NUDA VITA_what an elegant subversion

For the project NUDA VITA I reflected on the layers of meaning that layers of clothing in a specific cultural context represent. Thinking back of a story my grandmother told me, of when she used to draw a fine line with a pencil on the back of her legs to mimic the presence of silk pantyhose when she was at university in order to look “proper”, I came to think of the image of the sexualized leg in the Italian culture at the time, and of what a woman is expected to be and look like in every aspect of our culture.

The project sparked from the interest I have towards the construction of the female image in a patriarchal society: in particular the performance of womanhood in positions of power. Women are requested more than men to adapt to certain standards when they hold an important position or when they are in a formal environment. The way they express and perform their womanhood is shaped by the male gaze, which has been internalized and externalized again in the choice of how one looks and chooses to appear.

The event I take inspiration from is a humble, tender but very conscious attempt of my grandmother to fit in in an academic environment. This episode dates back to the late1940s and is slightly covered by the patina of time. To put it in context, Italy had just found itself (last minute) among the victorious nations of World War two, but was in fact a defeated nation. Only fifteen years later its economy would start to flourish and literacy as well as middle class would expand. 

My grandmother had the privilege to receive an education, but her economic situation wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t, to the point that she couldn’t afford pantyhose. Back then they were made out of silk, and were an absolute luxury item, yet they were required for women in the contexts such as the one in which my grandmother was in. The silk was carefully sawn together in a black line that run all the way up the back of the leg. This line is, in the collective understanding of womanhood, an elegant and sexual image rather than a symbol of authoritativeness and professionalism. 

In order to still feel respected and look “proper” (the shame of not being affluent definitely played a role too) she used to carefully draw a black line in the back of her already dark skinned legs to mimic the pantyhose. The memory is very dear to me as it reminds me of how my creative grandmother was able to get away with things and make fun of what the system required from her in a very subtle way. The fragility and impermanence of the line to me indicate the fallacy of the concept: as in reality the layer of clothing on the naked leg was nothing but a layer of imagination.

She walked around reinforcing a voyeuristic environment, cheating the system only for the wish to be part of it. While imagining her washing the line off her skin and drawing it back in the morning, I thought of the signs inscribed on a woman’s body that we don’t even think of. I thought of the materiality of concepts such a womanhood, prestige, respectability, sexualization, authority. I started asking myself questions. How did this line start playing a role in academic environments back then? Did the sexualized leg become necessary for a woman to be taken seriously? Or even better: can a sexualized leg ever be taken seriously?