Since the second half of the nineteenth century, European culture has considered the human body as an object of study as a principle of social identity. Anthropology, criminology, and anthropometry all developed during this period and became actual “disciplines” of the body, as philosopher Michel Foucault analyzed in his History of Sexuality: that is, producers of knowledge and power. The human body was sectioned, accurately measured, and detected by means of several “anthropometrical” techniques that were designed to establish physical identity as corresponding to a social and moral identity. Measuring and listing individual characteristics of the body no longer aimed solely at finding the right proportions for drawing and the aesthetic sciences, as during the Renaissance, nor at systemizing through physiognomy the feelings expressed by the main features of a face or gestures, as during the seventeenth century. To take an example, the French reform of judiciary identity, introduced by criminologist Alphonse Bertillon between 1880 and 1890, established that every criminal should be filed by means of an anthropometrical system, based on certain fixed parameters—including front and profile pictures of the face, length of body segments, fingerprints, and eye color. Modern systems of personal identification developed from this kind of criminological practice. As a result, the most common contemporary system of social and physical identification, which is used for a passport or a driving license, comes from a judiciary background (a total institution, in Foucault’s sense) and from a practice once meant to control “dangerous” minorities.
This origin establishes the modern condition of the body: It is a place of surveillance and punishment and marks a boundary, becoming a symbol of morphological and psychosomatic individuality. The Italian jurist and anthropologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) portrayed human types according to physiognomic principles, such as the “Criminal” and the “Prostitute.” In this way, he contributed to the creation of typology, a science that aims at capturing in a single picture the mutual characteristics of a number of individuals. This kind of scientific or pseudoscientific theory was in due course overtaken by common sense and became, also indirectly, the foundation on which it was possible to build a racist discourse. Some physical features, which had been arbitrarily regarded as significant, became common typological features, carrying social values. The “human types” designed in this way were grouped together as animal species or races and were each assigned a positive or negative quality.
The concept of human “race” was extended for the first time by scientist Georges Cuvier (1769–1823) from its mythological meaning of “lineage” or “descent” (“Cain’s lineage,” “Abraham’s race”) to a classificatory and hierarchical meaning, according to which there were Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian races. During the nineteenth century, this conception strengthened on an evolutionary basis and led to racial biology and eugenics. Notwithstanding the intentions of the researchers, who at that time were not directly inspired by racist purposes, the idea of race and the term itself proceeded to constitute the basis for the racist ideologies of the twentieth century.
The idea of feminine beauty also evolved in relation to the genesis of racism. The story of Saartje Baartman (1789–1815), a Khoisan woman who worked for a Dutch family near Cape Town, is paradigmatic. Brought to England in 1810, she was shown as a circus freak in Europe: The abnormal size of her buttocks and genitals appeared to Europeans as some kind of “primitive wonder.” This was why she was called “the Hottentot Venus.” Baartman lived in London and Paris and was studied by the scientists of the time, among them Cuvier himself, but died prematurely of an infectious disease. By Cuvier’s decision, her body was dismembered after her death, and some parts of it were exhibited in Paris, obscenely exposed to the morbid curiosity of the colonial gaze. Probably because of this exhibition and the imagery that derived from it, Baartman’s silent body—productive for the economic and symbolic system of fashion—anticipated the bustle, a structure that changed the fashionably clothed female body shape, designed by tailors in Paris some decades later, and that became very popular throughout the nineteenth century.
In the same period, the institutional discourse of the body also created the so-called average man—a term that implies both the use of a statistical method for the study of the body and the idea of selection from the average of pathological (“unhealthy”) elements. Further, the term refers deliberately to “man” as grammatically unmarked. In fact, in the kind of discourse that developed at the time, the dominating ideology was based on the idea of a “neuter” human subject, albeit male-shaped, since it was men who actually held social and cultural power. “The female” was considered a deviance or an excess to this model. This ideology was the premise for those conceptions that became, in modern social discourse, the ideas of a “healthy,” “young,” and “beautiful” body—all of which also became central features at the beginning of the twentieth century, chiefly in the fields of the medical sciences and fashion. The latter, furthermore, replaced painting and the plastic arts as the keeper of the idea of beauty by creating and spreading its own taste, which became part of common sense.
