A Contradiction in Terms: Fashion and Fascism, Part One

Controlling Women In Italy

Designing Submission, Part One

Any authoritarian regime, of any age, regardless of location on the globe will move immediately to control the uncontrollable: women. The first step is always to take away as many of the pre-given rights granted to women as possible, whether, in the modern era, could be the right to vote or the right to control her own body. The second step is to disenfranchise women and to push them out of public life, removing them from jobs, taking away their independence and then placing them back in the domestic realm and under the rule of their husbands, fathers and brothers. But there is a third element that immediately arises from the first two steps taken by authoritarian states–women separated from society are women who have no stake in that society. Stripped of the right of expression and barred from creating their own cultural expressions, women are reduced to muteness and, without being allowed to participate in public life, they have no interest in supporting that which has excluded them. In other words, the State has created an enemy inside the gates. The famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, Le Serment des Horaces (1784) makes a compositionally clear divide between the men and the women.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Serment des Horaces (1784)

The black Tuscan column on the right acts as a signifier stressing that the upright phallically enabled males aggressively occupy two-thirds of the painting. Their swollen and straight-lined ridigity contrast with sloping and limp lines of the women who are without phallic glory and have hence been relegated to the marginalized positions of wife and mother and sister. As the bearers of the young, women went beyond their prescribed roles, that of childbearing, and became attached to the children they raised, came to love their husbands and brothers. Contrasted to the red-cloaked father at the center of the painting, a father who freely sends his sons to their deaths, the women, invested in their emotional attachments, weep and mourn the losses sure to come. The surviving son of the triplets of the Horatii returned home only to slay his own sister who had the misfortune of being betrothed to a son of the enemy family, the Curiatii. The values of the males clearly do not include love or loyalty of compassion–such “virtues” cause weakness and, in a warrior culture, men had to be strong and overcome inconvenient sentimentality.

Le Serment des Horaces, a tale from early Republican Rome, is an interesting work of art when considered in the context of Italian fascist culture in the 1920s. Like ancient Rome, modern Italy had become or at least aspired to be a militaristic culture, preparing for war with the aim of rebuilding an empire. When Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) came to power as a young prime minister in 1922 under the definition of the modern dictator: “a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep,” his intentions were to put himself and the fascist party in power–the “ruthless and energetic” part and to remove the troubling elements of socialism and Communism causing unrest in Italy–the “clean sweep” element. However, Mussolini, a former anti-war socialist himself, kept the traditional trappings of the Italian establishment, the King Victor Emmanuel III and the Church in place, albeit bent to his ends. Although Mussolini, in his youth had not been a friend of the Catholic Church, in fact, his was nicknamed the “priest eater,” the Vatican was in Rome and religion was a powerful unifying force, transcending politics. The Pope Pius XI cast a wary eye on Mussolini remarking, “if there is a totalitarian regime – in fact and by right – it is the regime of the church, because man belongs totally to the church.” However, the Pope allowed himself and the Church to be co-opted by Mussolini, linking religion to fascism in ways that would later compromise the legacies of two Popes. In her interesting article on the relationship between the Church and State in Italy, Lucy Hughes-Hallett wrote that Mussolini concluded that “It was easy to manipulate the church, he told his new allies in Nazi Germany. With a few tax concessions, and free railway tickets for the clergy, he boasted, he had got the Vatican so snugly in his pocket it had even declared his genocidal invasion of Abyssinia ‘a holy war.'” In fact, the fascists designed rituals reminiscent of ecclesiastical ceremonies and appropriated the aura of the sacred to their own cause. For the faithful of Italy, it was therefore easy to slip between the sacred cause of Il Duce and devotion to religion.

