Design as Theater, Part Two

Designing for Dictators

To design for dictators in the twentieth century was to invent a new art form. The first challenge to designers was that the new modern dictator was not of the blood royal and prided himself on his common origins, his of-the-people birthright. So the fashions worn by the Kings, Czars, Kaisers, and Emperors had to be discarded. But that understanding of the importance of being an ordinary man leading ordinary people led to yet another problem: how to amaze and astonish the masses. A new and impressive outfit had to be designed. The only precursors were the two extremes in uniforms worn by military leaders in the Great War: the modest and self-effacing khaki and the nostalgic outfits worn by officers in Germany and Austria, festooned with (unearned) medals and bobbing white feathers rising from glittering steel helmets. In Berlin, the Kaiser fetishized the military through daily military parades, emphasizing the cavalry, before the Great War. The military units of mounted horsemen were often dominated by the wealthy and well-born, who could afford and purchase and maintain a group of war horses. The upper-class well-bred men rode with a to-the-manor-born air, carrying their inherited authority with ease. The American artist in Berlin, Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) wrote back to his American friends and supporters, Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Stein, about the importance of Germany as a European art center. He also wrote artlessly of the atmosphere of barely concealed homosexuality in Berlin, especially in the privileged military.

The Nineteenth-century Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II

According to one of the Kaiser’s contemporary biographers, John C. G. Röhl in his article”The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the character of the leader was summed up in a series of points including,
“The absence of change or development in his personality; his inability to learn from experience..”And  finally his love of uniforms, of jewellery, of dressing up and of childish games played in all-male company.” This 1982 book, Kaiser Wilhelm II New Interpretations: The Corfu Papers, by Röhl has a portrait of the Kaiser on the cover. In the tradition of royal portraits, the Kaiser was placed in front of a small horse to make him look tall and commanding. As Röhl went to pains to show this man was all uniform and no substance. He wore a white rather rumpled uniform weighted down with large epaulets was accented by a black cuirass which provided an opportunity to hang medals and sashes. The Kaiser’s shining riding boots were black and tall, offsetting the orangish embroidery appearing here and there at the edges of the outfit. All the elements of the cavalry charge were present, a rather embarrassed horse, the long sword, and the elaborate glove. His officers wore somewhat more modest uniforms and Marsden Hartley was enraptured by the spectacle of the fashionable horse-borne ensembles. As art historian Wanda Corn wrote in “Marsden Hartey’s Native Amerika,” on one hand, the artist was perceptive enough to recognize the danger of such attire but he also found the sights of Berlin fascinating. As Hartley wrote to fellow artist, Rockwell Kent, “Of course to some this military system is accountable for many things, and to some this military element is objectionable–but it stimulates my child’s love for the public spectacle–and such wonderful specimens of health these men are–thousands all so blond and radiant.” But later in his autobiography, Hartley wrote of Berlin in 1913, “The whole scene was fairly bursting with organized energy and the tension was terrific, and somehow most voluptuous in the feeling of power–a sexual intensity even in it–when passion rises to the full and something must happen to quiet it.”

Marsden Hartley. Warriors (1913)

The reactions to the parade of uniforms on the part of the naïve American was of course laced with desire–he fell in love with a handsome count who died a year later, but more important Hartley was seduced by uniforms, the tight cavalry pants clasping trotting horses between the strong thighs, the tall phallic silver and gold helmets topped with erect decorations. Interestingly enough, Harley did not learn his lesson of the fatal lure of uniforms which convinced the German people that their army was invincible and he was equally drawn by the sights and spectacles of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The uniform was updated and modernized but it still beguiled. The point is, of course, that uniforms are important. Although Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) had a military background as did Adolf Hitler, they both had peacetime careers–of sorts–after the Great War. Both men had aspirations for power, not the power of kings but the modern power of the ordinary man who rises to power through determination and the ability to impress, to call attention to his followers and to impress the spectators. Benito Mussolini had no intention of either supporting or rescuing the doomed adventure of Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), lording it precariously, to be sure, over Fiume. But he certainly cast an envious eye at the stylish uniform designed by one of the best-dressed men in Europe, noted with interest the speeches delivered from a balcony, and the well-dressed if thuggish followers. Adolf Hitler, for his part, recognized the excellent and simple design of the Communist flag, which waved and fluttered above well-dressed marchers. Both dictators in training learned from the modern modes of asserting power and turned away from metals and feathers. That said, both Mussolini and Hitler would retain certain sartorial details from the past to gesture towards prestige.