Since then, all the objects produced by the fashion industry in order to create “the body beautiful,” such as bustles, corsets, and crinolines, have represented the main instruments used in the artificial construction of the beauty of the clothed body.
Fashion became one of several means by which the body was mass-reproduced during the busiest phase of European industrial society’s expansion. Massive urbanization, leading to the birth of the metropolis, was the real reason underlying fashion’s central position. Cities celebrated the new status of commodities in their World’s Fairs (Walter Benjamin, Passagenwerk) and experimented with new temples of consumerism such as department stores and arcades. Streets and cafés were crowded with people, and variety theaters bloomed. The fashion press began to reach a wider public. The role of photography grew and became more important, and cinema turned into a popular mass entertainment. Hence, thanks first to photographic and then to cinematic techniques, the human body became a serially reproducible item. Reproducing a body means translating not only its “natural” substance, its physiognomy, into a picture but also the signs on the body—primarily clothing—which become fundamental tracts of the body itself. These signs can also disguise or mask “nature” and so constitute a sort of unpredictable double to the “natural.” The idea of human beauty that formed in Europe during this period cannot, therefore, disregard its own conflict with “nature.”
A primary example of the importance of fashion and photography in relation to the creation of the “beautiful body” and the very idea of beauty may be found in the life of the Countess of Castiglione. Virginia Oldoini (1837–1899), born in Florence and wife of the Count of Castiglione, was a prominent personality in the social life in Paris and Piedmont around the middle of the nineteenth century. Her famous portraits, shot by the photographers Mayer (Léopold Ernest and Louis Frédéric) and Pierson (Pierre-Louis), depicted her in opulent dresses, ornate hairstyles, precious jewels, and refined masks. Her portraits are, in fact, surrogates for the ancient painted portraits of the aristocracy, and her fame as a leading beauty of the day could not have come about without her cunning and narcissistic use of photography and fashion. Her eccentric and absolutely original masks, documented by her portraits, show, on the one hand, luxury as a hedonistic principle and, on the other, the extravagant, almost grotesque quality of “unnatural” beauty, designed by the “artificial” system of fashion.
French poet and social commentator Charles Baudelaire wrote about this conflict between nature and artifice in his Eloge du maquillage (In Praise of Cosmetics, 1863), stigmatizing as senseless the idea of natural beauty. Nature, he argued, was a “bad counsellor” and led humankind only to crime and horror. Virtue, in contrast, was artificial; as a result, its perfection par excellence lay in hairstyles, makeup, and clothing. Baudelaire was also fully aware of the European prejudice that is called “orientalism” and maintained that those societies that were considered by Europeans as more “natural” displayed great consciousness of the spiritual value of clothing through their pursuit of glittery things, multicolored feathers, iridescent cloths, and the superlative majesty of artificial forms. Baudelaire benevolently regarded such societies as naive, made up of adolescent-like individuals. In the poet’s opinion, however, they were far removed from the laughable idea of “nature” built by Western “adult” societies. Fashion, he continued, interpreted an ideal taste floating in the human mind above all the vulgar, mundane, and filthy things that are a part of human life. Fashion’s seduction lay in its pursuit of beauty, as a driving ideal of the always unfulfilled human spirit, and it was women who embodied this seduction best, bound as they were to ornamentation and appearance.
In this fundamental text by Baudelaire, the basic elements of the modern concept of the “beautiful body,” both as “clothed body” and as feminine body, are posed. Women are thus considered the principal targets of fashion. Both literature and the social sciences have contributed to spreading this axiom. In the former, besides Baudelaire, there is Proust and his female characters—in particular, Odette, who was a symbol of the fashion of her times. In the latter, analyses by Georg Simmel (1895), Thorstein Veblen (1899), and Werner Sombart (1913) all ascribe to women the greater part of expenditure on fashion and luxury.
