- Fashion, Gender and Cultural Anxiety in Italian Baroque Literature
Since the time of medieval preachers such as Bernardino Da Siena, who condemned luxury, exaggeration and lack of modesty in dress (especially women’s), clothes have been powerful signs for communicating the social, gendered and public self in moral, religious and political contexts. Fashion has always been demonized by preachers and moralists, and often represented as a threat to pre-existing models of decorum, gender definitions and the boundaries between them. In the artful shaping and manipulating of body and appearance, fashion was seen in moralistic literature as a “distorted” way of “correcting” nature and the natural body and therefore a sin (Ribeiro, Dress and Morality). Despite the several attempts of moralists, preachers and legislators to control fashion and the social body, fashion continued to matter and remained as an uncontrollable entity that manifested itself in both minimalism and excess.
If Cinquecento literature and discourse on dress appears mainly in different kinds of treatises, novelle and other texts of mixed genres such as costume books, it is interesting to note that by the time we reach the seventeenth century fashion appears in a different guise, that of satires and poetry. It is on this that I will mainly focus in this article. Fashion in seventeenth century literature is often described as an infection, a manifestation of duplicity and confusion that in its ambiguous tendency to confuse, disrupts a linear interpretation of identity in social space.1 This [End Page 35] is an identity that often gets entangled in a game of mirrors and mise en abime in which the contours of being and seeming blur into one another in the performance of the clothed self.
In this essay, I will consider two Italian satirical texts, The Antisatira, by the Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti (1648), written in response to a misogynistic satire by Francesco Buoninsegni, and entitled De la carozza da nolo. Ovvero del vestire e usanze della moda (Of a rented carriage. On dressing and practices of fashion), published in 1648 by the Milanese Abbot Agostino Lampugnani, known by the pseudonym of Gio Sonta Paglialmino.2 Both texts are a rich source for understanding fashion and its relations to political economies, cultural and proto-imperialist hegemonies, national identity and gender construction. As for their relation to gender, these texts are particularly apposite. In fact, at a time when fashion was gradually being associated with femininity and frivolity and with France, the country that in the seventeenth century was dictating chic, style and luxury to all the other courts of the world, Tarabotti and Lampugnani center their attention on the performance of masculinity in dress and on issues of identity.
De la carozza da nolo wittingly synthesizes all these issues. The text centers on a group of Modanti, or fashionistas as we would call them today, who besides having embellished their bodies according to fashion, have a “soul dressed in duplicity (. . .) because it is made, so they say, in fashion, because it is the task (industria) of fashion to lie, deceive and trick” (78).3
As fashion is linked to the image of the self and body in public space, it is also related to narcissism. It is on this particular relationship, and the possibility of understanding and shaping the projected image of oneself and representation in the eyes of others, that Lampugnani turns, in fact, referencing different kinds of mirrors and the mysteries inherent in any projected image:
Someone who is in love with himself is not a keen observer. He becomes one of those circular, concave mirrors we call parabolic or elliptical that are made for starting fires in [End Page 36] the sphere of the sun. To whoever closely mirrors himself in it, the mirror multiplies the object out of proportion, the enlargement flattering the genius who ends up like Narcissus and dies worshipping the image that he has formed of himself. For others it is a convex mirror that in turn minimizes to such an extent any great opposite object so as to make it disappear from view as a result of the effect of oblique lines. Because of these adulators, the merits of the others...