Feminist rhetoric and family values: Forced marriages in Sicily after Franca Viola

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 15.27.24I’ve written before about the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who in 1966 made huge steps towards ending the practice of kidnap and forced marriage in southern Italy. Kidnapped by her ex-fiancé Filippo Melodia in December 1965, she was held by him for a week before an extensive police search tracked them down. Melodia made one last desperate attempt to flee onto the rooftops of the adjoining houses with Viola before he was taken into custody. Continue reading


‘Wretched’ and ‘humilated’? Writing agency into history


Stefania Sandrelli as Agnese in the 1964 film ‘Seduced and Abandoned’

Despite having probably hundreds of ideas that I meant to blog about I have written barely anything for this blog lately. Partly that’s because I’ve been busily writing up my research and trying to cobble together the first draft of a book manuscript. However as I begin to revise some of those chapters, I’m thinking again about how I approach the people I research and write about.

During the summer I spent some time researching and writing about honour crime and forced marriages in 1960s Sicily. I’m still hoping to blog about that research more soon. However at the moment I’m reflecting more generally on the Sicilian women I encounter in my research and how I can capture their subjective experiences in my writing. read more

‘This is how I dress’: Fashion before the age of mass production

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

advertisement for Necchi sewing machine, 1960s

Ever since I began a research project on dress and fashion in 1950s and 1960s Italy almost four years, I’ve wanted to learn how to sew properly. Reading through magazines filled with patterns, hand-drawn illustrations and advice about sewing new outfits and adapting old clothes, as well as interviewing people about their memories of fashion and dressmaking, gave me a much deeper interest and respect for these crafts. I did a short beginner’s course while I lived in Milan – and realised that the most challenging part is learning how to thread the sewing machine! – and now that I’ve moved back to Dublin, I’ve decided that I’m going to buy a sewing machine and teach myself how to use it properly, this autumn.

While I’ve been away though, it seems like everyone else has been catching on to the sewing trend too; there are sewing classes cropping up all around Dublin and new books on sewing and DIY fashion are on display everywhere. Knitting of course has been popular for quite a few years now, something that Australians didn’t quite seem to realise given the recent controversy over Knitted Kangaroo-Gate. Why is it that the idea of making, wearing and displaying hand-crafted clothes and home furnishings is becoming so popular again, at a time when mass-produced fashion is still readily available and affordable? Is it that several years of recession are changing our attitudes to dress, making us better attuned to the quality of a garment and how it is made and less appreciative of disposable fashion? It doesn’t really cost less to sew clothes rather than buy them, but it could be seen as the less wasteful, ethical choice. Most people presumably are also sewing as a hobby, and never intend to dress themselves entirely by hand.

In my research on dress in post-war Italy, people’s experiences of dressmaking were of course entirely different. read more

Love in the time of miracles

The following advice was given to a reader of the popular Italian magazine Grand Hotel who wrote in 1955 with the pseudonym ‘Gone with the wind’, and it manages to capture in a few words, the complex meanings and expectations associated with love and marriage in 1950s Italy.

“It wouldn’t have been very nice of you to marry (the first man) just to have a comfortable life. As for the other one, if he really loved you and had serious intentions, he would be able to persuade his parents to break his obligation. Be careful then dear, (…) neither a marriage of convenience nor a clandestine relationship with a man who is engaged to another. You’ll be left with empty hands and a bitter smile.” read more

‘Tell me, please, is it true that the city is a dangerous place for a good girl?’ Work, independence and leaving home for young women in 1950s Italy

The fotoromanzi, all Italians know, are about love, escapism and fantasy. Occasionally the stories take their readers to exotic locations like the American wild west, medieval Venice, ancient Rome or pre-revolutionary Russia where adventure and intrigue are added to the basic ingredients of romance and melodrama, but these are always at the centre of the story. What then might such magazines have to say about the opportunities, expectations and choices that young women had to face in the 1950s as they set about building their lives? I spent last week going through my notes on the magazines I’ve been reading, and putting my research together to write a paper for the Social History Society conference taking place next week. As I read back through my summaries of the stories and letters I found that the magazines actually had a surprising amount to say on the subject of work, career and leaving home as well as the more familiar themes of love, dating and marriage. read more

Worthless escapism or a part of history? Women’s magazines in 1950s Italy

I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading through women’s magazines from the 1950s, in particular an illustrated weekly called Grand Hotel, one of the biggest-selling fotoromanzo or photo-story magazines that such had great success in 1950s Italy. New technologies were making it possible to mass-produce magazines that heavily featured colour photography and illustration, and the fotoromanzi, with their unique blend of serialized, illustrated stories – always melodramatic and always about love – met with huge popularity in these years. Their highly visual nature also appealed to the less educated. Readers could also write into the magazine with their (mostly romantic) problems so that we get glimpses not just of what Italians were reading but also of what how it related to their own lives. They have been traditionally dismissed as rags read by rural southern women, not literate enough to read anything else and too poor or isolated to go to the cinema for their fix of escapist entertainment. read more

The post-war generation: Growing up and coming of age in 1950s Italy

Italy in the late 1940s was still struggling to absorb the experience of war and to move beyond the crippling legacies of fascism, occupation and civil war. Poverty and deprivation were acute, particularly in the rural south and north-east. Peasant women still dressed in grim floor length blank skirts and dresses, spending most of their lives in mourning clothes, and donkeys not cars were still the accepted mode of transport. The infrastructure of many cities – Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Genoa – was nearly destroyed by bombing while poverty and disease dominated life in Naples and the rural south.

For anyone living through these bleak times, it must have been difficult to comprehend just how much Italy would change in the course of a decade. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Italian society was transformed by an economic boom so strong it was dubbed a ‘miracle’. read more