In her controversial essay on Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag wrote about the connection between fascism and the male body–something Marsden Hartley responded to when he returned to Germany in 1933–and paused in her essay on the filmmaker to consider the significance of “the uniform.” She stated that

Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us..There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges and medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized.) competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence. But uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms–which are erotic materials and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy. Why the SS? Because the SS was the ideal incarnation of fascism’s overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful..SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity. Compare the rather boring and not so very well cut American army uniform: jacket, shirt, tie, pants, socks, and lace-up shoes–essentially civilian clothes no matter how bedecked with medals and badges. SS uniforms were tight, heavy, stiff and included gloves to confine the hands and boots that made the legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging their wearer to stand up straight.

SS Uniforms

As most people know, the Nazi uniforms were designed by a dedicated Nazi, Hugo Boss (1865-1948), but the designer of the uniforms of the Italian fascists is less well known. Paolo Garretto (1903-1989), in his own time, he was a very famous graphic designer, the Italian equivalent to the French Cassandre. Although he fell into obscurity, he was discovered by the design historian and theorist, Stephen Heller, who was able to correspond with the artist before his death. Heller delicately raised the question of his ” flirtation with Fascism.” Aggravated by the sight of a boisterous Communist rally, a very young Garretto joined the Vanguardists, the Fascist youth. His father disapproved of his son’s misguided enthusiasm for fascism but the son, the budding artist was not happy with the uniforms. The 2011 Vanity Fair article quoted Garretto on the matter of fashion: “I did not like the way they were all dressed up: they had only one common garment — the black shirt. 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. My friends who liked the attire copied it. In fact, four of us, Mario and Carlo Ferrando, Aldo Placidi and me became known as the Musketeers.” What Garretto contributed was an all-black uniform, supposedly referencing a machinist uniform, created an aesthetically impressive presence. The color black was both chic and threatening.

What Garretto contributed was an all-black uniform, supposedly referencing a machinist uniform, created an aesthetically impressive presence. The color black was both chic and threatening. At the time of The March on Rome, the squadristi were a band of badly dressed unruly brutal males assaulting Rome itself, demanding that Mussolini should be rewarded the office of the Prime Minister in gratitude to the crushing of the Communist threat. Given that the squadristi or Blackshirts continued their violence even after the stunned Communists capitulated, their presence was useful but possibly destabilizing. The March, seen by many at the time as another example of massed criminality, was retold later as a heroic event that was cemented into party mythology. It is no accident after the disorderly March that the story of the design of the uniforms continued in 1922 when, after the March, Mussolini became the Italian prime minister. His early followers, the Blackshirts, were violent thugs, rather like the precursor group to the SS, the SA. Mussolini knew that part of his credibility rested upon his separating himself from unorganized violence and he controlled the violence the Blackshirts, legitimated it, and named these low-level criminals: Volunteer Militia for National Security (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, or MVSN).

However, the new uniform for this new group was yet to be designed. According to Garretto,

Mussolini and the other Fascist leaders came down among us. The Musketeers were all lined up at attention, and when Mussolini saw us in our crisp new uniforms he asked Gino Calza-Bini, the founder and leader of the Roman Fascio, ‘Who are these?’ My friend Placidi was prompt to answer: ‘We’re the Musketeers!” To which Mussolini responded, ‘…they shall be my Musketeers!’ and passed on. In the evening we were ordered to the Fascio and told that we would become 33 instead of four.. 

Garratto quickly realized the danger of his position and allowed his father to rescue him. In 1925, the young artist extricated himself from the bodyguard of Il Duce and went to Paris to find his artistic destiny. In a book on this topic, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy by Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, the author noted that the black shirt became the unofficial symbol of fascism and was adopted and adapted in strange and inventive ways by Italians loyal to Mussolini. The informality of when, where, and why the Blackshirt was worn irritated Mussolini who stated that “The black shirt is not the everyday shirt, and it is not a uniform either. It is a combat outfit and can only be worn by those who harbor a pure soul in their heart.” The fascist uniform itself had a great deal of “paraphernalia” such as the famous sciarpa littorio. “The scarf, with the Roman colors yellow and red had supposedly been worn by Mussolini on the occasion of the March on Rome. The Duce instituted it on the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the fasci and ordered that only selected fascists, such as those who had participated in the March could wear it. The sciarpa was a sign of recognition and it showed the hierarchical structure of the regime. Accessories, ornaments, and medals demonstrated a person’s position in the regime’s organization..Uniforms came to epitomize change and differentiated fascist spirit from bourgeois values.” 