The central link in the close relationship between mass society and fashion is the commodity: The feminine body is a summary of the concept of commodity, and feminine beauty is produced as the sublime representation of Benjamin’s “sex-appeal of the inorganic.” In mass society, the clothed body is doubly an inorganic fetish: once because clothing is made from commodities (dress, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry) and again a second time because that kind of body attracts, seduces, and is considered “beautiful” due to this commodification.
This phenomenon is symbolized by the type of the prostitute. There is a close affinity between prostitution and fashion, based on a notion of the world as a great exchange market, a simulacrum of human relations, where nature itself assumes the character of merchandise. In the form of prostitution found in the worldly metropolis, Benjamin has written, woman appears not only as merchandise but also as a mass-produced item. Modern prostitution is thus characterized by serial repetition, analogous to the reproducibility of merchandise, exemplified by the standardized and professional function of the prostitute’s makeup or the showgirl’s costume.
The prostitute can be construed as a criminal type within cultures and countries where prostitution is illegal. At the same time, her sexuality turns her into an object of desire par excellence, as well as making her the bearer of an uncanny kind of beauty. Frank Wedekind perfectly depicted this intermixture of beauty, commodity, and feminine “excess” in the character of Lulu, the protagonist of the double tragedies Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904). The woman embodied by Lulu is, in the words of Karl Kraus, one “who desires and does not generate; who does not breed, and yet produces pleasure.” Through Lulu, the ancient stereotype of the courtesan, of the prostitute, becomes a character of mass society, cities, and fashion as a never-ending disguise of the body. In Wedekind’s tragedy, Lulu’s body is, in fact, referred to many times as a clothed body. Her dresses offer opportunities for several interpretations—as a mask (a Pierrot costume that she wears while modeling for a painter), a fashion dress, or a ballerina stage costume.
Lulu’s “mundane” beauty recalls the myth of Pandora, handed down by Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days, eighth century b.c.e.) and by classical culture, passing through the imagery and literature of the Renaissance and baroque period up to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Pandora, 1810). This myth portrays woman as a symbol of disorder: Pandora, wife of Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, opened the vase containing all the evils and vices of the world and caused them to spread among mortals. For Hesiod, the vase contained only evils; for later philosophers and theologians it contained possibilities for good as well as evil. In any case, the vase never contained a temperate blend of both. Like Pandora, Lulu is a symbol of universal disorder. She is also a lost woman, all the way to the gates of Hades, which are opened to her by her gruesome murderer, Jack the Ripper.
In 1929, Lulu’s role was played by Louise Brooks (1906–1985) in the film Pandora’s Box, directed by Georg W. Pabst. A prominent personality in the fashion world—mostly because of her famous hairstyle, the bob—Brooks was an ambivalent prototype of feminine beauty. On the one hand, she made the image of the femme fatale very popular through her films. On the other hand, she also embodied the new ideal of beauty, the flapper: a girl who wore short skirts, listened to jazz, smoked, and wandered freely in the world—one who, in the end, went beyond the limits imposed on her gender. William A. Wellman’s film Beggars of Life (1928), in which Brooks played the role of a runaway girl disguised as a boy, made her famous in this second sense.
The last context in which to examine the relation between the body and social identity stems from the strong demand for emancipation that, as a result of the rise of feminism, developed in European and North American societies from the middle of the nineteenth century. After 1851, U.S. newspapers began to report and comment on a new phenomenon that seemed to be spreading: In New England, women had started wearing pants in the form of bloomers, a clothing item that had, until then, been considered exclusively masculine. Worn beneath short skirts, a rational alternative to the cumbersome crinolines and petticoats that fashion imposed on women at the time, bloomers seemed to usurp men’s privileges from their very bodies, as if pants were an instrument in the new movement’s struggle for women’s rights. In fact, bloomers were introduced by and named for Amelia Bloomer, a U.S. activist in the movement for women’s civil rights, who also influenced many of her sisters in arms.
In the context of early feminism, dressing like men meant challenging the ruling powers and asserting symbolic equality—not actually ratified by law—between men and women. Legally, women were indeed prevented from voting as well as from receiving a complete education, so that the exercise of the basic rights that the democratic constitutions of modern countries guaranteed to every citizen were still hindered by strong discrimination, especially insofar as gender was concerned. This is why the suffragettes started wearing trousers, following the example of the great extravagant women of the past, such as George Sand.
