Draping the Feminist Revolution

On Rosa Genoni's Tanagra Dress

A terracotta Tangara figure, c. 250 B.C. Collection of Wheaton College.
A terracotta Tangara figure, c. 250 B.C. Collection of Wheaton College.

IN THE LAST FEW years, the word ‘feminism’ has gained a new currency in the fashion industry. Several designers have claimed and embraced it as a sort of manifesto term for women’s empowerment and employed it in the launch of their collections, on runways or in their media campaigns. At Chanel in 2015, Karl Lagerfeld designed clutches printed with the phrase ‘Feministe mais Feminine.’ In her 2017 Spring-Summer collection, Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Dior, used the slogan ‘We should all be feminists’ as the title of her collection.1 Emblematically written on a white T-shirt, the phrase sounds like a manifesto, yet it arguably fails to dialogue with the long history of feminism, the women’s liberation movement, and their intersections with the history of fashion.

Rosa Genoni (1867–1954) was a seamstress and fashion creator, a feminist and peace activist. She lived in that period of enormous change that coincides with what is identified as historical feminism, the beginning of the twentieth century, a time when women did not have the right to vote and yet were still protagonists of history, social movements and fashion.2

Feminism was not a slogan for Genoni, but an integral part of the design process, built into the very fabric and draping of her garments. At a time when Paris dominated the fashion world, she imagined and advocated for the creation of an ‘Italian fashion.’ Her work and writings trace a path of significant narratives of fashion that are intimately connected to the process of nation- building. Genoni called for an ‘Italian fashion,’ not only as an abstract concept but as a tangible and organized industry, a project that was in the context of the first decade of the twentieth century ‘utopic.’ It would not be until the end of the Second World War and later in the 1970s and 1980s that we see the full implementation of Genoni’s dream: the global success and recognition of ‘Made in Italy.’

The story of Genoni’s life is one of multiple but parallel and intersecting tracks: her initial work in dressmaking led her to become a designer in her own right and a leading figure in the call for the development of a home-based and distinct Italian fashion industry. That led her to teaching in Milan’s Società Umanitaria (a philanthropic institute founded in 1893), which in turn exposed her to the plight of workers and women’s labour force and brought her into contact with the city’s women’s and socialist circles (where she also met her life partner and father of her daughter, the well known lawyer and socialist Alfredo Podreider). Contact with those circles, in turn, led to her forceful opposition to Italy’s entry into World War I and to the fascist regime that came to power a few years after the war ended. For Rosa, her work in fashion; her ideological commitment to the workers’ and women’s struggle; and her all out opposition to war and fascism were all overlapping and intersecting activities.

She achieved international recognition as a result of her opposition to World War I. Together with Aletta Jacobs from the Netherlands, and the US’s Jane Addams and Emily Balch, who would later be recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Genoni took part in the First International Women’s Conference in The Hague of 1915 as the sole Italian delegate. She was also part of an informal diplomacy mission as one of the envoys of the Women’s Congress in 1915, visiting heads of governments of warring and neutral states, including the US President Woodrow Wilson, and proposing a range of measures to stop the bloodshed and build a durable international legal order.3)

The dynamism of her mind and life, her travel and work abroad, especially in Paris, and her ability to capitalise on these experiences, gave her the awareness and strength to elaborate her multidimensional feminist revolution. She advocated for women to be authors of their own image and style, and not to limit themselves to being passive followers of fashion. Fundamental to her project was the fact that she lived and worked in multiple places and inhabited multiple domains. These included the fashion atelier, and the places of her socialist political activism, her humanitarian and pacifist initiatives, where she encountered other women working in the international feminist movements, and with writers, journalists, and workers. However, her enthusiastic embrace of modernity and her dream of a more egalitarian and democratic society were politically annihilated by the outbreak of the First World War, which she forcefully opposed, and the triumph of fascism, which she also, equally forcefully, opposed.4