For Mussolini, the union with the Church brought him an unexpected ally in his struggle to control women and their ideas of “emancipation.” But Il Duce faced an unprecedented problem. No other dictator had to deal with an entire population of women liberated by their independent role in Great War, out from under the shadows of men. No other authoritarian ruler had to contend with young women who were enjoying the rewards of new standards of morality which had drifted down from France, not to mention the sweeping changes in fashion–skirts half as long as they had been, short cropped hair and colorful makeup, not to mention smoking and drinking and driving. As David’s painting suggested, in France, even under a Revolution in 1789, social change would never include women. In the early nineteenth century, it was easy enough for Napoléon I to strip women of whatever rights they thought they deserved after the Revolution and put them back in their place. One hundred years later, Mussolini was faced with a population of women out of control, who needed to be put in the service of the State. The Pope would be invaluable in lending the opinion of religious teachings to suppress women. In her review of The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer, Lucy Hughes-Hallett noted that the Pope Pius “fretted over inadequately dressed women – backless ballgowns and the skimpy outfits of female gymnasts were particularly worrisome. Mussolini played along, solemnly declaring that, in future, girls’ gym lessons would be designed only to make them fit mothers of fascist sons. He was accommodating in aiding the Pope’s war on heresy – banning Protestant books and journals on demand.”

Both Chuch and State wanted the woman of the Jazz Age, wearing Chanel outfits, and asserting herself in public settings to be reigned in. In fact, in her 2015 book The Crisis-Woman: Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy, Natasha V. Chang stated that the modern woman far from being admired by the Fascist and religious rulers had a name, “donna-crisi.” This “crisis woman” was, according to Chang, “in the fascist imagination a dangerous type of well-to-do modern woman with an extremely thin and consequently sterile body that purportedly confirmed her cosmopolitan, non-domestic, non-maternal, and non-fascist interests..the crisis-woman was neither gentleman nor lady–that is neither male nor female but an incomprehensible third sex. In fascist Italy, the thinness and sterility of the crisis-woman were viewed as a deviant masculinization of the naturally curvaceous and fertile female body.” The negative donna-crisi was the counterpart of the positive donna-madre, a traditional female figure, not from the city, site of all things artificial and cosmopolitan, but from the very soil of Italy itself, the countryside. Donna-madre was full hipped and full breasted, an image of fertility with her pink-cheeked plump face. However, as with all “sweeping changes,” revolutions always attract women who hope to find a new point of view and longed for gender equality. As Gigliola Gori wrote in her book, Italian Fascism and the Female Body: Sport, Submissive Women and Strong Mothers, “The Fascist regime dressed the female members of its organizations in appropriate and fashionable clothes. In the years 1926-29, for example, members of the Piccole Italiane and the Giovani Italiane, then controlled by the Fasci Femminili, wore black short skirts, black ties, and long straight white blouses that made their hips and breasts look small, and their hair, cut à la garçonne, was held away from their eyes with colored ribbons.”

Gruppo di Piccole Italiane della GI

The hopes of women that Fascism would be truly revolutionary and forward thinking towards them were quickly dashed. Revolution in politics was one thing, but a revolution in gender roles was an entirely different prospect, especially when women seemed to put men in a secondary place in their lives, living independently and delaying motherhood, a situation almost guaranteed to reduce women’s ability to be free. Therefore, once in power, Fascism had to determine exactly what to do with these women, what kind of roles they would have in society and what they should wear while performing their tasks. Their decision was to be reactionary and to drag women back to their traditional positions. As the article “Contrasting Image of Italian Women Under Fascism in the 1930’s” by Jennifer Linda Monti pointed out, “Although a “revolutionary” movement, Fascism still maintained strong and traditional beliefs, especially with regard to the role that women played within their families and society. While attempting to modernize Italian society, Italian culture and Italian fashion, Mussolini also wanted women to remain in the traditional role of mother and wife, central to the nuclear Italian family.” For years, Italian women had been caught between the repressive dictates of the Church and the oblivious isms that followed the war, from socialism to fascism. As Monti continued, “During the Socialist and Fascist years as well women were never granted the suffrage and political power they were promised. Socialism was more concerned with class issues, rather than gender, and Fascism, although promising female suffrage during its first years, quickly revoked the promise after 1925, when the dictatorship was established, and when Fascism created the title of podestà in all Italian cities.” The podestà would, of course, be male.

