Beauty Italian style: Gendered imaginings of, and responses to, stage divas in early post-unification literary culture

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In this article I argue that Bartky’s ‘fashion-beauty complex’ - a major articulation of capitalist patriarchy which seeks to glorify the female body, yet covertly depreciates it - gained momentum in Italian culture at the end of the nineteenth century through the emergence of the cosmetic industry and divas’ advertising of beauty products in women’s magazines. Through a close reading of the literary culture (reviews of divas’ performances in women’s and theatre journals, as well as realist fiction), I show that the discursive construction of the Italian diva in this period was gendered: though women writers demonstrate an awareness of, and take pleasure in the diva’s ‘beauty’, but above all celebrate her skills and talents as a performing artist, male writers - without exception - pass comment on the diva’s appearance over and above a critique of her performing skills. This would suggest that ‘the beauty myth’ – the idea that a woman’s value is determined by her appearance – was an integral component of divadom in late nineteenth-century Italy, and, for male journalists and writers, an even more important attribute than the diva’s acting or singing abilities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)330-346
Number of pages17
JournalItalian Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2015


  • fashion-beauty complex
  • feminine beauty
  • definitions of the diva
  • cosmetics industry
  • women writers

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