Adorning Film: How Fashion Is Its Own Character in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

OVERDUE Writer Eloise Hallo

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita remains, near­ly 70 years after its release, a Pandora’s Box to art’s account for human desire. Crit­ics far more estab­lished than I grap­ple still with what the work hopes to tell us about nature, in all sens­es of the word, and per­haps that is pre­cise­ly the point; ‘the sweet life’, what­ev­er our autere may mean, evades us when we search for it so fer­vent­ly. In 1960, when the film met screens across Italy, movie- goers — deter­mined to try their hand at hedo­nism — met devout pro­tes­tors who claimed the nar­ra­tive they were so near­ly to enjoy threat­ened to uproot not least their piety but that of the entire pop­u­la­tion of Rome and the epi­thets of Catholi­cism it defined globally.

And can one blame them? Fellini’s open­ing scene sees Mar­cel­lo, our pro­tag­o­nist, curi­ous­ly namesake‑d by his actor Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni, divert his course in trans­port­ing a fig­ure of the Vir­gin Mary to instead seduce women sun­bathing on a rooftop — a start, as he means to go on, in explor­ing what cor­rupts us. Nei­ther the women nor the stat­ue are seen again, though motifs of both pick up the slack through­out. Fellini’s col­lec­tion of seem­ing­ly incon­spic­u­ous vignettes like so, which make up the plot’s entire­ty, are joined most­ly by what they col­lec­tive­ly give and take from our abil­i­ty to attach our­selves to the film; some lure us in while oth­ers shut us out. Nev­er being lent ful­ly either, Marcello’s stream of con­scious­ness — with­in which we are sus­pend­ed — works to teth­er and detach us from the sto­ry itself; a ver­i­ta­ble slap in the face to the shot- reverse-shots and musi­cal cli­max­es of heart-jilt­ing West­ern cin­e­ma at the time. Fellini’s char­ac­ters are quite sim­i­lar­ly capri­cious, using cos­tum­ing to hide and expose the parts of them­selves they do and do not wish to be chron­i­cled. Being then that we voyeurs are at its will, fash­ion becomes ani­mate as not only a char­ac­ter, but a shared dis­guise: a pub­lic amor­phous agent con­trol­ling what we are and aren’t to know about the tale we’ve paid to see.

One of the ways Felli­ni most swift­ly estab­lish­es this is through the sur­pris­ing­ly opaque ploy of actu­al masks. The film’s open­ing act fol­lows masked dancers, and it is the first in many exam­ples of veiled per­form­ers in La Dolce Vita, tying what we come to under­stand about enter­tain­ment in the film’s verse with ear­ly under­cur­rents of fal­si­ty. Yet, as is to become clear with adjoin­ing speed, it is not sole­ly the onus of per­form­ers to dab­ble in cos­tume. Mad­dale­na, one of (the incred­i­bly busy) Marcello’s three main lovers, will soon meet our gaze half-hid­den by a fab­u­lous pair of cat-eye sun­glass­es — not dis­sim­i­lar­ly to the fas­ci­na­tors and tiaras adorned by oth­ers in the scene — in affir­ma­tion that the restaurant’s rich din­ner-goers too par­take in masquerade.

Lat­er, we will learn her glass­es hide a black eye — a seem­ing­ly major plot-point Felli­ni will nev­er choose to explain — and a reminder that we are not in con­trol of where this nar­ra­tive goes nor what its character’s fashioning’s hide about their respec­tive inner-worlds. That, we will see, is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the char­ac­ters them­selves, con­firmed in a scene shared by Sylvia and Mar­cel­lo, where the for­mer de-masks the lat­ter — by remov­ing his specs — in a moment of disarmament.

Sylvia, played by Ani­ta Ekberg, per­son­i­fies one of the film’s main themes — celebri­ty — and intro­duces a caveat to Fellini’s con­cep­tions of cam­ou­flage. Swedish movie star and seduc­tress, she is sent into the nar­ra­tive in triv­i­al­i­sa­tion of star-cul­ture itself, and pre­cise­ly how it seduces us so. For this crime, her pun­ish­ment is revile and exposé: when Sylvia uses her fur — sym­bol­ic of the suc­cess and wealth she has gar­nered — to hide from the paparazzi it does no such good in pre­vent­ing her jeal­ous lover from pub­licly hit­ting her to the glee of their voyeurs. We learn in Sylvia that one can­not engage ful­ly in spec­ta­cle and prac­tised smiles with­out negat­ing their abil­i­ty to mask the sad real­i­ties to their life. And we, who have been denied such spec­ta­cle til now, can’t help but share the pique of the paparazzi, as Felli­ni laughs at us, prov­ing we are no better.

La Dolce Vita’s char­ac­ters hide too in their ton­ing. Whilst it is fair to say they pri­mar­i­ly share the hemi­at of being ‘adrift’, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, absent — may be bet­ter termed for some than oth­ers — their colour­ings inti­mate how exact­ly that man­i­fests. The dark­er fash­ions of Mad­dale­na and Mar­cel­lo (amongst oth­ers) belie dis­con­tent, and the lighter gar­men­try of Sylvia and Pao­la, who we will meet lat­er, iden­ti­fies their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and, in some sens­es, notions of fem­i­nin­i­ty which neigh­bour it.

