in the same way, to contrast graceful Italian male tailoring and natural ease of manner with French self-consciousness and fussy apparel. The whole gripping story would really be an advertisement for Italian style, which people all over the nation were being encouraged to buy examples of, and to feel their life improved by, just as in the movies.
Italians were still interested in mimicking the aristocracy, and they didn’t yet see any chic in the mass-produced look – blue jeans were in the future. Fascist demand for civil uniforms nevertheless made mass production essential, and movies helped make ready-to-wear palatable. Fascist propaganda films sometimes urged pride in traditional dress, but the wearing of peasant costume was never promoted. Designers instead made use of its recognisable textiles and trim, so that traditional lace or embroidery might appear on chic blouses in movies, suggesting modern links to old Italian refinements. Fascist-controlled newsreels covered the many Italian fashion shows put on throughout the war, with voice-over stressing their italianità, as if Italy had the fashion edge as a kind of birthright. After the war, the distinctive look of Italian style bore no hint of an earlier dependence on Fascism, or on anything other than modern design and modern capitalism, leavened with an ancient pleasure in sensual grace and ease.
Paulicelli doesn’t pay much attention to the deep connection between Italian fashion design and Italian design in general, which has its own story back through the Renaissance to antiquity. The sense of harmonious physical pleasure that informs Italian-made objects, clothes among others, creates an elegance with its own inherent sexiness, which is emphasised by the irresistible look and feel of the basic material. In the decade after World War Two, America began to see exquisite leather goods from Italy, smoothly curving belts, sleek shoes that caressed the foot, suave handbags of breathtaking simplicity, garments of amazingly supple knitted fabrics in delicious colours, each article seeming to enjoy its own corporeal existence with no loss of cool. The old Italian concept of bella figura, whereby self-respect is expressed in a gracefully balanced outward appearance and demeanour, also informs modern Italian pottery, glass, and the espresso-making machines and clear plastic folding chairs we began to see in the 1960s, all of them looking effortlessly well-behaved and intensely alluring at the same time.
Paulicelli ends her book with a great deal about Benjamin, Deleuze and Leopardi, broadly amplifying her opening statement that she became interested in fashion while studying the relation between the visual arts and literature. She feels no need to be interested in actual clothes, only in philosophical, social and political manipulations made through their image and description; and, like Guenther, she is interested in women’s resistance to such manipulation. But she focuses on women writers in whose work the resistance is almost unnoticeable, or obliquely described, and she insists on the fact of the manipulations without being very precise about them. Her own writing is very wordy and difficult to read; but she manages to give a vivid account of the Italian garment business before and during Fascist rule, mainly to show that the later global success of Italian fashion had been assured well before Fascism began. We thought we already knew that; but the details are good to have.