From the conformity of the matronly dresses women wore in fascist WWII-era Europe to the pink pussy hats of the present-day resistance, what we wear projects more than we may think.
“The most important job any woman can have is being a mother.”
You would think that was a slogan taken from one of Benito Mussolini’s or Adolf Hitler’s speeches nearly a hundred years ago. But these words came out of Ivanka Trump’s mouth, in all earnestness, in late 2016, addressed to prospective voters just before her father would be elected president. Today, the nationalistic family ideals of the GOP bear more than a striking resemblance to the aesthetic and ideals of the fascist regimes of early to mid-20th-century Europe.
After World War I and well into World War II, nationalism was in vogue in Europe, and the push for conformity—which would form the backbone of fashion and culture in most fascist movements—was by design. We’d see this fascist aesthetic promoted in propaganda posters across the continent: square-jawed soldiers and men wearing military livery or worker’s clothes, and sturdy, feminine, full-breasted and wide-hipped mothers in more traditional, modest peasant dresses, as they grasped the hands of their pink-cheeked children.
You might wonder what would make people be so susceptible to such strictures. But recall the desperation of a population rendered vulnerable from losing millions of soldiers during the Great War, when monarchies and governments had fallen and new nations and political movements were emerging in swift, tumultuous succession from the rubble. With the future uncertain, many people gravitated toward rulers they perceived as strong and whom they believed could rebuild socioeconomic stability. Fascist leaders promised a restoration of order and inspired a false sense of confidence in many downtrodden, frightened populations—much as we’re seeing again on both sides of the Atlantic in the 21st century, a fact we once thought unimaginable.
Mussolini capitalized on people’s fear of the unknown and the very real need to deal with the country’s shortage of manpower after losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the war, when he created the Fascist Party in Italy. Il Duce, as he was known, didn’t want to just rebuild the country—he also wanted to expand its borders and build a vast empire on par with ancient Rome. To his mind, there was only way to make it happen: Demand that women prove their patriotism by giving birth to the next generation of soldiers and mothers. Mussolini told the Italian people: “War is to man what maternity is to a women.”
A month after Mussolini seized power, in 1922, Adolf Hitler began to build his own brand of fascism in Germany, and together with his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, he created a rigid and very gendered set of expectations for how men and women should behave and dress. In Germany, Nazis envisioned the ideal woman to be leaner than her Italian counterpart, who had a round physique. Yet the goal to have women en masse pop out armies that would put the Imperial Army in the Star Wars trilogy to shame was the same.
Although women under the post–World War I era of the Weimar Republic had gained their right to vote, with some women even sitting as members of Parliament, the Nazi party brought feminism and women’s rights organizations in Germany to a screeching halt. “Take hold of the frying pan, dust pan, and broom and marry a man,” was a tenet in Hermann Goering’s Nine Commandments of the Workers’ Struggle, and in 1933, Goebbels announced in a speech: “It is necessary to leave to men that which belongs to men.” Voters—women included—appeared to take these statements to heart during the elections later in the year, after which women parliamentarians plummeted from 37 members to a whopping zero.
Overnight, a baby on the hip became the “It” fashion accessory for women living under fascism, and Motherhood with a capital ‘M’ became the coveted golden job. Mussolini had already launched a program called the Battle for Births in 1925, which worked to prevent abortions and birth control, but both he and Hitler within their respective fascist regimes, started to provide financial incentives to families to have babies. Soon Germans and Italians were surrounded by propaganda promoting growing families.
But the fashion world has always fought back against fascism. In the 1920s, many Italian women threw off their peasant-style garb and embraced a more cosmopolitan couture, and throughout Europe, the Flapper, or Modern Woman, embodied freedom in movement by being less concerned with stuffing herself into clothes that would give her a matronly hourglass figure than she was with downing what was in her glass.
Over a decade later, a group of teens living under the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy Regime in France also rebelled against the gendered roles that had been prescribed. Known as the Zazous, these young people wore heavy makeup, embraced English music and style, donned short skirts, ignored government rules about rations for clothing materials, and embraced a hedonistic lifestyle.
Fascists believed that counterculture style shook the very foundations of normal gender roles. “The feminization of men,” Goebbels said, “always leads to the masculinization of women.” The Zazous, however, were undeterred. When the yellow star was forced on Jewish people, some of the Zazous began wearing them in solidarity, although instead of sewing the word “JEW” across the center, they sewed the words, “ZAZOUS,” “GOY,” or “SWING.”
Under fascist regimes, of course, it is dangerous to act or dress outside the norm. Targeted by Hitler Youth groups, most of the Zazous eventually went into hiding in small private clubs. Many other resistance group cropped up, including the White Rose, which famously had three of its young members—Christoph Probst and Hans and Sophie Scholl—executed by guillotine by the Gestapo for writing leaflets about wartime atrocities.