A parade of the Giovani Italiene a fascist organization for young women Italy ca 1935

A parade of the Giovani Italiene, a fascist organization for young women Italy (1935)

Far more than in other European nations, women in Italy had been marginalized and repressed for centuries had no protection from the government unless one was a prostitute and then the state would be in charge of the body in the service to the male. The Lega Promotrice degli Interessi Femminili, organized by educated women, was established in 1880 but concerned itself with middle and upper-class women only, and, much like the feminist movement of the 1970s, paid less attention to rural and/or lower class women. Although the experiences women of all classes had during the Great War changed the way they led their lives and altered the way they thought of themselves as women, the men in power regarded their brief independence as an aberration and were intent on pushing their wives, mothers, and daughters back where they belonged, subservient to the male. Ignoring the contradiction between being a “revolution” that would sweep the past away, Fascism, like Futurism, took a dim view of women and Mussolini declared that women should be “submissive women and strong mothers” like the strong peasant women of the countryside, simple, modestly dressed, and hard-working. However, inspired by American films, foreign fashions, and lives more interesting without men, many Italian women ignored Mussolini’s desire that they dress like peasant women from the farms. Urban women read Parisian fashion magazines, and, as the 2009 book, Fashion at the Time of Fascism: Italian Modernist Lifestyle, 1922-1943 by Mario Lupano and Alessandra Vaccari pointed out, women of all classes had access to a thriving industry of patterns and sewing machines. When they sat down at these machines, Italian women who couldn’t afford to go to Paris and shop–like Mussolini’s daughter–were copying the outfits they saw in magazines, not those costumes worn by the peasant women.

The war-time poster shows the idea Italian woman, modestly dressed, with a child in tow.

In 1925, hoping to inspire these reluctant women to their higher calling, Mussolini announced the “Battle for Births” or support for motherhood by the state under the auspices of the ONMI (National Organisation for Maternity and Infants). Supposedly an economic plan to encourage marriage and parenthood, the overall policy included taxing unmarried men, making it harder for women to obtain birth control and abortions. By 1927, expressing his desire to increase the birth rate, Il Duce provided financial incentives to have children and increased restrictions on divorce. Mussolini, with the coming war in the back of his mind, wanted to increase the population of Italy by twenty million people. That figure meant that somehow millions of women had to be convinced to have children they neither wanted or could afford. Although the entire nation was encouraged to celebrate Giornata della madre e del fanciullo–mother and child day–on December 24 and women with seven children were given financial rewards by the state, few women seem to have been inspired to go through multiple childbirths. Despite his best efforts, the goals of Mussolini did not seem to impress women, who continued to marry later, continue to be active in the workforce, and have fewer children.

Both Mussolini and the Church took a dim view of women who were, they believed, inferior to men in every way. On one hand, women should be dismissed as Mussolini said, “women are angels or demons, born to take care of the household, bear children, and to make cuckolds…” but on the other, they needed to be contained. In 1930, alarmed by out of control women, still not submitting properly to Fascism, Pope Pius XI issued the papal encyclical, Casti Conubi, reaffirming the rule of the male at home. The State joined in with efforts–during the Depression years–to keep half its productive labor force–women–out of the job market. Clearly, neither the Fascist regime nor the Catholic Church had practical ends in mind, such as improving the economic condition of Italy, in mind. Their mindset of misogyny and the general dislike of women, who were so difficult to control, by authoritarian elements overwhelmed any of the practicalities of building the strength of the new empire through full employment of women. Alarmed at the new thin women who were constantly dieting, the Fascist regime tried to re-educate the Italian woman on the desired shape of her new fascist body. Gori noted that Mussolini liked “feminine fat and encouraged physicians to convince women patients, especially those living in cities and therefore more likely to be in touch with dangerous foreign fashions, that slimness was unhealthy while being comfortably heavy was a sign of good health.” Efforts were made to stamp out images of fashionable women and Hollywood movie stars, but once again, there were internal contradictions. The regime also wanted women to be athletically fit and healthy. The Opera Nazionale Balilla was a huge and immersive Fascist youth organization, set up in 1926, with the aim of indoctrinating boys from the age of six into Fascist thinking and ideology. There were corresponding organizations for little girls, educating them in feminine pursuits of motherhood rather than readying them for a military future.

Mussolini was fighting against a tide of women’s aspirations he could not control. One of the obstacles in his desire to reshape Italian society in the image of fascism was the fact that Italy itself was multiple societies, practicing different cultural and social practices, a holdover from the ancient Italian city-states. Another obstacle was the division between the industrial north and the rural south, not to mention the gulf between the cities and the countryside. Fascism could only overlay like a skim these traditional divisions. Mussolini wanted to elevate all Italians out of “backwardness” but traditional societies fit in rather well into his own regressive attitudes towards women. But the dictator stressed modernism, a twentieth-century reality to be expressed militarily and socially but a modernity that also refused to grant women equality or a place in the world. Through a multitude of fascist organizations, women from all over Italy were gathered together, more or less willingly, to serve the cause of fascism. The 2011 article by Monti has an excellent discussion of the fascist efforts to control women through organizing them, but, in an interesting twist, Mussolini’s endless list of activities for women had the effect of bringing woman out of the isolation that the domestic home had imposed upon them, allowing women to come together on a mass scale for the first time in modern history.

