Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Marcello Mastroianni’s costumes in La Dolce Vita (1960)


Masculinity and Tailoring

Marcello Mastroianni’s costumes in La Dolce Vita (1960)
This is an abridged version of a longer paper written in 2009
La Dolce Vita directed by Federico Fellini (1920-1971) was released in 1960 and has been described as a ‘groundbreaking’ film.[1] It captures a time of reconstruction and economic growth in Italy, linked to the end of Fascism and the destruction caused by the Second World War. La Dolce Vita was filmed in black and white although colour film was available at the time. The use of black and white appears to emphasise the diametric oppositions between the old rural way of life and the new modernizing Italy[2]. La Dolce Vita looked firmly forward to the future, as Professor Stephen Gundle wrote, ‘The film brought to light the phenomenon of the unlicensed celebrity photographer…It gave a commercial boost to Italy’s hitherto underdeveloped fashion industry and it fuelled a wave of tourism to the Italian capital’[3].
Gundle claims that an analysis of film is a useful way to understand post- war Italian society. The film offered audiences a depiction of ordinary life and pioneered the treatment of factual events[4]. This can be seen as a contrast to the glamorous films produced by Hollywood at the time that depicted Italian-ness, such as Roman Holiday (1953). Gundle states, ‘Italian cinema became a source of recognition and even consolation for millions of people uprooted or disorientated by a vast and bewildering process of transformation’[5]. Certainly earlier Neorealist films depicted the hopeless condition lower-class life in stark realism. However, La Dolce Vita is a move away from Neorealism, although it can be said to acknowledge a debt of recognition to the genre[6].
The overall look of La Dolce Vita was created by Piero Gherardi (1909-1971). On the film credits he is listed as the designer of sets and costumes and separately as the Art Director. His stylish and innovative work on the film was recognised in 1962 when he won an American Academy Award for Best Costume Design[7]. La Dolce Vita is an interesting film to study because Gherardi attached equal importance to male and female costumes. The unique nature of this choice is explained by film historian Stella Bruzzi, ‘discussions of costume have tended to exclude men and masculine identities, as if an attention to dress is an inherently feminine trait’[8]. However, Gherardi had a strong male lead to work with who's character in underpinned by his particular sense of style which reflects fashionable Italian menswear of the period.
Piero Gheradi's brand of Italian masculinity
The opening scene of La Dolce Vita reveals architectural structures from both classical and contemporary Rome. This forms the backdrop for the emergence of two helicopters, one carrying below a figure of Christ, the other carrying a journalist and photographer documenting the event. The journalist and male lead is Marcello Mastroianni who plays journalist Marcello Rubini and in the opening scene his brand of sexually alluring masculinity is immediately established by designer Gherardi. Marcello looks stylish, expensively dressed and yet casual as he wears a dark shirt and tie, accessorised with large cuff links and dark glasses. By making the accessories noticeable Gheradi helps the audience to recognise that the character pays attention to details which helps to establish him as a credible reporter. We also get a sense of him as a playboy as his slicked back hair miraculously remains in place when he leans out of the hovering helicopter and converses with three women in swimwear (who happen to be sunbathing on top of a building). He still looks dapper as the audience encounters him later that same evening entering a nightclub. He is still wearing dark glasses, but with a fitted tuxedo and narrow bow tie which further confirms the sartorial articulacy of his character. Marcello meets the socialite Maddelena (Anouk Aimee) his equal in terms of both elegance and moral depravity. Stephen Gundle describes them as ‘two stylish black-clad nightowls who glide over the surface of the human debris that surrounds them’[9].
Rome is shown to be a vibrant, busy city at night, and as they leave the club Marcello and Maddelena pick up a stranger and drive her home to ‘Dead Souls’. The stranger, it emerges is a prostitute, she refers to Marcello as ‘Gregory Peck’ which further positions him as stylish and sophisticated[10]. Following a night spent with Maddelena, Marcello is still immaculately dressed, his bow-tie tied, his hair slicked into place. Later the following evening, one of the most iconic scenes in the film takes place as the blonde bombshell and American actress Sylvia dances in the Trevi fountain. Sylvia beckons Marcello to join her and appears to baptise him by placing a few drops of water on his head. She is drenched and dishevelled but Marcello’s tailored suit is still in tact leaving him composed and in control.
Mastroinanni’s role in the film can be viewed as part of a discourse on Italian male identity which highlights a particular Western stereotype, the Latin lover. Jacqueline Reich claims that this notion of masculinity is part of an historical narrative that stems from Ancient Rome and Renaissance sculpture[11]. However Reich claims that Mastroianni is more of an anti-hero or inetto, ‘this figure is a man in conflict with an unsettled and at times unsettling political and sexual environment’ [12]. It could also be argued that Marcello is a type of flaneur, as Walter Benjamin stated, ‘the social base of flanerie is journalism. The flanuer was the quintessential Nineteenth century Parisian man, active and intellectual, and unlike the respectable women of his class, he had the freedom to roam the city. He was an observer and interpreter of the age of Modernism who found meaning in urban life. Walter Benjamin stated, ‘Paris created the type of the flaneur. What is remarkable is that it wasn’t Rome[14]. As a journalist Marcello is a flanuer wearing dark suits and formal clothing and observing life from the shadows. However, by the end of the film he is transformed and his white suit and black shirt signify a desire to be noticed as a central character. Bruzzi states ‘masculinity is directly measured by narcissism ‘the smarter the clothes, the more dangerous the man, and the more damaged the clothes, the more vulnerable the man’[16]. It would seem that La Dolce Vita offers a conflicting portrayal of masculinity. At the end of the film Mastroianni appears vulnerable and damaged but also dangerous in his white suit and as an observer we feel that anything is possible for his character.
Italian tailoring
Farid Chenoune claims that in the late 1950s roughly 85% of Italian men had their clothes made by tailors with each region adopting an individual style[18]. Giulio Carlo Argan states, ‘Since the Second World War, the so-called “Italian style” in certain branches of industry (…clothing) has enjoyed undisputed prestige on the international market. This has been due to its high quality of design, the appropriateness of its types and functions, its precision of manufacture, and its moderate prices’[19]. Good quality Italian fabric was readily available in terms of general post-war shortages. The cloth was made use of by (mostly) skilled garment makers and tailors. Wages were low and raw materials were cheap which made Italian menswear cheap to buy and therefore attractive to tourists [26].
Another attractive feature in Italian tailoring at the time was the flattering fit of a suit. Chenoune writes that the straight trousers worn by Roman men in the late 1950s were inspired by American blue jeans and chinos worn by GIs in the post-war period. She claims the overall effect was to emulate the ‘swagger’ of the GIs[22]. Chenoune notes that pleats and cuffs disappeared and pockets altered to give the trousers a more slim line fit. ‘In 1960, the Italian-cut suit (sloping shoulders, short jacket, stovepipe pants) became standard battlegear for a new breed of French womanizer…[an] aristocratic playboy.’ [23]. American tourists were also buying Italian menswear as a contrast to the loose fitting Ivy League style typified by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. The Ivy League style was intended to convey ‘conservative elegance’[24]. Chenoune claims, ‘The Italian influence relieved 1950s men of the long, roomy double-breasted suit that symbolised the difficult post-war period, and dressed them in the sharp, modern lines of a short, straight jacket and tapered pants.’[25]

Bibliography available on request

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