In addition, wearing a suit jacket became a revolutionary symbol within the sexual imagery of the time. The stiff, square-cut, dark suit jacket that male middle-class fashion had inherited from military uniforms had, until then, represented men’s “typical” efficiency, status, and aesthetic moderation—as opposed to the lace, frivolous details, imaginative designs, swishing fabric, and flashy colors that characterized feminine clothing. For the early feminists, wearing a suit jacket not only meant asserting the same rights as their partners but also proved to themselves that they were “serious people,” worthy of being allowed to vote, work outside their homes, become educated, and even write books.
Women continued to make use of this “suit-jacket imagery” in the twentieth century. Every time a woman identified herself with an active social role—that is, with a symbolically “masculine” role—she wore a stiff jacket, which became a woman’s suit after the so-called Chanel revolution. This did not always reflect a rational choice but occasionally took place out of necessity. During the two World Wars, for example, jackets were worn by women in the army and by poor women who could not afford any other clothing than their absent partners’ suits.
The jacket, with or without trousers, often identified the ambiguous, queer charm of the mannish, androgynous woman, the literary transvestite of the early twentieth century. The film industry canonized this model with the icons of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. These actresses often wore men’s suits or simple and apparently “unfeminine” dresses both on the set and in real life—paradoxically highlighting their femininity. In the same way, when the heroines of U.S. and European thriller movies and films noirs wore slightly masculine dresses, this did not symbolize a demand for gender equality but instead such commonly imagined threatening characters as the “bad girl,” the “seductress,” and the “witch.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, just as some actresses adopted this masculine look, made up of trousers, men’s suits, and short hairstyles, male queerness also became popular in the movie industry, and many actors showed off their effeminate manners through their clothes and style. For example, the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) and the Swede Gösta Ekman (1890–1938), who always played strictly heterosexual roles and became objects of desire among women, behaved effeminately. Ekman, a multifaceted actor who worked both for the movie industry and in the theater, became very popular for his song “En herre i frack” (A gentleman in tails), which celebrated the image of the dandy. The same image was propagated in Italy by Ettore Petrolini (1884–1936) and his character Gastone, who represented a both comical and decadent kind of man. Gastone evolved from other odd characters that the same actor had played, among them Il bell’Arturo, in a musical comedy first put on in 1924.
Female beauty can be considered a key element in understanding certain important cultural, political, and social changes. The English historian Stephen Gundle has shown in his book Bellissima: Feminine Beauty and the Idea of Italy how the idea of feminine beauty has been particularly central to the constitution of Italian national identity, even though this aspect has always been ignored by official history. The theme of Italian beauty goes back to before the national unification—as seen, in Gundle’s opinion, in the many literary and visual forms of evidence that associate Italy with the land of beauty par excellence, embodied by Italian women. The patriots of the Risorgimento (Resurgence) symbolically represented Italy as a woman, in the same way as many other countries, like France, used a woman as their symbol. Especially in the Italian case, this national symbol was combined with the images of madonnas, gentlewomen, or lower-class women of rare beauty, as reported by foreign travelers during their grand tours in Italy. Thus, Gundle has attributed a central role to visual culture in building symbols and representations that grow into fundamental and typical motifs of national identity.
After examining fictional characters such as Madame de Staël’s Corinne in the novel of the same name (1807), the female characters of Stendhal’s (born Marie-Henri Beyle) The Charterhouse of Parma, Alessandro Manzoni’s Lucia, and the women in Francesco Hayez’s paintings, Gundle has analyzed two real models of what might be called a national stereotype of beauty: Queen Margaret of Savoy and the lower-class woman. This stereotype naturally evolved into what Gundle has labeled the “professional beauty,” which was linked to some emergent forms of popular entertainment, such as the variety show, and was embodied by Lina Cavalieri, a star of the Folies Bergère in Paris and of the Metropolitan in New York, who was once a flower seller in Trastevere, in Rome.