Haute Couture Fashion in Fascist Italy

Despite all of Mussolini’s efforts to remake the Fascist woman into his image, the fashion industry itself, a thriving enterprise in an otherwise poor nation, constantly subverted fascism. No matter how chic the black and white uniforms for Fascist women, the enforced conformity was offset by statements of individuality made through fashion. The next post will discuss one of the most famous Italian fashion designers whose fame and individuality seemed to push Fascist to the background.

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Art Deco Posters of Cassandre, Part Two

Cassandre and Travel Posters

By Land and By Sea

The history of the luxurious trains that once traveled over the European continent is difficult to find. One can only imagine that the history of the “sleepers” or wagon-lits was a short one. Such elegant trains, capable of taking long journeys, days and nights, fed the passengers by day and laid out their beds at night. These opulent trips were for the wealthy and for those with ample amounts of leisure time and these trains usually traveled between a glamorous destination to an exotic place of equal fame. But those days, which began after the Great War, ended with the beginning of the Second World War–barely two decades during which legends were born. The famous Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, told the story of British passengers on a trek to the “mysterious east,” between the wars. These aristocrats were disturbed by a murder in the night. The famous detective Hercule Poiret, a passenger, of course, solves the mystery but ends his revelations with frustration–all the passengers were guilty and he was unable to bring them to justice. This book has been made into a number of films, one in 2017, and the viewer will notice that Anthony Lambert was correct to remark in his book on travel, The 50 Greatest Train Journeys of the World, that, after the Great War, the luxury trains were revived with considerable “less ostentatious.” Before the War, he wrote, “..the train for the Trans-Siberian International Express was the sensation of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900. Each carriage for just eight people was in a different style–Louis XVI, Greek, French Empire, Chinese–and each had a music room with a full-sized piano, a library with books in four languages, a hairdressing salon finished in white sycamore, a gym with weights, exercise bicycle and rowing machine, a chapel car and a fully equipped darkroom. By 1914 CIWL had 32 luxury trains in service, but most ceased operation during the First World War, to be revived afterwards in usually less ostentatious form.”

While Poiret and his trainload of murderers sped towards the “Orient” in comfort if not splendor, this journey–aside from the murder–was still quite an elegant and expensive affair. Today, such travel no longer exists, we no longer take the time to indulge in travel; we travel to reach a prescribed destination and prefer to skip everything in between. In his book, Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper, Andrew Martin looked back on that fleeting time, now replaced by cheap short airplane flights, with nostalgia. He wrote of an equally famous train. There was a reason, he noted, why the “Orient Express” went by an English name. “..if Britain has stood apart from the network of European sleepers its upper classes were once its main customers. This was because Britain was the richest nation. In the late nineteenth century, most of the passengers on the premier train de luxe referred to ‘the Orient Express’ rather than the ‘Express d’Orient’ and in 1891 the Anglicised version became the official name.” Martin continued, discussing the transplant of the American Pullman service to the Continent. “In 1903, Georges Nagelmacker’s son, René, married the daughter of a British businessman called Davison Dalziel..Dalziel then joined the W-L (wagons-lits) board. Three years later, Dalziel purchased the British subsidiary of the American Pullman company. In 1925 he became chairman of Wagons-Lits and granted it the right to use the Pullman name..” In Lambert’s Railway Miscellany, Anthony Lambert described the blandishments of the Orient Express to its fin-de-siècle customers.

Its most famous train was the Orient Express, which first ran between the Gard de Strasbourg (now the Gard de l’Est) in Paris and Constantinople on 4 October 1883, cutting the journey time betweeen them by 30 hours. The carriages were paneled in teak, walnut, and mahogany and decorated with Gobelins tapestries. Passengers sat on leather seats, slept in silk sheets, drank out of crystal and were served by waiters in powdered wigs, tail coats, breeches, and silk stockings. The wigs were abandoned when a passenger complained of powder in his soup. The train became associated with diplomats, couriers with diplomatic bags, spies, crooks, and courtesans. The ambiance of the famed continental express like the Orient Express was thought so redolent of illicit sex that a celebrated brothel near Parc Monceau in Paris re-created the decor and sounds of a Wagons-Lits sleeping-car.