Colorized photograph of the March on Rome October 28, 1922

Note the veterans of the Great War wearing leftover elements of their old uniforms, the famous black shirts, and Mussolini in a business suit and spats.

But Mussolini used the idea of the fascist uniform as a signifying marker to Thus professionals from all walks of life were assigned days when they had to wear the black shirt. These complex and multitudinous orders forced the civilian and even non-fascist members of Italian society to become, at least for a few days, to become military. As Falasca-Zamponi wrote, “The uniform, along with the other daily rituals the regime imposed, was intended to wipe out bourgeois mentality and habits.” The uniform of the Italian fascists and all of the accouterments created a sense of nationalist unity, the visual look of a country united into one spirit. The uniform also imposed a conformity, not just in body, sheathing it in a kind of concealing armor, but also in the mind. The American military uniform, in contrast, emphasized the fact that the soldiers and their leaders were ordinary citizens in a temporary “citizen army.” But in Italy, the emphasis was on visual spectacle of a conforming mass of loyal followers so necessary to the autocratic dictator. As Perry Wilson remarked in “The Nation in Uniform? Fascist Italy 1919-1943, “..uniforms were an essential component of ‘the theatricality of politics’, the highly choreographed and stage-managed rituals and pageantry that aimed to instill a mystical belief in the nation, around which the previously divided Italian people could unite..” Perhaps because it came first, the black uniforms, based on the Blackshirts–black, as opposed to red–fascists as opposed to Communists–became the inspiration for future fascist uniforms. 

Benito Mussolini making a speech in 1935


 wrote in the 2016 book, The Rise of Fascism: History, Documents, and Key Questions: History, Documents, and Key Questions, “As Mussolini’s Fascist movement was the first in Europe to come to prominence and then to political power, the Italian example often was used by other fascist organizations. The use of a violent paramilitary force, in uniform (like Mussolini’s Blackshirts), became one of the most commonly used trappings of fascist movements. These included the creation of the “Brownshirts in Germany, the “Blueshirts” in Spain and in Ireland, and the “Greyshirts” in South Africa. In England, Sir Oswald Mosley launched his British Union of Fascists (BUF) in late 1932. In an imitation of Mussolini’s techniques, Mosley would create his own paramilitary army and dress them in black-shirted uniform.”

Mussolini in Blackshirt and Riding pants with Tuxedo stripe and High Boots

In the formation and design of the modern military uniform for twentieth-century dictators, it is interesting how causally the model or template for such attire was put together. A teenager introduced the idea of an overall color. The Blackshirts emerged organically. The final design of the Italian Fascist uniform in interesting in what it retained of nineteenth-century details. The cavalry pants are retained and even begin to billow aggressively. The pouf of the Nazi pants is larger than those of the Italians as if there is an assertion that the middle and lower class fascists have risen to the rank of the aristocracy of the previous century. The sash and cuirass have been replaced by leather belts at the waist and a diagonal leather strap across the chest. The officer still carries gloves. The boots are still high and black. The epaulets are still in place on the broad shoulders but they are flattened into tabs. The actual jacket is very utilitarian, reminding the viewer of the working man commonality of Il Duce. Buttoned to the top of the chest with two large and seemingly useful pockets on either side, top and bottom, the jacket is long with a useful utilitarian appearance. Of course, the illusion of working-class solidarity is offset by the presence of riding pants marked by tuxedo stripes along the sides and the nipped in waist. Although the Blackshirt uniform was the first famous “look” for the Italian Fascist party, the conventional uniform was grey-green. The neutral color allowed for mix and match: grey pants and black shirt and straight pants instead of riding pants, sans stripe. A recent example of a more neutral, less flamboyant, uniform that once belonged to Mussolini at the time of his execution, was auctioned in 2011 for over $6,000.  Mussolini actual rode and there is a remarkable picture of His Fashionableness wearing a helmet topped with a bursting white feather. Gabriele D’Annunzio would have been proud.

Mussolini Riding his Horse


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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