Mar­cel­lo, who begins the nar­ra­tive dressed in only black, will see it off in near­ly all white, a slow undress­ing, so as to speak, in one of the most inter­est­ing ideas raised by the work.

In Mar­cel­lo, Fellini’s whis­per­ings of the hid­den and the exposed take on more meta­phys­i­cal mean­ings. Through­out the film, La Dolce Vita’s autere toys with the idea of ani­ma and ani­mus, and his lead’s move from shad­ow into the light rep­re­sents his grow­ing acknowl­edge­ment of the fem­i­nine lev­els to his male ego. Such lev­els are lit­er­alised in 4 of the film’s female fig­ures, per­son­i­fy­ing each stage of ani­ma: Eve, Mary, Helen, and Sophia.

‘Eve’ rep­re­sents the object of desire, and she is ani­mate in Mad­dale­na. Her demure, if apa­thet­ic, nature aligns with the dark mys­tique to her cloth­ing, and both are under­stood as by-prod­ucts of her sta­tus as heiress and emblem of Rome’s nou­veau riche. Her face is sel­dom unshroud­ed, hid­den in scenes by head­scarves, eye­wear, and foulards, affirm­ing the sen­ti­ment that we may see or have parts of her, but — as defined by desire — nev­er all.

Quite unlike Eve is ‘Mary’, of vir­ginal fame, por­trayed by Pao­la or ‘The Girl’, as she is often cred­it­ed (and as Ali­son Bechdel would get a kick out of, I’m sure). Her char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is dis­tinct­ly holy; Mar­cel­lo in fact tells her she reminds him of an angel, and her depic­tion match­es in both mod­esty and naivety — not undu­ly, as she is played by a four­teen-year-old Vale­ria Cian­got­ti­ni. Mary and Eve — from bible to ani­ma — exist as polars, and Marcello’s attrac­tion to both, be it how­ev­er con­cern­ing in regard to the for­mer, rep­re­sents the scale across which we all long for things we can­not have nor be; even ‘Mary’ will not keep her virtues; she too will grow old and flawed, as are Fellini’s adults — allud­ed to per­haps in the final scene where­by she trades her white ging­ham dress for black.

Next up is Sylvia, who quite apt­ly encom­pass­es the famed beau­ty ‘Helen’ (i.e., of Troy). This stage of the ani­ma struc­ture fig­ures ‘woman’ as capa­ble of mate­r­i­al suc­cess but lack­ing in that moral salt to the Mary’s of the world — what dis­re­pute would befall us were women capa­ble of both! Felli­ni makes no mis­take in his cast­ing and cos­tume design; Sylvia’s illus­tri­ous adorn­ments make clear her inde­pen­dence both sen­su­al­ly and finan­cial­ly, yet the clown-show that fol­lows her pub­lic image entices one to think of her as, for lack of a bet­ter term, emp­ty. Pedestaled and objec­ti­fied, it is in Helen we begin to see our director’s issue with both celebri­ty cul­ture and the male-gaze it is so often entan­gled with, paving the entry of ‘Sophia’ or Iris, as she exists in La Dolce Vita, intel­lect, poet, and prophet, who is grant­ed the for­giv­ing posit of mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine qual­i­ties, invit­ed into male spheres, and spared the fate of being made abject. Inter­est­ing­ly, some­thing Felli­ni may have strug­gled to achieve had she not been played by an old­er actress in pesky flow­ing linens, tam­per­ing with our will to sex­u­alise lead­ing ladies.

Emma, Marcello’s wife, is, unfor­tu­nate­ly, afford­ed no such grace. She rep­re­sents no ani­ma stage and is thus­ly no real inhab­i­tant of her hus­band. Her cos­tum­ing is ill-defined and hap­less­ly rel­e­vant to the nar­ra­tive, sad­ly — as she is — utilised only when we are to learn some­thing of her betrothed.

It is not my belief that Felli­ni intends, nor is there much hope in attempt, for us to leave his film with any found­ed moral real­i­sa­tions. The paparazzi’s abil­i­ty to hide behind pin­hole cam­eras is not unlike Marcello’s uncon­scious choice to flit between the women he meets, search­ing for mir­rors in him­self he does not ful­ly under­stand: both find it eas­i­er to focus their efforts on the spec­ta­cle of oth­ers, pri­mar­i­ly, because it’s human nature to do so — why else would we Schaden­freude’s return time and again to gos­sip columns and the ora­cle of Deux Moi? Of course, there is much to be said of La Dolce Vita. Fellini’s abil­i­ty to weave psy­cho­log­i­cal and social struc­tures into what is an oth­er­wise large­ly intel­li­gi­ble film is mas­ter­ful. Yet, few con­sid­er how its fash­ions sup­ple­ment such mas­tery, and I think it’s time we ought to.

Source La Dolce Vita dir. by Fred­eri­co Felli­ni, prod. by Ria­ma Film, Pathé Con­sor­tium Ciné­ma, Gray Films, 1960.