Italia delle dive

by Eugenia Paulicelli

Nowadays the phenomena of stardom and celebrity culture – one of the most tangible manifestations of the digital revolution-are the bread and butter of twitters and instagrammers. They are global phenomena that span different generations. But what many people do not know is that stardom and above all the divismo of female stars and the genre film that derived from it like the diva film, was born in Italy in the 1910s. Even fewer people know that for the made in Italy and Italian style, this kind of phenomenon has been crucial to define concepts of beauty and Italian style in both cinema and fashion. At the time when cinema started to be recognized as a new medium, a new art and technology, Italy was one of the countries that produced extraordinary films in cities like Turin, Milan, Rome and Naples. The images of the divas such as Lyda Borelli, who was very famous at the theatre thanks to her interpretation of Salomè, one of the most iconic characters whose sensuality and sinuous dance movements on stage embodied the myth of the femme fatale; Francesca Bertini, who had also started her career with a role as Salomè; and Pina Menichelli, to mention only some of the most well known, were reproduced in wonderful postcards with their languid and passionate poses, showing off hats and elegant outfits. Both men and women were crazy about the divas. At a time of the reproducibility of the work of art, in the words of Benjamin, culture became mass culture through the new technologies, cinema, photography, illustrations and periodicals. Italian cinema in this period had international resonance and the Italian divas were very popular abroad. Italian and foreign communities were in love with them, in Argentina, in North America and in Japan. The Italian divas were the emblems of Italian style and elegance. Italian fashion at this time was far less recognized and appreciated than Parisian fashion whose designers such as Poiret, Paquin, Vionnet and others, represented the best of elegance and chic. One of the most important voices that helped Italian fashion gain recognition for its excellence and beauty was the sarta-artista, journalist, teacher and activist involved in the international movement for peace and feminism, Rosa Genoni, winner of the International Grand prix for her collection presented at the Milan Expo of 1906. In her own way, she was another diva. In 1908 Rosa Genoni dressed the diva Lyda Borelli. The diva could not have been a better testimonial and model for Genoni’s landmark new design: the Tanagra dress, of Greco-Roman inspiration. In June 1908 Borelli wore the dress draped in the mode of the Tanagra statuettes at the Olimpia theatre in Milan. Genoni had worn a more informal version of the same design at the First International Women’s Congress in Rome. And so these two divas of the beginning of the 20th century, Rosa Genoni and Lyda Borelli, represented and embodied the vision of a woman who was looking for space and wanted to move freely with dresses in a new style, in greater charge of her own body and image while at the same time laying claim to new social roles that would recognize her beauty and intelligence. In other words, the modern woman.

More info: Eugenia Paulicelli, Rosa Genoni. La moda è una cosa seria/Fashion is a serious business, (Milano: Deleyva Editore, 2015, bilingual edition)

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