Essay: Il Vestito Antineutrale

Giovanni Lista on Giacomo Balla

by Giovanni Lista .

There is a difference between designing clothes, creating new shapes and colours, such as Balla had been doing, and launching a fully-fledged manifesto. The first exalts the freedom of the unique individual, the second urges social consistency.

Giacomo Balla’s manifesto was the culmination of a series of ideas announcing the creation of ‘Futurist fashion’. In March 1910 in Florence, Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra had already advocated more vivid colours in fashion. Mario Carli would walk down the darkest streets of Florence in a flaming red waistcoat. In July 1911, Gino Severini and Umberto Boccioni went to Paris and scandalised Picasso, Apollinaire and their friends by wearing unmatched brightly coloured socks. In June 1912, Balla put on his first Futurist outfit: asymmetrical with patterns of white stripes or small black squares. The following year he sported celluloid ties with rigid geometric forms and strongly contrasting colours.

In February–March 1914, Balla wrote the Futurist Manifesto of Men’s Clothing. The manuscript was published in French and dated 20 May 1914, before the outbreak
of war. Having distributed this manifesto in Paris, Marinetti readied the publication in Italian but was overtaken by events when, on 2 August 1914, France ordered the general mobilisation of the army for war. Marinetti then changed the text of the Italian edition into a propaganda document urging Italy’s entry into the war. Thus the Italian edition was titled The Antineutral Dress – Futurist Manifesto, dated 11 September 1914, and trumpeted the need for Italy to declare war. Furthermore, Marinetti rearranged Balla’s drawings to give the clothes the colours of the Italian and French flags, excluding the yellow and black of the House of Habsburg, which ruled over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately, Balla’s manifesto has been reprinted ever since in the Italian version, which has a bellicose and aggressive meaning due to the changes made by Marinetti, leaving the French original almost unknown.

Balla himself adhered to the ideas of the Risorgimento, which had brought political unity to Italy. He was older than the others and hailed from Piedmont, the birthplace of the Risorgimento. One of the central themes of the post-Risorgimento era was the creation of a new national culture for all Italians. Italy was famous for its regional costumes, and many nineteenth-century European paintings by foreign artists depicted peasants in local folkloric attire. After the Risorgimento, an Italian national costume was mooted. Balla revived this idea, wanting to create the national costume for a Futurist modern Italy.

Futurism was an avant-garde movement based on the principles of art-action and total art. In rivalry with cubism, Boccioni evolved the idea of ‘plastic dynamism’ in painting, to create works with an exemplary new modern language. Instead of the traditional role of art in shaping society from the top down, Balla thought that the Futurist revolution should start from the bottom, changing every aspect of lifestyle: everyday objects, fashion and furniture.

He considered fashion an art, his position consistent with the ideas of Marinetti, who gave Futurism the task of creating transient and ephemeral art, bestowing joie de vivre and exalting vital impulses. In 1912–13, Balla designed fabrics and Futurist clothing, applying the formal, synthetic and dynamic elements exhibited in his painting: lines of velocity, noise- forms and interpenetrating volumes. There is, however, a difference between designing clothes, creating new shapes and colours, such as Balla had been doing, and launching a fully-fledged manifesto. The first exalts the freedom of the unique individual, the second urges social consistency. Although the manifesto included a great variety of colours and modificanti, the very idea of launching a fashion line according to Futurist taste meant conforming to the collective social group.  Dress has a social function; it is not painting or sculpture. Balla’s research was radical but consistent with other Futurist ideas. In the original French version of the manifesto, he revived Ginna and Corra’s idea of colourful clothing, which would animate the city by decorating its streets, as a festive and ephemeral artwork in continuous motion. Futurist dress was designed for an urban setting, not as a function of the individual but to define a social climate. Dress became a manifesto itself, a business card, an item of Futurist faith.

Immediately after the publication of the manifesto in French, Marinetti presented it at the Doré Gallery in London, with a provocative discussion of the ‘dynamic Futurist button’. The British press printed the manifesto, whilst other Futurist clothing projects were published in American magazines. Balla’s Futurist Manifesto contains two basic ideas: colourful asymmetrical dress, able to convey vital intensity and openness of communication; and functional dress, created from a single piece of fabric, which later inspired Thayaht to create the Futurist TuTa jumpsuit. Balla reduced the human body to a Vitruvian silhouette, a series of triangles attached at the edges. The trunk of the body corresponded to the area where the triangles overlapped, the limbs expansions of the triangle points. On this basis, Balla conceived asymmetrical dresses with intersecting diagonal lines and semicircular structures. At the same moment, war broke out in Europe. The Florentine Futurists condemned the manifesto as a farce, yet Balla continued to design and wear Futurist clothes until the 1930s.