These night trains were called “blue trains” after the famous night train from Paris to Nice. Andrew Martin wrote of this famous journey in The Guardian and in February of 217 said, In the past 18 months, I have been exploring the remnants of what might be called the first, and most picturesque, form of European integration. I refer to the network of luxurious sleeper trains run from the 1880s to the 1970s by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The best known of these was the Orient Express. On this, and any Wagons-Lits train, sleeping-car conductors had to speak at least three languages, and all notices were written in French, German, Italian and English. Chicest of all was the Blue Train. It ran from the Gare de Lyon to Ventimiglia or Sanremo in Italy, but Nice was the principal destination.” As he pointed out in his book, the wagons-lits were Pullmans but not sleepers..They never graduated to complete dark blueness, but were–with some exceptions–painted blue below the waist and cream above. These cars were used on such day trains as L’Oiseau Bleu..the Flèche d’Or..the Sunshine Pullman Express or the Étoile du Nord..” that traveled between Paris and Amsterdam from 1927. As exciting as the evocative names of these trains were the posters by Cassandre. These iconic posters, the Pullman series, was the visual symbols of luxury travel summoning up the mysteries of going to sleep on a swaying train only to awaken at a new destination.

Steven Ricci wrote in Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922–1943 that in the 1929 Italian silent film, Rails (Rotaie), the leading characters, a young man and a young woman gaze longingly at a Cassandre poster but they are too poor to escape their impoverished condition. Then, in a narrative twist, they find money and use this bit of luck to board a train, without knowing its destination, and ride to a better life. Of course, it is worth it to use the found money to purchase tickets for “a first-class sleeping compartment.” Even today, there is something magical about the term “night train,” which in France were blue. The famous series of travel posters of the 1920s marked the shift of Cassandre away from ambers to the blues, a color that, when related to these new trains, spelled excitement and speed. Therefore these colors, black and blue and stripes of fast white, became the building blocks for his posters for transportation—trains, ships, and airplanes—in an age of luxury travel for the demanding rich. These famous posters, such as that for the French ocean liner Normandie, brought him lasting recognition, but Cassandre started with a series of posters for trains almost a decade earlier. In his 1927 poster Étoile de Nord, an advertisement not just for the fast train to Amsterdam or Brussels but also for the luxury of the Pullman car—an American invention—where one can retire and sleep after enjoying an elegant lunch or dinner. Through the plunging diagonal lines, the eye is led to speed quickly above the necessary informative words to the silver tracks racing across a black rail bed towards a blue destination, marked by a white star.

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel poster

Cassandre makes us believe that it is as though one has leaped forward, transported by the sheer force of the relentless rails. The Nord Express poster of 1925, like the poster for furniture, was based upon futurist lines of force with the strong diagonals of an imposing speeding black train heading towards a vanishing point were guided by the wires overhead. The dark train to Berlin and to destinations beyond is black and sleek, with darts of white intensifying opaque engine reduced to streaks of speed. For Cassandre, black would become the color of the unnatural and the mechanized, punctuated against his signs for nature itself, the sky or the sea which are blue. The viewer was instantly placed in the path of the ship or on standing on the platform as the train rushed by. Those who viewed these posters were put on the outside, positioned in a deliberate position of wanting to travel, longing to fly away.

In writing of this poster, Beverley Cole and Richard Durack noted, that until this time, the locomotive had not been considered an aesthetic object. Even the Futurists failed to see its design potential, but Cassandre understood “a new attitude to poster design” and what it “should do.. He aimed to communicate, clearly and forcefully, a message about his client’s product rather than advance his own personal style.” With the “product” in mind–that is the train itself, symbolized, interestingly enough, not by the luxury of sleeping in a splendid compartment, by the powerful locomotive. As the authors of Railway Posters 1923-1947: From the Collection of the National Railway Museum, they wrote “Gradually, however, the power, beauty, and precision of the locomotive began to be appreciated, and the poster emphasis changed from the places a train served to the train itself. The train became a symbol of movement and power aimed at stimulating an enjoyment of travel for its own sake. The text is included in the design to add to its impact.”

