By Niamh Cullen
As the media discussion of the London riots unfolded last week – with its talk of hoodies, ‘cardigans’ and the art of looting the right trainers – I was reading about Italian protest movements in the 1960s. Not the better known ‘68ers with their Che Guevara beards and hippy inspired look, but the series of working class protests that took place across the northern Italian cities in 1960 and 1961. They were less ideologically driven and less structured than those of ’68, but no less reflective of the turmoil and inequality of Italian society at the time. They aren’t directly comparable with the London riots but hearing about both did make me think about urban unrest, collective protest and the politics of dress, since it does seem to have a real importance both for those involved and for the press who need to describe and discuss them afterwards.
Italy in the early 1960s was a nation in rapid transition; since the 1950s the country had been in the grip of an economic boom so strong that it’s usually referred to simply as the ‘miracle’. Led mainly by the northern industrial triangle of Milan, Turin and Genoa, the prospect of work in the ever expanding factories of Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Pirelli drew millions of migrant workers from rural Italy, particularly the south, to these cities. The lives that they made for themselves there could not have lived up to many of their expectations; most ended up working in the construction industry, the better-paid factory jobs proving elusive, particularly for the southerners. The majority also ended up living in shanty towns or hastily constructed apartment buildings on the grim urban periphery, far from family and friends and isolated from the cities they now supposedly inhabited. Even though they were drawn by the promise of a higher standard of living, pay was still very low and working conditions harsh. These were the people who created the miracle through their labour but in the early 1960s, they certainly weren’t reaping the benefits.
1960 to 1962 saw an explosion of anger in these young working classes. Vicious protests and strikes broke out first in Genoa, then Sicily, Emilia Romagna and finally in Turin in 1962. The riots of Piazza Statuto in Turin were undoubtedly an expression of the ‘new’ working classes: mainly recently arrived young men from the south, and most working in construction. Middle-class public opinion was universally shocked by the violent outbursts, but what is most striking is how the newspapers all spent so much time dwelling on the clothing and appearances of those involved. The main Turin newspaper La Stampa reported that most of them ‘looked like suburban thugs… they all dressed the same: a colourful shirt, untucked and rolled up sleeves’. Another newspaper commented on their ‘their longish unkempt hair and fringes’ while a third took care to mention the colours of their shirts and their Marlon Brando hairstyles. The brightly coloured shirts, the untidiness of the rolled-up cuffs, untucked shirts hairstyles seemed to outrage the ‘respectable classes’ of this northern city.
Why so many words spent on their appearances? They descriptions mark them out as similar to each other, wearing almost a kind of uniform, and at the same time very different to those who normally inhabited the piazza and central streets of Turin. Part of the outrage seems to stem from the very fact that these people – young, southern working class – were present in a part of the city that wasn’t designed for them. They were ‘suburban thugs’ and shouldn’t have been in the city centre. It was their very presence, their visibility, that shocked.
Their appearances also marked them out as poor and southern. Their clothes were loose fitting and untidy, in contrast to the ordered, classic look of the northern middle-classes who would put great value on good quality materials and the fine tailoring of a dressmaker. They would have preferred to keep mending well-made clothes continually rather than buy cheaper new ones. The second-hand or mass-produced clothes of the working classes marked them out as both poor and different; as well as being southerners who were less likely to be able to afford a dressmaker, they were also more like American youths with their jeans, casual shirts and movie-star hairstyles. The newspapers’ focus on clothes made it clear that some important boundary had been transgressed; that men should dress like this wasn’t entirely new by 1962, but for these young working-class men from the periphery to take over the middle-class city centre, in such numbers and with such force, demanded that attention be paid to them. They were there, and the middle classes were suitably shocked.
And for those involved in the riots, was there a message in their dress? According to the newspapers, most rioters dressed so alike as to be wearing a kind of uniform. Was this the intention? Probably not in a conscious sense; their clothes were unremarkable for those of their age and class. Their appearances might reflect at least an unconscious attempt to forge a common identity in a city where they very probably felt isolated and ill at ease. Separated from family and friends and from a hostile city, their only option was to make common case with those young recent migrants like themselves. Let down by the Italy of their day, they dressed like the American rebels they saw in films. The uniform of protest, which only added to the sense of a strong coherent group, seemed to say that they were there, and no longer willing to remain ‘invisible’ by staying at the outskirts of the city.
The sheer amount of attention paid to dress by the newspapers of the time indicates that clothes can hold powerful messages of inclusion, exclusion, group identity and class divisions. I don’t know enough to know how well any of this might apply to the London riots, but the hoodie and trainers uniform and even the recourse to American styles – although this time the references are to hip-hop rather than James Dean and Marlon Brando – do suggest some possible parallels. Whether there are parallels or not, I think it’s clear at least that appearances are much more than skin-deep.