In the early years following World War I, the themes of beauty and fashion relating to women’s social role became increasingly frequent in the Italian cultural debate. But this was not due to women holding a central position in politics and society, as was the case in Great Britain or the United States, since Italian women were still struggling for the right to vote. Rather, it was men who discussed beauty and prescribed rules and models for Italian women. For writers Gabriele D’Annunzio and Filippo Marinetti, artist Gino Boccasile, and many others, women were objects, not subjects, although there was a certain societal ambivalence about such a stance. On the one hand, the importance of feminine beauty originated and developed in the context of the persisting subordination of Italian women, which lasted until the second half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, this granted women great visibility and influence in the constitution of the idea of nation. During the period of Fascism, however, this ambivalence disappeared. In his writing on feminine beauty, for example, writer and filmmaker Umberto Notari considered it a pivotal element in the racial superiority of Italian women, whose role as mothers and wives was simply to breed. Fascism imposed an “autarchic” model of beauty, free from the influences of foreign fashion, and condemned female types such as the independent and working maschietta (flapper) who wore short skirts and hairstyles.
The years after World War II saw the golden age of Italian beauty and its fame throughout the world. The key to this success was a realignment of communications and entertainment media, including primarily cinema but also variety theater and beauty contests like Miss Italia. From this context, many great beauties emerged on their path to fame—including film actresses Silvana Mangano, Lucia Bosé, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sophia Loren, who still represent the paradigm of Italian beauty, the maggiorata. This term was invented by Vittorio De Sica, who played the role of a defense attorney in the film Altri Tempi by Arturo Blasetti (1952) and called the character played by Lollobrigida maggiorata fisica (“physically enhanced”) in contradistinction to minorata psichica (“mentally diminished”). The enhanced female body in those years symbolized the dream of opulence that the country was experiencing at the time. Neorealist movies, in contrast, popularized actresses like Anna Magnani, who represented an exception to this rule and was never considered a bellissima. Perhaps for this reason, her roles seem more authentic and stronger.
From this time on, even in Italy, cinema became the principal medium for constructing and spreading the idea of feminine beauty, replacing the role of painting and sculpture during ancient times and the Renaissance.
Fashion is a system of images and communicates through stereotypical signs. This leads to two questions: To what extent do people perceive a body and its beauty, form, and sexual identity through stereotypes? And to what extent can fashion images achieve aisthesis, that is, a transformation of and rupture with the ruling order of perpetual excess, thereby repositioning how aesthetics are perceived?
The arts usually achieve such power within their own discourses. Literature and fine arts show the body through its contaminations, its freakiness, its masks: in short, through all those concepts that avoid objectivity and do not attempt to persuade through the display of beauty, youth, or health.
The photographer Cindy Sherman, in her Film Stills, takes the stereotype of the woman, especially as represented in the movie and fashion industries, to its highest degree, in order to highlight its artificial quality and reveal its implied mythical discourse. Sherman herself, in her self-portraits, plays fictional characters whose style recalls the typical icons of cinema or high fashion in the 1950 and 1960s. These exaggerated stereotypes make her body grotesque.
The French-born performance artist known as Orlan also follows the path of the grotesque, as her art develops around a paradoxical and provoking “writing” of her own body, which is literally marked by the creative and mundane techniques of plastic surgery. Her performances focus on her body undergoing several surgical interventions, in order to alter her own face into those of some famous characters in art history (e.g., Diana, Europa, Venus, Psyche, Mona Lisa) but also into grotesque Native American, African, or pre-Columbian “self-hybrids”—as she called the transformations of her face.
Orlan’s work shows that people are influenced by the language used about them, which marks them, sticks into the folds of their bodies, and generally changes them, in order to make them nonsentient objects. The artist attempts to reverse this situation by transforming herself into “sentient things.” Unquestionably, her art is striking. As she says, it is a matter of considering life as artistically retrievable. She does not “resemble,” in the common sense of this word, the artistic models; she chooses these images because of their unfinished (as in Gustave Moreau’s painting Europa) and metastable quality: in other words, because they mean different things depending on the interpretation—as, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, in which she is both smiling and serious, both male and female. Metastability lies at the heart of various works by great painters of the past that are quoted by Orlan, as well as the work of Orlan herself, who does not resemble these models but quotes them literally by implanting them into her own flesh, which becomes just a sheath, a veil-skin support.