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel posterWhile the luxury trains crisscrossed the European continent, huge ocean liners plowed the seas. At first, these liners were merely large steam-powered ships built to deliver mail and to connect the far-flung corners of the various empires. By the turn of the century, the British had developed a specialty of ferrying passengers between Europe and America, dividing their massive liners among the classes. Migrants poured out of the poorer European nations, particularly in eastern Europe, and landed, via, third class, at Ellis Island. The names of some of these ships were legendary: the ill-fated Titanic and the tragic Lusitania. The great shipping corporations that launched these liners, White Star and Cunard had to pause in these leisurely and sometimes dangerous voyages when the Great War and its submarines made ocean travel for military purposes only. For example, the first version of the famous ship of the Holland America Line, the Statendam was being constructed in Belfast, when the War broke out and construction was halted. The ship was confiscated–requisitioned–by the British who renamed it as the Justicia. The Justicia was passed from the Cunard line to the White Star line which transformed the would-be liner into a troop ship. Although it was painted with a dazzle design, the Justicia was torpedoed in 1918 by a German U-boat. Miraculously, the ship stayed afloat after two torpedoes, but it was stalked by the U-boat which delivered two more torpedoes. Still underway and attempting to escape, but finally, after two more torpedoes, the Justicia rolled over and sank. According to the Great Ocean Liners,”After only about a year of service and having never carried a single paying passenger, the Justicia was gone. She was yet another loss in the terrible carnage known as World War I. Today, the Justicia remains where she once went down, 28 miles north-west off Malin Head. The wreck, which lies in waters 68 metres deep, is in quite good condition and is sometimes visited by sport divers.”

The Nederlandsch-Amerikannasche Stoomvaart Maatschappij or the Holland American Line was founded in 1873 and has been one of the longest-serving ship owners in the world–meaning it has been in continuous service for one hundred fifty years. We recognize it today as the Carnival Cruise ships but the company began by sailing between Rotterdam and New York. One of the policies of the corporation seems to have been to have few names which were used over and over. The second Statendam was launched in 1929 just over a decade after the first Statendam had been torpedoed six times before dying heroically. According to Gare Maritime, which named the ship–rightly as it turns out–“unlucky,” “The new Statendam was to be slightly smaller than the lost vessel, at 29,511 tons. They were visually similar, but with her cruiser stern and shortened forward superstructure, the 1921 liner could easily be told at a glance from the earlier ship..When the 697-foot vessel made her maiden crossing in April 1929, after a delay of at least 14 years, she represented the last flourish of Edwardian elegance on the North Atlantic run, with her interiors being entirely pre-war and, in the era of the Bremen and Ile de France, a bit anachronistic. The original direct-drive turbines, with which she had been designed, had been replaced by gear turbines and resulted in what was referred to as “the most efficient power plant afloat,” so in that regard, at least, the Statendam was as up to date as H.A.L. could make her. In fact, the power plant aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was an enlarged version of that on the Statendam. The Statendam carried 1,644 passengers in four classes (First, Second, Tourist and Third) and proved to be popular as both a liner and a cruise vessel, but her service life was to be a short one. Laid up at Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in December 1939, she was caught in the crossfire between Dutch forces and the Nazis in May, 1940, and burned out after being struck by several bombs. She was scrapped in August of that year.”

Second Class Smoking Longue on the Statendam

Cassandre, who was very popular in Holland, illustrated the ill-fated ship in its brief glory days. The title was unexpectedly long: For Real Comfort New Statendam Spring 1929/ Holland-America Line, 1928 and the poster itself was a return to the familiar ambers of the past. The extensive and official website for Cassandre discussed this poster at some length: “One of Cassandre’s many posters for streamers lines, the Statendam design of 1928 brings us back to the theme of ocean travel-a theme the artist delighted in, constantly renewing himself, constantly varying not only his point of view and angle but also his style, from the almost diagrammatic handling of SAGA to the objective realism of Normandie. The comparison between SAGA, with its planes treated as flat surfaces, and Statendam, where the close-up technique is used to give concrete reality to the picturesque, is especially revealing. Cassandre’s determination to “stick to the wall” is evident in the vastly simplified modelling of the funnels and ventilation cowl (their designs is so manifestly simplified that it avoids the pitfall of trompe l’oeil) and in the rhythmical treatment of the smoke in successive waves ; it is also apparent in the spare lines of the ringing. This poster is a prime example of Cassandre’s attention to tonal values. The color scheme, which is limited to blacks, grays, sepias, and ochres, enhance the plasticity of the image and brings a wonderfully sober equilibrium to the composition. The Statendam design is clearly a refinement of an earlier design for US Lines which places more emphasis on color and three-dimensionality.”

