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French filmmaker Jean Genet once said “fascism is theater,” but in 2017, the stage more closely resembles a reality TV set: Donald Trump, our mewling star, boasts both an arsenal of props (the bulging, important-looking folders full of blank pages) and a captive audience (the size of which is in dispute) — but what about the costumes? Fascism is an ideology in which appearance is everything — one need only look at past dictators to note that aesthetics remain a crucial part of the show. This week, we’ll look at the visual markers of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and how they illustrated his vision for a return to greatness.
“Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics — that of physical perfection,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1975. She was critiquing the revival of the trend after decades of rejection — but a half-century earlier, the promise of perfection, of greatness, was central to the rise of Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini, known as Il Duce — “the Dux,” or “the chief” — rose to power after his self-serving support of World War I earned him expulsion from the Italian Socialist Party. Riding the wave of nationalism that swept warring Italy, Mussolini distanced himself from anti-interventionist, orthodox socialists by blaming his former party for ignoring the circumstances that led to the war. He went on to form a new, fledgling party, Fasci Rivoluzionari d’Azione Internazionalista — collaquilly known as Fascisti (Fascists).
After Italy failed to grasp power during World War I, Mussolini championed a return to Italian greatness. One of his strategies was to facilitate the resurgence of classical and high renaissance art. Visual principles like symmetry, harmony, and balance reflected the Greco-Roman notion of the “ideal figure,” which centralized the European male body as a potent symbol of supremacy — a comforting idea for a country that was licking its wounds on the global stage, and a convenient aesthetic for an imperialist leader who believed in a racial hierarchy.
Mussolini attempted to revive the values of the Roman Empire by recontextualizing and restoring Roman ruins, like the Circus Maximus and the Mausoleum of Augustus, to their “original glory.” And like the Roman emperors and Catholic Popes before him, he wanted explicit credit for this undertaking — to see his name reflected on every surface of the city, his name on every tower. He even had an enormous sculpture of his face mounted to an exterior wall of the National Fascist Party’s headquarters in Rome, similar to how the likeness of leaders like Caesar Augustus and Pope Julius II was rendered on municipal surfaces, such as coins and buildings.
Fascism’s nascent ideology translated directly in its aesthetics. Curves and flourishes were seen as effeminate.
Fascism was decidedly masculine.
Rigid, straight lines, sleek surfaces, and clean angles in architecture reflected a fetish for technological superiority. But these visual values were not confined to buildings — they soon found their way into the closets of the dictator’s staunchest supporters.
Mussolini’s Black Brigade, or the Blackshirts, were a paramilitary branch of disgruntled veterans. Marked by their black turtlenecks — and in summer, their simple black collared shirts, buttoned up to the neck and occasionally adorned with statesman medallions — the Blackshirts attacked anyone who opposed them, including socialists, communists, and anarchists. In 1922, Mussolini and the Blackshirts made their famous March on Rome, which marked a turning point in fascism’s rise through Europe. As the party rose to power, its uniform became sharper, cleaner, and more corporate. But it didn’t start this way.
Paolo Garretto, an internationally-known Italian illustrator whose Deco-styled caricatures appeared in the pages of American and European magazines alike, is responsible for designing the Black Brigade’s uniforms, though inadvertently. Garretto was staunchly anti-communism from a young age. At eighteen, he joined the fascist youth movement, the Vanguardists, against his father’s wishes. Having been swept up by the revolutionary spirit and the glamor of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, Garretto had one issue: the uniforms. “They had only one common garment, the black shirt,” Garretto said. “As for the rest of their uniform, they wore anything they liked, such as long pants of any color. So I designed for myself a uniform that was all black — shirt, cavalry pants, and boots.” He and three friends all dressed alike and Mussolini made the four men his honor guard, later adopting the look for the entire Blackshirt legion.
The philosophy behind uniforms is distinction. Standardized dress dictates power, rank, and affiliation. It becomes a symbol by which we recognize a group and beyond that, an ideology. The badge of the Black Brigades was Death’s head, jawless and holding a dagger in its teeth. Crisp black uniforms with creases as sharp as a knife’s edge echoed Mussolini’s desire for control and absolute power, and reflected the mission of the Blackshirts: intimidation, destruction, and death. It was a uniform tailored to project authority and evoke fear. Conformity consolidated the power that Il Duce wielded: whether through his propagandized image, his attempts to revitalize Greco-Roman architecture, or his unruly band of Blackshirts.
The Blackshirts disbanded in 1943 after the Armistice of Cassibile was signed by both Italy and Ally leadership — but their legacy outlived them. Other fascist leaders, including Adolf Hitler and Sir Oswald Mosley, used their look and mode for their own militia groups (the German Storm Troops and the British Union of Fascists, respectively). After World War II, Italy joined the Western bloc and by 1947, most Italian war crimes were pardoned — the Blackshirts along with them.
But black is never far from the political stage; it’s been the traditional color of anarchism since the 1880s — the symbol of the black flag signifies an absence of a ruling state, a central tenant in anarchist philosophy.
And in Trump’s America, that has new relevance — the color black is instrumental to the black bloc, an anarchist protesting tactic that recently made headlines when a local Antifa (anti-fascist) group marched on Berkeley to protest guest speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. The tactic, developed in the 1980s, involves marchers wearing all black to both conceal their identities, show solidarity, and antagonize the opposition (fascists, ironically). While the Blackshirts of yesteryear would find little in common with Antifa, the end goal of the black uniform is the same: intimidation and aggression.
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