“Our times hate flesh,” says Orlan; they hate Carnival, which, etymologically and culturally, celebrates flesh through the grotesque body. The flesh to which Orlan refers is not at all related to vitality or identity; on the contrary, it is inorganic and does not work as a definition for sexual, social, ethnic, or any other kind of identity. The grotesque body is an open body, with its protuberances, its confusion between inside and outside, and its enhancement of those substances (especially blood) that relate to its everlasting mutations beyond its own boundaries.
Orlan’s body masterwork displays an artistic and stylistic syncretism that has many origins: first of all, those ritual practices performed on the body—such as tattooing, piercing, and makeup—that occur in every culture and then, in addition, the modern consumerist mythology that allows people (especially women) to “buy” and remodel parts of their bodies. Furthermore, Orlan’s face is not dissimilar to a text, in the sense that it is written, cut by a scalpel, and is, in general, a text displaying the cultural and aesthetic processes that establish the state of the body in mass imagery.
Clothing in cinema narrates stories and conveys emotions and memories through fabric, color, and style. Costume design lets reality influence cinema and, at the same time, conveys into reality a bit of imagination. How do women in southern Europe dress in the summer in the twenty-first century, as cinema and fashion synergistically make them once again models of their combined imagery? Warm and sensual moods; dark hair and suntanned skin; bodies dressed in traditional clothing such as shawls and bodices, perhaps in their new glamorous versions; Hispanic, Sicilian, or Apulian accents—these women relate to a kind of beauty that might have originated equally in La Mancha, the Peloponnese, or the Barbagia. “The South” speaks many languages and knows many histories. This particular “feminine South” can be considered as a koiné, or common focus, of European imagery.
This recent return to a “southern” visual imagery is certainly evident in the role of Raimunda, played by Penélope Cruz, in the movie Volver. This character is strong and fragile at the same time, and the director, Pedro Almodóvar, deliberately conflating the actress and the character, described her as an unyielding force of nature. Her strength resides also in her being a living reference to all those women who, as actresses and characters, have typically embodied this visual and emotional koiné, which links experiences and places where women’s power lies in their irony, their unbridled physicality, and their remarkable singing ability. Based on a 1962 picture that portrays actress Anna Magnani with film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, the actress’s hair, dress, and attitude seem to have in fact inspired Cruz in Volver. Almodóvar’s goal in creating Raimunda, the character Cruz played in this film, was to be a combination of Magnani and Sophia Loren. To the latter she is bound also by her hairstyles, her plunging necklines, her large hoop earrings, and even her attitude while running in a scene in which Cruz makes her slimmer build appear clumsy and overly luscious due to the tightness of her skirt and top, as she appears breathless and constricted by running.
There is a clothing item that has enjoyed lasting popularity in southern Europe, at least since the 1950s: the vestaglietta (simple day dress). It is a front-buttoned, preferably short-sleeved or sleeveless dress, printed with small flowers or geometric patterns. In Volver, the character of Abuela Irene, played by Carmen Maura, has a wardrobe full of them, and through them her daughter Raimunda recognizes her scent. In the past, both Loren and Lollobrigida wore the vestaglietta: for example, the famous torn one after the rape of Sophia’s character in Two Women (La Ciociara, 1960) and the one worn by the frisky “Lollo” while riding a donkey in Bread, Love and Dreams (Pane, amore e fantasia, 1953).