Balla announced that a Futurist Manifesto for Women’s Dress would soon appear.
The manifesto was not published, due to the war, but Balla never ignored women. He designed and made women’s clothes that his daughters wore, as well as scarves, purses and embroidery patterns. In women’s clothes Balla employed sinuous, gently curved lines, reminiscent of the hearts in playing cards. The interpenetration of two or three colours, crossed with inlays, produced the effect of movement. He usually employed flat backgrounds, but there were also patterns for scarves with softer colours and prismatic designs for sports clothes. Balla created asymmetrical designs for geometric patterns and symmetrical designs based on the natural world yet always remaining close to abstraction. In the 1920s and ’30s, he used features then in vogue, such as low waists for women’s clothing, but in a personal reinterpretation. At the end of the 1930s, the patterns lost their geometrical rigour in favour of abstract figures that sometimes evoked flowers or butterflies. He designed sweaters and golfing clothes in an Art Deco style but applying the dynamic lines and bright colours of Futurism. For the configuration of dress in its entirety, Balla played on the different relationships, with unorthodox placement of buttons and interaction with the apparent corporeal weight of the fabric. He thus created startling new arrangements of colour, proportion and symmetry, and a dynamic of the body that made dress an expressive modern form of communication.

In Balla’s many subsequent studies on Futurist dress for men and women, he developed two lines of research on the cut and the fabric, aiming to create the image of a new man, dynamic and integrated into the Futurist environment. From the point of view of design, he created unstructured, asymmetric cuts. If the right side had a vertical cut, the left side, to be buttoned, featured a daring triangulation with a single button or sometimes a more complex design with various buttons. The jacket could be collarless or with an asymmetrical collar, narrow on one side and wide on the other, its shape in dialogue with the shirt and trousers. The cut of the outfit was embellished with a succession of waves or triangles, with contrasts of blue and red, black and yellow, and so on. Becoming more sophisticated, he created dynamic compositions for ties, purses, embroidery and scarves, imagining patterns of cloudy skies with zebra-stripe lightning or abstract grids, thus creating an abstract liquid or airy universe, made of raindrops, plunging ravines and swirling waves. With an almost
inexhaustible imagination, Balla used and combined floral, organic, liquid, geometrical or Lettrist motifs, based on the combination of letters of the alphabet, even breaking down the letters of his own name.

Balla’s ideas of a Futurist fashion can subsequently be traced in the clothes of Biagiotti or Versace. In particular, the unstructured geometry of his Futurist clothes anticipated, by more than fifty years, the creations of Yohji Yamamoto and the general trends of 1980s fashion.

The Futurist Manifesto is an art form in itself, with its imperative rhetoric, utopian tension, imaginary momentum and epiphanies of desire, of revolt, of change. The Futurist Manifesto anticipated conceptual art, in the sense in which the philosopher Benedetto Croce said that art is intuition; where there is intuitive activity there is already art.

Now that everything is fashion, the idea of modificanti has a fundamental importance.
The modificante was a sort of triangular or irregular cutout of differently coloured fabric. Attached to the clothing with a stud, this accessory was used to indicate to others the mood of the wearer. In a sense, it anticipated the pins and badges of today. The fashion of the era called for one dress in the morning, one during the daytime and another in the evening. Within these categories, Balla even imagined the possibility to further mark the most fleeting aspects of life, from social behaviour to the interior of the psyche. All Futurist art was built on the theme of energy. The modifier communicated the changing psychic energy of the subject:
his mood or her momentary disposition towards others, life and the world. In addition to the textile modifier, Balla wore polychrome ties made of plastic and celluloid, or of wood and cork, sometimes equipped with lightbulbs that lit up to order at key moments of conversation.

The idea of the modifier can be compared with the Japanese tokonoma and the theory of the added element, formulated by Kazimir Malevich in 1919–20. The tokonoma is a kind of altar in which a different object or image is placed each day. The host thus communicates his current thoughts and mood to visiting guests. Malevich asserted that, in a finished composition, the simple act of adding one more element structures the whole meaning of the work in a different way. In this sense, the prosthesis is an added feature that disintegrates and rebuilds a whole composition at the same time.

In several photographs Balla appeared dressed in Futurist clothes. Accounts by other Futurists confirm that he dressed eccentrically. The Futurists refused harmonious composition, which is synonymous with balance and quiet, and therefore the extinction of vital energy, preferring oblique lines and diagonals, intersections and contrasts of colours, the elliptical lines of progression, the clash of forms, which stimulate the sensitivities of the viewers, get them moving, make them open to the dynamism of the continuous evolution of the world. After studying the speed lines of cars, in 1913–14 Balla addressed the theme of celestial rotation, painting a series of works abolishing the horizon and rendering the transparency of bodies without depth, placing the image in a sidereal vacuum and suggesting dynamism with various kinetic arabesques, whose dynamic morphology, with arched circle motifs, was also present in some modifiers of Futurist clothing. Balla was no longer concerned with the mechanical speed of the terrestrial world, but with the cosmic speed of the spheres. His most significant work on cosmic movement was the scenic design for Feu d’artifice by Stravinsky, created in Rome in 1917, which David Hockney reprised in 1995 as Snails Space with Vari-Lites: Painting as Performance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.