By 1932, the debts to Cubism, especially to Fernand Léger, as seen in his 1929 poster for the Dutch liner, Statendam, were digested, with nods to Surrealism—the color gradations–were played down. The strong contour lines carved out not just shapes but were used to demarcate a powerful negative space that enhanced the rhythm of movement and speed, thrusting through the flat space of the poster for the Normandie. This beautiful ship would suffer a fate similar to that of the Statendam.


Born at a bad time, the Normandie was the last of the best. And the most famous poster designed by Cassandre was for this ill-fated and famed ocean liner. For elegance in travel, nothing matched the French ocean liners of the 1920s and 1930s. Until the Second World War halted this last great age of ocean travel, the Normandie was the queen of all the ships at sea. One hundred years later, the 1935 poster for the Normandie, now a modern icon, is often identified with the style of the 1920s. In the 1935 masterpiece poster for the Normandie, the sky is always blue and the sea is always green and the (mechanized) black prow cuts through the (natural) waves, leading a flock of white gulls, as it sets world speed records. The artist foregrounded the modern technology on the front of the ship, dramatizing the power and speed of its huge engines while allowing the passenger cabins to flare out at the edges. Heralded by the French flag, the ship is tipped with streaks of red, acting as explanation points.

Built optimistically for the remaining rich in 1935, the Normandie defined the Depression, but the luxury liner sailed four years only and managed only sixty-one and a half voyages. The “half” voyage ended when the liner docked permanently in the New York harbor in 1939, halted by the guns of yet another war. Its tragic fate seemed to have been preordained. As James Hinton wrote for The New York History Blog, “Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the French crew were removed from Normandie. France was technically a German ally under the Vichy government, and as such the U.S. exercised the right to seize the ship as belonging to an enemy belligerent. The ship would be renamed the USS Lafayette, in honor of the French General who had helped make U.S. independence possible during the revolution. The U.S. Navy took possession of the vessel and began her conversion as a troop transport.” Unfortunately, the conversion, as Hinton recounts, was complex, and the work done on the ship proved to be careless with terrible consequences.

Tragically, this haste set up the conditions for a disaster. Work spaces were not properly cleaned or prepared for lack of time to do it, and unsafe conditions became the norm. At 2:30 PM on the 9th, a welder in the first class lounge was performing work next to life preservers that should have been moved ahead of time. The work would ignite these life saving devices. The ship’s modern firefighting system should have prevented the tragedy, but it had been disabled during the conversion and was unavailable to be brought to bear. The New York Fire Department responded within 15 minutes, but were horrified to learn the French fittings on the Normandie/Lafayette were not compatible with their hoses. Less than an hour after the fire broke out, the ship was a raging inferno..The loss of the Normandie alongside of New York’s pier 88 would in many ways mark the end of an era. While ocean liners would remain the principle means to cross the Atlantic until commercial jet liners became available, few liners would be constructed in the post war period. None of these ships would approach either the speed or size of the Normandie.

So ended the era of travel for the sake of traveling. So ended the idea of taking journeys that were, in and of themselves, memorable experiences. Like a dim memory of a lost past, cruise ships take passengers from one site to another, entertaining them non-stop between countless feedings, with no notion of simply enjoying being on a ship at sea. An era has come and gone, after a brief interlude, flaming out in wartime. Like French culture itself, Cassandre also paused in his advertising career and waited out the war. The culture was changing, the Depression gripped France in the 1930s, the age of Art Déco seemed hopelessly decadent and out of reach. Cassandre had to wait and see what the second half of the century would bring. The designer would be written about in a monograph by his long-time friend, designer Maximillian Vox, as “a thinker and an engineer, a lover of nature and a reader of books; such he was then, such he is now. A Puritan in our midst, a worshipper of all things beautiful.”

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

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

Thank you.

[email protected]