Another celebration of the vestaglietta, this time in the Italian soft-erotic genre of the 1970s, was performed by Laura Antonelli in the movie Malicious (Malizia, 1973). Thirty years later, idealized versions of it could be found in the pretty dresses worn by Rosalba in Silvio Soldini’s movie Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani, 2000). Rosalba, portrayed by actress Licia Maglietta, is a forty-year-old housewife from Pescara who escapes to Venice in the first free journey of her life, and these dresses perfectly suit her radiant and simple nature, her pursuit of genuineness, and a grace that does not hide behind appearance. These cotton dresses, printed in small “dancing” flowers, caress Rosalba’s body during her walks through an everyday Venice, far from the sumptuous and touristic town portrayed in postcards. In Emanuele Crialese’s Respiro: Grazia’s Island (Respiro, 2002), the body of Valeria Golino, who plays the charming and poignant role of Grazia, is wrapped in many vestagliette, with the blinding sea and sky of Lampedusa as a background.
In the past as well as during modern times, the vestaglietta has always been a lower-class dress, worn by women as they go shopping, clean their houses, cook, sunbathe on their balconies or in the streets, or chat and fan themselves while sitting on a chair in front of their house door. Initially, it was the everyday alternative to the black dress worn by old women, widows, and devotees, which should have meant the cancellation of every possible sign of sexual attraction, as a noncolor par excellence. But the meaning of “should have” is often reversed; as a result, the “southern” black achieves a higher degree of sensuality. This may be seen in the Italian movie industry’s films since Stefania Sandrelli appeared in Divorce—Italian Style (Divorzio all’italiana, 1961) and in fashion, where the vestaglietta has been used in many designers’ collections, including those by Dolce & Gabbana and Versace.
Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland (1884) is a Victorian novel set in an imaginary two-dimensional world. Its characters are all flat geometric shapes, including its narrator, who is a square. In this world, exterior appearance is the sole determinant of the social level of its inhabitants. The more sides a character has, the higher she or he is placed in rank. Women are depicted as straight lines, meaning that they are at the lowest level of society. Soldiers and lower-class people are isosceles triangles, while the middle class is made up of equilateral triangles. Higher up the social scale, gentlemen are shaped as squares and pentagons, while the aristocracy is characterized by polygons, starting with hexagons and becoming more and more complex. The apex of this social pyramid consists of perfect circles, the shape of the clergy. Flatland is a dystopia, an imaginary land that displays how hard and difficult it could be to be anchored to only two dimensions and to be individuals without perspective. In this monotonous and hierarchical world, people’s destinies are determined by the form of their bodies, which are not bodies at all but pure geometric virtuality.
A temporal and technological leap takes us from the flat screen of Flatland to the digital three dimensions of virtual worlds in the so-called Web 2.0, including online video games in the category of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG), other types of role-playing on a console (such as Playstation), or Second Life. Even in these virtual universes, exterior appearance is essential, just as in Flatland: The body is central, with its exterior look “performing” social figures, or avatars, for which fashion is a binding semiotic system.
In some recent video games, the role of clothing is crucial, as the playing character becomes an active subject while literally “wearing” his/her qualities bound to his/her own dress. In Final Fantasy X-2, for example, the three heroines Yuna, Rikku, and Paine, through the so-called dresspheres, magical areas of transformation, obtain the qualities and powers of the “incorporated” model through dresses and accessories. There are fourteen of these dresspheres, and they include such models as the Gunfighter, the Bandit, the Warrior, the Showgirl, and the Alchemist. Choosing the right dressphere at the right time, depending on the situation in each battle, is the core strategy of this video game, and each dressphere is part of a “collection,” a word that is overtly bound to the vocabulary of fashion.
Shinkaro Takai, art director of this video game, has stated that he was constantly inspired by fashion shows, magazines, and collections when designing his characters; he has created hybrids of a typically Japanese heroic mythology and a planetary culture that is widespread in the media. Thigh-high boots, leather corsets, untied combat boots, haversack belts (belts that are also purses), half-skirts, wristbands, closely plaited hair. Such synthetic scenes imitate real street styles and vice versa. Video game designers—from Final Fantasy to The Sims and Devil May Cry—not only appreciate fashion as an inspiration for their works but also act as actual fashion designers, well aware of how their “console imagery” is bound to a social one and to certain practices of “disguise,” loved especially by teenagers and young adults. Thus, the social system is always influenced by the visual system: The movie industry, comic books, and video games widely nourish the signs of the “real” body. Moreover, these signs also inspire the avatars, the imaginary characters of the games (as, for example, in The Sims), where they dress according to actual street styles.