It was the Swingjugend, the “Swing Kids,” in Germany, however, who were among the most stylish of wartime counter-culturists. Anglophones through and through, these teens not only danced at clubs with names such as die Cotton club and die Harlem club, but they listened to jazz created by black artists and welcomed many Jewish and Mischlinge (the Nazi legal term for “mixed-blood”) kids into the fold. Of course it was only a matter of time before the Nazis cracked down on the Swingjugend. In Hamburg, a raid led to 300 arrests. Boys were publicly lambasted for being effeminate, and some youth were sent to concentration camps as examples, joining the ranks of people who were gay, Romani, or living with disabilities—all groups that were seen as not being able to contribute positively to the desired Aryan baby-making population.
Today, we’re starting to see similar patterns. Donald Trump hasn’t hidden his desire to keep his wives outside of business and politics and in the home. In Trump: The Art of the Comeback, he wrote of his first wife, “My big mistake with Ivana was taking her out of the role of wife and allowing her to run one of my casinos in Atlantic City … I will never again give a wife responsibility within my business.”
Trump’s third wife, Melania, has developed her own businesses, including a line of jewelry at QVC, but she has been rather vocal about wanting to be a traditional First Lady, and has made it clear that taking care of their young son, Barron, is her first priority, which is how she’s explained not living in the White House. As Trump told Howard Stern in 2007, Melania “takes care of the baby and I pay all of the costs.” (Well, maybe not all of the costs.)
With Trump in the White House, other Republicans are coming out of the woodwork to support what they consider to be traditional family roles. James Green, who until recently was the Vice Chair of the Wasatch County Republican Party in Utah, wrote a letter to the editor (published by the Park Record and the Wasatch Wave) that stated that because men are “the primary breadwinners” of the home, they ought to be paid more than women. An equal wage, he suggested, would destroy the home by prompting the proverbial homemaker—or “Mother”—to leave her children.
Republicans’ promotion of idealized mothers isn’t anything new, but a new fascist-tinged fervor has been injected into the conversation that should give any person pause. When Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway lashed out at her feminist critics by calling them “childless interns born in the 1990s” and “women who have cats as their Twitter pictures,” she echoed Mussolini, whose antithesis to the ideal Italian woman was a thin, childless woman that he called a donna-crisi, or a “crisis-woman.”
In other words, it was suggested that something was seriously wrong with women who didn’t assume the homemaker roles that had been handed to them. Moreover, the assumption isn’t just that childless women are less valued than women who have children, but that there’s a particular look that they have that can identify them as other.
“Italian women must follow Italian fashion,” stated the Italian Fascist Party Edict. The fashion in discussion was more than just drapery, but included a modus operandi of cool, calm, and collect. Allegedly asking the women who work for him to “dress like women,” and rating women on a scale from 1 to 10, Trump also believes that a woman isn’t worth her weight unless she looks the part, and preferably if she prettily stands at least a few paces behind him.
It’s a common fascist tactic to demonize people who are either deemed other or who question leaders’ ethics or actions. During the election, Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” after she dared to suggest that he hadn’t paid income tax, but it was pretty clear he just couldn’t tolerate a woman not being subservient.
It’s also a tactic of fascist leaders to brag about their youthful, manly virility. Il Duce was often photographed in the middle of physical activity, and he went so far as to decline making an announcement of his grandchild’s birth via propagandist channels. Trump also frequently boasts about his youthfulness and alludes to the size of his penis. More recently, he rescinded rules that President Obama’s administration had implemented about trans rights, confirming the Republican fear of anyone standing outside of binary norms. Trump’s message is as loud and clear as Hitler’s practiced, powerful, crescendoed speeches: I am masculine, he barks in every word. Very masculine, and therefore, omnipotent.
Fascist efforts, however, to control women and define gender through aesthetics, fashion, and bluster, always fail. Mussolini and Hitler are widely viewed today as monstrous, yet pathetic caricatures of themselves, and although propaganda is still widely used by would-be world dominators, the internet allows people throughout much of the world to access a wider variety of information than during the World Wars.
Despite the electorate pushing Trump into office, over half of the people who voted in this past election did not. Anti-fascist rhetoric is rising faster than Trump can ban Muslims or cut reproductive health services. Most people understand that to “make American great again,” our country needs to redefine “normal” and disband traditional while welcoming all traditions.
Today’s donna-crisi are “Nasty Women,” and rather than the styles of the early to mid-twentieth century, America’s “fuck you” brand of Zazous, Flappers, and Swingjugen youth don Pussy Hats at protests. Instead of wearing yellow stars labeled GOY, they promise to register as Muslims should Trump’s administration set up a registry. They raise money to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and in order to combat the newest rising tide of infringements against women’s reproductive rights, they donate to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name.
When Trump purportedly asks the women in his administration to “dress like women,” women, trans women, femme-identifying people, and allies post photos to Twitter to show Republicans how they #DressLikeAWoman, demonstrating the diversity of womanhood and the fluidity of gender. Trump will continue to bark, abuse, lash out, pussy grab, aggressively posture, and whip out any manner of hypermasculine appendages, but women—some of whom are modestly dressed mothers, but many of whom are the antithesis to the fascist, or Republican’s soft, servile woman—are fighting back.
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