Tanagra Dress in Motion

Dress In Motion – The Tanagra Dress Reframed.
Video by Massimo Mascolo and Claudio Napoli

from Claudio Napoli on Vimeo.


One of the research and pedagogical focal points of the exhibition, The Fabric of Cultures (2017) which also illustrates the important link with cultural heritage, was to reproduce and reinterpret for the first time the dress designed by Rosa Genoni (1867- 1954) on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her birth. The dress was inspired by the mostly female Greek terracotta figurines produced from the late fourth century BC in the Beotian town of Tanagra, known as Tanagra statuettes. This was Genoni’s most innovative design and was on display at the center of the gallery. Until our exhibition, the Tanagra dress had never received the critical attention it deserved. The dress was meticulously recreated by Christina Trupiano, an MA candidate in Fashion Studies/Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at the Graduate Center, from the photographs contained in Rosa Genoni’s book Per una moda italiana (1909). The Tanagra dress was particularly dear to Genoni because she designed it first for herself when she attended and delivered a speech at the First National Italian Women’s Conference in Rome in April 1908. It was the dress that Genoni wanted to wear in her most important public appearances. She wanted it to send a strong aesthetic and political message of autonomy, a statement about a woman’s body and her intellectual life. The Tanagra dress defined the liberation of women’s bodies in public space. It is not by chance that later the dress was worn by another strong Italian woman, Lyda Borelli, one of the most well known divas of Italian theatre and cinema. Another aim of our exhibition was to explore the methodology not only of curating but also of the history and theory of fashion. Clothes and specific garments can be treated as case studies that can be dissected in order to tell the story of their making.

Let me say a few more words about the collaborative work behind the making of the Tanagra dress, which also tells us something about the method with which we approach fashion and how to link theory and practice. The making of the Tanagra dress was nourished by an open dialogue with Christina during which we discussed the challenges, the cultural and historical context of Rosa Genoni in relation to fashion in Italy and Europe and how certain ideas could be relevant today not only to understand the Made in Italy in depth but also to understand the potential of fashion design, fashion culture, ethics, feminism and social justice. Indeed through the making of the dress we both came to be aware of the non-hierarchical relationship between theory and practice, history, art, performance studies and activism, all themes that are central to the Fabric of Cultures project, but which are also central in studying the Made in Italy. For me as an educator and a scholar of fashion, the process of recreating the Tanagra dress was a dream come true and more importantly a learning process that showed me how the important design Christina has produced is the result of a nexus of written documents, photographs, recreation, interpretation and translation. I strongly believe that this is only the first stage of a new way to study fashion, women and the body. And what we did can be repeated  with other experiments. But while the pattern of the Tanagra dress was almost completed, Christina and I discussed that in order to show the dynamism that was intrinsic to the design of the dress, it was not enough to display it on a mannequin as we usually do in exhibitions. We decided that we needed to see the dress worn. It is at this point that I involved my friends and collaborators Claudio Napoli and Massimo Mascolo and discussed with them the production of a short film. We found two models, CUNY students, to wear and perform the dress. We prepared a script with Claudio and Massimo and we did the shooting on a Saturday in August, first in the Meena Reese library at the Graduate Center and then at the Rosenthal Library at Queens College. It was a fantastic experience to work together and during the process of filmmaking I learnt new things. As a team, we understood each other at all the stages of the process. But film added another important layer to the process of understanding dress and fashion. All of us brought the dress alive and with it an important previously untold story in the history of the Made in Italy, of the nation’s cultural heritage as well as Rosa Genoni’s paradigmatic life and work.

The study of Rosa Genoni’s timeless dress and its performance on today’s women’s bodies (as the video by Massimo Mascolo and Claudio Di Napoli that accompanies this recreation illustrates) also triggers another question:  that of temporality and fashion.

Time and temporality reigned supreme in our exhibition. And filming the dress added an important layer to the temporality of fashion. As Massimo and Claudio assert in their essay accompanying the catalogue: “Movement and rhythm are at the core of cinematic storytelling…and reframing the Tanagra Dress by Rosa Genoni focused on the movements of the draping and on the forms the dress creates. This was partly an art video; on the other hand, however, it was also a documentary because we wanted to make sure we conveyed the rich history behind the dress” (94). Through the making of the video we realized that what we intuitively perceived as the dynamism of the Tanagra dress made it a truly cinematic phenomenon. The actual making of the film confirmed our intuition what was discreetly hidden in the old photograph on which the recreation was based.

Because of the richness of Rosa Genoni’s work as a designer and a feminist, we are also compelled to question the “national” boundaries that she herself advocated for at a time when the “Made in Italy” did not yet exist, and contextualize her work in fashion and peace activism internationally. A materialization of the transnational Made in Italy, Rosa Genoni also advocated for women workers in the textile and fashion industry to be recognized, valued and appreciated. She was convinced that the manual work of the artisan had its own dignity and so fought to eliminate the hierarchy between manual labor and intellectual work. It is for these reasons that Genoni’s Tanagra dress is paired with  contemporary designer Silvia Giovanardi’s “Peace Dress,” designed after her visit to Hiroshima in Japan.