Synthetic bodies like these have become an extension of the archetype of the doll, being at the same time livelier but ghastly and inorganic. This is particularly remarkable in the context of Second Life, a famous virtual world on the Web. This touristic metavillage, even if it is three-dimensional, has many elements in common with Flatland. It is a highly hierarchical world, although here hierarchies are the result of negotiation, and the possibility exists for everybody to climb the social scale.
What Second Life has created is an unusual expression of the relationship between sign and signifier (the thing that is identified by the sign itself). As in all digital texts, the sign starts living, metaphorically, its own life. This was the highest aspiration of twentieth-century semioticians: infinite semiosis. But this sign has a particular quality: It is both a body (an avatar) and a name stuck firmly just above the head of each avatar. In order to access Second Life, a name and a kind of avatar must be chosen. Then, after joining and becoming a “resident”—that is, an individual with his/her own residence in the virtual world, living in it exactly as in the real one—a participant must choose how to dress. At the beginning, someone usually gives some clothing to the new avatar as a present, in order to let him/her be different from his/her basic design. Thereafter, new clothing must be bought or exchanged without anyone acting as a mediator with the stylist, who is at the same time both fashion and graphic designer and can accumulate a “real” fortune, for example, as a real estate agent, artist, or escort.
In Second Life, an eye-catching appearance can lead to being worth noticing, much as among the polygonal classes of Flatland, but this time it is certainly not Euclidean geometry that matters but rather street style, both real and virtual, whose signs can be exaggerated to a high degree. Imaginative avatars are created, and eccentric clothing is bought—such as that designed by Shiryu Musashi, a popular fashion designer in Second Life—as well as exaggerated makeup or quirky animal forms. Everything is excess: Fashion in Second Life merges perfectly the hyperbole of luxury with street style and actually exemplifies an atypical, chaotic interaction between the two standard movements in the transmission of fashion signs, trickle-down and bubble-up. Trickle-down movement occurs because opinion leaders and celebrities influence public opinion, but in order to become an opinion leader or a celebrity, one must first have a reputation or, in other words, one must be noticed by other people in the public space represented by Second Life, in its “streets.” So fashion also bubbles up, an explosion from the street to the catwalk, even if in Second Life the streets are the catwalk and everyday life is absolute ostentation—all of which is not very different from what happens in the world that Second Life’s residents call First Life.
In this “first life,” digital and information technologies of communication have given new meanings to the “old” media of mass communication, conferring on them new forms that are impossible to avoid. Fashion in particular, through the communicative practices of the Web, takes new forms, which highlight its system of objects and signs that, literally or metaphorically, are stitched onto the body, always in a new and unique manner—just like the clothing and accessories that people wear in their everyday bricolage. The Web silently destroys the mass quality of the communicative systems of modern times, instead creating the illusion (which is, indeed, “reality”) of a direct and personal contact through the means and the messages that touch and mark people, that people produce, exchange, and consume.
Specialized online fashion magazines; monothematic Web portals on trends and the international fashion system; the Web sites of fashion designers, companies, models, and fashion schools; e-commerce; archives and databases; e-learning; forums; blogs such as The Sartorialist—the strategies of fashion communication on the Internet are many. They overlap different speech genres and use innovative ideas for digital images that add value and dynamism to traditional photography.
There are even virtual models, provided by the agencies specializing in virtual fashion shows. The body becomes an individual three-dimensional avatar for surfers who want to find their own personal tailor not in the traditional stereotype—with the measuring tape around his neck and the pincushion fastened on his wrist—but as the “customized consumer” of online shopping malls. This is the new frontier that “dressing communication” tries to pass: One’s own synthetic body seems to be a clothed body that does not conform to standardized fashion uniforms, a body “cloned” exclusively in digital space. An example of this is the visual human, a virtual union of computed tomography, nuclear magnetic resonance, and anatomical sections with which a software builds a “living body,” potentially matching each and every body, which every chosen clothing item will suit perfectly.
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