The Tanagra Dress that she designed in 1908 materialises Genoni’s ideas on beauty, women’s activism, and the force of intellectual commitment. She wore the dress when she attended and spoke at the first Italian National Congress of Women held in Rome at the end of April, 1908. She made the same dress to be worn by one of the most important Italian theatre actresses of the time, Lyda Borelli, a leading figure in the genre that would become known as the ‘diva film’ in the 1910s. The Tanagra dress is notable because it is one of the first examples of dynamic dress on account of its use of different fabrics, accessories and details, as can be seen in several photographs. In Genoni’s mind, the Tanagra dress was a statement of a strong female identity and personality.

If we compare the photograph of Genoni wearing the Tanagra dress at the National Congress of Women with those of the other women participants, as we can do by looking at the cover of the magazine Domenica del Corriere where the women are portrayed, we immediately see the deep contrast between Genoni’s notion of fashion and the dictates of the fashion of the time. The other women wear tight sartorial jackets on top of a corseted body; whereas the Tanagra highlights fluidity, movement and draping. It is easy to see why the Tanagra was Genoni’s manifesto for revolutionising women’s dress and its visual impact on public space. The dynamism of the dress bears intimate links with the history behind the Greek figurines that give the dress its name. Recent studies have examined the historical significance of the Tanagra sculptures with particular reference to the use and representation of clothing. The Tanagra figurines came from Tanagra in Greece, and were found towards the end of the nineteenth century.5 The Tanagra statues represented distinguished mortal women, not goddesses, portrayed in public spaces during social occasions and religious rituals. The women appear elegantly dressed and self-confident in their gestures and composure. As has been noted, these women knew how to wear clothes and how to control the images they projected as indicators of their social standing. The beauty of the draping, their performance of femininity in social space and their display of women’s agency as actors on the scene must have fascinated Rosa Genoni and inspired her design.

Genoni’s use of draping was quite different from other designers of the time; It is clear that Genoni was thinking of draping the female figure in order to free her movements in line with, but going much further than, similar fashion experiments of the time. The dress attempts to create a balance between the stitched and the draped. But it was in its transformative function and its versatility that the Tanagra dress is the fusion of modernist avant-garde and classical inspiration, but also of Eastern and Western draping. With her completely new dimension of draping and reconfiguration of posture, Genoni was also thinking of different versions of the same dress, using different fabrics and small decorative details, silk and lace sleeves, different colours and headpiece accessories. The Tanagra Dress is the embodiment of a style of an assertive personality who demands to be taken seriously in the world of fashion – Genoni, as the sarta artista and in the world of film, Borelli, the actor as an artist. A diva such as Borelli was to contribute decisively to legitimise cinema as art, while Genoni was to conduct a battle to legitimise fashion as an art, and Italian fashion in particular.

Silent film star Lyda Borelli wearing the Tanagra Dress, June 1908. Photography by Varischi & Artico, Milan. Author’s collection.
Silent film star Lyda Borelli wearing the Tanagra Dress, June 1908. Photography by Varischi & Artico, Milan. Author’s collection.

The Tanagra Dress represented Genoni’s signature look and the fusion of beauty and intellect, Eastern and Western sensibility, a harmonic combination of the tailored and the draped, of tradition and modernity. This style of dress must have been very dear to her not only as a designer but also as a woman who was a political activist. In a letter written by her companion Alfredo Podreider, dated May 3, 1915 (seven years after the first appearance of the dress), one finds the following line: ‘Would you like me to send you the Greco-Roman dress?’ (NYPL, Schwimmer- Lloyd Collection, Ms. Col 6398, Box 58). This letter was sent to Genoni while she was engaged with the other feminists in the International Congress for Peace at The Hague in 1915 and as an Italian delegate. Although the Tanagra dress in its intents and design, in Genoni’s mind, aimed at revolutionising the art of dressing in the beginning of the twentieth century, it has still today a strength that undermines the diktats of fashion. The revolutionary draping of the dress allows the wearer greater freedom of movement than did conventional women’s dress. And the fact that the dress can be worn and draped in multiple modes gives the wearer a great degree of autonomy and the creativity to design her own style. Rosa Genoni designed the Tanagra dress she wore when she delivered her speech at the International Women’s Congress in Rome in 1908. One passage from the speech reads thus:

