Italy in the postwar period, and increasingly from the late Seventies, has come to be identified as the country of fashion and style. Eugenia Paulicelli takes the aesthetic dimension inherent in Italian identity as her starting point for analysing the role of dress and fashion as a crucial component of the forging of Italian national identity in the interwar years. Fashion is presented as a serious scholarly subject; I sympathise with the author's need to defend this still much-misinterpreted field of academic inquiry, and one that is particularly useful to cultural, social and economic historians.
As Paulicelli argues, the Fascist regime, in its attempt to create, promote and define a new Italian national identity, recognised the ideological potential of fashion. This was particularly true during the period of self-sufficiency in which the efforts to distance Italy from French fashion dominance were at their strongest.
Yet the national agenda of fashion had already been set in the pre-Fascist years as well as belonging, as Paulicelli notes, to an established but somehow half-forgotten tradition dating back to the Italian Renaissance and Castiglione's Il Cortegiano , which contained the seeds of what is considered the fundamental trait of the Italian style: a mix of elegance, the casual look and the lack of excessive decoration and affectation.
Fashion is presented here as a vehicle to understanding further the complexity and contradictions of Fascist cultural politics and the way the regime tried to discipline the social body and to create an "authentic" Italian femininity. Most enjoyable is the way Paulicelli weaves together a variety of sources - newsreels, cinema, women's magazines, hitherto-ignored printed and archival material, and fiction.
This makes for a fascinating insight into the Fascist regime's use of propaganda, the creativity of Italian designers and manufacturers in the interwar years, and the importance of women's fashion magazines. The last seemed both to sustain the nationalistic agenda of the regime and to resist it by way of what Paulicelli rightly considers to be one of the dominant traits of Italian identity - the mix of tradition and innovation within a context of diversity.
Little space is given to clothes, however, despite some interesting illustrations that left me wanting to know more about the designers of the Fascist period.
Fashion under Fascism is an excellent contribution to the history of Italian fashion and culture in the first half of the 20th century and a welcome addition to Nicola White's Reconstructing Italian Fashion (2000), which focuses on the postwar years. The book could be used by undergraduate and postgraduate students of Italian studies, cultural and women's studies, and history. It should also appeal to anyone attracted to fashion as a cultural and social phenomenon.
Giuliana Pieri is lecturer in Italian and the visual arts, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt
Author - Eugenia Paulicelli
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 2
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 85973 773 0 and 778 1