In these days when women’s congresses and feminist demands are so fashionable, it might first appear to our female readers as frivolous and light that we concern ourselves with the demands of fashion. Already in some of these heads we hear a refrain trotted out: Finally! Women will have something else to occupy themselves with other than their usual dresses and little hats! A Huge mistake, also for the feminist ladies. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact in order to conquer those fields that are still contested, a woman must not disregard the field in which she, by unanimous consent, has a complete and uncontested sovereignty. It is necessary, now more than ever, not to allow ourselves to be criticized and censored for the way in which we have until today exercised this sovereignity.6

Is it not an overly simplistic feminism that limits itself to writing slogans on white T-shirts or bags; is this not a PR form of activism that creates a veneer of militancy by way of fashionable words and discourses? And does such high fashion sloganeering do anything more than make clothing more attractive to those already ’empowered women’ who enjoy access to power and money? Does the word ‘feminism’ make female consumers feel better about themselves? And most importantly, how do the work and struggles of women today lineup against the struggles of feminists of yesteryear such as Rosa Genoni? She designed her Tanagra dress to translate her ideas of women’s empowerment and legitimation in society and as a step toward a utopian dream of a world without war and violence. In Rosa Genoni’s thought and action, in her fashion design and political activism, aesthetics and politics march together. This is the exact opposite of an aestheticizing politics of feminism. A historical glance backwards might help us to gain greater perspective on the way the fashion industry today makes such an easy use of words such as feminism that have a past that is often ignored or dismissed.

Eugenia Paulicelli is a Professor of Italian, Comparative Literature and Women’s Studies at Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Rosa Genoni: Fashion is Serious Business.

  1. Chiuri, in fact, here borrows the title (and the principles she declared she embraces) of a well-known 2014 essay and Ted talk by the feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

  2. This essay is based on my book, Rosa Genoni. Fashion is a serious business (bilingual edition), Milan: Deleyva editore, 2015 and new edition in 2017. See also my entry on ‘Rosa Genoni,’ http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/rosa-genoni_%28Dizionario-Biografico%29/ 

  3. Rosa Genoni was also in London, on May 14th, 1915, together with Jane Addams and Aletta Jacobs, to discuss with Sir Edward Grey, UK Minister of Foreign Affairs, the terms of a possible neutral mediation for ending of the war. To enter the floor of international relations, peace and security politics (almost one century later accepted as UN SC resolution 1325) can be seen as a break-through affirmation of women’s global identity. See: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/wps/1925? (last accessed September 4th, 2014 

  4. In the exhibit I curated, ‘The Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making’ I have curated (Art Center, Queens College, NY October 5 through December 15) we have presented a recreation by Christina Trupiano of Genoni’s Tanagra dress. See also the catalog, The Fabric of Cultures. Systems in the Making, Art Center, City University of New York: 2017. 

  5. S L James and S Dillon, eds., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, especially the chapter by S Dillon, ‘Hellenistic Tanagra Figurine,’ pp. 231–236, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; P A Cunningham, Reforming Women’s Fashion 1850–1920: Politics, Health, and Art, Kent State University Press, 2003; A Cooper Albright, Engaging Bodies: the Politics and Poetics of Corporeality, Wesleyan University Press, 2013 

  6. Rosa Genoni, ‘Arte e Storia del costume. Rivendicazioni femminili nella moda,’ in Vita d’Arte: Rivista mensile illustrate d’arte antica e moderna, Vol. 2, 1908, fasc. 11, pp. 202-207.